‘Then why call him God?’— Epicurus never said what everyone thinks he did

A popular, but totally misattributed, meme

This popular quote is often posted on atheist and freethinking blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds. The more astute observers will have noticed that in none of the postings is the source of this quote ever cited. There is a reason for that. The following is an excerpt from my current book, Dangerous Ideas.

Epicurus is widely misunderstood as an atheist, due primarily to a popular maxim that was mistakenly attributed to him by others. The English formulation of his trilemma comes to us from eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher, David Hume:

Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?[1]

For those who cite this irreverent example of questioning the nature of a supposed god as proof that Epicurus was an atheist, nothing could be further from the truth of the historical man. Given the numerous reasons below, it is unlikely that this formulation came from Epicurus. Firstly, as with many of the Greek philosophers of his day, Epicurus was in agreement that gods did exist but that they were wholly uninterested in human affairs. Additionally, this trilemma does not appear in any of the writings of Epicurus that have survived. Hume likely copied it from the seventeenth-century French philosopher Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary, first published in 1697. Bayle made reference to the Christian apologist, Lactantius (~250–325 CE), who attributed it to Epicurus in On the Anger of God, a book directed at Stoic and Epicurean arguments.

Intriguingly, the form of this quote closely resembles a passage written by Sextus Empiricus, the second-century Roman philosopher from the school of Pyrrhonian Skepticism. The attribution of writings by Empiricus to Epicurus might simply be due to the similarity of the names, causing Lactantius to inadvertently assign this irreverent pondering to the main target of his attacks.[2]

Further, in fragments of doxographical writings of one of his lost works, Epicurus is highly critical of atheists. As with the earliest reference to Critias as the author of the Sisyphus fragment coming from the lost book twelve of On Nature, Prodicus and Diagoras were also criticized as being atheists by Epicurus. Sedley notes even one or two atheists would have been embarrassing for Epicurus and his assertion that all people believed in the gods. Faced by so obvious a contradiction as the mere existence of anyone who denied the gods, Epicurus needed to find a way to discredit these irreverent mavericks. Those insignificant few who dared to claim the gods were otherwise, must, according to Epicurus’s thinking, be irrational if not mentally unhinged.[3] Therefore, as Epicurus was a believer in the gods who criticized atheists for being insane, the trilemma assigned to him by Lactantius and compounded by Bayle and Hume should be recognized as a mistake. That later Epicureans were more atheistic in their arguments should not be a reflection upon what their founder believed.[4]

[1] Hume 1779, Part X. In a 2014 TED talk titled Why does the universe exist?, philosopher Jim Holt frames this trilemma in a new light: “maybe it’s 100 percent malevolent but only 80 percent effective.”

[2] Bayle 1965, 169. Cf. Lactantius, XIII, para. 4. That Epicurus is the primary target of Lactantius is obvious from the title of chapter four: Of God and His Affections, and the Censure of Epicurus.

[3] Sedley 2013b, 329–30. Sedley also speculates that it may have been Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle and his successor as head of the Peripatetic school, who compiled the first list of atheists used by Epicurus. Cf. Sedley 1998, 121 on fragment 87 from On Piety by Philodemus criticizing the three named atheists and classifying them as insane. See also Kouloumentas 2018, 144–46.

[4] See Lucian for a brilliant Epicurean satire of Stoic arguments for the gods.

Jason (Diogenes of Mayberry) covers the backstory of Judeo-Christian doctrines to refute evangelical literalism related to socio-political action.

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