The above video on the Epicurean gods helps to contextualize the following discussion–an abridged version of a Society of Epicurus essay. Natural holiness implies non-supernatural holiness as it is empirically observed and experienced by mortals. Although these discussions originate in Epicurean scriptures and communities, I’m sharing them here for the benefit of other SNS members who share similar existential projects–since it is clear that separating ideas like the holy, the sacred, sacrifice, and similar ideas from supernatural claims, and rehabilitating them for a naturalist worldview, is part of our shared projects.
We recently carried out a study of holiness with the purpose of carrying out experiments in the theory and practice of Epicurean piety, and as part of an effort to formulate a non-theistic Epicurean religiosity for the 21st Century. We also wanted to rescue the words “holiness” and “the sacred” from centuries of appropriation by world-denying religions.
The holy and the sacred, in conventional religions, have sometimes come to be associated with what we view as unhealthy asceticism and self-denial, and sometimes even with the vulgar hypocrisy of people who are ostentatious about their false piety, whereas in Epicurus we find a non-Platonic concept of “righteous happiness” related to natural holiness, and which is not at all ascetic or world-denying (Principal Doctrine 5, for instance, says we can’t separate true pleasure and true justice / righteousness). In Against the use of empty words, we learn that the founders of our School re-assigned new meanings to words as per the study of nature. The rectification of a natural conception of holiness, and the sacred, is a (mammoth and worthwhile) philosophical project.
Holiness shares semantic roots with wholeness (the state of being healthy and complete, safe and sound, uninjured, entire). Scottish hale (a related word that shares semantic roots) implies health, being whole, and happiness. In Spanish, the word “santo” (“the holy”) also shares semantic roots with “sano”, which means healthy, and with the English word sanity. The “in-sane” are people who lack mental health. So the naturally holy may have originally been tied to bodily and mental health.
One of the initial points I wish to make in our investigations of natural holiness is that at some point in history, the healthy and the holy separated in many languages, but they are Siamese twins.
Ancient people utilized “the holy” in order to avoid germs and diseases. This may help to explain the many purity and health codes in ancient religions related to hygiene, and the fact that the goddess of health is known as Hygieia (Hygiene, personified). So we may forgive our conventionally religious friends for having inherited so many hygiene-based superstitions and taboos concerning burial of decaying bodies, menstrual and purity taboos, avoidance of eating pork, etc. Many of these taboos are later corruptions of the initial prolepsis of the holy: the feeling of being happy, whole, complete, healthy and sound, which in antiquity (and even today, as the pandemic has shown) at times required certain taboos around hygiene and health.
On the Utility of the Holy
Philodemus taught that Epicurus ordered that all oaths be taken in the name of the most holy gods, and not on trivialities or non-divine things. One of the ancient Epicurean Guides, Philodemus of Gadara, said:
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.
Over the years of studying together, the Friends of Epicurus have come to realize that a social contract is needed to properly practice Epicurean philosophy. The sincere student must abide by some house rules, and these rules need to be clearly delineated.
An oath, or agreement, between the teacher / community and the individual student helps to know the house rules (this is also true in most social settings). The specific details of any social contract or agreement must delineate the concrete rules by which that community attains the most advantageous ways of achieving its aims and values. If the social contract is vague, it will not serve its purposes efficiently. Since justice depends on very specific circumstances, contracts require specificity and concreteness.
This is the first, and most obvious, use of holiness: it serves as a guarantor of our oaths with each other. If you and I hold our friendship to be holy, and you swear on our friendship that you will complete a shared project, your disloyalty would be an act of injustice that implies a desecration of our holy friendship.
But there are other ways in which the holy is useful. Since it represents our Highest Values, on which we make our oaths, it also serves as a way to distinguish our highest values from our non-values. It creates a separate category for things of great value for a community.
On the Sacred
Let’s now look at the prolepsis (original attestation and meaning, or “proto-noesis“) of the sacred. A quick online search for the meaning of “sacred” yields some of the following meanings:
connected with God (or the gods) or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration.
(of writing or text) embodying the laws or doctrines of a religion.
regarded with great respect and reverence by a particular religion, group, or individual.
The sacred is that which is set aside (or dedicated) as a Higher Value, or for the sake of a Higher Value. It’s set apart from the profane, which is ordinary.
It seems initially that the sacred and the holy are one and the same thing, since sacred comes from Latin sacrare, from sacer, sacr– ‘holy’. However, in our usage, people can be holy but not usually sacred (although I would argue that some people are sacred to us). Objects and books can be both holy and sacred.
Things can be made sacred by consecration. In our modern usage, the sacred is that which is “set aside” for a higher purpose or “set aside” as a higher value, and is worthy of great respect. Sacred things are not ordinary. Hence, the Torah scrolls are kept in the Ark in a synagogue. The eucharist is kept in the tabernacle in a Catholic church. The Krishna prasadam (food consecrated and served in Hindu temples) is not just eaten: it is “honored”. They are set apart from ordinary things, and connect us with the higher values they’re consecrated to.
Does the sacred exist in nature? Without a doubt. I do not consider ordinary people comparable in any way to my parents, to my siblings, to my friends. My mother is the most “sacred” person to me. The tomb of my grandmother is sacred to me because of the love and memories attached. The ground around her tomb is, comparably, meaningless and valueless, but her tomb is sacred. Many people go out of their way to visit their mothers’ graves on Mother’s Day, for instance: that means that the place that holds those remains is set apart, marked as sacred in some way. Even elephants have been observed assuming a solemn demeanor in the presence of bones of their loved ones when they stumble upon them during their long journeys.
It seems to me that the utility of the sacred has to do with a communal or individual choice to focus on some good, and with separating the things that we associate with our Higher Values (which are holy to us) from ordinary things. Sacredness also separates the things worthy of respect from those indifferent or unworthy. Religious scholar Durkheim argues that the sacred represents the interests of the group, including communal unity, which is embodied in symbols, as for instance in a totem (the symbol that unites a tribe). Mircea Eliade, another scholar of religion, says that religion is based on a sharp distinction between the sacred and the profane.
I argue that the sacred does exist in nature: that some things are observed to have a much greater value that most other things to certain sentient beings, and so we observe that they are considered to deserve special respect, so they are set aside.
In addition to things that are naturally sacred, things can come to be considered sacred by dedication, devotion, or formal and ceremonial consecration. The definitions of “consecrate” include:
To make / declare something sacred
To dedicate formally to a religious, divine, or sacred purpose
Ordain someone to sacred office
Devote something exclusively to a particular purpose
We sometimes hold on to pictures or objects that were given by loved ones or friends due to emotional attachment: they are “consecrated” to the memory of a loved one. When something is offered to a higher ideal, or to a friend, or towards a goal which is itself considered sacred, the thing offered becomes set apart, gains value from that sacredness.
The Sacred Within our Hierarchy of Values
Let us now contextualize the usefulness of the sacred within the framework of our highest existential projects and goals. Why? Because this helps to illuminate the relation between our hierarchy of priorities and values, and the practice of hedonic calculus. This places “the sacred” within an undeniably Epicurean ethical context, one that helps us navigate our choices and avoidances.
Can our goals (which guide our actions) be “sacred”, or be tied to things that are sacred? The pleasures and advantages we get from our toil justify the disadvantages and pains we choose. Our sacrifices must always be devoted to some higher goal or value, which redeems them or justifies them thanks to the mathematics of hedonic calculus. A rational mortal will sacrifice only lesser values to higher values.
Notice how we are moving from the most holy gods to our Highest Values in our non-theistic discourse. Rather than sacrifice to Zeus or Dionysus, we are taming religious techniques, and recruiting them for ethical and philosophical purposes. This reminds me of the poem/epiphany early in Liber Primus (the First Book of “De rerum natura” by Lucretius) where religion is trampled underfoot by philosophy.
Also, notice that part of what I’m saying here is that the language used in conventional religions (words like the sacred, or sacrifice) can be transferred into a realism that rejects all supernaturalism; that we can return to the original prolepsis of these words in formulating our own Epicurean religiosity based on the study of nature.
In Epicurean philosophy, we believe Pleasure is the Guide of Life, and the faculty that points to what the goods are. We say a man may be “devoted” to his wife, or to his studies. This expression implies a goal (love and happiness within a matrimony, a PhD or some other professional or educational attainment with prospects of a higher salary, etc.) that justifies these sacrifices and could itself be “sacred”. In fact, matrimony is considered a sacrament by many religions. It’s seen as a holy contract, and an act of mutual consecration of two beings to each other so that they become each other’s Higher Values.
Our sacrifices are a good place to look for our highest values, since we do not seek pains except to serve greater pleasures, so that we observe that our sacrifices (and our hedonic calculus) point to an empirical encounter with in our hierarchy of values.
The word sacrifice carries the prolepsis “to make sacred”–that is, sacer (sacred) + facere (to make). A rational human only offers or makes sacrifices (of any kind) for worthy reasons, or to worthy ideals and goals. Sacrifices are, to speak naturally and concretely, the objects or actions that are “made sacred” and therefore redeemed or justified by consecration to our goals and our Higher Values. We may not think of these goals as sacred, but we use the word “sacrifice” (sacer-facere), which implies something sacred which justifies our efforts. I made huge sacrifices to obtain a school diploma, for instance. Some people sacrifice their marriage for an addiction or a short-lived affair, to offer an example of an irrational, unethical sacrifice that does not pass hedonic calculus.
If our pains are not “sacrificed” to a higher aim, they are not made sacred, they are not redeemed or justified, they lack meaning and value to us. In these cases, such pains or sacrifices are to be avoided, if possible. Please consider your own past and present choices and rejections, and place this before your eyes: we observe that the sacred is, by pragmatic definition, that which justifies our sacrifices by being a Higher Value. We make great sacrifices and accept great pains for the sake of our friends, our loved ones, our Highest Values, and our Gods (even metaphorical ones).
And while we are willing to make great sacrifices and take great risks for a loved one or a friend, we admit only lesser pains for the sake of a stranger. The life of a stranger may still be sacred to us, and we may still be moved by compassion, but not nearly as much as that of a loved one or friend.
Having explored the natural sense of the words holiness and sacred, let’s now move on to a specifically non-theistic religious discussion of them while keeping these definitions clearly in our mind.
Towards a Non-Theistic Experience of the Holy
Should we–and how do we–make the sacred tangible and material in a worldview that rejects the supernatural? How do we enjoy the pleasures of the holy as Epicureans or spiritual naturalists? I believe our experiments in piety within the context of a non-theistic Epicurean religiosity might contribute to the modern atheist arguments that we can create values without God with clear demonstrations of how it’s done, and in a manner that is true to our traditions.
I will begin by arguing that many things other than the holy gods are holy. For instance, people make non-theistic oaths, like “I swear on our friendship …”, with the assumption that said friendship is held in such high esteem that it is understood to be holy by the two parties. There are many other “immortal goods”. We could say “I swear on the words of Epicurus”, or “I swear on justice, or on my honor, or on my reputation”, with the assumption that these are things of value to us. Non-religious people, when they go to a court, have the option of swearing on the Constitution instead of a Bible, in the civic ceremonial tradition of the United States. Even the religious sometimes swear on things other than their god. “I swear on the tomb of my grandmother”, for instance, is a non-theistic oath. They are oaths taken on our (often shared) values, things we love, revere, or highly respect, among which we will find our sacred things.
Epicureanism as a Non-Theistic Religiosity
The imagery, in De Rerum Natura, where religion is trampled under the feet of man, teaches that religion must have utility for all the individuals it serves. Religion must be civilized, reformed, tamed by the Epicurean. Our chosen beliefs must serve us and increase our pleasures.
A naturalist, and perhaps non-theistic, religiosity can be useful, healthy, and relevant. It would purge religion of its less civilized elements, domesticate it, tame it, and keep the best aspects of religion that give people central symbols around which to organize their lives and communities, develop their culture and aesthetics, and make oaths. It’s also a sign that we respect ourselves, our chosen communities, our values, and our philosophy.
By creating tangible artifacts and ceremonies that are considered holy and worthy of reverence, by the sacralization of the words of Epicurus as a sacred text or object of contemplation, by the celebration of the Twentieth, by an oath, or by any other ceremony, philosophy furnishes all the things that conventional religions furnish. We are also making philosophy tangible by these acts of value-creation.
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.
Ancient Epicureanism mimicked much of the utility and culture of conventional religion. It was a sect, had rituals, feasts, sacred oaths, Guides (the kath-hegemones), culture heroes (the four Founders) for whom sculptures were made and fetishized (as documented in The Sculpted Word), revered writings, and even a patron Goddess (Venus). It will take years for modern intellectuals to successfully rescue the original sense of many of the words, concepts and practices that world-denying religions have monopolized, but it is my view that carrying out concrete experiments in piety within the context of Epicurean philosophy as a legitimate (theistic or) non-theistic religion for the 21st Century deserves careful and sincere further exploration.