Reasonings About Philodemus’ On Choices and Avoidances (Part II)

… Continued from Reasonings About Philodemus’ On Choices and Avoidances (Part I)

Against the False View that the Gods Exhibit Volition

Column VII of the scroll contains a warning against belief in divine providence, saying that it causes innumerable failures

Column VII. For (these men) place themselves in such a situation so as to not take advise from anybody about anything at all, in the belief that nothing depends on man, but everything is controlled by the god.

In our own day and age many people who criticize the lack of action with regards to global warming oftentimes point the finger at apocalyptic beliefs among certain Christian groups, who hold that the Earth MUST be destroyed prior to Christ’s return and that, therefore, it is written that there will be cataclysms. Even more evil is the belief that there must be a great war prior to the return of Jesus that will devastate most of Earth, as this belief has made many Christian groups not just docile before greedy oil and military industrial complex investors who have appropriated the political machine to advance military plans that they profit from handsomely. There have always been conservative Christian groups, particularly in the US, who have been willing to celebrate such military agendas with the excuse that “it is written”.

To this example must be added the heinous example of medieval burnings of midwives, which was justified by reasoning that the pain of child-birth was originally intended as God’s punishment of all women for all eternity for Eve’s transgression. She ate the apple, ergo all women must suffer at child-birth, and to reduce the pain of women giving birth is therefore to challenge God’s law. But as with the above example, the execution of midwives during the Dark Ages was also profitable to a new class of professionals: male doctors, who were seeking to replace midwives in this role. It was also profitable for a large number of people in the legal profession, for whom the inquisition generated employment.

Without going into much detail, one must not fail to mention the many historical instances of holy wars and persecution, the Crusades, terrorist attacks and other evil acts done in the name of a God who is imagined as having a will, and a distorted sense of volition at that. God clearly “willed” the Jews to inherit Palestine and inhabit it forever as the Bible says, but then he “willed” that Muslims fight to the death anyone who persecutes them or throws them out of their homes for the sake of their religion. Is he being a Cosmic Don King, initiating fights to profit or take pleasure, in some sick manner, from the bloodshed? It’s more reasonable to suppose that mortals imagine their Gods doing THEIR will, and place convenient words in the mouths of their Gods.

And so we must not underestimate the dangers of fatal beliefs, that is, beliefs in oracles and in the notion that fate has been pre-determined by gods. These forms of superstition are profoundly dangerous and harmful. The freeze the actions of mortal agents in the expectation that supernatural aid knows best and that its will is unavoidable. They make mortals negligent and irrationally fearful of acting against the gods.

Philodemus also criticizes men who hold false beliefs about how the Gods can affect the afterlife. Many men believe that the evils that will befall mortals in the afterlife far surpass the goods that the Gods bestow while living, so they neglect living. This was as true in the days of Philodemus as it is today. Many people view pleasure as bad. They fear that if they sweeten their lives or achieve great things, they will be punished for doing so in the afterlife, that somehow one has to suffer or not live a pleasant life in order to earn a paradise after one dies.

The proverbial destruction of the Tower of Babel, which the Biblical God viewed as an act of human arrogance, is actually based on a similar Sumerian myth (Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta). The premise here is that the Gods not only treat humans perpetually as children, but they are also imagined as easily given to anger and/or envious of human achievement. These views are seen by us as small-minded and superstitious, perhaps as projections of our own character flaws.

Imaginary Evils

By speaking of things that “resemble evils”, Philodemus makes a clear distinction between true evils and imagined ones. This invites further contemplation. Just as we must learn to have firm conviction about the kyriotatai or principal goods, and distinguish these from vain desires, so must we also recognize true evils, and distinguish them from imaginary evils.

These evils arise from superstition–but also from ungratefulness, which to us is a fundamental flaw in the human character that must be treated. The ungrateful person does not enjoy the good when he has it, and has the bad habit of being mindfully unhappy and mindlessly happy, which is the opposite of what the prudent man does.

There are instances where we see a combination of superstition and ungratefulness. We see it in the person that goes to the doctor, regains health, and thanks only God, not the doctor, not the scientists, when a cure is provided. Perhaps it doesn’t occur to him that the doctor made great sacrifices and studied diligently for over a decade to be able to practice medicine, or that for generations scientists diligently researched chemicals and natural compounds that led to the production of a cure, or that the doctor may have had help from the state or scholarships in order to be able to afford school. There are lands where medical assistant is unavailable or scarce. People fail to nurture accurate values when they are mindless and ungrateful.

Column X. They lament if they are afflicted by things which resemble evils, both the evils deriving from ingratitude towards men and the fatherland, and also the evils resulting from superstition, that is, because they take god to be the cause of both death and life … and because of the sorrow that weighs upon them on account of their death, they become irascible and hard to please and ill-tempered.

The term death denial principle was coined in the 1970’s and has been the object of research since then, but it’s interesting to note that the scrolls of Philodemus had a reference to this same idea 2,000 years ago. The idea is that people invent all kinds of religious fantasies, rituals, rites and many other cultural expressions in order to escape their anxiety about their own mortality. Recent research on the death denial principle has uncovered that people who have not evaluated these anxieties and worked through them also exhibit greater levels of hostility towards those who are different and are more judgemental, particularly right after they are reminded of their own mortality.

Philodemus here touches on a very deep insight about human nature. He says that those who haven’t therapeutically treated their apprehensions about death become “irascible, hard to please, ill-tempered”, which is not far from what recent research has found. As we will see when we study the Philodeman scroll On Death, this fear is also an imaginary evil.

On the other hand, there is the “we will die anyway” excuse, which Philodemus covers in Column XVII. This is the excuse that mortals use to avoid living up to their highest potential, to avoid conducting hedonic calculus and taking ownership for their choices and their creation. In his example, he speaks of people who abandon philosophy and do not accomplish noble and great things with this excuse, and attributes this attitude to ungratefulness–for the ungrateful do not expect gratitude in return for their good deeds. I’ve heard it from smokers who won’t quit and who damage their quality of life and health with this excuse.

Continues on Reasonings About Philodemus’ On Choices and Avoidances (Part III)

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About Hiram

Hiram is an author from the north side of Chicago who has written for The Humanist, Greenewave, Om Times, and other publications. His book Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press, 2014) is a contemporary and interdisciplinary introduction to Epicureanism. He earned a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from NEIU.