In her book, Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity, the philosopher Catharine Wilson has asserted that “we are all, in a sense, Epicureans now.” The biblical scholar N. T. Wright quotes Wilson, and calls her assessment “spot on.”
When I was a young man, I thought Epicureans were people who ate foods with names I couldn’t pronounce at restaurants I couldn’t afford. And indeed, Webster’s “simple” definition of Epicurean is “Involving an appreciation of fine food and drink.” But we are clearly not all Epicureans in that sense. So what does Wilson mean?
She means that the worldview of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus has won the day. Epicurus, who lived three centuries before Christ, taught that God (or the gods) are irrelevant to our lives. Everything we see and are is but a chance and temporary configuration of atoms that is destined to dissolve and be reconfigured.
Epicurus, as popularized by his first century B.C.E. disciple Lucretius, saw no need for a God or gods to create the cosmos. If there is a God, he does not care about humanity, does not answer prayers and offers no judgment on individuals. The best humans can do is avoid as much pain and enjoy as much pleasure as possible, for as long as possible.
God, if he exists (and Epicurus does seem to believe in some kind of detached deity or deities) does not live in our zip code. He may live (to borrow an analogy from Wright) on an upper story of our building, but the stairs have collapsed and the elevator is out of order. God, in Lucretius’s Epicureanism, does not care about us, and we do not need him.
This is the view that, according to Catherine Wilson, dominates our day. It is taken for granted on college campuses, both in the sciences and in the humanities. It is the orthodox view of modern secularism, and provides the philosophical foundation for atheism, old and new.
Many people believe that science has produced this modern and enlightened view of things, but one could argue that the truth lies in exactly the opposite direction. It was an ancient and unscientific (in the modern sense) philosophy that produced modern scientists, who conduct their inquiries having already concluded that God is not involved. That is a philosophical assumption, not a scientific deduction.
It is important to realize that Epicureanism has never been the only philosophical game in town, though its contemporary dominance, as Wilson asserted, is clear. In the ancient world, Epicureans shared the stage with Stoics, Sophists, Platonists and others.
Indeed, in the first century, the Apostle Paul squared off against Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at Athens. His view, founded on Jewish monotheism, made claims that flatly contradicted those of Epicureanism: The God who created and sustains the world has entered the world to redeem it through Jesus Christ. His resurrection is proof that God has come among us.
The Epicureans debated St. Paul, though it is not at all clear that they understood him. They eventually resorted to name-calling, as some contemporary Epicureans have also been known to do. And that is, is some ways, the point post-modern Americans need to keep in mind: today’s cultural debates are nothing new. They are not the result of science versus obscurantism or reason verses religion, or modern enlightenment verses ancient naiveté, as is so often portrayed. They are the result of competing philosophical approaches to life.
Because that is true, it is not enough, not nearly enough, to ask if modern science is right, since modern science is conducted and interpreted through a philosophical worldview. We need to go further and ask which worldview best depicts reality. One can utterly reject Epicurean philosophy and still value science and hold it in high regard. But one cannot accept Christianity, with its central belief in a creator and redeemer, without utterly rejecting Epicureanism.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/16/2015