BEN: One of the real strengths of this book is that you are able to chronicle the intellectual history from ancient Epicureanism to the present and show how the dominant world view today is not much different from ancient Epicureanism in the way it brackets out God and ‘the supernatural’ from history and ‘natural causation’. Since most of our audience will associate Epicureanism with hedonism, the pleasures of the palate and the flesh, explain what you mean by Epicureanism, and how it still informs modern presuppositions about the nature of the world.
TOM: Ancient Epicureanism was indeed known – by its opponents at least! – as hedonism. This, however, was at least in part a slur, since the serious Epicureans (represented by Lucretius) knew that over-indulgence in fleshly pleasures was counter-productive. They recommended a cooler, more detached pursuit of pleasure. But Epicureanism was far more than a charter for pleasure, whether licentious or restrained. It was a worldview, competing with Stoicism and the various forms of Platonism – as it still does. Stoicism saw the gods and the world as bundled up together in various kinds of pantheistic mix; Epicureanism saw the gods as completely detached from our world (though made ultimately of the same stuff), so that the gods don’t interfere in our world and nothing we can do will affect them. Since there is no divine action in the world, the world ‘makes itself’ through the random movement of atoms, which sometimes ‘swerve’ and, bumping into one another, produce different forms of life. This is the direct ancestor of modern evolutionism (not the biological theory of evolution, but the worldview which preceded it by a century or more on the a priori assumption that, with God or the gods absent from the world, the world must proceed under its own steam). ‘Epicureanism’ is therefore at the root a theory about how the world works; a theory which allows for the existence of the gods but which insists that they are not involved in our world, nor we in theirs.