Reasonings about Philodemus’ On Piety (Part IV)

Continued from Part III

Socrates and the Live Unknown Maxim

The papyrus makes mention of the fact that, unlike Socrates, Epicurus never had one single quarrel against the Athenians and never presented a single lawsuit against them (or they against him) during his entire life. Comedians, who often mocked the virtuous in their plays and works, never made fun of Epicurus, while Socrates was frequently characterized as a trouble-maker among the Athenians even in spite of his great wisdom, and other philosophers were kicked out of the city and created troubles and perturbances.

As a result, because Socrates did not have the prudence to “Live Unknown” but was always walking about and questioning people’s beliefs, he was in the end killed in spite of being an innocent and virtuous man, and was even accused of impiety and atheism in spite of being a truly pious man by Epicurean standards. By living among the crowd, he incited anger, put his life in danger, and was in the end killed.

And so, the events surrounding Socrates’ life and death are used didactically (and implicitly, not directly) in the papyrus to exemplify and demonstrate why living unknown enhances the safety of the philosopher, particularly if his views are not understood by the many.

Against the Atheists

It’s ironic that so many atheists today consider Epicurus as one among their number. Epicurus mentions the need to despise atheists, reproaches them as mad, Bacchic revellers and admonishes them “not to trouble or disturb us”, mentioning Critias, Doagoras and Prodicus by name.

The piety of Epicurus and his followers is mentioned frequently in the Philodeman scroll. It describes how celebrations of the 20th were, originally, in part religious and Epicurus’ “house was decorated piously” for the occasion. The oaths and invocations were, also, religious in nature and in his Epistle to Diotimus, Epicurus is said to have warned against “violating the covenant of the sacred festival table”.

We must grant, however, that the laws in the Greek city stipulated that any organization of the sort that Epicurus was trying to establish needed to have a religious character and worship the Gods of the city. Hence the insistence of abiding by law and custom.

Therefore, even if they are now in the majority, Epicurean atheist thinkers are part of the contemporary branch of the tradition and could not have emerged at the roots of our history. Epicurus would not have had it.

Having said that, modern Epicurean atheology is happy to concede that the allegations by opponents of our founders that Gods can’t have imperishable, atomic bodies are legitimate arguments against the realist interpretation of the Gods. If Gods can not be physical, then they must be non-existent and the idealist interpretation–which is, perhaps, atheistic or at least debases the worship of Gods to a mere artform, a technique for the cultivation of virtue–is the only way to reconcile materialism with pious philosophy.

Conclusion

We have seen that, for people who are religious and who embrace Epicureanism, our discourse on piety has the potential to save and to fully civilize religion, enhancing it, raising it to new heights and making it noble. Not only can Epicureanism be credited with fighting both the ignorant and innocent as well as the vile and heinous forms of superstition: it also seeks to preserve the best in religion, the blissful, the ecstatic, the joyous, every source of pleasure within it that does not defile the mortal soul.

Epicureans are not the enemies of religion, as some contend. In fact, most of us do not expect religion to ever disappear. But we do have noble expectations concerning any claim of true piety. This Philodeman scroll is more than an olive branch from secularists to religious people: it creates in effect an ecumenical tone in the way our teachings are imparted.

There are several key teachings that emerge from studying Philodemus’ On Piety. The main ones can be summed:

  1. God(s) can be understood from realist or idealist interpretations.
  2. Humans imitate the qualities they see in divinity. Therefore, the wise have noble expectations concerning the Gods.
  3. Worship is an act of self-expression and only benefits the worshiper. It does not necessarily affect the object of worship.
  4. There is good, pure and wholesome religion as well as defiled and unwholesome religion.
  5. Worship affects reality because it affects character.
  6. Epicurean doctrines are considered the true cause of our tranquility.
  7. Piety is a sort of art of divine attunement with the philosophical virtues that produces wholesome, blessed, blissful, therapeutic states of mind.

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The above reasonings were inspired by Philodemus On Piety: Critical Text with Commentary, by Philodemus, edited by Dirk Obbink.

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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.