Slowly Reading St Athanasius: Contra the Epicureans

by John Stamps

Candace H. Smith drew a great map of the four main philosophical schools of Hellenistic Athens. Let’s examine it for a moment.

At the top of the page, you can see the famous Acropolis. Below it is the Agora, the marketplace where St Paul famously sparred with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers. Next to it is the Stoa Poikile, the “Painted Porch.” The Stoa is where the philosopher Zeno lectured his students and publicized his teaching. By association, his disciples became known as “Stoics.”

Over on the left, we see Aristotle’s academy, called the Lyceum. It provided a nice location for Aristotle to walk as he lectured, to point out this or that feature of nature. Because he liked to walk and talk, Aristotelians were known as Peripatetics, from the Greek word for walking (περιπᾰτέω).

Directly at the bottom of the page, we see the Garden of Epicureans. Epicurus and his followers provided a pleasant location where the curious and the devotee alike could hear him lecture. There is a very good reason why Epicurus chose a garden for his school, which we’ll discuss shortly.

And if you strolled through the gate into the Academy, Plato would teach you the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. But on one condition — you could enter the Academy only if you mastered Euclid. Above the Academy gate was a famous sign: “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter.”

And if you look right in the middle of the Agora, you’ll see a teeny-weensy St Paul using every one of his God-given rhetorical gifts to persuade the Athenians to seek the God who is not far from each of us, who distributes gifts lavishly upon all the human race.1 St Paul is the patron saint of any Christian convinced that the Christian faith is not irrational but reasonable, sane, and intelligent. Christians can and should try to give reasoned and thoughtful responses to scoffers, skeptics, agnostics, and outright unbelievers. And St Athanasius of Alexandria stands within this honorable tradition.

In his famous introduction to Sister Penelope Lawson’s translation of On the Incarnation of the Word of God, C. S. Lewis encouraged us to pick up our knowledge of ancient authors firsthand. Don’t read some dreary book about Platonism. Read Plato himself. So I decided to take Jack at his word. This last week I read the entire poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius so that you wouldn’t have to.2 That said, for any Christian who is educated in modern Western institutions, nothing you read in Lucretius will come as a shock to your system. Reading Lucretius is like looking into a mirror. I recognized myself immediately in him.3

We shall see that it is not surprising that St Athanasius first takes the Epicureans head-on instead of the Stoics or the Aristotelians. If the Epicurean school is correct, we don’t have any business talking about the incarnation of the Word of God at all. The Epicureans represent the worldview of any educated secular, non-religious person in the Western World. Let’s briefly unpack the Epicurean worldview.4

1. The universe is as chaotic as it looks.

Lucretius articulates the Problem of Evil in its most exquisite form.

Had God designed the world, it would not be
A world so frail and faulty as we see.
(De Rerum Natura 5.197-199)

For us moderns, God’s incompetence is a standard trope. God is an underachiever (Woody Allen). Philo in David Hume’s famous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, states the issue as crisply as anyone: the universe looks like a disorganized mess created by a com­mit­tee of inept gods. There is no order in the universe. There is no design, there is only chaos. Bad things happen to good people. Wicked people prosper. Innocent children suffer with horrific childhood diseases. Rain and sunshine fall on both the evil and the good. And so does Covid-19.

C.S. Lewis himself thought the argument of Lucretius here was the strongest argument for atheism that he knew of. In fact, Lucretius had even convinced him for a while. And who can gainsay C.S. Lewis?

2. Epicureans were not atheists.

Surprisingly, card-carrying Epicureans are not atheists. This might be the most startling belief in the Epicurean cosmology. Yet it is true. They could be dissembling, engaging in what Stephen Greenblatt calls “dialogical disavowal,” to subvert us into outright unbelief. Be that as it may, Lucretius claims to believe in the existence of God or the gods, so I’ll take him at his word. However, his“theology” (such as it is) offers no comfort to suffering human beings. The gods dwell contentedly and blissful in their heaven. There is no salva­tion story. We might be interested in the gods. But the gods are completely uninterested in us. They have nothing to do with us. Zip. Nada. Zilch.

The gods are immortal, humans are not. We will all die and our bodies; indeed the entire universe, will dissolve back into the atoms from which we are made. Human beings are merely a random confluence and stream of atoms. The physical universe consists of nothing but swerving atoms, eternity, and the Void. We will all die. Many of us will die truly miserable deaths. Our bodies and souls, indeed, the entire physical universe, will disintegrate back into the atoms we are made from.

3. There is no providence in the universe. But there is no judgment either.

All those stories that Homer and Hesiod told about the wrath of God are untrue. They are lying myths. The gods don’t throw down thunderbolts or shake and quake the earth to punish evil sinners. If they did, they miss their target quite a lot. Or else they hit the wrong targets, killing the innocent in their wake. No, thunder, lightning, earthquakes, and plagues are purely a natural phenomenon, not acts of divine judgment.

Lucretius fears God way more than he fears death. The biggest problem in the Epicurean universe is not natural evil; instead, the biggest problem is God. God or the gods who terrorize people are far worse than any natural calamity. Well, and the priests who propagate their lies about God.

When before our eyes man’s life lay groveling, prostrate,
Crushed to the dust under the burden of Religion…
First to smash open the tight-barred gates of Nature” (1.62–71).

And:

I teach great things, stride forth
To free the soul from the stranglehold of religion (1.929-30)

There’s nothing wrong with the natural universe that a good dose of demythologization and theological debunking cannot cure.

4. “We are living in a material world / And I am a material girl.”

I don’t know if Madonna is an Epicurean philosopher or not. But her lyrics certainly fit the bill. Human beings are material creatures and we live in a material world. From atoms and the Void we came and to atoms and the Void we shall return.

There are at least three fascinating consequences to the Epicurean worldview.

(1) Lucretius is the poster child of naive empiricists. Well actually, naive empiricism characterizes the entire Epicurean tradition. What is truth? Truth consists only of what we with our senses can see, taste, touch, smell, and hear. Lucretius fully embraces the counter-intuitive conclusion that our perceptions are 100% accurate. “They cannot be refuted” (4.476).

For example, Epicureans argue we must always trust our perceptions, because they’re all we’ve got. So how big is the sun? Well, the sun is exactly the size that it appears to be, about as big as a silver dollar

The wheel of the sun and its heat cannot be much greater or less than is perceived by our senses … the shape also of the sun and its size must so truly be seen from the earth that you can add nothing at all to it and take nothing away. (5.564-574)

So how big are the moon and the stars? They’re exactly as big as they appear to be. And so on.5

(2) We can summarize Epicurean ethics in a nutshell — seek pleasure and avoid pain.
Now Epicureans get a bad rap for hedonism, thrust upon them by their enemies. The accusation is not quite accurate and needs qualification. Avoid pain and seek only those pleasures that do not cause you more pain. Be very, very careful of your attachments in this life. Do not let your pursuit of pleasure lead you into delusion. We can all admit that sex is good and a great pleasure. But beware of love. Love can hurt you. Be careful not to fall in love. Love is mixed with pain. Wise humans can enjoy the pleasures of love without its pains:

Nor does he who avoids love lack the fruits of Venus, but rather he takes the advantages which are without penalty; for certainly a pleasure more unmixed comes from this to the healthy than to the lovesick. (4.1073)

Don’t light the fire of love because you can never extinguish it.

(3) How then should we live? “Death is nothing to us, it matters not one jot, since the nature of the mind is understood to be mortal” (3.830). And this is as good of an explanation as any why his followers live in a garden. Lucretius offers us no answers, for there are none. The best he can offer us is therapy and freedom from religious illusions, how to negotiate life in a cruel, uncaring universe. If you’re a rich Roman nobleman living in a time when you see your great empire began its downward slide into tyranny, where better to live and philosophize than in your garden, a small elite walled away from the pains and delusions of this world?

It is comforting, when winds are whipping up the waters of the vast sea, to watch from land the severe trials of another person6: not that anyone’s distress is a cause of agreeable pleasure; but it is comforting to see from what troubles you yourself are exempt. It is comforting also to witness mighty clashes of warriors in battle on the plains, when you have no share in the danger. But nothing is more blissful than to occupy the heights effectively fortified by the teaching of the wise, tranquil sanctuaries from which you can look upon others and see them wandering everywhere in their random search for the way of life, competing for intellectual eminence, disputing about rank, and striving night and day with prodigious effort to scale the summit of wealth and to secure power. (2.1-13)

This is good work if you can get it. Lucretius wants nothing more than to be one of his Epicurean gods. The gods live blissfully in their garden and Lucretius wants to live blissfully in his.

Here is how St Athanasius responds to Lucretius and the Epicurean tradition:

The making of the world and the creation of all things have been taken differently by many, and each has propounded as each has wished.

Some say that all things have come into being spontaneously and as by chance, such as the Epicureans who, according to themselves, fantasize that there is no providence over the universe, speaking in the face of the clear and apparent facts.

For if all things came into being spontaneously without providence, as they claim, all things would necessarily have simply come into being and be identical and without difference. Everything would have been as a single body, sun or moon, and regarding human beings, the whole would have been a hand or eye or foot. But, now, this is not the case: we see, here, the sun, there the moon, there the earth; and again regarding human bodies, here a foot, there a hand, and there a head. (De Inc. §2)

If I understand him correctly, Athanasius is arguing that infinity + atoms + random chance + spontaneous generation + the swerve are not enough to generate the universe as you and I experience it. None of these by themselves or in combination with each other can explain the diversity you and I witness everyday when we open our eyes the first thing in the morning. The sheer contingency and diversity of the cosmos requires a Divine Mind (the Logos) at work. Here St Athanasius and Plato are in profound agreement against Epicurus. Only the Universal Logos makes genuine sense of the intelligible order in the cosmos.

Thus St Athanasius concludes. To him, it is self-evident that the cosmos displays a telos. Only a fool or an Epicurean could think otherwise, that a Divine Mind does not push the cosmos to its ultimate end.

But oh, what a difference 1200 years or so makes! St Athanasius thought he had per­formed a slam-dunk over the heads of the Epicureans. A telos-driven cosmos was the Majority Report in the 4th-century A.D. But not in the 21st century. For us, a telos-driven universe is now the Minority Report. The universe is what it is and there is no ought to it. It just is.

Admittedly, here we find ourselves at a stand-off between the classic Christian faith and Modern Materialism. Now let’s not be too hard on St Athanasius. He lived hundreds of years before our modern secular saints — Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, among others. He had no conception of natural selection or the tremendous age of the universe. He knew nothing of the Big Bang. By itself, his argument is not great if you’re comparing St Athanasius with subatomic quantum mechanics.

But Lucretius doesn’t fare much better. His atoms are the indestructible building blocks of the universe. Atoms are un-cuttable, the literal meaning of a-tomos. We know better. Atoms are destructible, they are cuttable, we can even split them, as the metaphysics of Hiroshima and Nagasaki painfully attest.

All that said, we can still affirm and rehabilitate the substance of Athanasius’ argument from design here, without necessarily making recourse to the famous Five Ways of St Thomas Aquinas.7 Let’s go back to the root meaning of “providence.”8 As the psalmist chants, “the heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”

The clear and apparent facts are the following noble truths, if we put ourselves into the position to see and hear them. We live in a universe filled everywhere with the goodness of God, even if we suffer at the hands of Nature, even if human beings are exposed to great suffering and all manner of evils. The universe displays glorious order.

The problem is, we self-absorbed humans with fat relentless egos (Iris Murdoch) have a hard time learning that we are creatures, just like the rest of creation. Without our say so, we are subjected “to the material working of the universe like all other creatures, from atomic particles to stars.”9 Ironically, by the very fact we can recognize we are material creatures living in a material world means we can transcend the material realm in a way that atomic particles and stars cannot. We can recognize we are indeed composite mate­rial-spiritual creatures. God is preparing us for a genuine happiness that no earthly good or thing can give us. But a fat relentless ego can’t see that. It’s busy adding up all its pluses — new car, beautiful wife, a good raise, yes, God is good and taking good care of the universe — and all its minuses — no wifi, long line at Starbuck’s, ridiculous commute times, Covid-19, ooops… I no longer believe in God, what in the world was He thinking? — in its Excel spreadsheet to decide whether it can trust in God or not.

Such order indicates that they did not come into being spontaneously, but shows that a cause preceded them, from which one can apprehend the God who ordered and created all things.

The transcendent God who has no need of anything stands near to each one of us, as close to us as our beating hearts. God seeks us and wants to be found by us. We can apprehend God. Let us regard Nature as a witness rather than an air-tight teleological proof. Wit­nesses testify and lawyers argue. Nature herself testifies to God’s goodness but she is not a lawyer. The beauty of Nature does not argue God’s existence — instead she witnesses everywhere to the glorious diversity of Creation. Creation sings, she exclaims, she rejoices, she claps her hands, she shouts for joy, she roars in her majestic and sublime thunder, she ravishes us with delight. God’s beauty speaks volumes to any normal human being with properly functioning epistemic apparatus in place (St Alvin of Plantinga and a holy host of others).

St Athanasius will return to how the works of creation witness to the goodness of God in §12. Nature’s witness is necessary. But it is not sufficient. We need God’s revelation given in the Law and the Prophets. It too is insufficient. We need the witness of the saints. They too are insufficient. But most of all, we need the witness of the incarnation of the Word of God. Then all the pieces add up.

The sticking point between Lucretius versus St Athanasius turns on providence itself — the Epicureans insist there is no providence and the Christian tradition unanimously insists, yes, there is. We can be a bit deflationary here. Providence doesn’t mean everything in the world is hunky-dory, everything is going my way. Providence instead means God exercises His oversight over all of creation and all human destiny. Providence means we need to take the truly long view of human history, the eschatological view of the Kingdom of God, even if we can’t see God’s hand in it right now.

St Athanasius now turns his attention to a different target — that giant among the Greeks, Plato.

 

Footnotes

[1] I’m kidding.

[2] I read the W.H.D. Rouse translation of Lucretius in the Loeb Classical Library, revised by Martin F. Smith. C.S. Lewis was right. He’s nearly always right. It is better to get your knowledge of the ancient world first-hand.

[3] N.T. Wright woke me up out of my dogmatic slumbers. I had not a clue about how important Lucretius was in the development of the so-called modern mentality. If you have never read N.T. Wright before, first read History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology (2019), his tour de force Gifford Lectures. His treatment of history and eschatology then makes a great deal of sense.

[4] Stephen Greenblatt has a great summary of the Epicurean philosophy of Lucretius on pp. 185-202 of his book The Swerve.

[5] Is the earth a sphere? Don’t be stupid. There is no center, no middle, to an infinite universe, like the Platonists and Aristotelians fantasize. Apparently Epicurus went on the public record stating that the earth is flat, although I cannot verify that. Up until recent archeological excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, we didn’t have any extant first-hand writings by Epicurus. Only second-hand reports existed. Then an archeologist discovered a charred papyrus roll of On Nature by Epicurus. I’ll read it with the help of X-ray scan technology during the next pandemic.

Lucretius doesn’t exactly say the earth is flat. His argument puzzles me (1.1053-1076). His bottom line? It is ridiculous to surmise that Australians and other Antipodeans exist. No, there are no animals down there with their heads downwards. They cannot fall from the earth any more than we can fly into the sky. Maybe here Lucretius has no alternative to his counter-intuitive conclusions. If we’re material creatures through and through, we naive empiricists have no choice but to rely on our senses, no matter what they tell us.

[6] Did Lucretius just invent Schadenfreude? That splendid German word means the diabolical pleasure you derive from another person’s misfortune. On the other hand, the Laurel and Hardy sketch where the guy slips on a banana peel and starts a gargantuan pie fight is pretty darn funny.

[7] The philosophical status of the cosmological and teleological “proofs” of the existence of God is hotly disputed. Some Christian thinkers still find them convincing and necessary. Others, like myself, harbor grave doubts whether they still work as genuine “proofs.”

[8] If you’re keeping track, Sister Penelope paraphrases πρόνοια as Mind. I wish she hadn’t done that. It smooths over the wrinkles in St Athanasius’ argument.

[9] Diogenes Allen, Between Two Worlds: A Guide for Those Beginning to be Religious, p. 40. The title is unfortunate, especially since “religion” has become a four-letter word for most of us. I certainly feel no need to defend it. The book was republished as Temptation in 1986. It’s a better title.

(If you wanted to give your favorite Doubting Thomas friend a book to read about the classic Christian faith, I’d hand them Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. That’s a no-brainer. But if they want something deeper, more second-generation, I heartily recommend William J. (aka “Billy”) Abraham’s Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation. What I loved about this book is his phenomenological description of how Ms Convert comes to faith in God (pp. 116-128). He shows us how we can employ all the robust resources of “canonical theism” so that we don’t fall into a rathole of epistemic platitudes.)

(Go to “Academy of Plato”)

* * *

John Stamps is currently Senior Technical Writer at Guidewire Software in San Jose, California. He holds a BA in Greek from Abilene Christian University, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and did work towards an STM in philosophy of religion at Yale University. He is married to Shelly Houston Stamps and attends St. Stephen Orthodox Church in Campbell, California.

This entry was posted in Athanasius. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Slowly Reading St Athanasius: Contra the Epicureans

  1. Sean Maddigan says:

    Great read! However, I think you misunderstand St. Athanasius’ arguments regarding telos and God’s existence. His assertion that differentiated creatures implies intelligent providence has nothing to do with modern scientific discoveries. He knew as well as our modern scientists that the universe operates according to patterns and that there is a process of becoming in nature. The language we use about particular laws and patterns in nature do not change the philosophical point that patterns and order require a rational principle. Or as Lewis himself argues in his book “Miracles”, our ability to recognize order is itself a proof of a plane of existence higher than natural world. Though I think Aquinas’ argument from causality is far more effective, St. Athanasius’ particular point about differentiated being is interesting. He posits that if the universe could spontaneously come into being without a rational agent behind it, the result of a non-rational creative event would ipso-facto produce non-rational finite being (no order, no patterns, no organization, certainly no life). But everywhere we look we see life and order. Therefore even if we assume the absurd, that finite being can come into existence without a cause, the result of such an event would be pure irrational uniform being that he calls “one body”. If you respond, well it appear that a universe can come about randomly with order and life according to the big bang theory, you are only begging the question. St. Athanasius would use the same point to argue that the only possible explanation for such a chain of events is a rational Creator. In addition, the big bang theory is an incoherent theory if used as an explanation of the origin of all contingent being. But the best part of this Athanasius quote is that it hints at something von Balthasar touches on in his writings about multiplicity and unity. If everything in creation reflects the perfection of God, then monotheisms are in trouble. The universe is marked by multiplicity and distinctness. This would lead to the contradiction that God was responsible for inventing a defect in his own creation by not allowing it to reflect his oneness. But as we know, this is not the case. Balthasar argues that God is not simply One, but Many because of the Holy Trinity. The fact that God is both many and One in His own being through love, is what gives ground for the multiplicity of beings in the universe, which only arrives at perfection when things are gathered together as one in Christ as St. Paul says through the love of the Holy Ghost. I don’t know if that reflection was expressed clearly, but hopefully it is of some value to those who read it! Thank you for this blog Father!

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Stamps says:

      Hey Sean, Thanks for your most excellent comment. Sorry it took so long to respond.
      Before I was introduced to St Thomas Aquinas, I was introduced to the famous watchmaker argument by William Paley at church camp one summer by a well-meaning youth minister. It convinced me until I read David Hume. I think the argument from design is a double-edged sword. Good design shows a good Designer. But bad design shows a faulty Designer. Even when the argument works, the conclusion is limited. We get a Designer, but we don’t know much about the Designer, who may be incompetent or indifferent or a giant spider or a mob of gods. Why assume one god?

      But maybe the design isn’t like a watch after all? Maybe the order we see is mechanical at all. Maybe the universe is more like a squash or a mushroom than a watch.

      Thus Hume demolished Paley and his version of the teleological argument.

      But the two versions by St Thomas in the ST and “On Truth” are very different specimens than Paley’s. Honestly, I need to give your most excellent comment some more thought so that I can respond more intelligently! Yesterday morning I looked at the Fifth Way in the Summa and wasn’t that impressed. But I don’t think St Thomas expected that much from it either. It’s a deflationary argument, seems to me: “Therefore, some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.” I guess Hume would say, some intelligent being? Why argue that? Maybe there are a bunch of intelligent beings? Or not so intelligent beings when you see evidence of bad design?

      But it’s the “On Truth” version that is more germane to St Athanasius, isn’t it? I need to chew on it for a bit.

      I welcome clarification!!!!!

      Like

      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        Paley’s “watchmaker” argument overly relies on end states, rather than processes. Out universe is, in fact, highly ordered, in that it operates according to uniform, regular, elegantly mathematical rules, and the complex life we see has indeed evolved from more simple precisely because the ordered rules of the universe enable it.
        The epicurean argument is contra evolution etc, rather than for it, in that it asserts no overall cause and effect, rule-based order for the universe, but simple chance conglomerations of matter with no underlying principle of operation behind it.

        Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.