Reasonings about Philodemus’ On Piety (Part I)

As was the case with my previous commentaries on Philodemus’ works, I have taken the liberty to distill the basic teachings of the scroll, as well as add my own commentary, in a manner that modern audiences can understand in order to advance a new and fresh Epicurean discourse in the 21st Century.

Contemporary Epicureanism is mostly made up of atheists and agnostics and must therefore take up the task of articulating an atheology founded on the ancient doctrine, but many militant and intellectual atheists who have appropriated Epicurus and who propagate atheist cultural memes with his quotes will be surprised to learn of the hostility that Epicurus exhibited against some of the atheists that he knew and of the great value that was placed on true piety, as defined by naturalist philosophy.

Even a non-religious Epicurean should find ways to cultivate the virtue of piety, as the quintessential katastemic practice is gratitude (usually towards nature, or life), which is an expression of piety. All of these matters will be attended in my reasonings on Philodemus’ scroll titled On Piety.

Epicurus and Metrodorus Versus the Accusers

There were two main types of accusation that were raised by opponents of the early Epicurean school. First, there was the accusation of impiety or insincerity in their belief in Gods, which is what inspired Philodemus’ work On Piety.  In the work, he sets on a journey to establish a clearer understanding of true piety, and opposes this true virtue to the vulgar beliefs of the many. He also persistently reiterates how the founders of the school both produced arguments for the existence of the Gods and encouraged their followers to participate in worship and to be truly pious, in reply to the accusers’ argument that it is foolish to celebrate festivals if Gods could care less.

The second type of accusation, once these arguments were presented, constitutes an attack on the imperfections or features of the Epicurean arguments for the existence of natural Gods. For in materialism, things can only exist insofar as they are composed of atoms. According to the traditional, realist interpretation of the Gods, if they do not have atomic bodies, Gods can not be said to exist in any form.

The accusers said that Gods can not have bodies, for bodies are compounds of atoms and all things that are composed of atoms are impermanent. They are subject to change, decay and death. Therefore, because compounds are destructible, these atomic Gods can not be immortal.

Philodemus then cites an argument made by Metrodorus, where he explained that if a compound is made of things that aren’t numerically distinct, these things may be imperishable and indestructible or divine.  In his work On Holiness, Epicurus is quoted as elaborating a doctrine about the physical Gods being eternal and indestructible, and saying that one who exists in this manner “in perfection as one and the same entity, is termed unified entity“.

The original founders, says Philodemus, supposed that Epicurus never had reason to question the existence of Gods. It is universally accepted that Epicurus believed that the Gods were “clearly” conceived originally (by ancient people) as eternal and blessed, and that this was a preconception or anticipation (one of the elements in the Canon). However, Epicurus believed that people in later generations developed defiled ideas about the Gods and warned his followers to only hold “the purest and holiest beliefs about the Gods” and to avoid defiled views.

Anticipations are the closest thing to natural (as opposed to divine) revelation in Epicureanism: they are biological, inherited instincts. Anticipations, however can be triggered by things like airplanes (small birds may react to them in panic thinking they’re large birds of prey; this vestige of instinctive panic helped their ancestors to survive), any parental figure (we may project our anticipation of father or mother against non-parents) or even bottles (by which babies looking for a nipple are fooled into feeding). Can it not be conceived that any anticipation for Gods that humans are pre-programmed to seek out in nature can be similarly mis-triggered by a non-god?

The accusations of inconsistency went back and forth between the Epicureans and the non-Epicureans.  Philodemus argues against the accusers who claim that Gods can’t be physical, saying that this is inconsistent with his opponents’ view of Gods as having perception and experiencing pleasure.

Before we move on, we must make the observation that Epicurus believed that there was good, pure and wholesome religion as well as defiled and unwholesome religion, and that not all religion was the same. This is an important distinction, if we are to discern between true piety and false piety.

The Ontology of the Gods: In What Way Do They Exist?

For the sake of clarity, the original belief in the Gods within Epicureanism involved their physicality. They had bodies made of atoms. This was a necessity of Epicurean theology because nature and reality are one and the same in materialism and in atomism: Gods can only exist in nature. No-thing exists outside of nature.

Beyond this, other debates occur about what the Gods are in themselves, in what way they exist. One theory was that they lived in the space between the worlds. When we discuss virtue as it relates to piety, we’ll see that the Gods are assumed to exist in a way somewhat similar to what we may think of today as radio waves or sound waves, or at least exude some similar quality … an intriguing insight.

On Piety includes a frank admission by Philodemus, which opens the door for an Epicurean atheology and for the contemporary idealist interpretation of the Gods in Epicurean discourse, where they are merely viewed as concepts. This view is opposed to the traditional realist view, where they are conceived as natural beings with atomic bodies. The passage is as follows:

It would be fitting to describe all men as impious, inasmuch as no one has been prolific in finding convincing demonstrations for the existence of the gods; nevertheless all men, with the exception of some madmen, worship them, as do we.

Philodemus concedes that there is no convincing proof for their existence, yet he worships the Gods. Epicureans who embrace the idealist view (whom I imagine to be in the majority today) think that the Gods may be useful objects of contemplation, but that they are not real in the objective sense as natural beings.

Throughout the text, it is evident that worship serves, in part, to conform to societal expectations and laws. People were killed in the days of Epicurus for atheism. These pressures are no longer relevant, even if being a law-abiding citizens does contribute to our greater tranquility. However, this entire scroll is testament of the fact that we must not be quick to accept the accusers’ claim that Epicureans were insincere in their piety, for their piety was true as we will see in future installations.

(continues …) Reasonings about Philodemus’ On Piety (Part II)
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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.