Piety according to the sources of Epicurean Philosophy

An essay by George Kaplanis, founding member of the Group of friends of Epicurean Philosophy-Garden of Thessaloniki. Originally written in Greek; translation was edited for grammar correction and clarity by Elli Pensa and Hiram Crespo.

O humankind unhappy!- when it ascribed
Unto divinities such awesome deeds,
And coupled thereto rigours of fierce wrath!
What groans did men on that sad day beget
Even for themselves, and O what wounds for us,
What tears for our children’s children! Nor, O man,
Is thy true piety in this: with head
Under the veil, still to be seen to turn
Fronting a stone, and ever to approach
Unto all altars; nor so prone on earth
Forward to fall, to spread upturned palms
Before the shrines of gods, nor yet to dew
Altars with profuse blood of four-foot beasts,
Nor vows with vows to link. But rather this:
To look on all things with a master eye
And mind at peace.

Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura

For two years now, in the Gardens, we have been discussing two possibilities: a) whether Epicurus was an atheist, and was hiding behind a theology to avoid persecution, or b) whether Epicurus was indeed pious, and he meant what he said. Of course, Cicero explicitly states that the Epicurean methodology of thinking does not accept disjunctive dilemmas, but that is another big issue.

However, both in the above cases, Epicurus, integrating his theology into his philosophy, should have faced the problem of cohesion. That is to say, if we likened his philosophy to a coherent system, we should be able to go from one point to another. But if he built a theology simply as a cover up, he risked building something strange, unrelated to the rest, and ridicule, since, in that era, people would have understood it (was a cover up) immediately. Therefore, in order for his teaching to remain coherent, he had to manifest his piety to the gods, in line with his Physics, Canon, and Ethics.

And here we have to define “piety”. It is very easy, because it is defined by Lucretius (in his work “DE RERUM NATURA”, Book V, f. 1200 – 1205): << Piety is…. to be able to see everything with reasonable calculus (sober reasoning), without anxiety>> (see a different translation above).

And so, since “everything” goes back to the Nature of Things, the ataraxia on Ethics and the “calculus” in the Canon, the consistency exists at least in the practice, in the experiential approach of theology. This is piety, according to Lucretius: it isn’t to present yourself with your head covered, to bow before stones, to visit altars, to raise your hands to the sanctuaries, to repeat prayers one after another,

But when you can see all the things with sober calculus, piety is imitation of the gods, but also rivalry to the gods (that is: competing with them in bliss), which ultimately function as templates, and in my view as archetypes, meaning as prototypes, i.e. as reference points. Thus, the Epicurean tries to live as a god among men (see the closing words of the Letter to Meneoceus). This corresponds to the “theosis” (defined as “the likeness to or union with a god; deification. The process of attaining this state.”) that other religions have. But that “theosis” requires many sacrifices, pains, fasts, etc., while whoever lives according to Epicurean philosophy, becomes pious and competes with the gods in happiness. Noteworthy is Diogenes of Oenoandas‘ report:

For not small [or ineffectual] are these gains for us which make our disposition godlike and show that not even our mortality makes us inferior to the imperishable and blessed nature; for when we are alive, we are as joyful as the gods.

Thus, we conclude that the course of the life of Epicurus, which is a course of the study of Nature, is at the same time a course of theosis, in the epicurean sense. It is a course of initiation, but without secret/mystical teachings. This process also includes participation in religious feasts, because they honor the divine standards, as well as prayer.

As for prayer, Epicurus said that it is «οικείον» intimate to our nature to pray, and advised us to pray, not because the gods need prayers, but because in this way we can capture the value and perfection of the gods. Thus, in practice, prayer activates the mental and ethical forces of man, but it also activates his brain functions, stimulates the mind and helps to bring inspiration to the person who prays.

For years I had been looking for an Epicurean prayer. It was finally in front of me. Lucretius begins his work with a prayer to Aphrodite. Lucretius begins to write a scientific work, a work of scientific research on the nature of things. At first, he briefly refers to the dynamic of nature that moves things, and he attributes this to Aphrodite:

Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands- for all of living things
Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
Through thee are risen to visit the great sun-
Before thee, Goddess, and thy coming on,
Flee stormy wind and massy cloud away,
For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
For thee waters of the unvexed deep
Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky
Glow with diffused radiance for thee!

Seeking a way to stimulate his mental functions and to enliven his inspiration, Lucretius continues the prayer :

And since ’tis thou alone
Guidest the Cosmos, and without thee naught
Is risen to reach the shining shores of light,
Nor aught of joyful or of lovely born,
Thee do I crave co-partner in that verse
Which I presume on Nature to compose.

Thus, Aphrodite, Lucretius and his work become one.