If the universe is nothing but atoms, as modern physics proclaims, what place can there be for gods? None, some might say. Surprisingly, this was not the conclusion of the earliest atomists. Ancient Greek naturalists, far from rejecting religion, sought ways to understand religion in naturalistic terms. In short, they became Spiritual Naturalists.
In previous installments of this series, we defined naturalism, defined spirituality, found the first Spiritual Naturalists in the Ionian philosophers, and discovered hints of naturalism’s influence in the wider population. Nevertheless, the evidence for naturalism in both cases is admittedly scant and debatable. This time, let’s take a look at a tradition as clearly naturalistic as any the ancient world had to offer: the atomists. Envisioning a universe comprised of atoms and void, with all things coming into being by chance collisions of atoms, these philosophers laid the foundations for modern physics. With a conception of nature such as this, what consequences did they see for spirituality?
This post is part of Roots of Spiritual Naturalism, a series exploring the gradual emergence of Spiritual Naturalism in ancient times in order to gain an expanded sense of its meaning and historicity. See Part 1 for an overview.
Democritus and early atomism
Little is known of the first atomist, Leucippus (c. 5th cen. BCE). Of his pupil Democritus (c. 460 – c. 370 BCE) we know only a little more, despite the fact that he was a giant of his times. His fame only appears diminished to us because our view is filtered through Plato, who opposed the atomists enough to exclude all mention of them from his writing. Other writers refer to Democritus as exceedingly influential. Known as the Laughing Philosopher, he elaborated an atomistic philosophy of unflinching determinism.
In Democritus’ universe, where all happens not by divine direction but simply according to Necessity, we can only accept responsibility for our actions and strive to meet challenges according to simple cause and effect:
Men ask for health in their prayers to the gods: they do not realize that the power to achieve it lies in themselves. (D/K B234, quoted in Cartledge, 1999)
Despite this secular ethics, it did not seem at all necessary to reject religion. On the contrary, Democritus reaffirmed it in naturalistic terms. First, the gods were eidola or “images.” Second, like all things, they were composed of atoms, “difficult to destroy but not indestructible.” Third, they have moral relevance: “Only those are loved by the gods, to whom wrongdoing is hateful.” Finally, ritual remained important: Democritus is said to have “prayed to encounter propitious eidola” (Drozdek, 2007).
Given the ambiguity of these statements, it is hard to pin down a theology, but it seems possible to read Democritus as saying deities were persistent images in the mind. If that’s correct, then they might be manifestations of something like conscience, since “wrongdoing is hateful” and one may meet “propitious” ones (i.e. voices of clear conscience?). However, it is not clear whether eidola refers to an image seen in the mind’s eye, or an image of something that exists elsewhere outside the mind (Drozdek, 2007). We simply have too few fragments from Democritus to confidently reconstruct the precise nature of his beliefs or religious practices.
Some of the fragments hint at spiritual practices of a less explicitly religious character. For example, “Moderation multiplies pleasure, and increases pleasure” indicates a practice of disciplined engagement in sensual experience, and Democritus’ philosophy was reported to be aimed at athambia or imperturbability (McEvilley, 2002). Other fragments reinforce this assessment without providing a completely sound account. Nevertheless, it is clear that he integrated naturalism and spirituality into a new path – whatever that path may have been – and this is strong evidence for Spiritual Naturalism.
In sum, Democritus integrated a naturalistic worldview with religious practice. The result was not secularism or bare atheism, but Spiritual Naturalism. This kind of path was furthered by another atomist of still greater fame: Epicurus.
Epicurus and the atomic ideal god
Atomistic Spiritual Naturalism was destined to spread throughout the ancient world. By the time of Cicero, Rome was pervaded by communities of atomists called Epicureans.
Epicurus (341 BC – 270 BCE) adopted and further elaborated the atomism of Democritus. From his “garden” near Athens (something like a commune outside the city), he lived a quiet life of simple pleasures and friendship. The source of his serenity was atomism, which he thought implied four crucial truths, called the Tetrapharmakon or “four medicines”:
- Death is nothing to fear – it cannot cause us any pain since sensation ends at death with the decomposition of our atoms
- The gods are nothing to fear – they exist only as atomic beings of infinite serenity disinterested in human affairs, so they do not punish us
- What is good is easy to obtain – genuine happiness is the absence of pain, obtainable to maximum extent after meeting such basic needs as food and water, while positive pleasures may be enjoyed through such simple sources as friendship
- What is bad is easy to endure – pain is contingent on physical causes, hence we need only remove their causes or wait them out while turning our minds to simple pleasures.
Despite this down-to-earth and materialistic philosophy, Epicurus did not give up religion any more than Democritus. In fact, he was known for scrupulously observing sacrifices, and he was “initiated into the mysteries of the city”, probably the Eleusinian Mysteries (Festugiere, 1955). Followers were encouraged to take part in traditional religious rituals, as related in a letter quoted by Philodemus:
As for us, let us piously and fittingly sacrifice on the proper days, and let us perform all the other acts of worship according to custom, without letting ourselves be in any way troubled by common opinions in our judgments about the best and most august beings. (Festugiere, 1955)
Why did Epicureans engage in such religious practices? Erler (2009) comments:
…Epicurean ideas of prayer as meditation, when the good is not a result generated from outside, but consists in the act of the prayer itself and, consequently, in looking after the self. (Erler, 2009)
But Epicurus understood the wisdom of his own maxim: ‘Piety is a great benefit to the pious’ (SV 32). It is the worshipper who benefits from his worship not the object of his worship. (Clay, 2009)
In short, Epicureans were enjoined to engage in ritual not because the gods needed anything from them, but because they might thereby attune their minds to the gods as role models of perfect serenity (Warren, 2009).
The naturalist may wonder why Epicurus supposed the gods existed at all, since they do no conceptual work in his philosophy. Due to this puzzle, some scholars believe his gods were mental images or eidola along the lines of Democritus (e.g. Long and Sedley, 1987), but the evidence for this is not forthcoming. Mental phenomena dissolve upon death, but Epicurus explicitly says in many places that deities are imperishable. The fact that everything in Epicurean physics is perishable except gods argues strongly for some real ontological existence apart from the mind. In place of the mental image theory, the most plausible explanation seems to be that he could not ignore the fact that all peoples attested to having seen gods. They must therefore exist in some respect, he thought. Nevertheless, Epicurus claimed most people were mistaken about the nature of the gods. Since the very definition of a god, according to the dominant philosophical opinion of his day, is a being perfectly blessed and immortal, he reasoned they must be disinterested in human affairs: care for humanity would contradict their blessedness, since a blessed being suffers no cares, and want of anything from humans would contradict their immortality, since an indestructible being suffers no needs (Festugiere, 1955). In contrast, Epicurus’ gods enjoyed eternal contemplation, serving only as role models of serenity.
We can recognize in Epicurus’ argument a fallacy called the argument ad populum – common opinion is no guide to the truth of things. Nevertheless, his view represents an attempt to understand the gods in naturalistic terms. The existence of deities is not strictly necessary to his philosophy – they might as well be non-existent. This enabled his followers to choose a path of naturalism. By the time of Marcus Aurelius (2nd cen. CE), atomism had become synonymous with atheism: the phrase “gods or atoms”, used repeatedly in his Meditations, sums up the two possibilities of a universe guided by providence on the one hand or chance on the other. Regardless of Epicurus’ own beliefs, his philosophy is highly compatible with naturalism and was taken in that direction by many followers.
This was apparently no obstruction to religious practice. As we’ve seen, Epicureans performed traditional rituals, and there are records of them serving as priests (Parker, 2011). Clearly, the followers of this path integrated their naturalistic worldview with religious practices.
They also integrated their worldview with more secular practices of a spiritual nature. As we saw last time, we are defining spirituality as attendance to the spirit or essence of life as manifested through specific emotional responses, cognitive contexts, and practices. This definition leaves plenty of room for activities not traditionally religious, and Epicureans engaged in many. Only a few examples can be listed here: they practiced daily repetition of doctrines, a kind of mindfulness paying attention to pleasure and pain processes in the moment, confession of one’s moral missteps to a compatriot, and temporary reversals of habit intended to change dispositions (McEvilley, 2002). In addition, Epicureans promoted of one of the greatest pleasures of the human species: friendship. They ate meals together as an expression of this, and Epicurus famously said he would rather not eat than eat alone. All of these practices aimed ultimately at cultivating a state of mind free of disturbance (ataraxia).
Judging by both religious and secular practices, it is clear that the Epicureans represent a strong integration of naturalism and spirituality. They were, in short, Spiritual Naturalists.
Nor were they a small sect of eccentrics. Cicero complains in his Tusculan Disputations that their writings “have taken over the whole of Italy” (Sedley, 2009). Epicureanism eventually died out toward the end of the Roman republic, but not before capturing the hearts of minds of countless Pagans. Such luminaries as Lucian, Horace, and Virgil were all influenced by Epicureanism (Sedley, 2009).
With the end of the Epicureans came the end of ancient atomism, not to arise again till the Renaissance with Gassendi’s translation of Lucretius’ Epicurean poem On the Nature of Things (Westfall, 1992). The influence of this poem sparked new theories under Christian and later Enlightenment auspices, leading eventually to the atomic model of modern physics.
The legacy of the atomists demonstrates clearly that Spiritual Naturalism was present in the ancient world. Though it was never a majority, and was often misunderstood even its own time, it was nevertheless a historically-attested form of ancient spirituality. Naturalists today may count these among their forebears. The precedent for their style of spirituality is more than two-thousand years old.
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*Actually, atomism appears to have developed also in India, apparently independently. The atomistic Vaisesika tradition was founded by Kanada around the 2nd century BCE, based on earlier linguistic theories of words as the smallest possible carriers of meaning.
This article was first published in slightly altered form at Patheos.com.
Cartledge, P. (1999). Democritus (Great Philosophers Series). New York: Routledge.
Clay, D. (2009). “The Athenian Garden.” In: Warren, J., ed. (2009). The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism. Warren, J., ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Drozdek, A. (2007). Greek Philosophers as Theologians. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
Erler, M. (2009). “Epicureanism in the Roman Empire.” In: Warren, J., ed. (2009). The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism. Warren, J., ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Festugiere, A. J. (1995). Epicurus and His Gods. Chilton, C. W., trans. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Hecht, J. M. (2003). Doubt: A History. New York: HarperCollins.
Long, A. A., and Sedley, D. (1987). The Hellenistic Philosophers, Vol. I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Lucretius. (1994). On the Nature of the Universe. Latham, R. E., trans. New York: Penguin.
Marcus Aurelius. (1964). Meditations. Staniforth, M., trans. New York: Penguin.
McEvilley, T. (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. New York: Allworth Press.
Parker, R. (2011). On Greek Religion. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Sedley,D. “Epicureanism in the Roman Republic.” In: Warren, J., ed. (2009). The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism. Warren, J., ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Thrower, J. (2000). Western Atheism: A Short History. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Torrance, J., ed. (1992). The Concept of Nature (Herbert Spencer Lecture Series). New York: Clarendon Press.
Warren, J. (2009). “Removing Fear.” In: Warren, J., ed. (2009). The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism. Warren, J., ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Warren, J., ed. (2009). The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism. Warren, J., ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Westfall, R. S. (1992). “The Scientific Revolution of the Seventeenth Century.” In: Torrance, J., ed. (1992). The Concept of Nature (Herbert Spencer Lecture Series). New York: Clarendon Press.
Previous Posts in this Series
- Modern Cosmology
- Evolution and the Way to Live
- Were Early Hunter-gathers Naturalistic?
- Were Early Agricultural Peoples Naturalistic?
- Were Archaic Egypt and Mesopotamia Naturalistic?
- Was Archaic Greece Naturalistic?
- Were the Ionian Philosophers Naturalistic?
- Was Classic Greece Naturalistic?
3 thoughts on “Roots of SN, Part 10: Were the Atomists and Epicureans Naturalistic?”
In Lucretius’ Epicurean manifesto of sorts, De Natura, he finds joy in seeing a ship floundering in the harbor, likely going to sink. His joy is from his not being on that ship. I consider that unethical – extremely selfish and cold.
There is a potential tendency with Epicureanism to get uncomfortably close to seeing life as existing for the purpose of absorbing pleasure, which has no common sense to it whatsoever. There seems to be a “life is just atomic chaos, so go do something beautiful” aspect to it, which is not exactly the attitude of a good citizen doing his/her duty as a human being following the principle of arete (roughly quality or excellence, doing things as they really should be done).
I strongly prefer Stoicism of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius for the above reasons. Aurelius’ Meditations reads like the advice of a very wise if world-weary old grandfather, relentlessly honest, mercilessly levelheaded.
That said, there is common ground between Stoicism and many of the teachings of Epicurus, such as simply not deciding to get all out of shape about things outside your control (common sense, really, if hard to practice sometimes).
From your description of the religious beliefs and practices of Epicurus, they perhaps may stem not only from their meditative benefits for the believer but also from an appreciation of a harmonious relationship with society. The Epicurean emphasis on serenity and steadiness might well have prompted an acceptance whenever possible of important customs and traditions that sustain society, and religious practices were one such area. Such a reconciliation might be more difficult for spiritual naturalists today when religious identity seems more contentious.
Roger, your comments reflect ignorance of the entire Epicurean system of ethics and of its social contract theory. I don’t necessarily think you’re purposefully misconstruing, only misinformed.
Pleasure is not necessarily selfish: it’s what binds lovers, and parents to children, and friends together. Nature guides us through pleasure to that which advances our well-being, is what we Epicureans believe. Our teaching is rooted in deep insights from nature and from natural selection and what it teaches us about how to live properly.
If selfish pleasure-seeking is all there is to an Epicurean, how can friendship be the most sacred thing to an Epicurean? How was Epicurus able to get away with saying that a true philosopher would die for his friend, without being accused of inconsistency?
Also, for an explanation of the religiosity of the Epicureans, you may do a search for “Reasonings about On Piety” at societyofepicurus.com, which elaborates the teachings of a scroll by one of our masters, Philodemus, and concludes with several general principles related to piety including one that says that piety is an act of self expression, in other words, it’s one way in which we state who we are in regards to live, where we can state our virtue and our identity with regards to life’s difficulties and blessings.