Epicurus recommended to his acolytes that they not fear God. The fact that he lived from 341-271BCE means that by mentioning ‘God’, it is not necessarily the god that springs to mind when we read that statement. Why?
1. Christianity’s official start date came 271 years after the mortal demise of Epicurus,
2. The Prophet Mohammed was born in 570 AD, 841 years after the death of our illustrious philosopher, so his godly teachings were of a later thought set,
3. Depending on whom you are listening to, the Exodus of The Old Testament took place in either the 13th or 15th Century B.C., making the Old Testament tales quite ancient indeed, and as Judaism uses the same first five books as their holy book, The Torah, we are talking about the same god, yet again, i.e. a god of hell-fire and brimstone.
4. The ‘god’ that Epicurus referred to in his writings must have been influenced by the gods of Ancient Greece, i.e. Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo and that gluttonous, grape juice-quaffing Dionysus. They weren’t always such a nice bunch.
As Epicurus must have been had the precepts of Ancient Greek theology directing his thought processes, let’s look at why he might have thought that man feared god/s in the first place.
According to mythology, Zeus, the head honcho of Ancient Greek heaven, had a thunderbolt that he’d fire at mere mortals whenever they did something he didn’t agree with. That story is enough to make anyone quake in a thunderstorm, although rationale should tell them that a thunderstorm affects more than just one person so if you believe what you read, a whole cloud-covered region must have annoyed Big Old Zeus at any one thundering time.
If you were a Greek who sailed for a living, you’d be careful to make lots of flashy offerings to the almighty Poseidon, god of the sea, lest he decide that you and your sailor friends have upset him, encouraging him to stir up a shipwrecking storm.
Hades, god of the Underworld, was a pretty unhappy chap who never felt the need for charm. He kidnapped his wife, Persephone, holding her to ransom in his very own hell, where he spent his time ruling over the Dead. He only liked people who added to his population, presumably murderers and warmongers. Not exactly the sort of god you want infiltrating your dreams.
Speaking of warmongers, Aris, son of Zeus and Hera, was god of war. In fact, he was so nasty that neither of his parents liked him. Oh dear.
Then there was Athena, goddess of war, who popped out of Zeus’s head one day when he had a headache. If you read the mythological accounts, it sounds like a particularly painful way to give birth. On top of which, in spite of Athena’s numerous attributes, she was a dab hand at flinging Zeus’s weapons about when she’d had a bad day.
And if the people displeased Demeter, she might go off in a huff causing crops to wither.
That’s just a basic summary of some of the gods Epicurus was dealing with when he said we shouldn’t fear them. No wonder there was agitation among the people! If we believed in such tales today, we’d all be nervous wrecks with sleepless nights before a harvest, concerned that our every human error could elicit devastation, quaking under tables during thunderstorms and signing up for cryogenic burials, lest we should be confronted by the wrath of Hades.
Now that we’re clear on what the problem was, what did Epicurus want us to do about it? In a nutshell, the Wise Man himself realised that the gods were nothing but representations of human ideals that we could aspire to. Having said that, I don’t know if I’d strive to be like Aris, although George Dubbya is almost there…
So, if we’re dealing with ideals, as opposed to real entities, there is surely nothing to fear apart from our own imagination.
Epicurus also sought out scientific explanations to explain things like earthquakes and thunder, so that his followers could wake up to the fact that just because there’s a storm today doesn’t mean we’ve upset a celestial being somewhere. His thoughts were so new at the time that for some poor, nail-biting folk they must have been the equivalent of philosophical prozac.
Lastly, some say that Epicurus taught his following about the presence of evil in the world. Given that in teaching the concept of evil, he referred to the benevolent gods by way of contrast, I wonder which gods he was talking about?