Naturalistic Traditions: Were Epicurus and the atomists naturalistic?


Epicurus_bust2 by Chris O. Image via Wikipedia. Public domain.

If the universe is nothing but atoms, as modern physics proclaims, what place can there be for gods? None, some might say. Surprisingly, this was not the conclusion of the earliest atomists. Ancient Greek naturalists, far from rejecting religion, sought ways to understand religion in naturalistic terms. In short, they became Naturalistic Pagans.

In the last two installments of this series, we found the first Naturalistic Pagans in the Ionian philosophers, and discovered hints of naturalism’s influence in the wider population. Nevertheless, the evidence for naturalism in both cases is admittedly scant and debatable. This time, let’s take a look at a tradition as clearly naturalistic as any the ancient world had to offer: the atomists. Envisioning a universe comprised of atoms and void, with all things coming into being by chance collisions of atoms, these philosophers laid the foundations for modern physics. With a conception of nature such as this, what consequences did they see for religion?

This post is part of Naturalistic Traditions, a column exploring naturalism in Pagan ways.  The present series explores the historical roots of naturalistic ways in order to gain an expanded sense of the historicity of the diverse styles of belief common in Paganism today.

Democritus and early atomism

Democritus. Image by Afshin Darian. CC license 2.0.
Democritus, 460 – 370 BCE

The Atomic Age began not in the 1950s but in ancient Greece.* Leucippus and Democritus deduced that objects cannot be divided ad infinitum but must end at some smallest possible unit, resulting in the theory of the atom (which literally means “uncuttable”). The entire universe was supposed to consist of such atoms suspended in void. Objects emerge from the collision of atoms, and life, too, is a conglomeration of atoms. When a living thing’s atoms disperse at death, that’s it – there is no afterlife. If this sounds suspiciously modern, it’s because modern physics derives its fundamental model from this ancient lineage. The Atomic Age is, in fact, a product of ancient Greece.

Little is known of the first atomist, Leucippus (c. 5th cen. BCE). Of his pupil Democritus (c. 460 – c. 370 BCE) we know only a little more, despite the fact that he was a giant of his times. His fame only appears diminished to us because our view is filtered through Plato, who opposed the atomists enough to exclude all mention of them from his writing. Other writers refer to Democritus as exceedingly influential. Known as the Laughing Philosopher, he elaborated an atomistic philosophy of unflinching determinism.

In Democritus’ universe, where all happens not by divine direction but simply according to Necessity, we can only accept responsibility for our actions and strive to meet challenges according to simple cause and effect:

Men ask for health in their prayers to the gods: they do not realize that the power to achieve it lies in themselves.  (D/K B234, quoted in Cartledge, 1999)

Despite this secular ethics, it did not seem at all necessary to reject religion. On the contrary, Democritus reaffirmed it in naturalistic terms. First, the gods were eidola or “images.” Second, like all things, they were composed of atoms, “difficult to destroy but not indestructible.” Third, they have moral relevance: “Only those are loved by the gods, to whom wrongdoing is hateful.” Finally, ritual remained important: Democritus is said to have “prayed to encounter propitious eidola” (Drozdek, 2007).

Given these statements, it seems possible to read Democritus as saying deities were persistent images in the mind. They might be manifestations of conscience, since “wrongdoing is hateful” and and one may meet “propitious” ones (i.e. voices of clear conscience?). However, it is not clear whether eidola refers to an image seen in the mind’s eye, or an image of something that exists elsewhere outside the mind (Drozdek, 2007). We simply have too few fragments from Democritus to confidently reconstruct the precise nature of his beliefs. Nevertheless, it is clear that he combined naturalism and religion into a new path. This was Democritus’ Naturalistic Paganism.

In sum, Democritus integrated a naturalistic worldview with Pagan religious practice. The result was not secularism or bare atheism, but Naturalistic Paganism. This kind of path was furthered by another atomist of still greater fame: Epicurus.

Epicurus and the atomic ideal god

Epicurus, photo from: Public domain.
Epicurus, 341 BC – 270 BCE

Atomistic Naturalistic Paganism was destined to spread throughout the ancient world. By the time of Cicero, Rome was pervaded by communities of atomists called Epicureans.

Epicurus (341 BC – 270 BCE) adopted and further elaborated the atomism of Democritus. From his “garden” near Athens (something like a commune outside the city), he lived a quiet life of simple pleasures and friendship. The source of his serenity was atomism, which he thought implied four crucial truths, called the Tetrapharmakon or “four medicines”:

  1. Death is nothing to fear – it cannot cause us any pain since sensation ends at death with the decomposition of our atoms
  2. The gods are nothing to fear – they exist only as atomic beings of infinite serenity disinterested in human affairs, so they do not punish us
  3. What is good is easy to obtain – genuine happiness is the absence of pain, obtainable to maximum extent after meeting such basic needs as food and water, while positive pleasures may be enjoyed through such simple sources as friendship
  4. What is bad is easy to endure – pain is contingent on physical causes, hence we need only remove their causes or wait them out while turning our minds to simple pleasures.

Despite this down-to-earth and materialistic philosophy, Epicurus did not give up religion any more than Democritus. In fact, he was known for scrupulously observing sacrifices, and he was “initiated into the mysteries of the city”, probably the Eleusinian Mysteries (Festugiere, 1955). Followers were encouraged to take part in traditional religious rituals, as related in a letter quoted by Philodemus:

As for us, let us piously and fittingly sacrifice on the proper days, and let us perform all the other acts of worship according to custom, without letting ourselves be in any way troubled by common opinions in our judgments about the best and most august beings.  (Festugiere, 1955)

Why did Epicureans engage in such religious practices? Erler (2009) comments:

…Epicurean ideas of prayer as meditation, when the good is not a result generated from outside, but consists in the act of the prayer itself and, consequently, in looking after the self.  (Erler, 2009)
Clay (2009) adds further refinement:
But Epicurus understood the wisdom of his own maxim: ‘Piety is a great benefit to the pious’ (SV 32).  It is the worshipper who benefits from his worship not the object of his worship.  (Clay, 2009)

In short, Epicureans were enjoined to engage in ritual not because the gods needed anything from them, but because they might thereby attune their minds to the gods as role models of perfect serenity (Warren, 2009).

The naturalist may wonder why Epicurus supposed the gods existed at all, since they do no conceptual work in his philosophy. Due to this puzzle, some scholars believe his gods were mental images or eidola along the lines of Democritus (e.g. Long and Sedley, 1987), but the evidence for this is not forthcoming. Mental phenomena dissolve upon death, but Epicurus explicitly says in many places that deities are imperishable. The fact that everything in Epicurean physics is perishable except gods argues strongly for some real ontological existence apart from the mind. In place of the mental image theory, the most plausible explanation seems to be that he could not ignore the fact that all peoples attested to having seen gods. They must therefore exist in some respect, he thought. Nevertheless, Epicurus claimed most people were mistaken about the nature of the gods. Since the very definition of a god, according to the dominant philosophical opinion of his day, is a being perfectly blessed and immortal, he reasoned they must be disinterested in human affairs: care for humanity would contradict their blessedness, since a blessed being suffers no cares, and want of anything from humans would contradict their immortality, since an indestructible being suffers no needs (Festugiere, 1955). In contrast, Epicurus’ gods enjoyed eternal contemplation, serving only as role models of serenity.

We can recognize in Epicurus’ argument a fallacy called the argument ad populum – common opinion is no guide to the truth of things. Nevertheless, his view represents an attempt to understand the gods in naturalistic terms. The existence of deities is not strictly necessary to his philosophy – they might as well be non-existent. This enabled his followers to choose a path of naturalism. By the time of Marcus Aurelius (2nd cen. CE), atomism had become synonymous with atheism: the phrase “gods or atoms”, used repeatedly in his Meditations, sums up the two possibilities of a universe guided by providence on the one hand or chance on the other. Regardless of Epicurus’ own beliefs, his philosophy is highly compatible with naturalism and was taken in that direction by many followers.

This was apparently no obstruction to religious practice. As we’ve seen, Epicureans performed traditional rituals, and there are records of them serving as priests (Parker, 2011). Clearly, the followers of this path integrated their naturalistic worldview with Pagan religious practices. They were Naturalistic Pagans.

Nor were they a small sect of eccentrics. Cicero complains in his Tusculan Disputations that their writings “have taken over the whole of Italy” (Sedley, 2009). Epicureanism eventually died out toward the end of the Roman republic, but not before capturing the hearts of minds of countless Pagans. Such luminaries as Lucian, Horace, and Virgil were all influenced by Epicureanism (Sedley, 2009).

With the end of the Epicureans came the end of ancient atomism, not to arise again till the Renaissance with Gassendi’s translation of Lucretius’ Epicurean poem On the Nature of Things (Westfall, 1992). The influence of this poem sparked new theories under Christian and later Enlightenment auspices, leading eventually to the atomic model of modern physics.

Naturalistic Paganism

The legacy of the atomists demonstrates clearly that Naturalistic Paganism was present in the ancient world. Though it was never a majority, and was often misunderstood even its own time, it was nevertheless a historically-attested form of ancient Pagan religiosity. Naturalists today enjoy a precedent may count these and other ancient Pagans among their forebears. The precedent for their style of Paganism is more than two-thousand years old.

*Actually, atomism appears to have developed also in India, apparently independently. The atomistic Vaisesika tradition was founded by Kanada around the 2nd century BCE, based on earlier linguistic theories of words as the smallest possible carriers of meaning.


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