Lucretius & Epicurean religious skepticism
Epicurean thought was to live on in Roman times, most notably through people that included Cæsar, Atticus, Mæcenas, Lucretius, Virgil, and Horace. Lucretius (99-55 BCE) was a poet, philosopher and shadowy figure who was possibly driven mad by a love potion, writing his poetry between fits of insanity and eventually committing suicide in middle age … but this may be hearsay. He was a contemporary of Julius Caesar in the last days of the Roman Republic when free thought was fashionable among the educated. He sets out Epicurus’s thoughts in the epic philosophical poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of the Universe) the most popular source of information on Epicurus since the Renaissance.
Lucretius’s historical significance lay in the influence he exerted on Roman Augustan poets Virgil (in the Aenead, Georgics and Eclogues) and Horace: he was to resurface in the Enlightenment attempt to create a Christian humanism but it was Stoicism that proved ultimately the most popular even though Epicureanism survived for 600 years after his death until replaced by Christianity which placed all good in the life beyond the grave thus being its almost diametric opposite. Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) was an Italian umanist scholar who recovered many lost Latin manuscripts from French, German and Swiss monastery libraries among these being a copy of De rerum natura, the only surviving work by Lucretius. The Renaissance humanist was raised on the Stoicism of Epictetus (55-135 CE) whose Enchiridion or Handbook was translated into Latin in 1498.
In the six books of De Rerum Natura Lucretius presents to his Roman audience ‘the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna, (chance), and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.’
Lucretius represented the continuation of the Epicurean school of religious skepticism. His most famous lines rank among the most coherent and trenchant Classical era attacks on religion. The following assemblage of quotes from Lucretius’s work can be found at http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/quote-l2.htm.
Nature does all things spontaneously, by herself, without the meddling of the gods
The nature of the universe has by no means been made through divine power, seeing how great are the faults that mar it.
Poor humanity, to saddle the gods with such a responsibility and throw in a vindictive temper. What griefs they hatch for themselves, what festering sores for us, what tears for our prosperity! This is not piety, this oft-repeated show of bowing a veiled head before a graven image; this bustling to every altar; this kow-towing and prostration on the ground with palms outspread before the shrines of the gods; this deluging of vow on vow. True piety lies rather in the power to contemplate the universe with a quiet mind.
Too often in time past, religion has brought forth criminal and shameful actions…. How many evils has religion caused?
When the supreme violence of a furious wind upon the sea sweeps over the waters the chief admiral of a fleet along with his mighty legions, does he not crave the gods’ peace with vows and in his panic seek with prayers the peace of the winds and favouring breezes. Nonetheless, he is caught up in the furious hurricane and driven upon the shoals of death.
Assuredly whatsoever things are fabled to exist in deep Acheron [Hades], these all exist in this life. There is no wretched Tantalus, fearing the great rock that hangs over him in the air and frozen with vain terror. Rather, it is in this life that fear of the gods oppresses mortals without cause, and the rock they fear is any that chance may bring.
Certainly it was no design of the atoms to place themselves in a particular order, nor did they decide what motions each should have. But atoms were struck with blows in many ways and carried along by their own weight from infinite times up to the present. They have been accustomed to move and to meet in all manner of ways. For this reason, it came to pass that being spread abroad through a vast time and trying every sort of combination and motion, at length those come together that produce great things, like earth and sea and sky and the generation of living creatures.
Forbear to spew out reason from your mind, but rather ponder everything with keen judgment; and if it seems true, own yourself vanquished, but, if it is false, gird up your loins to fight.
Since you must admit that there is nothing outside the universe, it can have no limit and is accordingly without end or measure. It makes no odds in which part of it you may take your stand; whatever spot anyone may occupy, the universe stretches away from him just the same in all directions without limit.
The generations of living things pass in a short time, and like runners hand on the torch of life.
Fear is the mother of all gods.
Rest, brother, rest. Have you done ill or well
Rest, rest, There is no God, no gods who dwell
Crowned with avenging righteousness on high
Nor frowning ministers of their hate in hell.
Human life lay foul before men’s eyes, crushed to the dust beneath religion’s weight.
Long time men lay oppress’d with slavish fear
Religion’s tyranny did domineer …
At length a mighty one of Greece began
To assert the natural liberty of man
An ode to Epicurus, the “mighty one of Greece”
All religions are equally sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politician, and ridiculous to the philosopher.
Globed from the atoms falling slow or swift
I see the suns, I see the systems lift
Their forms; and even the systems and the suns
Shall go back slowly to the eternal drift.
Lucretius’s Refutation of the theory that the universe is governed by intelligence