The opening of Lucretius’ Book III is a particularly appropriate text for father’s day, but in addition I would like to point out something I see as an error that is common among those who admire Epicurus today. Should we take Epicurus seriously when we see him proclaim the existence of “gods” in his letter to Menoeceus? Let’s first consider the fatherly esteem in which Lucretius held Epicurus:
O glory of the Greeks, the first to raise the shining light out of tremendous dark, illumining the blessings of our life. You are the one I follow; in your steps I tread, not as a rival, but for love of your example. Does the swallow vie with swans? Do wobbly-legged little goats compete in strength and speed with thoroughbreds? You, father, found the truth; you gave to us a Father’s wisdom, and from every page, O most illustrious in renown, we take, as bees do from the flowery banks of summer, the benefit of all your golden words, the gold most worthy of eternal life; For, once your reason, your divining sense, begins its proclamation, telling us the way things are, all terrors of the mind vanish, are gone; the barriers of the world dissolve before me, and I see things happen all through the void of empty space.
– Lucretius, Book III, (Humphries Translation)
Some today have a tendency to accept the contention of anti-Epicureans that Epicurus, like Homer, nodded when it came to his views of “the gods.” Even worse is the tendency to argue — often condescendingly — that Epicurus was a closet atheist, and that he adopted a superficial acceptance of gods merely to appease oppressive politicians or religious leaders who otherwise would have threatened his pursuit of pleasure in his isolated garden.
These are grave errors, and – worse – exhibit profound disrespect for the courage of Epicurus.
Even if oppression of atheistic views did exist in Athens at the time Epicurus chose to live there, did it continue to be so powerful in the age of Lucretius, who lived in a day of such thriving Epicureanism that Cicero complained it was sweeping over the entirety of Italy? Do the opening verses, or any others from De Rerum Natura, show any indication of being written from fear? Consider Cassius the Liberator, who adopted Epicureanism at the height of his power, who commanded the greatest armies of the Roman Republic, and who had the power to influence the strongest politicians of his day to put an end to the tyrannical aspirations of Julius Caesar — was Cassius the Liberator motivated to accept the Epicurean view of the gods out of fear?
The answer should be apparent, and it should motivate us to devote great effort to understanding the alternative hypothesis — that we should accept Epicurus at his word.
How can we do that today? The answer is developed in detail in Norman DeWitt’s Epicurus and his Philosophy, but here is my understanding of the outline:
The statements about the gods in Principle Doctrine One and the letter to Meonoeceus, are grounded on evidence provided by the third leg of the Canon: Anticipations. Epicurus observed that virtually all men have an intuitive sense that they are not the most powerful living beings in the universe, and men also have a distinct sense of at least some of the attributes that a superior being would exhibit. We observe in our own experience that the more self-sufficient, the more powerful, and the more wise the being — be it man, lion, or whale — the less such a being tends to experience troubles itself, or cause unnecessary trouble to other beings. These conclusions are anticipations as applied to gods – which most men, if not all, have never seen – but they are consistent with our observations of facts in other areas of Nature. And these conclusions are not mere idle speculation or Platonic “forms” — they are conclusions consistent with the evidence available to us from all three legs of the canon. Thus Epicurus derived his view of the gods with no less consistency and force than he derived his view of the atoms.
But are the enemies of Epicurus correct that in the case of the gods these “anticipations” are simply a convenient mental method of entrapping the religionists at their own game? Is there any other basis for believing that Epicurus was serious about the existence of gods, in the form of superior beings, if not here on Earth then elsewhere in the universe? Consider:
We know from Lucretius that the Epicureans held the specific viewpoint that our “world” is not the only one in existence — that out in space there exist many other worlds, and many other races of men. It is quite consistent with Epicurean theory to observe that these other races of men — these “other animal generations” — would include races that are not only inferior to men, and also those that are superior to men. Here are Lucretius’ words from Book II:
I tell you
Over and over – out beyond our world
There are, elsewhere, other assemblages
Of matter, making other worlds. Oh, ours
Is not the only one in air’s embrace.
With infinite matter available, infinite space,
And infinite lack of any interference,
Things certainly ought to happen. If we have
More seeds, right now, than any man can count,
More than all men of all time past could reckon,
And if we have, in nature, the same power
To cast them anywhere at all, as once
They were cast here together, let’s admit –
We really have to – there are other worlds,
More than one race of men, and many kinds
Of animal generations.
It is important to observe that this conclusion is not derived from some Platonic idealism, that there simply must, in a religious sense, or in a Kantian imperative sense, be other life in the universe. As in all things, Epicurus’ tenets were based on the evidence from Nature man observes in his own life, here and now:
Adding up all the sum, you’ll never find
One single thing completely different
From all the rest, alone, apart, unique,
Sole product, single specimen of its kind.
Look at the animals: is this not true
Of mountain-ranging species, and of men,
Of the silent schools of fish, of flying things?
Likewise you must admit that earth, sun, moon,
Ocean, and all the rest, are not unique,
But beyond reckoning or estimate.
In other words, we see from our own observations that Nature never creates only a single specimen of a kind. Just as Nature has never created as single specimen of men, a single specimen of goats, a single specimen of mosquitos, we can be sure — not by “logic” but by our own direct observation of Nature — that this world on which we live is not unique in the universe.
And so here we have the foundation for a view of the gods that is not based on fear, or appeasement, or patronizing emotion, but on the same solid foundation on which all of Epicureanism is built. Certainly we have never seen a “god” — but neither have we seen an atom, and yet we live our lives on the foundation that the atoms do exist, and that the atoms exhibit unchanging qualities on which we can organize and rest our conceptions of them.
The same firm foundation of conlusion based on observation thus gives rise to our view of the existence of superior beings in the universe. These beings are far different from the standard religious view of omnipotent or intermeddling religious gods who created and control the universe, but it is nevertheless a completely respectable, and dare I say — true — appraisal of the evidence which we have at hand.
And so on this eve of June the twentieth, near the beginning of summer, and in some parts of this world celebrated as Father’s Day, I suggest that we who value the legacy of Epicurus take him seriously in all his views, including those about the nature of the gods:
The gods majestic, and their calm abodes
Winds do not shake, nor clouds befoul, nor snow
Violate with the knives of sleet and cold;
But there the sky is purest blue, the air
Is almost laughter in that radiance,
And nature satisfies their every need,
And nothing, nothing, mars their calm of mind.
No realms of Hell are ever visible,
But earth affords a view of everything,
Below and outward, all through space. I feel
A more than mortal pleasure in all this,
Almost a shudder, since your power has given
This revelation of all nature’s ways.
Peace and Safety!
As Seneca recorded: Sic fac omnia tamquam spectet Epicurus! So do all things as though watching were Epicurus!
And as Philodemus wrote: “I will be faithful to Epicurus, according to whom it has been my choice to live.“