Little did he know at the time (341-270 B.C.) that he, Epicurus, a Greek philosopher, would be a founding father of the atheism sect, a sect which began its angry resistance movement when Jesus Christ appeared on the scene claiming to be God incarnate. Or, that he, Epicurus would be the gardener who would plant the seeds of the Enlightenment’s now perennial social Darwinism, seeds embedded with the DNA of Democritus’ dictum of random Atomism. Or, that he would be considered an ancient agnostic theologian who preached that the gods were out-of-the picture and the Roman gods were way too bossy. Or, that his philosophy would become an eponymous link with shameless pleasures.
An allegory of five senses. Still Life by Pieter Claesz, 1623. The painting illustrates the senses through musical instruments, a compass, a book, food and drink, a mirror, incense and an open perfume bottle. (via Wikipedia)
Epicurus had concluded that any idea of the ‘gods’ had to be put upstairs in the ‘attic’-out of sight, out of mind. Not seen. Not heard from. They should be not be given any consideration much less be feared. Epicurus had an alternative universe to offer his disciples.
Epicurus lived and taught a moderate lifestyle, keeping to himself and to his close friends. He believed and taught that one could learn everything through one’s senses. He counted the senses as trustworthy.
Epicurus spoke of natural desires in life such as food and shelter which one could not live without (a no-brainer). And, he spoke of the natural desire for sex which one could live without (a no-boner). In practice, unlike today’s hedonistic Epicureans, Epicurus was pleasure-passive but not in the sense that he would waste away his time in Margaritaville.
Epicurus also taught that wealth and fame should be avoided because they are intrinsically narcissistic and appeal only to vanity. These things were to be considered ephemeral. (Al Sharpton and a host of politicians and Hollywood stars would not be examples of true Epicureanism.)
As Epicurus was a proponent of living a quiet and peaceful life, unnoticed by the world I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s missive to the church in Thessalonica (circa Ad 52). Paul’s letter was likely written from Corinth the home of Aphrodite’s temple-a hedonist hangout. He encouraged the Christians in Thessalonica to “… make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you,” (I Thess. 4:11 )
Epicurean philosophy, detached from its sedate founder’s teaching, would later become associated with extreme pleasure seeking. Per Wikipedia, a “hedonist strives to maximize net pleasure (pleasure minus pain)”. And, with the angry ‘gods thought of as remote, unconcerned and out of the picture a hedonist could unleash and unlock the Animal House within him. But, Epicurus was not a Caligula in pursuit of untold ‘pleasures’. There were no toga parties at Epicurus’ home.
“Seek pleasure in peace and pursue it” was his cart’s bumper sticker-right next to his “COEXIST” bumper sticker.
Due to his compartmentalizing, putting god upstairs and putting earthly pleasure as a priority, Epicurus can also be considered as one of the founding fathers of the fact/value split, a split where science and religion and politics and religion are deemed to have no common ground-in heaven nor on earth. This Epicurean dichotomy would eventually cause Americans to exile God from their thinking. To fill the vacancy America would welcome all manner of European philosophical and psychoanalytical nonsense as well as all manifestations of statistical ‘science’. (See my post “How Shall I Then Live” regarding the fact/value split.)
Sadly it was with an Epicurean mindset already in place that America’s founding fathers including Thomas Jefferson wrote the U.S. Constitution as the divorce papers to be served on God –God was not to be part of our nation’s public’ life: And though our currency reads “In God We Trust”, that has come to mean “God is our fall back position”. “You may worship God up there but just don’t bring him down from the attic into our Novus ordo seclorum” (see your after tax currency of the New World for both mottos).
It probably could be said that the Epicurean philosophy was the origin of Freud’s Pleasure Principle. The Principle simply stated, is that man’s default modus operandi is to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Here it would appear that neo-Epicurean philosophy influenced at least Christopher Hitchens, a well-known provocateur atheist given to well-documented habits of smoking, strong drink and other ravishing appetites, a raison d’etre for a pleasure seeker like Hitchens-but only in his previous life.
Mr. Epicurus, on the other hand, took his afternoon delight in hammock contemplation of Atomism, the dictum of his day: life is reducible to invisible atoms which swerve and smash randomly into each other without a defining purpose. This dictum could well define the “angry atheists” Atomistic arguments against the existence of God. (During Epicurus time you had to walk by faith to believe in invisible atoms and no God. Later quantum physics via the LHC and other nuclear colliders would provide us with the silhouettes of nuclear particles including bosons but many scientists chose not to see God as Creator of this “Atomism”)
Today, “angry atheists,” one such is Richard Dawkins, continue to swerve and smash their Atomistc-like arguments against God’s apologists but their pro-atheistic arguments never coalesce into anti-God anti-matter. And, when everything else they have said fails to discharge God from the universe these angry fellows and their devoted followers resort to ad hominem and strong drink.
Epicurus is the man for all reasons today. Here is someone who can say it better than I.
N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar, notes Epicurus’ influence on modern man in his recent book “Surprised by Scripture.” Here are some quotes from Chapter One “Healing the Divide Between Science and Religion”.
“You could sum up Epicurus’ philosophy, at least in its desired effects, with the slogan Richard Dawkins and his associates put as an advertisement on London buses two or three years ago: “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life….
So, for Epicurus, there was nothing to worry about. Draw a direct line from him to John Lennon: imagine there’s no heaven, no hell beneath us; now get on and live for today. The image of Epicurus as a hedonist is true, but it was a very refined hedonism, since he taught that the more obviously bodily pleasures didn’t last and produced less pleasurable effects.”
Wright goes on to say that
“The philosophy of Epicurus was given a major new lease on life by the Roman poet Lucretius, who lived about seventy years before Jesus….In Lucretius it all become clear and straightforward. The world is what is it is because of (what he called) atoms, which, free-falling through space, collide with one another, sometimes combining and sometimes bouncing off…major changes are caused by the inexplicable “swerve” that sometime happens to atoms so that they veer off in new directions and produce different results. But the main point is essentially what we would today call the evolutionary thesis: life in the world has developed under its own steam as the random by-product of chance collisions and combinations of atoms and the more complex life-forms they produce….
The second point I want to make about the rise of Epicureanism at the dawn of modernity, and particularly in the origins of the Enlightenment, is that it was seized upon not least because of it political implications. That is clear already in Machiavelli and Hobbes, but it comes to fore in the eighteenth century.”
The Epicurean endorsed idea that random free-floating atoms made the world what it is ‘swerved’ into the mix of political ideologies which rejected monarchy and a ‘bossy-guy-upstairs’ rule. “Vox populi vox Dei is the cry-but then Deus himself disappears off into the far beyond, and vox populi is all we’re left with.” N. T. Wright, and again:
“…Democracy can generate new forms of tyranny, and once we have sold our souls to a particular voting process there no way back. We need to return to the drawing board and think more clearly about whether the natural and proper human passion for freedom and the natural and proper need for order and stability are best served by the kinds of democracy we have developed, without the aid of the divine or monarchial intervention from above, on the model of the Epicureanism that has proved so popular and influential.” (I would add that it appears that radicalized Islam seeks to place their false god Allah on the world’s throne. N. T. Wright is referring to the One True God-YHVH-“I Am That I Am”.)
The threads of Epicurus philosophy are woven throughout our life’s fabric. As Wright notes, “Basically, the American dream is that if you get up and go, you’ll succeed; the egalitarian hope is that the fittest will survive the economic jungle”. And, as I noted above Epicurean philosophy began the fact value split that modern man uses as his template for all of life’s questions, whether personal or political.
Do I look to God or to some form of science for life’s contextual meaning? Am I a random mix of atoms evolved into a human form? Is life only meant for pleasure seeking and pain avoidance and at any cost to me and to my fellow man. Should I vote to obtain pleasure? And so on…
For Christians (for all, really) what does it mean that the Kingdom of God has been established on earth? N.T. Wright, in his book referenced above, goes on to explore the current thinking and a Christian response to an Epicurean worldview. For now, there is way too much of Wright’s insight to post today. Except to say that sadly the world now divides science and religion into separate rooms –one downstairs and one upstairs. This should not be. I am convinced that science and properly tuned philosophy support God’s existence, Scripture and the work of His hands. As Francis Schaeffer of L’ Abri once wrote, “He is there and He is not silent.” I’ll save that for other posts.
Final thoughts. As mentioned above Epicurus treasured his close friends. They were very important to him. And I would imagine they would be.
In a universe where god is perceived as remote, uninterested, detached and at best considered as always-looking-down-on you angry and bossy it feels good to have close like-minded friends to commiserate with: “Dionysus my friend, pass the wine and let us sing ”Don’t Worry, Be Happy””.
Now, you should know from previous posts that I accept the theory of theistic evolution with its old earth creationism. (BTW: after learning about Epicurus you should know that the Atomism dictum that he promoted well preceded any Darwinian theory of evolution.) Having said this I would offer the following friendly apologia.
Each of us as God formed evolved humans can ‘recognize’ another person, the ‘other,’ via our evolved senses. Can we agree that this was done at a prehistoric man level? And, when one cave man was hungry and another cave man was also hungry they may have then formed a hunter/gatherer tribe to fulfill their basic need for food. Again, this was done at a prehistoric man level.
Now fast forward millions of years and hold on. Epicurus understood his friends at a basic human level-through his basic five senses. The fact the he held them dear meant that he looked outside of himself and considered the ‘other’ as worthy, perhaps starting from a place of tribalism. (I hope I’ve made you epicurious.)
Certainly myriad mutations have made our basic senses ‘alive’ and aware that another being in our presence is either friend or foe. But it is only God’s likeness incarnated into the once primate-now human form that can bring about an embrace, a love for the ‘other’. Human friendship and human love was born out of a different tribe, a tribe not of the Epicurean worldview-the Dancing Embrace of the Trinity Tribe.
“Joy to the World, the Lord has come, Let earth receive her King”: The Kingdom of God is heaven and earth, science and religion and you and me in one eternal embrace with the Trinity.
At the beginning of Kingdom of God on earth and during his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus-I AM That I Am-reminds us that we are being watched over with love and care. Jesus nullifies Epicurean philosophy, if we let Him.
Here’s an interesting recent snapshot of modern Epicurean thought: Raising Kids Without God (But Maybe Not Without Religion)
Added 1-25-2015. Epicurean science dismissing fact becomes a fanatical ‘faith’ to avoid fantasy-future owies:
MIT Climate Scientist: Global Warming Believers a ‘Cult’