Note: A new Facebook group entitled “Epicurean Theology” has been set up for discussion of the fine points of Epicurean views on “the gods.” [It can be found here:](https://www.facebook.com/groups/222310814938479/?ref=bookmarks)
Epicureans held a much different view of the nature of “gods” than that with which most people are familiar today. Any Epicurean discussion of gods presumes a number of basic points about what Gods are NOT, including:
(1) Gods are not supernatural and do not control nature.
Cite 1 - Epicurus, Letter to Herodotus (Bailey): “Furthermore, the motions of the heavenly bodies and their turnings and eclipses and risings and settings, and kindred phenomena to these, must not be thought to be due to any being who controls and ordains or has ordained them and at the same time enjoys perfect bliss together with immortality (for trouble and care and anger and kindness are not consistent with a life of blessedness, but these things come to pass where there is weakness and fear and dependence on neighbors). Nor again must we believe that they, which are but fire agglomerated in a mass, possess blessedness, and voluntarily take upon themselves these movements. But we must preserve their full majestic significance in all expressions which we apply to such conceptions, in order that there may not arise out of them opinions contrary to this notion of majesty. Otherwise this very contradiction will cause the greatest disturbance in men’s souls. Therefore we must believe that it is due to the original inclusion of matter in such agglomerations during the birth-process of the world that this law of regular succession is also brought about.”
Cite 2 - Epicurus - Letter to Pythocles (Bailey): “Next the regularity of the periods of the heavenly bodies must be understood in the same way as such regularity is seen in some of the events that happen on earth. And do not let the divine nature be introduced at any point into these considerations, but let it be preserved free from burdensome duties and in entire blessedness. For if this principle is not observed, the whole discussion of causes in celestial phenomena is in vain, as it has already been for certain persons who have not clung to the method of possible explanations, but have fallen back on the useless course of thinking that things could only happen in one way, and of rejecting all other ways in harmony with what is possible, being driven thus to what is inconceivable and being unable to compare earthly phenomena, which we must accept as indications.”
Cite 3 - Epicurus - Letter to Pythocles (Bailey): “That some of the stars should wander in their course, if indeed it is the case that their movements are such, while others do not move in this manner, may be due to the reason that from the first as they moved in their circles they were so constrained by necessity that some of them move along the same regular orbit, and others along one which is associated with certain irregularities: or it may be that among the regions to which they are carried in some places there are regular tracts of air which urge them on successively in the same direction and provide flame for them regularly, while in other places the tracts are irregular, so that the aberrations which we observe result.But to assign a single cause for these occurrences, when phenomena demand several explanations, is madness, and is quite wrongly practiced by persons who are partisans of the foolish notions of astrology, by which they give futile explanations of the causes of certain occurrences, and all the time do not by any means free the divine nature from the burden of responsibilities.”
Cite 4 - Cicero, On The Nature of the Gods, by Velleius, the Epicurean: “Such a Deity may properly be called happy; but yours is a most laborious God. For let us suppose the world a Deity — what can be a more uneasy state than, without the least cessation, to be whirled about the axle-tree of heaven with a surprising celerity? But nothing can be happy that is not at ease. Or let us suppose a Deity residing in the world, who directs and governs it, who preserves the courses of the stars, the changes of the seasons, and the vicissitudes and orders of things, surveying the earth and the sea, and accommodating them to the advantage and necessities of man. Truly this Deity is embarrassed with a very troublesome and laborious office. We make a happy life to consist in a tranquility of mind, a perfect freedom from care, and an exemption from all employment. The philosopher from whom we received all our knowledge has taught us that the world was made by Nature; that there was no occasion for a workhouse to frame it in; and that, though you deny the possibility of such a work without divine skill, it is so easy to her, that she has made, does make, and will make innumerable worlds.“
Cite 5 - Lucretius Book 1 (Bailey): “Therefore, when we have seen that nothing can be created out of nothing, then more rightly after that shall we discern that for which we search, both whence each thing can be created, and in what way all things come to be without the aid of gods.”
Cite 6 - Lucretius Book 1 (Bailey): “And if you learn this surely, and cling to it, nature is seen, free at once, and quit of her proud rulers, doing all things of her own accord alone, without control of gods. For by the holy hearts of the gods, which in their tranquil peace pass placid years, and a life of calm, who can avail to rule the whole sum of the boundless, who to hold in his guiding hand the mighty reins of the deep, who to turn round all firmaments at once, and warm all fruitful lands with heavenly fires, or to be at all times present in all places, so as to make darkness with clouds, and shake the calm tracts of heaven with thunder, and then shoot thunderbolts, and often make havoc of his own temples, or moving away into deserts rage furiously there, plying the bolt, which often passes by the guilty and does to death the innocent and undeserving?”
(2) Gods are not beings that interfere with human affairs or show favor or anger to humans.
Cite 1 - Epicurus - PD1 (Bailey): “The blessed and immortal nature knows no trouble itself nor causes trouble to any other, so that it is never constrained by anger or favour. For all such things exist only in the weak.”
Cite 2 - Epicurus - Letter to Menoeceus (Bailey): “For the statements of the many about the gods are not conceptions derived from sensation, but false suppositions, according to which the greatest misfortunes befall the wicked and the greatest blessings (the good) by the gift of the gods. For men being accustomed always to their own virtues welcome those like themselves, but regard all that is not of their nature as alien.
Cite 3 - Epicurus - Letter to Pythocles (Bailey): “The signs of the weather which are given by certain animals result from mere coincidence of occasion. For the animals do not exert any compulsion for winter to come to an end, nor is there some divine nature which sits and watches the outgoings of these animals and then fulfills the signs they give. For not even the lowest animal, although ‘a small thing gives the greater pleasure,’ would be seized by such foolishness, much less one who was possessed of perfect happiness.”
(3) Gods do not reside in our world.”
Cite 1 - Lucretius (Bailey): “This, too, it cannot be that you should believe, that there are holy abodes of the gods in any parts of the world, For the fine nature of the gods, far sundered from our senses, is scarcely seen by the understanding of the mind; and since it lies far beneath all touch or blow from our hands, it cannot indeed touch anything which can be touched by us. For nothing can touch which may not itself be touched. Therefore even their abodes too must needs be unlike our abodes, fine even as are their bodies; all which I will hereafter prove to you with plenteous argument.”
In contrast to what we know about what gods “are “not,” our knowledge of what the Epicureans held gods “are” is less precise due to the loss of texts. Here are several observations we can make about what “gods” are, but there is much room for speculation and debate about the details.
(1) Gods are “blessed” and “immortal” (but careful about the definitions of “blessed” and “immortal”!)“
Cite 1: Epicurus - Letter to Menoeceus (Bailey): “First of all believe that god is a being immortal and blessed, even as the common idea of a god is engraved on men’s minds, and do not assign to him anything alien to his immortality or ill-suited to his blessedness: but believe about him everything that can uphold his blessedness and immortality.”
(2) Gods are a model of the highest form of living.
CIte 1: Epicurus - Letter to Menoeceus (Bailey): “Meditate therefore on these things and things akin to them night and day by yourself; and with a companion like to yourself, and never shall you be disturbed waking or asleep, but you shall live like a god among men. For a man who lives among immortal blessings is not like unto a mortal being.”
Cite 2: Lucretius (Bailey): “Foremost in this class is the fierce force of lions, who often as they groan break their hearts with roaring, and cannot contain in their breast the billows of their wrath. But the cold heart of deer is more full of wind, and more quickly it rouses the chilly breath in its flesh, which makes a shuddering motion start in the limbs. But the nature of oxen draws its life rather from calm air, nor ever is the smoking torch of anger set to it to rouse it overmuch, drenching it with the shadow of murky mist, nor is it pierced and frozen by the chill shafts of fear: it has its place midway between the two, the deer and the raging lions. So is it with the race of men. However much training gives some of them an equal culture, yet it leaves those first traces of the nature of the mind of each. Nor must we think that such maladies can be plucked out by the roots, but that one man will more swiftly fall into bitter anger, another be a little sooner assailed by fear, while a third will take some things more gently than is right. And in many other things it must needs be that the diverse natures of men differ, and the habits that follow thereon; but I cannot now set forth the secret causes of these, nor discover names for all the shapes of the first atoms, whence arises this variety in things. One thing herein I see that I can affirm, that so small are the traces of these natures left, which reason could not dispel for us, that nothing hinders us from living a life worthy of the gods.”
(3) Gods are a model of “complete happiness” and lead a life free of care.
Cite 1 Diogenes Laertius - Life of Epicurus (Bailey): “They say also that there are two ideas of happiness, complete happiness, such as belongs to a god, which admits of no increase, and the happiness which is concerned with the addition and subtraction of pleasures.
Cite 2 - Lucretius (Bailey): “For those who have learnt aright that the gods lead a life free from care, yet if from time to time they wonder by what means all things can be carried on, above all among those things which are descried above our heads in the coasts of heaven, are borne back again into the old beliefs of religion, and adopt stern overlords, whom in their misery they believe have all power, knowing not what can be and what cannot, yea and in what way each thing has its power limited, and its deep-set boundary-stone.”
(4) Gods (as a model of the highest form of living) are things to be reverenced.
Cite 1 - Diogenes Laertius - Life of Epicurus (Bailey): “Of his (Epicurus') reverence towards the gods and his love of his country it would be impossible to speak adequately.”
Cite 2 - Cicero, On The Nature of the Gods, by Velleius, the Epicurean: ” On the same principle of reasoning, we think that the Gods are happy and immortal. This is because that same Nature which has assured us that there are Gods has likewise imprinted in our minds the knowledge of their immortality and felicity. And, that being so, what Epicurus hath declared in these words is true: “That which is eternally happy cannot be burdened with any labor itself, nor can it impose any labor on another; nor can it be influenced by resentment or favor: because things which are liable to such feelings must be weak and frail.” We have said enough to prove that we should worship the Gods with piety, and without superstition, if that were the only question.”“For the superior and excellent Nature of the Gods requires a pious adoration from men, because it is possessed of immortality and the most exalted felicity. This is because whatever excels has a right to veneration. But on the other hand all fear of the power and anger of the Gods should be banished, for we must understand that anger and affection are inconsistent with the Nature of a happy and immortal being. These apprehensions being removed, no dread of the superior powers remains. To confirm this opinion, our curiosity leads us to inquire into the form and life and action of the intellect and spirit of the Deity.”
Cite 3, Lucretius (Bailey): “For it must needs be that all the nature of the gods enjoys life everlasting in perfect peace, sundered and separated far away from our world. For free from all grief, free from danger, mighty in its own resources, never lacking aught of us, it is not won by virtuous service nor touched by wrath. Verily, the earth is without feeling throughout all time, and ’tis because it has possession of the first-beginnings of many things, that it brings forth many in many ways into the light of the sun. Herein, if any one is resolved to call the sea Neptune and corn Ceres, and likes rather to misuse the title of Bacchus than to utter the true name of the vine-juice, let us grant that he may proclaim that the world is the Mother of the gods, if only in very truth he forbear to stain his own mind with shameful religious awe.”
(5) Gods are not beings which can be discerned by human senses.
Cite 1: Cicero, On The Nature of the Gods, by Velleius, the Epicurean: “Epicurus, who not only discovered and understood the occult and almost hidden secrets of Nature, but explained them with ease, teaches that the power and Nature of the Gods is not to be discerned by the senses, but by the mind. Nor are the Gods to be considered as bodies of any solidity, or reducible to number, like those things which, because of their firmness, he calls Ste?µa but as images, perceived by similitude and transition. As infinite kinds of those images result from innumerable individuals, and center in the Gods, our minds and understanding are directed towards and fixed with the greatest delight on them, in order to comprehend what that happy and eternal essence is.” Cite 2: Cicero, On The Nature of the Gods, by Velleius, the Epicurean: “Surely the mighty power of the Infinite Being is most worthy our great and earnest contemplation; the Nature of which we must necessarily understand to be such that everything in it is made to correspond completely to some other answering part. This is called by Epicurus ?sµ?a (isonomia); that is to say, an equal distribution or even disposition of things. From hence he draws this inference, that, as there is such a vast multitude of mortals, there cannot be a less number of immortals. Further, if those which perish are innumerable, those which are preserved ought also to be countless. Your sect, Balbus, frequently ask us how the Gods live, and how they pass their time? Their life is the most happy, and the most abounding with all kinds of blessings, which can be conceived. They do nothing. They are embarrassed with no business; nor do they perform any work. They rejoice in the possession of their own wisdom and virtue. They are satisfied that they shall ever enjoy the fullness of eternal pleasures.”