A recent exchange on Facebook led me to compose the following short sketch on the Epicurean view of the gods. Please keep in mind this is one of the most difficult subjects in Epicureanism, and I reserve the right to revise or amend these comments as I learn more! (Note also that this is a refined version of my original Facebook post.)
As I see it, Epicureanism is derived from a set of core tenets which are analogous to the rules of evidence in a courtroom. Epicurus concluded from the evidence that is readily available before our eyes (thus the phrase “ante oculos”) that the universe is boundless in space and eternal in time. That means that we are NOT going to know “everything there is to know,” and we have to get used to the idea that our knowledge is limited. Once we get rid of the false aspiration toward omniscience, we have to decide this: “What rules of evidence are we going to follow to decide which things are worthy of belief as true, and which are not?” That’s where he (or someone he followed) came up with the three legs of the Canon of Truth, on which all else is based. The first leg of the canon – the five senses – is fairly obvious. We HAVE to trust our senses if we are to live at all – if we are to avoid falling headfirst over cliffs. The second leg – the pain/pleasure mechanism – constitutes a manner of programming by Nature in such a way that we find some things pleasurable, and some things painful, and there’s very little if anything we can do to change Nature’s determination on those points. The third leg – the Anticipations – is the least obvious to us, but it is just as real and just as important as the other two. The Anticipations are not a set of innate IDEAS, but rather a set of innate PRINCIPLES regarding abstract ideas such as justice and religion that derive from the facts of our nature as human beings, in much the same way that, for example, cats have a manner of thinking that distinguishes them as cats. On the basis of these Anticipations we tend to conclude – determined in part by the particular context in which a question arises – that certain conclusions are more consistent with Nature’s determinations for us than are others. (For more on the subject of Anticipations, see this post on Jackson Barwis.)
Now, I don’t know about you, but I have never seen, heard, felt, smelled, or tasted anything I believed to be a god. I have never been able to distinguish any pain or pleasure in regard to anything to do with a god. But, I think I can say that I share a “feeling” that “we are not alone in the universe,” and I think I also tend to conclude that since the universe is boundless in size and everlasting in time, it is very likely that humans are not the most intelligent or most powerful entities in the universe. At the very least I see that Nature does not create only a single specimen of any kind here on Earth, so it is to be expected that there are other Earths, with other higher or lower or equal races of men, elsewhere in the universe. My own senses indicate to me that the universe is eternal and boundless and is governed by the laws of the atoms, so I conclude that the universe was NOT created or controlled by any omnipotent gods. It is one of the limitations of my knowledge – that as an Epicurean I accept – that I do not presume to know everything that has gone on throughout the rest of the universe, or even here on earth in ages past. I just keep that which I am certain of separate from that about which I am not certain, and I conclude that no matter what has gone on here or elsewhere in the past or future, those things are consistent with the laws of the eternal atoms.
I need here to take something of a tangent onto “images.” The entire issue of how we see things is very difficult, and I gather it remains difficult today, since scientists don’t agree on the nature of light. It was reasonable for Epicurus to presume then (and for us to presume now) that images travel across space in the form of some kind of particle or wave or both. It’s also reasonable to believe that a certain degree of information is retained in those particles or waves no matter how far they travel. It’s another tenet of Epicureanism that “all sensations are true” in the SPECIFIC sense that the senses do not lie to us, and they report information which it is up to us to process. Frequently we process the information from the senses in a way consistent with the truth, but frequently we err in our interpretations. Since it is logical to believe that there are beings more advanced than ourselves elsewhere in the universe, it is logical to believe that it is possible that on occasion some of the images generated by those entities crosses to us from great distances, even as we see light coming from the stars at night.
If my ninety-five year old grandmother, who has lived her life thinking that when she was five years old she glimpsed Ajax fighting alongside the men defending her town, tells me that she saw Ajax, it does me no harm to refrain from arguing with her, nor does it really do her any harm to believe that she really saw Ajax, SO LONG AS neither she nor I derive from her vision the conclusion that gods created the universe, or that gods are regularly meddling in our lives, determining the fate of men, or consigning us to eternal hell after death. (This is explicitly stated in Lucretius in the section about “Call upon Ceres if you like…. just so long as you do not let religion infect, corrupt, and pollute you.”) So if there are local gods of the type of this Ajax example, or of the type mentioned by Virgil in the next line after the famous “Happy is he who is able to know the nature of things…..”, then it does us no harm to participate in festivals or ceremonies honoring such gods, as long as we do not impute to them characteristics which they do not have. Indeed, it can do us much good if we enjoy the experience, and if we honor the thought of “noble” deeds.
Turning back to Anticipations, it is with Anticipations that we find the characteristics that gods DO have. Here on earth in our own experience we observe with clarity that the more intelligent and powerful the being (I am thinking right now that whales are good examples) the less trouble that being has for itself and the less trouble it causes for others. These observations of sight can be used to buttress the “Anticipation” of the mind – that something that is “perfect” has NO troubles or tendency to cause trouble whatsoever. Whether or not we have seen them ourselves, it does us good to contemplate the nature of such perfect beings, just as honoring the sage does good to those who do the honoring. This would be like the saying from Seneca that I like to quote – “So Do All Things As Though Epicurus Were Watching.” It does us good to contemplate perfect beings, and to think to ourselves that we should do all things as though these perfect beings were watching – even though we know perfectly well that neither Epicurus nor the gods are in fact watching.
So to sum up I think the sketch I’ve provided here is likely what Cicero was recording in the words of Velleius in On the Nature of The Gods and in the words of Torquatus in On Ends. I think this is consistent with what Laertius records about the gods, and may reconcile some of the things that Lurcretius said in De Rerum Natura that some dismiss as contradictory, given what they perceive erroneously to be atheism in the way that term is defined today.