Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 26, 2024, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/epicureanism/v-1
That our world cannot be a product of divine craftsmanship is argued on several grounds (especially Lucretius V 156–234). Quite apart from the world’s obvious imperfection, and the difficulty of finding a motive for its creation by already blissfully happy beings, the true conception of a god is incompatible with the role of cosmic administrator. A god is a supremely tranquil being, whereas the burdens of government include attitudes of anger, favour and worry.
How do we know that god is like this? In Epicurus’ view there is a natural conception (prolēpsis: see §6) of god as a blessed and immortal anthropomorphic being, a conception shared by all human beings, even though in most it has been obscured by a veneer of false beliefs, for example, that the gods are vengeful, or that they govern our lives, turn the heavens and so on. People tend to endow god with their own moral values, especially the competitive values of political society, and by the same token the Epicurean reversion to the true conception of divinity as tranquil and detached is also a rediscovery of the natural human goal, tranquillity (see §10).Epicurus is insistent that ‘there are gods’, and even that they should be worshipped, but as an act of veneration for a life to which we ourselves aspire, not in the hope of appeasement.
But how can there be gods, if that means literally (that is, biologically) immortal beings? If according to Epicureanism nothing exists independently except bodies and void, and a god can hardly be either void or a single atom, a god must be an atomic complex. But it is a cardinal tenet that no compound body can be everlasting (Lucretius III 806–18).
Here scholarly opinion divides. The majority seek special ways in which an Epicurean god can nevertheless be literally immortal, by living in sheltered regions beyond our world and by consisting of constantly replenished streams of visual ‘images’ (on which see §6). Others (following Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors IX 43–7) favour an idealist interpretation of Epicurean theology, whereby god, properly understood, just is our own idealization of a happy human life. On this view, when god is said by the sources to consist of visual ‘images’, this is simply because according to Epicurean cognitive psychology (§6) all imagination consists in the apprehension of images which enter us from outside. The images which provide the raw material for our conception of god need not flow to us from any objectively real divine being, but may be ordinary locally generated human images. Epicurus’ main point in identifying god with a stream of images was apparently the negative one of denying that god is a ‘solid body’ at all (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods I 49).
Epicurus seems to have spoken repeatedly about how we should think of god as being, behaving and so on, which in itself is equally compatible with the realist and the idealist interpretation. Equally powerless to settle the dispute is the insistence of Epicurus and his followers that their position is theistic, or that of his critics that it is atheistic. But on either reading it should be clear that the importance of god in Epicurus’ system is not cosmological but ethical. Having a correct conception of god is identical with moral enlightenment.
Sedley, David. God. Epicureanism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A049-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/epicureanism/v-1/sections/god.
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