Reasonings about Philodemus’ On Piety (Part III)

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

On the Purpose of Religion, and On Whether it’s Natural and Necessary

The idealist Epicurean theology produces the urgence to raise questions about the true purpose of religion. Is it even necessary or useful? It also raises questions as to whether religion can be judged by the same criteria as desires, anger, and knowledge, and therefore understood as natural and necessary, natural but unnecessary, or unnatural and unnecessary.

Is religion natural and necessary? The first Epicureans, in unison, seemed to think it’s both, but modern Epicureans may hold different views. Specifically as to whether religion is natural, the papyrus says:

To pray is natural. – Epicurus, in On Lifecourses

Again, because Gods are not concerned with mortals, prayer is of a non-petitionary nature. It’s an act of self-expression meant to affirm and nurture the virtues and abiding (katastemic) pleasure. Gratitude is one of its main uses.

As to whether religion is necessary, that is less clear.  Epicurus believes it is, but Philodemus (judging from his admission that the existence of the Gods has not been proven conclusively) appears to leave room for the legitimacy of doubt, even if by giving a voice to his predecessors he seems to be in more or less complete concordance with their views.

If religion is to be viewed as natural and necessary, then we can understand why Epicurus included pious displays in the decorations for the 20th and why the oath included religious references. Now, notice how much the Epicurean oath is non-different from piety:

Piety and justice appear to be almost the same thing … because to break one’s oath is to be unjust and also to lie, and both are disturbing.

The Epicurean oath originally produced religious duties among the disciples, and it is within this context that pious activities and duties were performed as remedies used to remove vice and increase virtue. Since all duties (religious or not, if we are consistent with the doctrine of natural justice) can only emerge as a result of agreements, then the only way in which the celebrations of the 20th and the other duties that are mentioned in the sources can be said to have existed is as a result of oath-taking.

The oath called into existence the hedonic covenant of the Epicureans: an oath not to harm or be harmed, which today thinkers like French philosopher Michel Onfrey have expanded to include an agreement to maximize the pleasure and minimize the pain of all covenant-members. We can therefore understand how the Gardens were mutual aid societies, the fraternities that early Christians admired so much and imitated.

If religion is to be viewed as both unnatural and unnecessary by some Epicureans, and therefore, empty and vain, then a new branch of Epicurean atheology emerges and piety as a virtue may lose value for many. However, even within the idealist view, there seems to be a case for piety as a remedy, as a way to cultivate the virtues that deserves exploration and experimentation (particularly in view of the available research on the benefits of chanting, prayer and other pious activities).

Can these pious activities be incorporated into a non-theistic form of religiosity? Certainly: Buddhism is a cogent and culturally rich, vibrant non-theistic religious tradition. We’ve previously shared on Society of Epicurus the beautiful sutra of loving-kindness. The Gods are not the only object of pious devotion: the virtues themselves, sacred teachings or books, one’s homeland, our departed loved ones, the most noble and virtuous among our friends, Gurus or teachers, and one’s parents can be the recipients of pious gratitude and love.

In the early Epicurean communities, there are fragments that suggest that the etiquette among Friends was to treat each other with pious devotion. This is a peculiar instance of recognition of divine immanence generously extended to all of virtuous humanity. It’s reminiscent of the Vaishnava Hindu tradition that all devotees are worthy of reverence and even resonates a bit with the Christian tradition about Christ washing the feet of his disciples. The following are some examples of this:

In your feeling of reverence for what I was then saying you were seized with an unaccountable desire to embrace me and clasp my knees and show me all the signs of homage paid by men in prayers and supplications to others; so you made me return all these proofs of veneration and respect to you. Go on thy way as immortal and think of us too as immortal. – Epicurus to Colotes

 Lord and Savior, my dearest Leontion, what a hurrahing you drew from us, when we read aloud your dear letter. – Epicurus to Leontion

I shall sit down and await your lovely and godlike appearance. – Epicurus to Pythocles

In this manner, piety is used didactically to teach human values and how to properly treat each other. The image that emerges is one where communities of Friends create cultural spaces where they express their affection for each other in a celebratory manner (“what a hurrahing you drew from us!“). Piety towards our dearest Epicurean Friends is also consistent with the tradition that Epicureans are to live as Gods among the mortals.

God as a Verb, Not a Noun

We started our reasonings discussing how atomists legitimized the existence of physical Gods, but if the question they were trying to answer was flawed, the answer will be flawed too. What if we are idealists? What if the Gods do not inherently exist, except as (natural? necessary? useful?) cultural constructs?

The apotheosis of his Friends by Epicurus also raises questions about how Gods or objects of piety are created. We can worship stones, as well as real or imaginary (non-physical) beings. In all cases, anything worshipped is a God to someone. Epicurean realist theology was the result of atomist doctrine, but perhaps a theology of this sort was unnecessary and only one of many ways to go about studying the phenomenon of Gods which some people (philosopher Daniel Dennet among them) believe should be studied as a natural phenomenon, and Howard Bloom has suggested that the Gods are memes or cultural artifacts within our superorganisms involved in the collective psychological evolution of different portions the human race.

Perhaps what should be of concern to us is the process of deification and whether it is intelligent or healthy to deify anything or anyone at all. If deification is chosen, then how is this choice most prudently made? It is clearly more intelligent and more pleasure-inducing to worship ideals of prudence, cheerfulness and love than to worship ideals of warfare, hostility and anger. We’ve seen examples of both in our world.

In all cases, whether we adopt realist or naturalist views, whether we think religion is necessary and natural or whether we don’t, all Epicureans agree that the Gods don’t need a cult, and that they don’t enjoy it. They’ll remain imperturbable with or without our attention. The true function and purpose of piety and religion is for the benefit of mortals: to increase our pleasure and minimize our suffering.

Even if it’s natural for wise men to worship, true piety only benefits the pious, and then trickles down through them. It is therefore understood as an act of self-expression, of pressing out of the Self the contents of one’s character, an expression of a man’s virtue or vice … and of a philosopher’s art of living.

… Continues in Part IV

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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.