Epicurean Gods

There’s an old idea that ancient Epicureans were atheists and that this, combined with their egoistic hedonism, caused them profound suffering — suffering of which they were not consciously aware. Different versions of this idea appear in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science (§45), Constant Martha’s Le Poëme de Lucrèce, and Camus’ The Rebel. James Hillman’s reading of Epicureanism in The Dream and the Underworld (pp. 72-4) belongs to the same thought-stream, although he’s better informed and more judicious: he acknowledges that Epicureans are deeply committed to cultivating friendships. However,  he describes this as an attempt to supplement their missing personal depth with interpersonal breadth. In other words, they remain a society of superficial egoists.

For Hillman, this superficiality derives from loss of contact with the meaning-giving images and narratives of the psyche. For instance, Epicureans tend to explain away myths of the underworld as confabulations of fear, illusions to be dispelled by understanding that the world is made of atoms and void, pleasure and pain are the only human values, and consciousness ceases with death. Hillman is undoubtedly thinking especially of Lucretius’ sublime Epicurean poem, On Nature (esp. 1.62-79 and 5.144-72).

But it turns out that this wasn’t the view of Epicurus himself. We know that because in 1996, Dirk Obbink re-edited the papyrus On Piety by the Epicurean Philodemus, whose library was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius (below).

Philodemus, On Piety (from The Friends of Herculaneum Society)

The first fascinating discovery concerns the nature of the gods. All Epicureans maintain that gods are made of exquisitely subtle atoms, since all beings in all universes depend on atoms and atomic compounds. Lucretius and other Roman Epicureans maintain that these subtle atomic beings exist somewhere between the universes, lest they be torn apart by the coarser atoms of each universe (Lucr. 5.144; Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, 1.73-5). This is a philosophically weak and spiritually boring theory. But Epicurus instead maintains that gods exist here in our world, but not as numerically distinct unities. Gods have no coherent bodies; they exist instead as recurrent patterns in the filmy flux of atoms that constantly circulate everywhere. These super-fine atoms pass right through our bodies, though our minds can perceive their impingement if we pay attention. So our waking or dreaming visions of gods are in fact intuitions of real beings with whom we have immediate contact. This is already both more cogent and more captivating than Lucretius’ theory.

Perhaps even more surprising, given Lucretius’ apparent hostility to religion, is that Epicurus strongly encourages participation in traditional festivals, prayers, and sacrifices. For example, he specifically encourages Polyaenus to celebrate the Anthesteria, a three day Athenian festival celebrated at the decrepit temple of Dionysus in the Marshes (who resembles Aphrodite in Gardens). Like many ancient festivals, the Anthesteria combines rituals and myths in a way that is transparent neither to us today nor to its ancient practitioners. It was clearly a celebration of the new year’s wine vintage, and there is an association between that, the location, and the ritualized marriage of the wife of the King Arkhon to Dionysus. The wine is opened on the first evening, and drunk on the second day. But it must be drunk in silence, each person drinking their own pitcher without sharing. A transition ritual for young boys is also associated with this day. This is somehow connected, on the one hand, with Orestes passing through Athens in a state of pollution, when no one could have contact with him.   It may also be associated with the belief that the dead return to the city on this day. Worshippers chew bitter hawthorn berries and treat their doors with pitch to ward them off. On the third day they make offerings to the dead.

Rather than interpreting this myth-ritual complex, I just want to emphasize that it’s a strikingly powerful apparatus for achieving what Hillman calls psychological “depth.” The reason Epicurus encourages participation is because it facilitates attunement to the inspirational power of the gods, who function in Epicureanism as models of happiness. Of course, Epicurus would add that we must exclude from our revery any aspects of myth or ritual we consider unethical. In this regard Hillman is right that he blocks access to depth by constraining it within the rules of daylight ego consciousness. But Epicurean gods are a lot closer to the archetypal imagination than either Hillman or most experts in ancient philosophy recognize. In fact, I’d venture to suggest that the Epicurean theory is a promising starting point for thinking about the psychical and physical reality of the gods.

On Piety was edited and translated by D. Obbink (Oxford: Clarendon). All efforts to offer a grand unifying interpretive theory of the Anthesteria are unconvincing, but see W. Burkert, Homo Necans (Berkeley, 1983), 213-247. On Camus and Epicurus, see my chapter in A Handbook to the Reception of Classical Antiquity (Blackwell, 2017).


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