Tag Archives: Theology

Within our power

Human-divine relations were a preoccupation of the ancient Greek poetic tradition. Bred of awe and fear, the notion was persistent that nothing much could be done without the assistance or intervention of the gods.

Quotations in later authors illustrate the theme. For example, Theophilus, a second-century bishop of Antioch, uses a series of excerpts to show the variety and contradictions in the tradition (To Autolycus 2.8).

One of the authors he quotes is Simonides (late sixth – early fifth century BC), who says that no city, no mortal, can have excellence without the gods; God is all-knowing, all-planning, all-contriving (παμμῆτις), while nothing in human life is free from harm, nothing without misery (οὐδὲν ἀπήμαντον).

An attitude of dependence on divine power and influence naturally inspired prayer in time of need or danger, to gain a benefit or to avert an ill. Surely this was part of the divine plan, to drive humans to despair so that they would acknowledge their limitations?

Epicurus rejected poetry as a guide to theology and dismissed educational practices which taught students to absorb poetic notions of the gods into their way of thinking. Direct study of nature led to quite different conclusions, with important practical consequences.

Vatican Saying 65 suggests the obvious, that there are many things in life which people can organize for themselves without any need to seek supernatural assistance. Where, then, is the line to be drawn between what we can do for ourselves and what we may hope a greater power will do for us?

In Epicurean terms, there are only three large-scale factors at work affecting our lives: necessity (according to fixed universal conditions), chance (very variable), and human agency. The universe is big enough for the development somewhere of beings more advanced and happier than we are, but wherever they may be they do not intervene in our lives (they would not be as happy as they are if they involved themselves in our difficulties).

From undone shoe-laces to a warming planet, we can only blame ourselves if we fail to identify possible solutions and pursue responsible options.

Simonides: The fragment is translated in M.L. West, Greek Lyric Poetry (Oxford World’s Classics), Oxford – New York, Oxford University Press, 1999/ 2008, p. 163 (no. 526).

Thoughts for the Day, September 20: ‘What one is able to supply for oneself it is pointless to ask for from the gods’ (Vatican Sayings 65).

Better to be misunderstood than to dilute the message

The ancient Greek philosophical tradition made remarkable progress, largely lost to sight when church and state conspired to impose a doctrinaire view of the world. With the re-emergence of neglected texts and ideas in the post-medieval period, there were fresh opportunities to clarify long-standing intellectual challenges and to make further progress. However, such was the hold that institutionalized beliefs had over minds and customs that, whether through failure of insight or through fear of consequences, all too often understanding was accommodated to acceptability.

We see this in the work of Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), who did a great deal to revive interest in Epicurean philosophy, but with an admixture of ideas more congenial to church tradition. The result was, in his and other cases, that opportunities were missed to bring to bear the full force of an honest and open critique.

Gassendi’s Latin version with commentary of Book X of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers was translated into English and expanded by Walter Charleton (1619-1707) in his Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana, or, A fabrick of science natural, upon the hypothesis of atoms (London, 1654). Charleton considered himself

… strictly obliged, to præfer the interest of Truth, infinitely above that of Opinion, how plausible and splendid soever, and by whomsoever conceived and asserted.

This was the necessary principle which had to survive, in the midst of eclecticism, harmonization, accommodation and reaction, to ensure that clear-eyed observation and sound reasoning could ultimately triumph.

Thoughts for the Day, August 21: ‘To be frank, in explaining nature I would rather deliver oracles about what is to everyone’s advantage, even if no one were to understand, than agree with popular opinions and enjoy receiving the constant praise of the majority’ (Vatican Sayings 29).

Walter Charleton, Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana, or, A fabrick of science natural, upon the hypothesis of atoms, founded by Epicurus, repaired [by] Petrus Gassendus, augmented [by] Walter Charleton, London, 1654, p. 382, quoted in Emily Booth, A Subtle and Mysterious Machine: The Medical World of Walter Charleton (1619-1707) (Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 18), Dordrecht, Springer, 2005, p. 15.

A life that is finite but full and complete

Epicurus sought to calm people’s fears about the gods and death by explaining that, given the construction of the universe, such fears are unnecessary. The strength and persistence of these fears are very evident in repeated and continuing attempts to develop theologies which offer the individual a happy afterlife.

If death itself were an anomaly, an unnecessary intrusion, like an illness or disease that needed eradicating, what would be the appropriate medicine or antidote? According to an old Christian formulation, preserved under the name of Ignatius bishop of Antioch, the bread of the Lord’s Supper is the ‘medicine of immortality’ (φάρμακον ἀθανασίας) and the ‘antidote for not dying but living’ (ἀντίδοτος τοῦ μὴ ἀποθανεῖν ἀλλὰ ζῆν).

This claim purports to answer the centuries-old fear that there is no effective medicine or antidote to enable us to overcome death. A conventional view was expressed by the sixth-century BC poet Ibycus, who lived first in Sicily and then on the island of Samos, where Epicurus spent his early years two centuries later: οὐκ ἔστιν ἀποφθιμένας ζωᾶς ἔτι φάρμακον εὑρεῖν, ‘It is not possible to find a cure once life has passed away.’

The conventional view, while accepting the finality of death, allowed for the possibility, encouraged by poetic visions of an underworld, that there may be a shadowy existence afterwards. Epicurus preferred science to poetry, and focused attention on the need to find a cure for unhappiness in this present life. The ‘four-part cure’ (τετραφάρμακος) of Epicureanism responds to the fact that a great deal of misery stems from misconceptions that give rise to four main fears: that we have reason to be afraid of the gods and what they may do to us, of death and what may come after, of not having enough to fulfil our needs, and of the prospect of suffering terrible things.

These fears are answered by considering the questions in the context of an overall view of the universe as constructed of matter and void. Fearful gods are ruled out, and death is no more than disintegration. Recognizing our relationship to nature quells fears about enjoying benefits and enduring difficulties. Nature both supplies needs and sets limits. As we are part of nature, our goal is to live pleasantly in relation to nature, knowing that necessary needs are abundantly supplied and pleasure is possible in spite of pain.

As Principal Doctrine 20 points out, while our bodies may want more and more (we can be inclined to eat too much, for example), our minds can keep excessive desires under control. This means that we can live successfully on the resources which nature provides, and that we can do so with a great sense of happiness, supremely content when body and mind reach the limits of natural pleasure. The mind does not need to reject the ideal of pleasure in reconciling itself to limits; pleasure up to the limit is fully possible and fully satisfying.

Contentment with limits (for example, when we have eaten enough) means that we can enjoy many pleasures to the full without living for eternity. Even with only barley cake and water to satisfy hunger and thirst, we can be as happy as Zeus as we reach the limit of removing a need. An infinity of time could not improve on the sense of satisfaction which nature makes possible in supplying human needs (Principal Doctrine 19).

Death itself (‘when circumstances bring about an exit from life’ – that is, when life is not cut short unnaturally) cannot take away from a life well lived.

Thoughts for the Day, July 14: ‘The body takes the limits of pleasure to be infinite – and infinite time could provide it. The mind takes account of the end and limit of bodily existence, dispels fears about eternity, and provides for a full and complete life, so that we no longer have a need for an infinite amount of time. But the mind does not shun pleasure nor on decease (when circumstances bring about an exit from life) does it go as if leaving a well-lived life unfinished’ (Principal Doctrines 20).

Ignatius: Epistle to the Ephesians 20.2. Ibycus: fr. 113 (Edmonds (Loeb), no. 28).