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What did the ancient Greeks believe?

Tim Whitmarsh sets out to show that atheism was quite normal in classical Greece. But it’s a more slippery notion than he realises

27 February 2016

9:00 AM

27 February 2016

9:00 AM

Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World Tim Whitmarsh

Faber, pp.304, £25, ISBN: 9780571279302

It is a curious fact that the modern Hebrew for ‘atheist’, Tim Whitmarsh notes in passing, is apikoros. The word derives from Epicurus, who set up shop as a philosopher in Athens around 306 BC, but it became so domesticated in Hebrew that the medieval thinker Moses Maimonides, till he found out better, thought it was of home-grown Aramaic origin. In ancient Jewish usage, however, I think apikoros meant someone who denied that God takes care of the world, which was indeed the claim of Epicurus. Though Whitmarsh sets out to show that atheism was quite normal in ancient (Greek) history, atheism turns out to be a slippery notion.

Epicurus declared that the whole boundless world was made up of an infinite number of indestructible atoms in unpredictable motion. Our souls too were made of atoms, a tinier kind, like those that constituted wind and fire. And as Whitmarsh, a professor of Greek culture at Cambridge, explains it, Epicurus did teach that the gods existed, but were seen not by our senses, only by our minds. ‘There are all sorts of philosophical difficulties with this idea,’ he says, right enough.

At the last, he is puzzled by Epicurus’s continuing to insist on the gods’ existence despite magisterial assurances that, since the gods are not in charge, ‘death is nothing to us’. Our atoms merely disperse. So Whitmarsh puts forward the hypothesis, a little ungenerously, that ‘Epicurus might have been motivated by fear of persecution’. After all Socrates, 100 years earlier, had been executed for ‘not recognising the gods the state recognises’. But if ‘death is nothing to us’, why should Epicurus have cared?

Naturally the author is friendly to the great Roman poet Lucretius (c.100–55 BC), whose epic, On the Nature of Things, made Epicurean warfare against religion memorable. Taking the story of Agamemnon, who sacrificed his own daughter Iphigenia in order to placate the goddess Artemis, Lucretius concluded: ‘Such is the terrible evil that religion was able to urge.’ These were words that Voltaire was to quote in 1737 in urging Frederick II of Prussia to impose secularism.


Lucretius calls Agamemnon’s crime ‘impious’, and so it was if we remember that pietas in Roman thinking was first of all the duty of children to parents and vice versa. There are further paradoxes about Lucretius’s attitude to the gods. He makes Epicurus the prime example of a theomakhos, a battler of the gods — even though the gods did not exist, at least not as commonly conceived. Then Lucretius explicitly claims for Epicurus the status of a god, and to do sohe employs ‘the very poetic form traditionally associated with theology’, the hexameters in which Hesiod composed his Theogony.

After his exposition of Epicurus’s thought, one can feel Whitmarsh’s disappointment that ‘for all this, Lucretius, like his master Epicurus, can still insist on the reality of the gods’. His atheism, like that of the ancient apikoros, is really a denial of divine engagement with the world.

Despite Voltaire’s admiration, Whitmarsh makes it plain that ‘Epicurus’s war on religion was not imagined as an effort to promote secularisation at the state level’. At the same time he reminds us that ‘Stephen Greenblatt has famously argued’ that the recovery of Epicurean doctrine ‘was responsible for European secularism and the Renaissance’.

Yet in another paradox, which Whitmarsh does not go into, it was an earlier renaissance that made possible the very survival of Lucretius’s epic. The oldest manuscript of the poem was written out shortly after AD 800 in the palace school of Charlemagne. We even know the identity of the Irish monk who corrected the errors of transcription: Dungal, an authority on astronomy. What was in it for monks to preserve the reputed arch-atheist of antiquity? Partly, perhaps, that they agreed with Lucretius that the gods of old, as popularly conceived, did not exist.

This line of argument, Whitmarsh says, was employed by the second-century Christian apologist Justin, who saw Socrates’s execution for being an ‘atheist’ as parallel with the Christian denial of the Roman gods. ‘We confess that we are atheists,’ Justin declares, ‘at least as far as these kinds of imagined gods are concerned.’ Whitmarsh is here provoked into reaching for an exclamation mark: ‘Socrates has been reimagined as a Christian martyr!’

But, insofar as the historic Socrates can be recaptured, his ‘playfully subversive humanism’, concludes Whitmarsh approvingly, bore this ultimate message: ‘You make your own principles and you live by them’. I don’t know. That sounds a fine, high ideal, but most people lack the wisdom, time and application to make their own principles from scratch. People happily live as atheists when it is the prevailing culture, just as they happily live without knowing much about ancient Greek culture — because it requires work to learn Greek and for most the prospect seems unappealing.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • E.I.Cronin

    Thanks Christopher, will keep an eye out for Whitmarsh’s book. From memory Epicurus admitted the Gods existed as an expedient nod to public piety, but rendered them irrelevant to Philosophy by stating they existed in a state of Olympian disdain for our fleeting lives and small affairs.

    Can I also recommend a playful series of short stories on Greek travel, history and philosophy – DATING APHRODITE: MODERN ADVENTURES IN THE ANCIENT WORLD. It’s lightweight (as am I) but Tim Slattery urges a rediscovery and re-application of Classical Philosophy and arrives at the novel conclusion a blend of Epicurus and Stoicism (the two schools were bitterly opposed) is more than ever, relevant to our lives. He quotes an ancient piece of Epicurian graffiti which I will always remember. His writing on nostalgia is beautiful too.

    Will look up On the Nature of Things. For anyone interested I just found a New Yorker review by Stephen Greenblatt with a few choice quotations and a personal take on one of the central themes of Epicurus – banishing the fear of death.

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/08/08/the-answer-man-stephen-greenblatt

  • pobjoy

    From memory Epicurus admitted the Gods existed as an expedient nod to
    public piety, but rendered them irrelevant to Philosophy by stating they
    existed in a state of Olympian disdain for our fleeting lives and small
    affairs.

    There are two too many capital letters in that statement to make it seem sincere.

  • davidofkent

    The ancient Greeks varied in their beliefs. At the start of agricultural civilisation, everybody believed that it was necessary to propitiate ‘the Gods’ to ensure good harvests and prevent natural calamities. Later, some Greek philosophers suggested ideas akin to Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ and refused to accept the belief that mankind suddenly appeared thanks to a benevolent group of Gods. Scepticism about the role of Gods was quite common in Greek society, though few dared to suggest that they didn’t exist. Fortunately for the Greeks, the idea of a sole God who organised the universe did not appear in their everyday pious feelings and they generally did not kill each other for believing in the ‘wrong God’.

    • JabbaPapa

      Later, some Greek philosophers suggested ideas akin to Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’

      Really ?

      Which ones ?

      Got links ?

      for the Greeks, the idea of a sole God … was intrinsic to their religious beliefs.

      FTFY

      • whorya

        Shows how an intelligent civilization, can be so wrong.

    • Tom M

      “…….everybody believed that it was necessary to propitiate ‘the Gods’ to ensure good harvests and prevent natural calamities….”
      Of course it’s not possible to disprove that. These days we ignore such notions as primitive nonsense. It might be, of course, that we just haven’t found the right sacrifices yet.

      • pobjoy

        These days we ignore such notions as primitive nonsense.

        Or we pretend to. How many people can honestly say that they have never believed that some misfortune that happened to them was not a consequence of divine displeasure?

        It might be, of course, that we just haven’t found the right sacrifices yet.

        Or we may make flippant comments like that precisely because one sacrifice propitiated away all our misdeeds, but the demands of us made thereby incommode our lifestyles.

        • Duke_Bouvier

          Didn’t know that nailing carpenters to planks could deal with natural disasters as well as angst.

          The modern equivalent of sacrifice for the harvest would be sacrifice to prevent economic downturn. How many wannabe-prophets should I nail up to add 2% to per annum GDP growth?

          • pobjoy

            Didn’t know that nailing carpenters to planks could deal with natural disasters as well as angst.

            Best post when somebody says that it could, eh.

            So what stops you from doing as you would be done by? Indolence,
            inappropriate body fluid emissions, or a lot of each? Probably both, from the stupidity and desperation of the excuse.

  • pobjoy

    ‘the Gods’

    🙂

    I blame Thatcher.

    • whorya

      The self professed Goddess of shop keepers.

      • pobjoy

        That should be ‘goddess’.

  • pobjoy

    Read the Spectator, to see what happens when Catholics pretend to be intellectuals.

    • JabbaPapa

      Read pobjoy, to see what happens when the ignorant pretend to be knowledgeable.

      • whorya

        I don’t think the ignorant pretend to be knowledgeable. Its the knowledgeable who want to keep people ignorant, or rather uneducated. For their elitist purpose’s.

  • chatnoir50

    Is the chap on the right speaking into a mobile phone?

    • JabbaPapa

      To the one on the left, yep, well spotted. I’m very impressed with your understanding of Ancient Greek online social media !!!

    • jansav

      Proof of time travel!

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