Who were the Epicureans? What did the Epicureans believe?
Some modern sociologists claim that religion was developed by primitive people for reasons other than god-worship. Fear of death may have led to elaborate stories of the afterlife. Confusion about mankind's inability to control nature fostered the belief that devoted adoration of a deity would bring favor. And governmental agencies would have found it easier to maintain control of the population with the fear of a god behind their civil laws.
But what's interesting to note is that these theories are well over 2000 years old.
Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who lived From 341 BC to 270 BC. He was trained under a Platonist teacher, but rejected Plato's ideas that everything physical is a poor representation of the ultimate spiritual manifestation in the spirit world. Instead, Epicurus followed the ideas of the atomists who believed everything was made of minuscule solid particles floating around in a void. Even gods, Epicurus believed, were made solely of matter.
Don't fear god,
Don't worry about death;
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure
Epicurus' physics was intertwined with his philosophy. Everything is matter, so whatever "soul" people may have disappears when the body dies. There is no afterlife. Therefore there is no reason to fear the judgment of the gods in the afterlife. In fact, the gods not only ignore human affairs, they are in such a state of peace and contentment they don't even realize humans exist. Therefore there is no need to try to appease them on earth. The only purpose the gods serve is to be an example of a fully joyful life — ataraxia — which is characterized by aponia — the absence of any need or distress, whether physical, mental, or emotional.
If the gods are far away and separated from what happens on earth, people are suddenly in charge of their own lives. But what does it take to have an honestly happy life? It can't be indulgent behavior because the aftermath is rarely pleasant. It can't be power or money because they both bring their own worries. On the other hand, it can't be completely selfless altruism because then your own needs aren't met.
Instead, Epicureanism teaches that ataraxia means living with no need and no distress:
- Luxuries like dessert and an appetizing smell are good and to be appreciated when available, but they are not to be sought out or desired because they awaken an expectation that cannot always be fulfilled.
- Education is good to a point. It's good to understand the nature of the universe so that you can find your ataraxia, but too much learning is pointless and distracting. And debates are to be avoided, since they create tension and are unnecessary. Concepts of the universe are best taught simply and with small words. Also, you're more likely to feel if something is good than be able to derive the situation's merit through logic.
- When you remove the interference of the gods from everyday life, you remove a large part of the fear of the human experience. If you are not personally accountable to the gods, you're better able to reject selfish desires and understand how your happiness is dependent on the happiness of society as a whole.
- Artificial constructs and societal norms bring expectations that are outside of your control and should be avoided. Their very existence may make ataraxia impossible. This includes fame, marriage, culture, wealth, politics, and education. Philosophy is only valuable as far as it directs you how to find the greatest joy in life.
- It is good to obey the government's laws because then you won't be worried that you'll be punished. But it's not good to fear the government. Ultimately, laws bring fear. (At the same time, Epicureans were often criticized for refusing to be involved in politics; Epicureans thought politics an unnecessary stressor while their critics felt that the Epicureans were shirking their civic duties.)
- Still, following the law is generally beneficial. The more people follow the law, the safer society is, and the more everyone is free to pursue happiness.
- Even virtue and right living are only beneficial if they bring you pleasure. If rules bring distress, get rid of the rules.
- The best one can hope for is to be healthy, fed, and surrounded by good friends. The phileo love of a good friend is key to the good life, and seeing the distress of a friend would bring more angst than if you were suffering yourself. At least until you reach the ultimate state of ataraxia, in which case you are so at peace you don't even need others.
I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care Epicurean epitaph
Epicurus, as far as he considered such things, was a strong atomist. He believed the cosmos consisted of indivisible particles called atoms and the void space (metakosmia) that atoms moved through. In addition, he was a materialist; everything, including the gods and thoughts, were made of atoms, and there was nothing that was not made of physical stuff. He was not the first atomist; evidence of the belief has been found in documents from 6th Century BC India and accounts of the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus from the 5th Century — a century before Epicurus.
Epicurus didn't expand on his physical model of the universe since it wasn't relevant to his own fulfillment. Three-hundred years later, the Epicurean Lucretius did. He said that atoms were always moving, crashing into each other and clinging to each other to make up objects. Lucretius even went beyond earlier philosophers and explained how atoms could account for natural phenomenon like lightning. In doing so, he gave evidence that not only were the gods uninvolved, they were unnecessary. Epicurus was less adamant about atheism, possibly because at the time he lived it would have been socially unacceptable or even politically dangerous.
Epicurean materialism extends to thought. Everything gives off physical sheets with identifying information called lamina. These lamina float through the void until picked up by our senses. The lamina are true representations of the objects from which they come, and our senses always receive them accurately. The problem comes when the images reach our mind (housed in our chest because that is where our body first reacts when exposed to troubling lamina). Our mind is filled with preconceived ideas and previous experiences that may cause us to misinterpret the data. So it is our feelings about a matter which bring truth, not necessarily our thoughts.
These lamina can be tricky, though. A person's lamina may float through the void long after they're dead. When we receive the lamina, we may misinterpret it as the person's actual presence — their ghost. In addition, lamina may bump into each other and get tangled up. So if the lamina of a woman cuts through the lamina of a fish, then comes to us, we may suddenly believe in mermaids. The data was true, it was just tangled up, and we needed to test the images against our previous knowledge.
Since gods are physical, they also emit physical lamina. This is why we know they exist — we sense their lamina. Of course, they are too far in a state of ataraxia to even register our lamina. Still, we can use what we know about them as inspiration to reach the same state.
Despite the creativity, Epicureanism taught some things about the cosmos that modern science is just starting to flesh out. They believed that atoms vibrate, that atoms are subject to different physical laws than macroscopic objects, conservation of mass, and rudimentary quantum physics. They also believed in evolution and that gravity was caused by large pockets of atoms moving in the same direction.
Epicureanism and the Bible
Unlike other Greek schools, the Epicurean academy was in Epicurus' home and garden. He welcomed slaves and women. Some students were vegetarian, but, like marriage, there were no hard and fast rules regarding diet. Critics of his time paint Epicurus closer to what we may think: a hedonist who indulged in fine food, wine, and women. Those accounts are suspect, however, and probably originated from jealous rivals.
The modern-day view of Epicureanism is that it encourages decadent indulgence. That's not actually the case. In fact, much of what Epicureanism teaches aligns with the Bible:
- Wealth and authority are tools to be used to benefit people, and do not have value in themselves: Matthew 13:22; 20:25-28; Mark 10:23b; James 3:1.
- Anxiety is not a good way to live: Matthew 6:25; 1 Peter 5:7.
- The needs of the day and good friendships are a great blessing: Proverbs 17:17; 27:17; Matthew 6:11.
- Indulgence leads to discontent: Proverbs 23:20-21; Matthew 19:21-22; Galatians 5:24.
- Creation tells us the truth, but we misinterpret the meaning: John 8:44-45; Romans 1:20-25.
But Epicureanism teaches a simplistic view of hardships and a false view of the nature of God and His creation. The Bible's teaching is clear:
- God is present and very active in our lives: John 14:16-17; Romans 8:38-39; Hebrews 13:5b.
- The universe is more than just physical atoms: Ezekiel 18:4; John 4:24; Hebrews 4:12.
- Death is not the end of existence: John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 6:14; 15:54-55.
- Freedom from physical, mental, and emotional distress does not equate to perfect peace. Knowing Christ gives peace: John 16:33; 2 Corinthians 12:8-10; Philippians 4:4-7, 11-13.
Truths are truths no matter who speaks the words, but Epicureanism teaches an incomplete truth. It is good to have enough food and to be free from distress. Good relationships and friends are a great benefit to a happy life. But God is not far away. He is so close that He sent His Son to make sure we can have a peaceful life for eternity in His presence. The apathetic God is no more true than the deceitful God that Satan sold to Adam and Eve. The real God is both the bread that satisfies all hunger (John 6:35, 48) and the ultimate friend (John 15:13-15).
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