Epicureanism as a Religious Identity

Our recent back and forth conversations via blog and facebook about religion and man in his natural state have incited a conversation among Epicureans concerning whether we constitute a religious identity. The hypothesis was originally posited by one of our members from Finland, Ilkka of the Menoeceus Blog. This is what he’s said about the subject in our facebook discussions:

If we look at Epicurean Philosophy from the right point of view, it quickly becomes obvious that it fulfills all the criteria of a religion. For instance, if we apply Ninian Smart’s “seven dimensions” to what we know about Epicurus and the philosophy, they fit it as well as Christianity or Buddhism. Smart even mentions Epicurus in his book World’s Religions…

I think that Epicurean Philosophy is a comprehensive worldview, and includes a religious identity. But I don’t think that this would mean borrowing things from existing or extinct religions (which is what I believe Χάρης is arguing against), since such a mishmash would be as incomprehensible as a blending (as a philosophy) with neoplatonism.

There is enough in the philosophy to formulate a viable religious identity without ever picking and choosing from any other religion or philosophy. Though I believe it might be beneficial to borrow things from the sciences.

This is not the first time Ilkka mentions the idea, and this time he pointed the finger at Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion.

I looked up Smart’s work. He was a religious studies academic who proposed that world religions are characterized by the following seven dimensions. Together with the seven dimensions, I have added commentary on how Epicurean tradition relates to each.

Ritual or Practical dimension: The celebration of a “feast of reason” on the Twentieth of every month, and the commemoration in February of Epicurus’ birthday (which today takes the form of an annual symposium), effectively comprises a ceremonial cycle. The 20th tradition may have originated as an alternative to the mysteries and rites of Apollo and Eleusis.

Narrative and Mythic: ever since, as a child, Epicurus rebelled against his Platonic schoolteacher for not being able to explain the concept of chaos in the Greek creation myth, Epicurus resolved to spend the rest of his life in an effort to create a coherent naturalist cosmology based on empirical evidence. This he did based on the atomist doctrines of Democritus. There’s also a cultural and philosophical counter-history narrative which, for us, began when Epicurus was exiled from Mytilene by the followers of Plato. In my book, I compare this pivotal event with Muhammad’s exile from Mecca to Medina, where he formed his first community of disciples, and with Rama’s exile from Ayodhya in the Hindu epic of Ramayana: many foundation and hero myths originate as exile narratives. To this day, French hedonist Michel Onfray proposes a Counter-History of Philosophy narrative focused on “the enemies of Plato, friends of Epicurus”. It’s clear that, in our narrative, the forces of good are those of nature and the forces of evil are those of Plato.

Experiential and emotional: the efforts to cultivate ataraxia (imperturbability, equanimity, innate pleasure), the love of friends and sacredness of friendship, and the necessary ingredient of gratitude, without which is it impossible to profit from Epicurean doctrine, make this a highly personal and experiential philosophy. Conversion to Epicurean tradition, which for some may involve the Philodeman Oath, can also be a highly personal and emotional psychological transition. In antiquity, there was also a devotional component where Epicurus was seen as a kind of humanist culture hero or savior who liberated man from superstitious fears. The Roman Empress Plotina, in the 2nd Century CE, was among the people who called Epicurus her Savior.

Social and Institutional: Norman DeWitt said that “Epicureanism runs on Philos (Friendship)”, and from the context within which it emerges and evolves, it could be argued that our tradition is, among other things, a centuries-long conversation among like-minded friends. These circles of friends take on many forms today: from several online communities governed by their own rules, to meetups in Sydney, Australia; the organized Gardens in the cities of Thessaloniki and Athens, Greece. Epicurean communities are also governed by certain rules and principles concerning parrhesia (frank speech) and mutual criticism.

Ethical and legal: Our rules about human behavior involve the rational pursuit of pleasure as an end; focus on the chief goods (natural and necessary desires); hedonic calculus (measuring the gains versus losses with the goal of attaining net pleasure over the long-term), which informs our choices and avoidances; and a contractarian theory of social justice.

Doctrinal and philosophical: Our systematic formulation of teachings can be found in the Principal Doctrines, Vatican Sayings, epistles by Epicurus, Scrolls written by Philodemus, De Rerum Natura by Lucretius, A Few Days in Athens by Frances Wright, and other literature. In antiquity, Epicureans used to carry Epitomes with them, collections of teachings with which they studied philosophy. For the first time in modern history, Society of Epicurus published a Spanish-language Epítome this year.

Material: while the site of the original Garden of Epicurus is no longer open to pilgrimage, the alderman of Pallini–in what used to be Epicurus’ native neighborhood of Gargetto in Athens–is currently constructing a Garden there complete with a statue of the sage and a monument with an inscription of the Kyriai Doxai (Principal Doctrines). Our School has also adopted a few symbols: a mascot (the pig), the Greek letter PHI (for Philos, or Friendship), and the tripod (a three-legged stool which symbolizes our Canon).

We should consider whether we wish to begin formally using the label Epicurean as our religion when we fill out census information and in other documents, like the Jedis have done. The recent controversies related to some Pastafarians who have chosen to wear a sieve on their heads when having their ID picture taken, to mock Muslims and other groups or as a form of activism against religious privilege, were an opportunity for greater atheist visibility. If Pastafarians and Jedis are doing it, why not have our numbers counted, as well?

Furthermore, some of our works of literature, like Lucian’s True Story, appear to present Epicureanism as a parody religion on par with Pastafarianism and the Cthulhu cult, or at least as a sect that does not take itself too seriously. In it, we find ourselves transported to an “Isle of the Blessed”, an Epicurean paradise which both mocks and offers an alternative to the heavenly narratives of traditional religions.

What’s intriguing about these afterlife narratives, even our own and even if it’s a parody, is that they seem to be symptoms of a certain cosmological and ideological territorial instint, which again indicates that we are dealing with an important aspect of people’s identity. Like Mormons, Christians, and Muslims, Lucian too takes the time to sort out who can enter his paradise and who can’t. From his amusing description of an Epicurean paradise, he excluded Plato–who had removed himself to live in his own Republic–and the Stoics–who were still trying to climb the hill of virtue–as well as the Academics–who were “unable to comprehend how there could be such an island”, and therefore “turned back in the midst of their way to it”. In other words, a naturalist’s paradise is unavailable to those who seek virtue or some other arbitrary goal other than the one established by nature (pleasure) or to those who rationalize things too much (Aristotelians), and Platonists won’t even seek it.

What Ilkka is arguing is that we have our own cosmovision and we interpret the world from a cosmological, spiritual, and ideological perspective that is uniquely Epicurean. I hope that the comparison to parody religions and the reference to Lucian’s satirical literature does not take away from the merit of his argument, which I think is quite valid.

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014), 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and Epicurus of Samos – His Philosophy and Life: All the principal Classical texts Compiled and Introduced by Hiram Crespo (Ukemi Audiobooks, 2020). He's the founder of societyofepicurus.com, and has written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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11 Responses to Epicureanism as a Religious Identity

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  10. david n says:

    I agree, I found this article while contemplating Epicurean-isms current status. As I would like to found a garden when I retire and do so with the benefits and protections that a religious status conveys. Though I would argue partially with Ilkka’s statement. you may not need to borrow, but a study of stoicism wouldn’t hurt an Epicurean as there are commonalities. And Deism is practically cut from the same cloth, a religious philosophy based on natural science that believes in god but not in faith or revelations. I often feel like I’m a stoic deist that wishes to retire from the rat race of public life to the quiet contemplation of an Epicurean garden.


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