II.6. Do not scheme against people, (for) God punishes accordingly … People’s schemes do not prevail. God’s command is what prevails.
The belief in divine punishment for evil deeds and rewards for good ones in the afterlife was solid in the religious tradition of Ancient Egypt, and the philosopher Ptahhotep was clearly a religious man and utilized this common belief to promote morality.
Elsewhere in the Maxims text, the gods seem to personify forces of nature that we can’t control. We may replace the word God with nature here, but this view that the Gods punish and reward in the afterlife can not be reconciled with the study of nature. Another morality must be developed by naturalist thinkers.
Diogenes of Oenoanda’s Argument Against Ptahhotep
Having already reached the sunset of my life (being almost on the verge of departure from the world on account of old age), I wanted, before being overtaken by death, to compose a fine anthem to celebrate the fullness of pleasure and so to help now those who are well-constituted.
Like Ptahhotep, Diogenes left an account of wisdom for the benefit of future generations in the hopes that others would profit. He lived in the 2nd Century of Common Era, and built a wall in his hometown in what is now Turkey with a long inscription that included the teachings of the Epicurean tradition.
Since a new form of this belief in reward and punishment in the afterlife is still prevalent in our society, we must retake these ancient conversations and consider them in light of modernity. Here are Diogenes’ ancient arguments against the belief in fear of God as an incentive for a moral lifestyle. They are unequivocally confirmed in census data, prison data and other empirical and statistical data related to levels of religiosity among criminals and prisoners, as documented in studies by the likes of Gregory Paul.
And it is also error to argue that, absent the restraint that comes when evil men fear the gods, or fate, wickedness would have no limit. This is wrong because wrong-doers are manifestly not afraid of the gods, or of the penalty of law, or else they would not do wrong. Those men who are wise, and choose not to do wrong, are not wise because they fear the gods, but because they think wisely, even in matters concerning pain and death. Indeed it is true that, without exception, men who do wrong do so either on account of fear, or because of the lure of pleasure.
On the other hand, men who are not wise are righteous, insofar as they are, only on account of the laws and penalties hanging over them. Only a few men among hundreds are conscientious because they fear the gods rather than the laws. Not even these few are steadfast in acting righteously, for even these are not soundly persuaded about the will of the gods. Clear proof of the complete inability of religion to prevent wrong-doing is provided by the example of the Jews and the Egyptians. These nations, while being among the most religious and superstitious of men, are also the most vile.
So what kind of gods or religion will cause men to act righteously? Men are not righteous on account of the real gods, nor on account of Plato’s and Socrates’ judges in Hades. We are thus left with this inescapable conclusion. Why would not evil men, who disregard the laws, disregard and scorn fables even more?
Thus we see that in regard to righteousness, our Epicurean doctrines do no harm, nor do the religions that teach fear of the gods do any good. On the contrary, false religions do harm, whereas our doctrines not only do no harm, but also help. For our doctrines remove disturbances from the mind, while the other philosophies add to those disturbances.
These arguments center on how criminals are not actually scared of God, or they wouldn’t commit their crimes; and on how some of the most evil people in antiquity were also found in the most religious societies, citing specifically the examples of ancient Judea and Egypt. We are reminded of how religion degrades entire societies: of how Mexico’s drug cartels are the main sponsors for the Catholic Church, of how ISIS has subjected Syria and Iraq to human trafficking and sexual abuse of women, execution of gays and genocide of people of other religions, and to constant terror, we are reminded of 9/11, the Charlie Hebdo and Raif Badawi affairs, and the many other attrocities that are today still committed by deeply religious people, not in spite of their faith but because of it.
Enumeration used in these reasonings is from this translation of Ptahhotep’s Maxims
The Instruction of Ptah-Hotep, from the translation by Battiscombe G. Gunn
The Maxims, from humanistictexts.org