Those things which without ceasing I have declared unto you, do them, and exercise yourself in them, holding them to be the elements of right life.
First believe that a God is a living being immortal and blessed, according to the notion of a god indicated by the common sense of mankind; and so believing, you shall not affirm of him anything that is foreign to his immortality or that is repugnant to his blessedness. Believe about him whatever may uphold both his blessedness and his immortality. For there are gods, and the knowledge of them is manifest; but they are not such as the multitude believe, seeing that men do not steadfastly maintain the notions they form respecting them.
Not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them is truly impious. For the utterances of the multitude about the gods are not true preconceptions but false assumptions; hence it is that the greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the hand of the gods, seeing that they are always favorable to their own good qualities and take pleasure in men like themselves, but reject as alien whatever is not of their kind.
Epicurus of Samos, Epistle to Menoeceus
An Epicurean Theology?
The establishment of an Epicurean Theology group on facebook opened the floodgates for revisiting the ancient sources and evaluating what the Epicureans of old actually believed and why. The subject had been mostly dismissed previously among modern Epicureans, in part because the sources are not easy to interpret and incomplete, and in part because the subject is largely seen as irrelevant. Some of us have advanced the third interpretation of the gods–i.e. the atheistic one, arguing that there is no place for them in our cosmology and that they do not pass the test of the Canon.
Some have also suggested that Epicurus may not have been sincere, that he was really an atheist but in order to avoid the prejudice that atheists suffered in his day, he devised his naturalist theology. But this does not seem correct: some sources cite Epicurus’ own hostility towards “the atheists”, and Philodemus mentions a few of his atheist enemies by name. These hostilities deserve attention on their own, but here it should suffice to mention that they seem to indicate that sincere pious activities were taking place inside the Garden.
The word “Gods” has so much baggage and has been so awfully misused, that it is understandable that so many Epicureans wish to just drop it and use another term. There was a tradition among early Epicureans of redefining terms in alignment with the study of nature, and it seems far more likely that this is what the ancient atomists did: in a cosmos that does not need a creator and that has no beginning or end, and where nothing comes from nothing, and in a cosmos where humans are not the apex of creation, the gods would have to be those super-evolved animals in the ecology of the cosmos that have reached the closest thing to perfection: the kind of animals that our descendants in the far future may hope to become as we continue evolving.
Some of the people involved in the initiative to focus on our theology believe that it has a lot to offer in a theological battleground decidedly monopolized by the idealists, and hold that the teachings about the Epicurean Gods are absolutely central, that they are much more than a vestigial legacy of science fiction in our tradition, and point to the fact that two of the seminal documents mention the Gods: The Letter to Menoeceus–where it is counted among the “elements of the right life”–and the very first of the Principal Doctrines–which shows how central this reasoning was to Epicurean philosophy.
A blessed and indestructible being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; so he is free from anger and partiality, for all such things imply weakness. – PD 1
There’s even a “thou shalt not” in the Epistle to Menoeceus: a taboo against holding vulgar beliefs about the gods that produce anything but pleasure. Epicurus said: “You shall not affirm of them anything that is foreign to their immortality or that is repugnant to their blessedness. Believe about them whatever may uphold both their blessedness and immortality“.
The two central attributes mentioned in these two documents that qualify a super-evolved animal as a deity are immortality–that is, indestructibility–and blessedness, which is sometimes described as a state of pure, uninterrupted pleasure or bliss. Implicit in this second attribute is the pre-requisite that it must be a sentient being capable of experiencing these heights of blissful existence.
The Denizens of the Intermundia
Epicurus gave a new definition to the gods not as supernatural beings, but as superior animals who are perfect in their bliss and self-sufficiency, making them pretty much irrelevant to us. They don’t need our worship or prayer, and in all likelihood do not know we even exist.
One ethical goal of this is to do away with fear-based superstition about the gods, to “civilize” them and thus free mortals from religious fear and degradation. According to the sources, these deities live in the region “between the worlds” (the intermundia). The reasoning for this, it seems, is that they would be less likely to be dismantled by the natural processes of decay familiar to us in our part of the cosmos: they would not be bombarded by particles, or subject to gamma ray bursts.
Because they evolved in a different environment and are immune to threats to their mortality, the gods would need to have radically different faculties. For instance, since they are entirely self-sustaining and self-sufficient, they would lack a sense of gratitude and vindictiveness as indicated in PD 1. The entire lack of external threats would also make them perfectly innocent and confident.
It is as difficult for us to imagine the self-sufficiency of the Gods as it would have been difficult for our primitive ape ancestors to imagine what the life of a modern human is like today, but we can speculate that if our post-human descendants in the far future decide to create a habitat that they can live in–far from the known galaxies in order to have at least one population of humans who can avoid the danger of gamma ray bursts, and secure their immortality in perpetuity as much as nature allows–they would probably evolve far past the instinctive biological clock that is tied to the circadian rhythms, to the orbits and rhythms the solar system that served as our cradle. Lack of exposure to natural light will mean that they will not need melanin. They will most likely develop radically different constitutions and lifestyles from ours living in such a radically stable environment.
The comparison of percentages of genes we share with other species, plus how distant in time we are to them after four billion years of evolution on Earth, plus the likelihood that future post-humans are highly likely to self-consciously direct their evolutionary journey via eugenics–particularly if they face the evolutionary pressures of isolation in space–might give us an idea of how much speciation may happen in the future of our own genome over deep time, and based on that we can then speculate about other possible superior species that may have evolved elsewhere.
The Art of Epicurean Piety
But were the Epicurean Gods objects of contemplation among the Epicureans of old? Were these early Epicureans the awe-struck Carl-Sagans of antiquity?
It is true that Epicurus sought to fight superstition and to banish the perturbations created by false or evil beliefs about deity, but there was also a positive pursuit of pleasure in piety. We find indications in Philodemus’ scroll on Piety and other sources that the first Epicureans found in contemplation of the Gods’ blessedness a source of pure, effortless pleasure. The scroll On Piety and other sources claim that through contemplation of the gods and pious practices, mortals are able to train themselves to lead lives of such self-sufficiency and pleasure, that they “will live as gods among men”, and in fact this is the promise with which the Epistle to Menoeceus concludes.
Exercise yourself in these and related precepts day and night, both by yourself and with one who is like-minded; then never, either in waking or in dream, will you be disturbed, but will live as a god among men. For man loses all semblance of mortality by living in the midst of immortal blessings.
We see that, from the onset all the way through the conclusion of the main ethical document in Epicurean philosophy, the Epicurean Gods are appealed to as models of the pleasant life that we should strive for. But this role for religion among Epicureans entirely hinges on their having pure and wholesome beliefs about their Gods, beliefs that are based on the study of nature, and not on superstition or vulgar piety. If these doctrines are correctly understood and piety is correctly carried out, then a kind of affinity with these blissful beings ensues that is experienced as “pure, unalloyed pleasure” by the pious mortal, and this is what Epicurus holds as the goal of all religion. In the Epistle to Menoeceus we are told that “hence it is that the greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the hand of the gods, seeing that they are always favorable to their own good qualities and take pleasure in men like themselves, but reject as alien whatever is not of their kind“.
It seems like this blissful side-effect of their contemplation happens as a matter of natural law, and not by any effort on part of the Gods, as beings of their kind would not bother with mortals at all. An analogy may be drawn from the way in which people are happier in the presence of loved ones, or the way in which people experience greater peace and joy in nature, or when breathing fresh air, or when they see the colors green and blue–which have been shown to have mood-boosting effects. One Epicurean mentioned the analogy of how dogs look up to humans as their alpha, and said that we could imagine that a similar kind of imprint might be involved in piety.
Epicurean piety can therefore be considered as falling within the realm of aesthetics. We can consider true (that is, natural) religion as an art-form and practice it as a way to cultivate certain pleasant experiences and attributes, to take into our minds divine beauty, tranquility and bliss in order to tread on blissful neural pathways with more frequency and habituate ourselves in them just as we train the body through exercise.
Furthermore, one last thing must be said of Epicurean theology and its unique value: it places noble expectations on theologians that their beliefs be aligned with nature while entirely ignoring wishful thinking, faith, and revelation as sources of knowledge. When Epicurus says: “Not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them is truly impious“, he is expecting us to align our values and views with nature and not with common belief. Epicurus challenges theologians to reconcile their views with the study of nature, which is the steady and stable foundation of all inquiry.
Some objections still remain for the realist, and even the idealist, interpretations of the Gods: Are they really a reliable source of pure pleasure, considering how many vulgar beliefs exist about the Gods in human culture and considering that only a few sages have been able to preserve the pure conception of the Gods? Doesn’t the lack of confirmation of their existence make them too speculative for serious consideration?
I’m still on the “third interpretation” of the gods myself, but these discussions have forced some of us to think about how some of the original doctrines can be appreciated, considered, and even defended, regardless of our agreement with them. If such a thing as Gods exist in nature, then these are the speculations that our non-supernatural cosmology offers … and, unlike the Gods of the supernatural cosmologies of traditional religions, we can say of our own Gods together with Lucretius that “this may have INDEED happened in the Great All“.