Epicurus, History’s First Atheist.

Epicurus, History’s First Known Atheist.
Epicurus, an Athenian philosopher who lived from 341 to 270 BCE, was not really an atheist as we understand the term today. He was raised in a polytheistic culture and he acknowledged the existence of gods, but he believed that these gods did not interact with humans or interfere in human affairs in any way. He further believed that the soul did not persist after death and that there was no reward or punishment after death. To Epicurus death is nothing. “While we exist, our death is not, and when our death occurs, we do not exist.”
When one thinks of Epicureanism one thinks of living for pleasure, and indeed Epicurus advocated “ataraxia” –peace and freedom from fear, and “aponia” –freedom from pain.
“We must,” he advised, “pursue the things that make for happiness, seeing that when happiness is present, we have everything; but when it is absent, we do everything to possess it.”
This, however, does not mean that Epicurus thought that life should be one spectacular party. He was very Greek in his attitude of “nothing to excess.” He thought that the simple life was best, and that human beings should be content with little.
“Live in obscurity,” he advised “get through life without drawing attention to yourself”, i.e., live without pursuing glory or wealth or power, but anonymously, enjoying little things like food, the company of friends, etc.”
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
“He who is not satisfied with a little, is satisfied with nothing .”
“It is better for you to be free of fear lying upon a pallet, than to have a golden couch and a rich table and be full of trouble.”
Epicurus believed that the highest goal of human beings was friendship. “The noble man is chiefly concerned with wisdom and friendship; of these, the former is a mortal good, the latter an immortal one.”

Epicurus certainly did not think that life was, or should be, free from stress and difficulty. “You don’t develop courage by being happy in your relationships everyday. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.” He was realistic enough to realize that life was often a struggle.

Theists often maintain that belief in a deity is essential to live a life based on morality. Epicurus would have disagreed. He felt that someone who is incapable of living prudently, honestly and justly, cannot live pleasurably, and vice versa. In other words, doing evil interferes with ataraxia, one’s peace of mind and freedom from fear. The wise person refrains from evil and greed.

For his time, Epicurus was surprisingly humanistic and egalitarian, readily admitting slaves and women to his school which he held in his garden. The other schools of philosophy in Athens, the Stoa and Plato’s Academy, rarely admitted women.

Atheists are fond of quoting Epicurus’ trilemma about God:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Of course, as mentioned above, Epicurus was not, technically, an atheist, but regarded the divine realm as something completely separated from the human realm with no interaction between the two, and completely rejected the idea of life after death, and the idea of divine reward and punishment, maintaining concepts that most modern atheists embrace.
Epicurus’ philosophy was certainly controversial in his own day, and, for obvious reasons, became anathema to all three major Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. To this day, ultra- religious Jews refer to insufficiently observant Jews as “Apikorsim”- Epicureans. Epicureanism did make some headway among the Romans, but most prominent Romans, such as Cato and Cicero, rejected it in favor of the philosophy of Stoicism. Once Christianity took hold in the Roman Empire, all such philosophies were suppressed.
Epicurus’ ideas are making a modest comeback in our day and age. The numbers of self-described atheists is growing-approximately 20 percent of the population in the U.S. and thirty percent of the population of Western Europe consider themselves to be non-religious. In countries still dominated by the ideology of Communism, theism is strongly discouraged, but in these societies, a cult of personality-worship of Mao, Ho Chi Min, Kim Il Jung, etc, tends to take the place of religion. Worship of a human cult figure cannot be considered atheism. A genuine atheist worships neither a God in heaven nor a self-styled god on Earth. In the more fervent Islamic societies atheism remains a crime punishable by flogging, imprisonment or death.

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