Peace and Safety on this Twentieth of June! This months’ twentieth message concerns precisely our way of greeting each other kindly on the twentieth of every month. The tradition of celebrating a feast of reason on the twentieth originates in Epicurus’ final testament. I recently was reminded by a fellow Epicurean of the fact that our twentieth greeting made its way into the New Testament. This reminder made me want to reclaim the greeting and write about it. The passage contains Paul’s post-conversion hostility for the ancient Epicureans and their traditional greeting, without mentioning them directly.
For when they shall say, “Peace and safety“; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. – 1 Thessalonians 5:3
Norman DeWitt, in his book titled St. Paul and Epicurus, detailed the many appropriations and replies to Epicurean discourse that can be found in Paul’s writings. It seems clear that he had studied with the Epicureans, was profoundly familiar with the teaching, and felt the need to build a Christian version of the traditions he was familiar with. His insistence on allowing Gentiles to convert to Christianity may also be understood, in part, by his previous (Epicurean) experience with, and fondness for, Hellenizing tendencies. Perhaps his project consisted on avenging the hellenization of Jews that the Epicureans had spearheaded by promoting a counter-doctrine that made Greeks look up to the Jews instead?
But Paul didn’t just have an issue with our traditional greeting. In his book, DeWitt argues quite convincingly that a large portion of Paul’s epistolary writings were meant to wage war on the intellectual achievements of the Epicureans. With regards to atomism and the Epicurean focus on physics and on particles, Saul of Tarsus (or whoever may have been using his pseudonym) attempts to argue that Epicureans are “in bondage” to these “weak and beggarly elements” instead of to an immaterial “God”.
But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage – Galatians 4:9
Any survey of the history of scientific achievement and its perpetual tension with religious obscurantism will, of course, make this assertion plainly false. It is clear that religion has kept humanity in bondage far more often, and for longer, than physics and the other sciences. It is also clear that science has emancipated humans from toil, disease, and many other evils.
We have the Epistles of Epicurus to Menoeceus, to Pythocles, and to Herodotus. There’s also a shorter one to Idomeneus. There’s irony in the fact that the literary style and tradition of writing epistles for educational purposes, to be read and studied publicly, started with the Epicureans and ended up appropriated by the authors of the New Testament in order to advance such anti-Epicurean ideas.
In those days, the Epicureans were so successful as a sect in the Middle East–having benefited generations before from the Epicurean missionary work of Philonides of Laodicea–, that the rabbinic tradition had to advance a counter-movement in order to keep Jews from converting to Epicureanism. This is how the term apikorsim came to mean “heretic” in rabbinic literature. The term is used to this day, and the non-religious, atheistic, secular humanist denomination of Judaism proudly adopts the apikorsim identity, and even incorporates specifically Epicurean philosophical ideas into its educational material. Some contemporary Christian humanist congregations (that is, Unitarians) have also transcended Pauline theology and even organized Epicurean gatherings, complete with Epicurus-focused liturgy.
These literary references are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the history of hostility between religious/Platonic forces on the one side, and the Epicurean/scientific forces on the other side–the proverbial “culture wars”. These wars are old, and still raging. But it’s good to know where we came from in order to be inspired and empowered to decide where we’re going. Please enjoy peace and safety this Twentieth!
Happy Twentieth, by Luis Granados (written for The Humanist)
Last Year’s Twentieth: Neural Pathways in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura