The Epicurians

In the previous article we considered some of the overlap of the Bible with the Stoick doctrines. In this article we will briefly consider the Epicurean doctrines. The Epicureans, like other philosophers, liked to discuss different ideas about how the world worked to find the true purpose of life and what is the most profitable thing to do. They took their name from Epicurus, their founder, who lived from 341–270BC, the time when Alexander the Great and his generals ruled the Greek empire as described in Daniel 11.

Epicurus maintained that old and young should study philosophy, by which he meant they should contemplate what are wise actions a person should take in life. He also welcomed women and slaves to learn at his school which he called ‘the garden’ because his own garden in Athens was used as the centre of educational efforts.

He taught that deity is an imperishable and blessed being, and said “the opinions held by most people about the gods are not true conceptions of them… The masses, by assimilating the gods in every respect to their own moral qualities, accept deities similar to themselves and regard anything not of this sort as alien” (Epicurus’ letter to Menoeceus). This is a similar sentiment to Acts 17:29.

Much of his philosophy was based on his physics. He taught that the universe was infinite and eternal; all matter was made of invisible particles called atoms, and everything was the result of atoms moving and interacting in empty space. On this basis he said that at death a body’s decay is the result of the atoms separating and as a result there is no consciousness after death.

Epicurus also taught that death is nothing because good and evil lies in sensation, and since death is without sensation, so society should not spend its life yearning for deathlessness: “As long as we are existent, death is not present and whenever it is present we are non-existent. Thus it is of no concern either to the living or to those who have completed their lives” (Letter to Menoeceus).

He taught that mankind should maintain doing things that cause happiness, because when we have happiness we have everything. By this he didn’t mean to seek pleasure in the way our world seeks pleasure by following lust. To quote again from his letter to Menoeceus: “Thus when I say that pleasures are the goal of living I do not mean the pleasures of the libertines or the pleasures inherent in positive enjoyment, as is supposed by certain persons who are ignorant of our doctrine or who are not in agreement with it or who interpret it perversely. I mean, on the contrary, the pleasure that consists in freedom from bodily pain and mental agitation. The pleasant life is not the product of one drinking party after another…or of the sea food and other delicacies afforded by a luxurious table. On the contrary, it is the result of sober thinking—namely, investigation of the reasons for every act of choice and aversion and elimination of those false ideas about the gods and death which are the chief source of mental disturbances.”

It was a doctrine that was designed to eliminate anxiety and mental nervousness over a fearful and torrid afterlife depicted by Greek mythology following death. When the Apostle Paul stood up and addressed the Athenians he attempted to illustrate the folly of their idols but emphasised the point that God “hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). Death might be a state of unconsciousness, but there will be a resurrection afterwards for those who are responsible before God.

Epicurus thought that pleasure is only necessary when we feel pain. If we feel no pain, we need no pleasure. Accordingly, mankind should aim for this neutral state, that is, a state where there is an absence of pain and stress. He taught there are times to forego certain pleasures, particularly when they are followed by too much unpleasantness.

Some things he got surprisingly right, based on his observations of the world and his experience in society. It should be noted that without the insight available from God in His Word, and as with all Greek philosophy (wisdom), there was no way the Greek philosophers were able to save people from death, and so all of them ultimately failed to find the ultimate good.

The Apostle Paul was aware of these teachings and drew upon some of their thoughts when he addressed them in Athens. In Acts 17:24-26, Paul explained Bible teaching about God and exhorted his audience to search for Him and find Him (v27). His address filled in the missing parts in their quest to search for the purpose of life. The most profitable thing to do is to search out the purpose of God in creating everything.

In verse 28 he quotes two well known poets. Epimenides of Crete and Aratus in that order. For your interest the first part of the poem of Aratas titled Phenomena is here:

Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.

For every street, every market-place is full of god.

Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.

Everywhere everyone is indebted to god.

For we are indeed his offspring…

In the original Greek, the words for god and deity here are also Zeus, but it is necessary to note that the word Zeus is used in two ways. One sense is in the way we use the word god, for example the god Baal, or God the creator. Zeus is used in this way as the creator who made all things. The other sense in which Zeus is used is as one of the main 12 Greek gods. When a writer wants to clearly specify this second meaning he will write ‘Olympian Zeus’ referring to the fact this is the Zeus who lived on Mount Olympus. In Athens there is a temple to the Olympian Zeus which was built in AD130. The translator of the poem above has taken the former meaning, though left the first one as the original Greek.

As we saw in Epicurus’ letter, he believed in a creator, but not the gods of Greek mythology. In Acts 17:29 Paul tells them not to think of God as an image made by man. This idea was wrong even by basic logic and should be abandoned. Instead, mankind should repent because judgment is coming, and we know this, argues Paul, because God raised Jesus from the dead.

In verse 32, some mocked, it seems because they believed resurrection to be impossible, but some believed (v34). They decided to seek after God, looking for further evidence, searching out the details as he said in verse 27.

This is all that is recorded in Athens which, compared with other speeches, is quite brief. Interestingly, the main streets around the acropolis of Athens today are named Apostolou Pavlou (Apostle Paul with Greek pronunciation) and Dionysiou Areapagitou. There is a bronze plaque with Acts 17:22-32 in Greek on the side of Areos Pagos (The rock of Aries).

While Paul was in Athens, it’s quite clear he wrote 1 Thessalonians because we know from chapter 3:1-2,6 that Timothy had come from that place to Paul in Athens with good news (v6). The footnote to 2 Thessalonians says it was also written from Athens, although we don’t know for how long Paul was in Athens. Perhaps Timothy delivered the first letter alone to Thessaloniki, then returned to Athens; then Paul, Silas and Timothy wrote the second letter (they co-authored both letters). This resulted in Timothy and Silas returning to Thessaloniki with the second letter, while Paul went to Corinth alone (Acts 18:1).