Martin Rowson Epicurus illustration

This article is from the Spring 2014 issue of New Humanist magazine. You can subscribe here.

It could hardly have been more unfortunate for the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-271 BC) and his reputation that the word “epicure”, meaning a lover of fine foods, was coined in his memory. True, he was the most significant hedonist thinker before Jeremy Bentham. But “hedonism” is itself another word that has been wantonly misused in modern English, coming to mean a lifestyle devoted to the undiscriminating pursuit of every pleasure, gastronomic pleasures included. The truth, both about Epicurus and about hedonism, is rather different.

Hedonists are ethical thinkers who hold that things are good precisely in so far as they are pleasant, and bad precisely in so far as they are painful. Epicurus was, more specifically, an “egoistic” hedonist, in that he took it to be obvious that the good for each individual, from the moment of birth, is that person’s own pleasure, not other people’s: in other words, your life is a good one if, and only if, you yourself enjoy it. Although an enjoyable life must, according to Epicurus, be centred on moral virtue, what makes it worth living is in the last analysis your enjoyment of it, and not the morality for its own sake. Moreover there are, besides moral propriety, other factors equally indispensable to enjoying your life. In particular, because the fear of the gods and the fear of death do more than anything else to blight lives, overcoming these is the essential starting point of Epicurean living. And almost equally important is the moderation of your desires, gastronomic and otherwise, restricting them to the most basic and readily satisfied ones. Extravagant pleasures – even that of meat-eating – threaten to make us their slaves, yet their satisfaction brings no more pleasure than living on the simplest fare. Epicurus was no epicure!

It was in the 320s BC, the decade in which Aristotle died, that the young Epicurus became a student of philosophy. Because history has come to recognise Aristotle as one of the towering geniuses of Western thought, we might have expected Epicurus’s ideas to show his influence above all others. But the reality proves to be different. For example, whereas Aristotle, adapting the ideas of his own teacher Plato, explained nature as a thoroughly purpose-governed set of structures, causally dependent on a supreme divinity, Epicurus reverted to an older tradition: atomism. According to this thoroughly materialist theory, the universe in its entirety consists of inanimate particles, or “atoms” (literally “uncuttables”), moving in infinite space according to purely mechanical laws. Intelligence is not a basic organising principle of reality, but a secondary property which emerges only when suitably complex atomic structures such as the human mind are formed. Worlds like ours, in which everything from the weather cycle to the details of human anatomy may give the impression of serving a god-given purpose, in fact arise simply because over infinite time and infinite space every possible combination of atoms will inevitably come about somewhere at some time. Moreover, the Epicureans observe, in a celebrated anticipation of Darwin, the fact that our world is populated by functionally successful organisms such as ourselves becomes less surprising when we reflect on the much larger number of unsuccessful organisms that can be assumed to have died out during the earth’s infancy, leaving the field clear for the eventual survivors.

The science on which Epicurus based these conclusions was, it must be admitted, entirely inadequate to the task. Unsurprisingly in a world without microscopes and with little notion of experimental science, even his “atoms” bore almost no resemblance to their namesakes in modern physics, just as he and his contemporaries had no understanding of gravitational attraction, the nature of light, or the causes of disease, to pick just a few examples among a great many. Nevertheless, Epicurus’s scientific intuitions were absolutely first class. His is the only philosophy from classical antiquity whose main conclusions can be said to have been confirmed and even strengthened by the growth of modern science. Rival thinkers like Plato placed human beings at the centre of a single finite world in which they were eternally subject to the attention of celestial deities. Epicurus was praised by his followers for liberating them from just that error, explaining how and why our own particular world has no privileged status among the countless others, but simply embodies a set of mechanical causal principles operative throughout an infinite universe.

Appeals to divine causation are thus redundant when it comes to explaining the world and its contents. Indeed, Epicurus adds, such explanations are demonstrably mistaken, because no divine being could possibly have a motive to create and govern even one world, let alone countlessly many. The supremely blessed state of mind is tranquillity, which must therefore be assumed to be the state that any god would desire and could be relied on to attain. And true tranquillity is simply incompatible with the world-governing role that popular religion attributes to the gods.

Epicureans, we may note here, set out in their own lives to adopt a similarly minimalist attitude to political involvement. True happiness is not to be found in the political arena, whose competition for power arises as a pathetically vain attempt to protect oneself from the inevitability of death. We should do enough to fulfil our contractual commitments to the political community, but real peace of mind is to be found elsewhere: it belongs in the friendship networks that constitute smaller communities, such as those Epicurus set up in various locations around the Mediterranean world, the most famous being his school the “Garden”, just outside the walls of Athens. Epicurus’s tranquil gods are thus, in a sense, ideal models of the best human life as he conceived and lived it.

Could that be all that the gods are, namely our own idealised role models? To reformulate the question in its historical context, did Epicurus consider the enviably blessed and immortal anthropomorphic gods revered by the Greeks to be simply mental projections of their culture’s own ideals, and hence human thought-constructs rather than objectively living beings? Or did he suppose that there also existed, somewhere in the universe, immortal life-forms actually enjoying such an existence?

Epicurus’s own pronouncements on the nature of the gods were pointedly opaque. From an early stage in his school’s history these pronouncements were, admittedly, interpreted by his followers as theistic in intent, asserting the objective existence of immortal gods made of atoms and located outside our world. His critics, on the other hand, interpreted them as atheistic – that is, as denying the gods any objective reality. Today too, scholarly opinion remains divided between the former, “realist” interpretation of Epicurus’s theology and the latter, “idealist” one.

Now is not the occasion to re-examine the demanding technical evidence that has been invoked on either side of this interpretative debate. I shall simply sketch the merits of the idealist interpretation, which I believe to be historically the more correct of the two. Atomism, the theory that at the lowest level of analysis nothing exists but inanimate atoms and empty space, leaves no obvious room for a god or gods. On the other hand, in a society saturated in the cults and depictions of divinities, religious (or quasi-religious) experiences, for example epiphanies of gods in dreams, were commonplace. This cultural fact, added to the political dangers of openly denying the existence of the gods on whom one’s city’s safety was thought to depend, made outright declarations of atheism a rarity. It is against that background that Epicurus’s own stance should be understood.

On the one hand we know that he openly wrote that “There are gods”; hence he certainly disavowed atheism. On the other hand, his main basis for this claim was that all human races believe in gods, from which he inferred that the concept of god is natural and innate. Epicurus’s idea here seems to be that we all have an innate inclination, not just to seek a pleasant life, but more specifically to picture and emulate the ideally tranquil beings that we ourselves aspire to become. In a modern context this tendency might be located in the adoption of fictional or living role models; in the ancient Greek world much the same function could be fulfilled by reverence for the Olympian gods and lesser divinities.

According to Epicurus, our innate conception of god is simply that of an immortal and blessedly tranquil being. Reduced to moral terms, this means that the ideal that from the moment of birth we all intuitively seek is a life of tranquillity totally unmarred by the fear of death. Unfortunately in most of us this basic aspiration has been distorted by superimposing the values of a corrupt society, so that our ideal role models come to be characterised by vindictiveness, greed, belligerence, lust, tyrannical rule and so on. This plausibly accounts for the popular worship of deities (Ares, Aphrodite, etc.) whose profiles distort true moral values. When Epicurus encouraged his followers to take part in local cults, as a proper form of reverence for a superior way of life, this reverence was no doubt meant to concentrate on the underlying correct notion of divinity, ignoring or stripping away the false values that the cults had superimposed.

Epicurus’s theology was an essentially moral theory. Not only did it, as all interpreters agree, positively exclude the existence of any divine beings who might take it upon themselves to intervene in our lives, it also, at least according to the plausible idealist interpretation, reduced the gods to our own intuitive paradigms of the best human life. The further explicitly atheistic consequence that in that case there are in objective reality no everlasting beings to correspond to these role models was probably, for historically understandable reasons, neither explicitly affirmed nor explicitly denied by Epicurus. But when his critics said that it was plainly what he was implying, there is good reason to think they were right. Fortunately, any such obscurity regarding the gods’ precise mode of existence did not distort the central theological message. Over the next half-millennium, a sense of liberation from divine oppression was enjoyed, proclaimed and celebrated by countless adherents of Epicurus’s philosophy around the Graeco-Roman world.