Epicurus: Atomic, Free-will, Hedonist

Paul Derengowski, ThM

 

Long before there was Charles Darwin, evolution, and “survival of the fittest,” there was Epicurus.  Long before there was the Calvin-Arminian debate over free will, Charles Grandison Finney and his “anxious bench,” and invitations to “accept Jesus as your savior,” there was Epicurus.  Long before there was “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion,” “If it feels good, do it,” and “rugged individualism,” there was Epicurus.  The impact that the third century B.C. Greek philosopher, Epicurus, has had upon both secular and religious thought has been enormous, even though very few know little about him, let alone his philosophy which continues to live on long after his departure.  The following will help the reader to understand just who this low-profile with a high impact figure in human history was, as well as reveal some non-Christian ideas and practices that have become the norm in many Christian circles, with the hope that certain individuals will take the appropriate steps to correct them in light of what the Bible says.

Biography

Epicurus was born on February 10, 341 B.C. and lived a long life, comparatively speaking.  His lifetime was devoted to the study of the natural world and philosophy, particularly of the Hellenistic variety, which during his lifetime moved from a more mystical or theological explanation of life and its meaning to a more naturalistic or empirical one.  Human senses to Epicurus became the sole means at arriving at truth, rather than relying upon the speculations involving the gods, the latter of which he would disavow altogether as injurious to human pleasure and satisfaction.  As a philosopher and teacher he would start his own school, The Garden, which would expound upon his atomistic theory of origins, as well as his free will doctrine and striving after qualitative pleasure as the goal of life.  Although several damning rumors were spread about Epicurus, many of which were issued by those who were Stoic in origin and opposed his Epicurean ideas about physics and ethics, those who subscribed to his teachings speak of him as not only a wise sage, but a compassionate human being who had many committed friends.  Despite his naturalistic explanation about the meaning of life and how it came to be, he could not ward off a natural death due to kidney stones with their complications.  He died at the age of 72.

Consistent with Epicurus’ life as a philosopher and teacher was a life devoted to writing.  According to biographer Diogenes Laertius, who wrote about the third century A.D., “Epicurus was the most prolific author and eclipsed all before him in the number of his writings: for they amount to about three hundred rolls, and contain not a single citation from other writers; it is Epicurus himself who speaks throughout.” 1  Unfortunately, though, only a miniscule number of his works are extant today (his Letters to Herodotus, Pythocles, Menoeceus, and Idomeneus, as well as some of his personal sayings, are all that remain).  The bulk of what is known about Epicurus and his philosophic worldview comes only through his critics and supporters.  Despite the deficiency, though, what remains not only gives us a clear picture of his thought, but when compared to modern-day ideas about science, morals, and ethics, it is not difficult to see that the acorn definitely has not fallen far from its tree.  So, just what did Epicurus advocate and teach that is still being put into practice today, whether in or out of the Church?

Philosophy

Epicurus was a polytheist, meaning that he, like all the Greeks of his day, believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses.  That said, however, he did not believe that there was one Supreme Being who brought all things into existence.  In fact, Epicurus believed that “God” was too far removed from the universal order to even care about it.  All things, instead, consist of eternally self-existing atoms which fall down through the infinite void of space.  It is only when these atoms occasionally and randomly “swerve” and crash into one another that a planet is born or a baby is formed in the womb.  In other words, to Epicurus everything had a naturalistic explanation apart from divine intervention.  All one had to do is use one’s five senses (empiricism) to arrive at that explanation, given “that our sensations and preconceptions and our feelings are the standards of truth.” 2

Although some would object to such a subjective truth standard, given the absolute unreliability of the senses, Epicurus’ method exposed a second principle in his philosophical scheme which he believed was paramount: free will. 3 For if God had anything to do with the created order, then that would imply divine providence and thereby eliminate the idea of atomic randomness.  Epicurus would have none of it.  God was careless in his opinion about creation meaning that all things were free to move about as they will.  Moreover, since death was nothing to be feared, given that there was no God to judge one’s actions, then to impose an absolute standard associated with providence would contradict the principle of free will.  Free will ultimately contributed to Epicurus’ thoughts on the goal of life which is unbridled qualitative pleasure

“Pleasure is our first and kindred good.  It is the starting-point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge every good thing.” 4  That said, however, not all pleasures are necessarily sought, since many of those same pleasures bring pain, which is to be avoided.

By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble of the soul.  It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul. 5

Add to Epicurus’ definition of pleasure the pursuit of prudence or wisdom as “the greatest good” and one begins to understand the qualitative aspect of his hedonism.  It is okay to indulge oneself in whatever pleasures one might find personally acceptable, just be wise in one’s own estimation about it.  Hence, one man’s pleasure might be another man’s pain, and what one man might believe to be wise another might believe to be imprudent.  It is all a matter of personal preference and opinion.

Critique

Random Atoms

The idea that the universe and its constituents consists of an infinite number of randomly colliding atoms was not novel with Epicurus.  Another Greek philosopher by the name of Democritus, who lived just prior to Epicurus, had actually espoused the same theory with a few differences.  Interestingly, both propagated their atomic theories based on sense perception, even though no one during their times had ever seen, smelled, heard, touched, or tasted an atom.  Relying solely on the senses, though, creates an insurmountable problem that many atheists today are confronted with, who also assume that the universe is infinite and randomly thrown together.  The problem involves how one knows (epistemology) that the universe is infinite, especially when the one making the proposal is finite himself.  In other words, how could Epicurus assume that the universe is made up of an infinite number of atoms, much less that when x-number of them happen to collide in the right combination to bring into being any particular object, unless he is infinite as an intelligent, coherent, being himself?  Given that Epicurus denied that he was a god prior to birth and that the conscience ceased to exist after death, and that all he could know was attained through his five senses, then to assume anything about the universe, much less that it was infinite, would be a fallacious leap in logic of universal proportions.  Logically the only thing he, and others who base their theories of truth and reality on a similar premise, could know at any given moment would be that which he sensed, and nothing else.  Anything beyond that would result in one big contradiction.

Free Will

Epicurus’s theory of infinity and origins naturally coincides with his idea about free will.  Without a caring, loving, sovereign God to guide and direct not only the creation of all things, but to conduct the affairs of men to a meaningful purpose, leaves mankind in the position of acting as its own sovereign to decide.  Anything other than such a self-governing principle would see God as forcing himself upon men and cause them fear of death and judgment to come, which in turn would result in personal pain.  Moreover, to contradict human independence by asserting that God was absolutely in control of all things would make moral responsibility impossible.  In fact, God would be guilty of creating and implementing evil and suffering which would run counter to Epicurus’s belief that God was totally passive and carefree.  Man was absolutely free, even though God had made it perfectly clear that man was not free, but in bondage to sin (Jn. 8:34; 1 Jn. 1:8).  That “It was for freedom that Christ set us free…” wrote the apostle Paul to the Galatians (5:1).  That the sinner will not, amid his state of spiritual deadness, “accept Jesus,” because of his aversion toward him, and not until God redeems and spiritually regenerates the sinner will he even acknowledge God as his Father and Jesus as his Savior.  The idea of free will is the one doctrine that has poisoned, and continues to poison, the minds of well-meaning Christians, as it subordinates the God of Scripture to the whims of fallen human beings, while exalting those same individuals to the status of gods.

Sensational Truth

Finally, the pleasure principle to determine truth as based on human sensation and feelings are a mantra that has gained popularity ever since Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas elevated human reason to the status of biblical revelation back in the twelfth century A.D.  Unfortunately though, human feelings can only take a person so far in understanding the truth about anything, regardless of the kind of quality one presupposes before embarking upon the quest for truth.  And when one goes beyond the physical realm in that quest, the five senses will garner the person absolutely nothing, for one has then entered the metaphysical.  Evidence of this is found by simply asking: When was the last time any person tasted, touched, saw, smelled, or heard the concept truth?  This is because truth is an abstract concept that the five senses cannot experience.  Nevertheless, there are many today in Christian circles who falsely assume that truth is something that is felt.  In fact, personal feelings are often confused with the presence of the Holy Spirit and have led to all kinds of faulty assumptions, conclusions, and actions.  Yet, from a biblical perspective, objective truth is not about how one subjectively feels about it.  It is about God’s declaration found within the pages of his revelation, and those failing to recognize it by relying on their feelings begin to walk in Epicurean darkness.

Final Thoughts

Epicurus’s philosophy has never been more vibrant than today, even though very few even know who he was, much less what he believed and taught.  His philosophy on the natural world and ethics has been merely renamed or revised to make it more palatable, which is another reason why very few recognize that they are repeating his ideology whether in or out of the church.  In the Christian world of the twenty-first century this has had devastating results.  More and more Christians know less and less about what God has to say from his Word, as they make up beliefs and doctrines based on personal feelings. 6

The answer to Epicureanism is to recognize just where one has chosen to begin one’s knowledge of the truth.  If truth begins with man as “the measure of all things,” as Epicurus and the Greek Hellenists taught, then knowledge of absolute truth will be lost in a morass of conflicted personal opinions ending in despair.  Conversely, if truth begins with God and his revelation, then the knowledge of absolute truth will be known, whether it be about the atomic makeup of the universe, the sacrifice to buy man’s freedom from the bondage of sin, or the role personal feelings should play in man’s quest to serve God as the measure of all things.

Notes:

  1. Diogenes Laertius, trans. by R. D. Hicks, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, reprint 2005), 26, 2:555.
  2. Diogenes Laertius 31, 2:561; Epicurus, Principal Doctrines 22-24.
  3. “The Epicureans were the first explicit defenders of free will,” argues David Sedley, “although we lack the details of their positive explanation of it.”  Robert Audi, gen. ed., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1999), 270.  See Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus 133-134 for his argument on the necessity that without absolute freedom responsibility is destroyed.  Also, see Lucretius (a student of Epicurus) 250-280, On the Nature of the Universe, trans. by Ronald Melville (Oxford: Oxford, 1999), 43, where he characterizes the will as an unexplainable “force.”
  4. Diogenes Laertius 129, 2:655.
  5. Ibid, 131-132, 2:657.
  6. http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/12-faithspirituality/325-barna-studies-the-research-offers-a-year-in-review-perspective (accessed June 6, 2012).