Reasonings about Philodemus’ On Piety (Part II)

 … Continued from Reasonings about Philodemus’ On Piety (Part I)

Doctrine of Harm and Benefit of the Gods

(To others,) piety appears to include not harming both other people and especially one’s benefactors and homeland.  To be sure, they honor something rather kindly and propitious, whereas we all regard our views as the true cause of our tranquility.

The accusers also criticized Epicureans for “depriving good and just men of the fine expectations which they have of the Gods”, which generated a discussion of what harms and benefits can be legitimately attributed to the Gods. As with many other doctrines, this one evolved as a result of the interaction with other schools of philosophy and in the process of evaluating the criticism of others.

Although the Gods do not concern themselves with mortals, there is harm and benefit that can be derived from our conception of them. In particular, our views about the Gods affect our imperturbability, virtue and tranquility. With the Gods understood by their effects in this manner, true piety therefore can be seen as a way to nurture virtue.

The papyrus explains that if people imagine their Gods as tyrants and with bad character, they will suppose bad things will befall them, whereas by imagining the Gods as harmless and virtuous, humans will seek to imitate these qualities. Likewise, and just as importantly, bad or evil conceptions of the Gods defile humans and produce depravity even in well-meaning people. A contemporary version of this teaching was articulated by an anti-religious thinker:

 Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. – Steven Weinberg

Horrible conceptions of divinity, even if they are traditionally accepted by the many, are considered by the wise to be blasphemous, not pious in the true sense of the word.

… for every wise man holds pure and holy beliefs about the Divine. – Epicurus

The worship of raging, mad Gods by the likes of jihadists and the Westboro Baptist Church produces harm and vice as much as the worship of virtuous Gods produces virtue. These extend, in both cases, to both the worshiper and those around him, and these effects can be as tangible as terrorist attacks and feeding the poor, with all the underlying emotions both hostile and tender, vulgar and sublime, in all these cases. Worship affects reality because it affects character.

According to the Philodeman papyrus, Epicurus advised mortals not to think that (anything worthy of the name) God is bad-tempered. In order to be imperturbable and safe from harm, the Gods could also not be imagined as initiating disputes. However, the text laments that “things unworthy of indestructibility and blessedness are sought in prayer” by common people.  According to the text,

But those who believe our oracles about the Gods will first wish to imitate their blessedness, insofar as mortals can, so that, since it was seen to come from doing no harm to anyone, they will endeavor most of all to make themselves harmless to everyone as far as it is within their power, and second, to make themselves noble …

The just person has noble expectations concerning the Gods, and at the same time exceedingly enjoys pleasures that are unalloyed and effortless.

The undefiled, pure, noble, virtuous Epicurean Gods are an easily acquired source of pure pleasure. To a worshiper, it is always a pleasure to associate with them.

The unjust, on the other hand fear detection forever once they have committed injustices and also fear the Gods’ retribution, in spite of the fact that (as per a Hermarchus quote) “the Gods do not appear to harm wrongdoers even if the worst of mankind escape notice”. Even if they don’t fear the Gods’ retribution, they still “believe they are going to inflict everlasting misfortunes, so that they undergo no less disturbance than if they were really suffering such things”. They have no tranquility as a result.

The Philodeman papyrus states:

In On Holiness, he (Epicurus) calls a life of perfection the most pleasant and most blessed, and instructs us to guide against all defilement, with our intellect comprehensively viewing the best psychosomatic dispositions for the sake of fitting all that happens to us to blessedness …

The word psychosomatic translates as symptoms exhibited by both body and mind, which can represent either disease or wellbeing. The reference to psychosomatic dispositions here, within the context of contemplation of the Gods, gives us an intriguing insight into Epicurean spirituality, which must never be divorced from nature and from the body. Both the diseases of the soul and its wellbeing manifest themselves in the body, in physical symptoms. Anger is one of the diseases most famously described in psychosomatic terms in Epicurean therapy: the face can turn red (from the blood rushing), the facial features get ugly, the body heats up, the rhythm of the pulse increases.

We must, therefore, suppose that imperturbability, cheerfulness and serenity also have symptoms within the body and its health, and this is obviously the case. The heart and blood pressure are calmer, and the body secretes more serotonin instead of cortisol, the toxic stress hormone. True spirituality and philosophy are medicinal in a very literal sense.

Epicurus believed that true piety requires that we see Gods as immortal and blessed, and as embodying other virtues. Ares, for instance, embodies steadfastness, virility and courage; Aphrodite embodies the purest pleasure and suavity; Athena is the noble embodiment of Prudence and Wisdom; Hera of loyalty, Hephaistos of inventiveness, resourcefulness and creativity; Zeus embodies self-sufficiency and victory; Apollo embodies lucidity and clarity while Dionysus embodies sublime release and rapture.

If we were to assume a Unitarian/Jeffersonian approach to Christianity and apply Epicurean criteria to it, the Heavenly Father might be syncretized with Nature, with the Holy Spirit or Good Breath embodying the principle of Life. That Jesus worshiped God as Breath is a very intimate insight into his transpersonal and immanent God’s immediacy and easily lends itself to a naturalist interpretation of what Jesus called the God of the Living. In a philosophy of life, things have value only for the sake of living, breathing beings, how much pleasure they add to them, and how much pain is removed from them. This Holy Spirit of Life and Breath at once embodies both nature and all the philosophical virtues, and–while irrelevant to non-religious Epicureans–may serve as an outlet for piety among Epicureans with Christian-influenced religious tendencies.

Affinity for the virtues of the Gods makes us susceptible and receptive to them. Ancient Epicureans believed that the pious can tune into their virtuous frequencies through worship, which is an interesting feature of Epicurean religion: piety is here understood as wholesome, therapeutic brainwaves. In other words, something that one can tune into. Many Hindus and Sikhs have similar beliefs about Divinity manifested as sound vibration. There is also mention of alienation of the Gods from those who have no affinity with the virtues. This understanding resonates with the original semantical root for the word religion, the Latin re-ligare, meaning to re-connect. Perhaps if we used the verb re-connecting instead of the noun religion, we would be able to once again grasp and speak accurately about the art of piety and its true nature and purpose.

Whether we are really attuning to something physical and natural (as the realists believe) or whether this divine attunement is merely a mental construct (as we idealists believe), the important thing to understand about piety is that it is meant to beautify the character, to produce healing, virtue, happiness, wellbeing and tranquility. Piety serves therapeutic purposes.

Against the Poets and Theologians

… poets and theologians are praised by our attackers.

The reference to the poets as the creators of distortions in people’s values must be traced back to Epicurus’ early years studying the Greek Pagan creation myths (compiled by the poet Hesiod) under a Platonist instructor who was unable to explain the notion of Chaos. From this, he concluded, even as a child, that humanity needed a naturalist, scientific cosmology … and poets may be fine writers, but unless they’re scientists or philosophers, they’re not qualified to write with authority about cosmology or ethics.

Also, we know of Zeus’ bisexual escapades, of Hera’s jealousy, of Aphrodite’s infidelity with Ares, of Poseidon’s rage, and many other signs of divine perturbance that were imagined by the poets, epileptics, and mystics.

What are we to make of the poets that compiled the Quran, the Bible, the Book of Mormon and other, equally perturbed scriptures, which also distort historical and scientific facts? In them not only is creation imagined in an entirely unnatural manner which is known to be manifestly fraudulent, but God is attributed with laws that say that women can be sold like cattle, married off against their will at a young age, and stoned for adultery if they don’t like it. He orders genocide, institutes slavery and declares black skin to be a curse. He even accepts human sacrifice like Molok, and orders that gays be stoned to death. The God of these books is as impossible to reconcile with wholesome philosophy as the folk beliefs about the Gods of Greece were.  Philodemus declares:

The false views of poets don’t lead to virtuous or happy lives …

Impious is not so much the man who denies the Gods of the many as the man who attributes the beliefs of the many to them.

To a theist philosopher like Epicurus, these false views about the Gods do not originate in natural prolepsis or anticipations, but are the product of cultural corruption. It’s up to non-theist Epicureans to investigate whether we humans carry anticipations that deserve our pious attention. I personally believe that some forms of piety, such as our instinctive and natural filial piety towards our parents and other family elders, are entirely natural and based on the Canon and on anticipations.

 (continued …) Reasonings about Philodemus’ On Piety (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.