Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Holger Essler, Glückselig und unsterblich: epikureische Theologie bei Cicero und Philodem (mit einer Edition von Pherc. 152/157, Kol. 8-10). Schwabe Epicurea, 2. Basel: Schwabe Verlag, 2011. Pp. 399. ISBN 9783796526008. €60.00.

Reviewed by David Armstrong, University of Texas, Austin

Version at BMCR home site

This important study lays the ground for its author's proposed edition of Philodemus On the Gods III, which has not been edited and commented on as a whole since Diels (1916). Almost the whole doxography of Epicureanism in antiquity suggests, taken literally, that the gods the sect believed in as basic constituents of reality, though no more visible or perceptible than atoms and void, are no less clearly visible to mind and reason. They live in spaces between organized planetary systems (metakosmia, intermundia). They are individual three-dimensional beings, made of fine matter inaccessible to the senses; so that if, per impossibile, we were able to visit the intermundia by space travel, they would still be invisible to us. They do present themselves as images to our mind, however, and these images, if correctly reasoned about, are beneficial to us to think about and even worship. They do not interfere either for good or evil in the goings-on of planetary systems and their inhabitants; and yet they entirely deserve reverence because of their blessedness and indestructibility, the contemplation of which is a delight and model for the wise.

Some modern students of Epicureanism hold that this "realist" account of the gods is a later invention. The Founder really taught that the gods are mere thought-constructs by human beings, made by selecting from the storm of images visible and latent all round us the images of indestructibility and blessedness, that help us realize our best selves. A. A. Long, David Sedley and Dirk Obbink hold this view, the "idealist" theory.

Essler's book is polemical in intention. He finds it impossible, now that he has a text far superior to anything Diels could make from the resources then available, to edit On the Gods III and still leave any form whatever of the "idealist" theory in place to impede his progress. The pylons and girders with which Essler builds his road to triumph for the "realist" theory are very deeply grounded in Einzelfragen, sources, text-criticism of sources, and secondary literature. Arguments about details still clutter, here and there, even his statement of conclusions ("Schluss", 331-43), though they at last fade out for a satisfying and convincing statement of Essler's own version of "realism" (344-58). This eloquently argued final conclusion, as well as the exciting and beautifully edited excerpt from cols. 8-10 of On the Gods III (246-330), should win the book wide readership.

To me the most important weakness in the "idealist" view is that—though Long and Sedley claim "(Epicurus') inspired suggestion that god is a projection of man's own ethical ideal can be ranked with the most impressive theological theories of antiquity"1—their theory seems merely to reflect the Cartesian sense of isolated selfhood in the universe characteristic of every advanced Western society since the late 17th century. To Essler the important thing is that it contradicts the source-texts, Philodemus' in particular, and he means to take no prisoners and leave no counterexamples standing. After a review of the secondary literature to date and a statement of purpose (10-32), Essler proceeds to the following principal points.

(1) Cicero was wrong to make Velleius argue (ND 1.44) that Epicureans believe that the human mind harbors innate preconceptions of the gods, which to Long-Sedley partisans are all that can guarantee we have the right general notions about the gods instead of fantasies like those we have of giants or centaurs. There has to be at least an internal reality behind our thoughts of them that keeps our visions of the gods in order as those of giants and centaurs are not kept in order, since all three categories are equally without counterpart in external reality. But innate preconceptions are alien to the structure of Epicurean general notions or prolepseis: an illegitimate importation from Stoicism. Or we might take with Asmis, Konstan and others the words insitas vel potius innatas (notiones, prolepseis) to refer to "acquired or rather naturally formed" ideas of what a god is, rather than "ingrafted or rather innate" ideas.2 But Essler, who has a low opinion of the accuracy of Cicero's mouthpieces for Epicureanism as well as that of their critics in the dialogues,3 prefers to blame Cicero for the confusion (33-56, 148-87).

(2) The subtleties of Velleius' attempt to characterize the divine substance as formed and nourished by images and having not flesh4 and blood but quasi corpus and quasi sanguis do not mean that the gods are mere mental images. They spring from the "realist" theory itself, that the gods are made of atoms too fine to be perceptible to the senses, yet can send down clear and distinctly characteristic images of themselves to our minds. The difficulties come in evaluating our own perception of the gods ("Wahrnehmung") and in ascertaining that this perception is not mere random combination of subliminal images as in the case of centaurs, but conveys an externally existing reality. They are not difficulties about how the gods themselves exist ("Existenzweise") (57-66, 131-47). Nothing in the texts that have mainly provoked argument so far supports the idea that the gods are mere confluences of images. We receive images from them as from other external realities (67-131).

Essler builds his most telling arguments on his new text of On the Gods III 8-10, which shows clearly that the gods dwell in the intermundia and exhorts its readers to revere interstellar space as a truer temple and shrine for the gods than those we build for them. Therefore he emphasizes that the texts about the gods consistently present them as living, animate beings with bodies, not as mere ideas (212-28). In particular: (1) the Epicureans themselves criticize such ideas of the gods as mere concepts inside us and reject them in other philosophers; (2) Epicurean theories of "true" verified perceptions whether mental or physical require that the gods are external to us, not merely within us; (3) everything we learn from Philodemus (who is following Hermarchus, Epicurus' successor as scholarch) in On the Gods III about their lifestyle and dwelling places takes for granted their real existence as animate individual beings who live in a real place (228-34). The evidence shows that Epicurus himself said the gods live both "outside our world" and "in the intermundia". This is already made clear in PHerc 1055, a theological treatise (by Demetrius Laco?), well edited by Mariacarolina Santoro as La Forma del Dio (Naples, 2000), especially cols. 20-2. (The passage already forced her as editor into affirming the same "realism" as Essler's.) On the Gods III, 8.5-10.6 (the famous "star-gods" passage, marked off in the papyrus as a separate chapter by marginal signs) now unambiguously says that people mistake images of the gods on their way down from interstellar space for their mere reflections on the surface of stars "deified by men,5 . . . (like) Helios and Selene" (8.42-9.2), just as a small reflection in a mirror of something larger is perceived to be at the mirror's distance, not its own. Also, that it is the metakosmia we should venerate as being more truly the divine dwelling- places than temples and shrines on earth. That's impressive proof. And Essler's text as a whole now looks like providing a lot more evidence to support "realism".

It remains for Essler to explain at the end why the Epicureans should have venerated such gods, adding a step—as materialist philosophers usually do not—above mankind in the "great chain of being" without need or use, as has been complained both in ancient and modern times. Long—in this not unlike Cicero's Cotta—called the "realist" theory "so childish a doctrine" one could hardly take it seriously.6 Essler leaves himself only pp. 354-58 ("Götteratome") at the end to argue that these gods would be something better than what Cicero and the "idealists" accuse them of being, privileged extraterrestrials with nothing to do but enjoy each other's company and their own tranquility. But he makes a good start. Our eyes fail to see heat, breath, spirit and the "unnamable" (akatonomaston) element that creates sensation and perception, the four indispensable constituents of life and reason in us in Epicurean theory. Whether the gods are made of these fine atoms alone, or also a fifth still finer element peculiar to them and still less accessible to perception, the image-atoms (like our "photons") that they give out are distinguishable from those of fantasy pictures like centaurs by having a stable external source the mind can reliably identify as divine, happy and indestructible. But how do they benefit us?

Essler (357-8) thinks they benefit us merely by being there and being mentally perceptible, following a theory of Adam Drozdek that they are forever adding "life and intelligibility" to the whole universe at the macro-level.7 "Thus," Essler claims, "the Epicurean gods—without intent and without effort—exercise a beneficent effect on mankind. Because they, like all objects, send images out, they help mankind to form a picture of the happy life and keep an ideal before the mind's eye to which the wise can approach. And indeed it appears even the mental absorption of their images—and of the divine atoms with them—is beneficial to mankind. Indeed one might speculate that these atoms have a stabilizing effect on the structure of our soul-atoms" (my translation), an effect which we can cultivate and intensify by attending the right kind of religious services (cf. Diog. Oen. fr. 19.2.6-11), without false notions of reward or punishment attached to our piety or impiety. But if we keep these false notions (cf. Lucr. 6.75-9) we alone are responsible, not the gods, for the pain and damage to us that results.

To save this remarkable statement merely for the last page or two is unsatisfying. One wants Essler to parse more fully its implications for the philosophy as a whole, as against those of what I would call the Cartesian and solipsistic "idealist" theory –implications that there is a lot more to the Epicurean universe than mere res extensa, indeed that it has a permanent and secure place above and outside us for res cogitans. But a solidly built and admirable foundation is laid in this book for further work, and above all for the far superior text Essler is producing of On the Gods III as a whole.8


1.   A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge 1987) 1.147.
2.   For a very civil debate from the "idealist" and "realist" sides turning on this point see the articles by Sedley and David Konstan in K. Sanders and J. Fish, eds., Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition [EET] (Cambridge 2011), 29-52, 53-71.
3.   Cf. Essler's article in EET 129-51, which argues that Cicero knew the objections Philodemus answers about Epicurean theology—but not Philodemus' actual answers.
4.   Essler incorporates the important insight of Sanders (Mnemosyne 57, 2004, 215-18) that Velleius is saying the gods have quasi-flesh and quasi-blood: he's not doubting they have bodies.
5.   The text of col. VIII. 42-3 now says these stars are "deified by men", apotetheômenôn anthrôp[ois (Delattre-Biencourt), not anthrôp[ôn, "stars of deified men" (Scott), which confused Diels and others into thinking of Julius Caesar's comet of 44 BCE. To Essler we're talking not about "catasterisms" but planetary gods, as the parallel reference to Helios and Selene in Forma del Dio 20 makes certain.
6.   Essler 344, from Long, "Epicureans and Stoics" in A. H. Armstrong, ed., Classical Mediterranean Spirituality (London 1986) 135-53 at 143.
7.   A. Drozdek, "Epicurean Gods", Classica and Mediaevalia 56 (2005) 155-66 at 164-6.
8.   Any faults remaining in this review are my responsibility, but I must thank M. Wigodsky, besides his articles on related topics listed in Essler's bibliography, for his personal help with some details of it.

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