Epicurus and the gods

Epicurus suggests in his letter to Menoeceus that hyper focus on the gods results in people tending towards using the gods to ‘commend their own ways and condemn ┬áthose who do not’ follow the same ways. He however also suggests that all that happens in the world can be ascribed to physical principles. This formed the basis of the discussion questions:

  1. Was Epicurus deliberately vague about his position on the gods because of the religious environment in which he lived?
  2. Did Epicurus believe focus on the gods distracted from the pursuit of a good life?

We believed that it was entirely possible that Epicurus did not entirely dismiss the existence of gods at least not explicitly because he existed within a society in which such a position was punishable by execution and hence his suggestion that the gods whilst existing were removed from interfering with the natural order of things. However we also discussed the possibility that he did genuinely believe pursuit of godliness to be a distraction from living a good life in that the individual could be consumed by a desire to reach ever higher levels of perceived piety and hence stray away from satisfying their necessary natural desires.

Ultimately we concluded that it was perhaps a bit of both with Epicurus at least never explicitly disputing worship of the gods but making it clear that he believed that hyper focus on them reduced the ability for one to live their best life.

Epicurus Discussion Summary

My discussion group primarily focused on 2 questions that then led the conversation to various avenues regarding Epicurean philosophy. The questions and summaries of what was discussed are as follows:

  1. Is Epicurus’ outlook on life, specifically maximizing one’s pleasures, considered a selfish way to live?

This conversation regarding this question quickly became a mini debate of sorts, with people taking both sides of the question. Some people stated their views that by following Epicurean philosophy one is ultimately only caring about their won well-being, and is therefore living their life in a selfish way. People then brought up the fact that in Ancient Greece, around the time when Epicurus was alive, many people dedicated their life to the betterment of the state through direct work or military service. However, the conversation then shifted to how living one’s life in an Epicurean way could actually benefit the community. As one of the tenets of his philosophy, Epicurus stated that we must face some immediate discomfort to achieve greater pleasure in the future. In this case, somebody could sacrifice some of their immediate pleasure to help others (for example, philanthropy work) since seeing others benefit and live a better life could fulfill the desires of that individual, thus leading him to greater overall pleasure and happiness.

2. Would Epicurus think that Socrates lived his life in a way that would conform to Epicurus’ version of a “proper way to live”?

By posing this question to the group I was essentially asking if they thought that Socrates (as described in Plato’s writing) followed an Epicurean philosophy of maximizing his pleasure in life. The discussion led to some interesting areas, but eventually settled on a mixed answer to the question. The group discussed that on one hand, by going around and questioning people, Socrates was fulfilling his purpose in life and therefore maximizing his pleasure and happiness, ultimately following an Epicurean philosophy. However, Epicurus did state as one of the major tenets of his philosophy that making friends is of utmost importance to live a pleasurable life, and if one cannot make friends, one should at least avoid making enemies. Socrates directly contradicted this tenet since he did make quite a lot of enemies by going around and questioning people, and he also had very few friends. In essence, the group decided that Socrates was following the Epicurean philosophy in some ways, while directly contradicting it in others.