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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Epicurus’s Concept of Happy Gods

The gods of Epicurus are a blissful and immortal beings who have no worldly concerns at all—they do no exert themselves for humanity’s benefit. Here’s an excerpt from D. S. Hutchinson’s Introduction to The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia, Edited by Brad Inwood and  Lloyd P. Gerson:
“Don’t fear god.” The gods are happy and immortal, as the very concept of ‘god’ indicates. But in Epicurus’ view, most people were in a state of confusion about the gods, believing them to be intensely concerned about what human beings were up to and exerting tremendous effort to favor their worshippers and punish their moral enemies. No; it is incompatible with the concept of divinity to suppose that the gods exert themselves or that they have any concerns at all. The most accurate, as well as the most agreeable, conceptions of the gods is to think of them, as the Greeks often did, in a state of bliss, unconcerned about anything, without needs, invulnerable to any harm, and generally living an enviable life. So conceived, they are role models for Epicureans, who emulate the happiness of the gods, within the limits imposed by human nature. “Epicurus said that he was prepared to compete with Zeus in happiness, as long as he had a barley cake and some water.”  
If, however, the gods are as independent as this conception indicates, then they will not observe the sacrifices we make to them, and Epicurus was indeed widely regarded as undermining the foundations of traditional religion. Furthermore, how can Epicurus explain the visions that we receive of the gods, if the gods don’t deliberately send them to us? These visions, replies Epicurus, are material images traveling through the world, like everything else that we see or imagine, and are therefore something real; they travel through the world because of the general laws of atomic motion, not because god sends them. But then what sort of bodies must the gods have, if these images are always steaming off them, and yet they remain strong and invulnerable? Their bodies, replies Epicurus, are continually replenished by images streaming towards them; indeed the ‘body’ of a god may be nothing more than a focus to which the images travel, the images that later travel to us and make up our conception of its nature.

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