There are two traditional interpretations on the Epicurean Gods: the realist interpretation says that gods are natural beings whose bodies are made of atoms. The word used in ancient writings is zoa, which translates as (higher) animals. The idealist interpretation is more recent, and it basically proposes that gods are mental or cultural constructs.
However, in a recent blog by our Scandinavian friend Ilkka (a blog which he writes in memory of the late Jaako, author of the Being Human blog), he argues that there is a third way to look at the Epicurean gods. He says:
We know the universe better than was possible for Epicurus, and even though he was well ahead of his time in his metaphysics, we are well ahead of him.
Gods, as Epicurus defined them, are impossible in the light of the evidence that we have. In effect, there is a conflict with what the Canon (Epicurean theory of knowledge) says about Nature and what Epicurean metaphysics says about the gods.
And the Canon has primacy in such matters!
A third interpretation goes therefore like this:
In the light of the evidence, we must say that there cannot be any physical beings such as the gods defined by Epicurus. So the realist interpretation is clearly false.
What then about the idealist interpretation? It’s not self-evidently false in the light of the evidence, but it has other problems. The main one being, “Is it necessary for the promotion of happiness to advocate belief in imaginary beings?” The most likely answer to this is “no”, since truth itself is a high value for an Epicurean.
The Canon (= ruler, yardstick), for those unfamiliar, is the standard of truth established in our epistemology. It basically requires that there exist evidence before our senses, but also recognizes the pain and pleasure principle as well as anticipations as natural faculties. The purpose of the Canon is to ensure that all philosophy is based on the study of nature instead of imaginary standards.
Ilkka concludes that “to date no proposed deity has passed the Canon”. I find Ilkka’s interpretation to be healthy and grounded in the study of nature. Many contemporary Epicureans, myself included, favor the development of an atheology based on the Canon, rather than adherence to the theology of those that came before.
There is the possibility of conceiving of something based on inferences from indirect evidence, without having directly perceived the thing. For instance, based on the assumption that there are innumerable atoms and infinite space (there is no visible boundary to the universe in all directions, as far as can be seen), ancient atomists conceived of a doctrine of innumerable worlds, a doctrine which is now being vindicated by exoplanetary research. But what makes the Gods inconceivable is not their blessedness or their higher intelligence, both of which are plausible and can be seen in many living entities: it’s their immortality.
When we study the nature of things we learn that all things that are composed of atoms and molecules eventually disintegrate and change. Metrodorus argued a defense of the Epicurean Gods (unsuccessfully, in my view) by arguing against this observation, and was later echoed by Philodemus in his On Piety.
Also, even if a natural being was able to perpetuate himself or herself for eons while remaining imperturbable and blissful, the habitat or context within which that being exists would be interrupted for, as we know, stars and planets all have life spans. At some point, the being would lose its habitat and the possibility of self-perpetuation.
The issue of definitions is also key. The term god is not neatly defined. In our cosmology, because things can only exist within nature, a god outside of nature is out of the question. Gods must be natural beings. But, can a god be mortal? It is one thing to argue that a natural being is blessed and imperturbable, and also has a long lifespan and is worthy of the label god, but it’s another thing to argue that immortals exist in a universe where all things are impermanent. In our experience, all composite things must disintegrate. Therefore, it is inconceivable that a thing may exist which does not disintegrate. This argument of inconceivability was discussed in the Reasonings About Philodemus’ “On Methods of Inference”, where it was paraphrased and clarified:
We may call this the argument of no known exceptions: since all men are known to die, and we have no reason to suspect that men outside of our direct experience are immortal, then we can conclude that all men are mortal. The words used by Philodemus are “with no case drawing us to the contrary”.
And so, from the evidence-based method of reasoning that is available to us in our tradition, it is difficult to continue to defend the traditional interpretations of the Gods, and based on the argument of inconceivability the only honest thing I can do is endorse what Ilkka calls the third way to look at the Epicurean Gods: as non-existent or as non-beings. Let’s call this the non-theistic interpretation.
The key questions that would determine whether a philosopher adheres to the non-theistic versus the idealist interpretation have to do with whether there is a use for Gods or whether religion is natural and necessary; whether it is natural but unnecessary; or both unnatural and unnecessary. The following questions may still deserve further exploration:
- While the Gods may be unnecessary, are they still natural? Polystratus would argue that they are, in some way, a by-product of the human psyche. Jungian psychotherapy hints that Gods may serve an important psychological role in rites of passage and in times of severe crisis.
- Might the idealist interpretation of the Gods still serve a purpose in Epicurean therapy, perhaps by being employed in techniques for the cultivation of ataraxia, serenity, and bliss?
- Do these uses of mental constructs and deistic techniques produce a different quality of ataraxia than the simplicity of the non-theistic approach?