10 May, 2012

Epicurus, Lucretius, and Thomas Jefferson

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

Attributed to Epicurus, circa 300 BCE

In the strictest sense, Epicurus probably was not an Atheist.  He at least claimed to believe in the gods of ancient Greece, but at the same time curiously asserted that they were not at all concerned with humankind.  Being gods, what need might they have of us, or concern as to how we lived?

Other contributions of Epicurus include the promotion and further explanation of the atomist hypotheses generally attributed to Democritus, an early stab at a hypothesis of evolution, and the supposition that the earth was not the center of the “world”, nor for that matter was the sun.  Rather, he wrote, the stars were all suns like ours, and as such they would be surrounded by planets like our earth which would be inhabited by “other races”.  Further, he asserted, death was not to be feared – for we were dead before we were born.  Death was simply the atoms which composed our body rearranging themselves once again.  (And all this 300 years before a questionable and gory series of events in Palestine set human progress back at least a thousand years.

He may be best known however for his philosophy that living a life of pleasure was the highest ideal to which we can aspire.  By “pleasure” Epicurus was not referring to copious amounts of rich food, great wine, or sex, but rather to the simpler pleasures of learning, discourse, moderation, and living without fear.

Only three letters and a few small scraps of his writing is all we have left of Epicurus; all, except for the epic poem On the Nature of Things by the Roman writer and philosopher Lucretius.  The Roman’s work itself was nearly lost to us, only to be retrieved in the 15th century by Poggio Bracciolini, a Papal secretary.  Many historians credit the rediscovery of Lucretius’ work with providing an impetus for:  first the Renaissance, and later the Enlightenment.  We know that many Enlightenment figures such as Montaigne, Locke, and Diderot owned copies of, and made frequent reference to, On the Nature of Things.

And here’s the thing:  Thomas Jefferson owned at least five copies of the multi-volume poem, and referred to it frequently.  You certainly recall his phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”, the last phrase of which is pure Epicurus.

In the past, upon reading Jefferson’s phrase “Nature and Nature’s God…”, I have always assumed he was making a reference to the Deist god, a deity which after the act of creation went off to play Bridge, or perhaps badminton or something, with the other gods and was thus unconcerned with mere mortals or anything else in nature.  (Sorry Christian revisionists, T.J. was not one of you.) What if, however, Jefferson was instead referring to Einstein’s god; nature and the laws of nature themselves?  Einstein was familiar with Lucretius and thus Epicurean thought, just as was Jefferson.  I recently found what could be considered at least strong circumstantial evidence:

In a letter to William Short, dated October 31, 1819, Jefferson answered in response to an inquiry as to his guiding philosophy, “I am an Epicurean.”  Further, “I consider the genuine (not imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy…” In his diary, John Quincy Adams attributed a similar response to Jefferson during an 1807 dinner conversation.  At the very least we can rule out Christianity as being at the core of the author of the Declaration’s moral core.

Proof?  Perhaps not.  Stronger evidence however than the Cult of Torture and Human Sacrifice can offer, and that is a start.


  1. Amazing to me that Epicurus was able to figure that all out so long ago without the benefit of recent scientific discoveries.

    That info about "TJ" just increases my admiration of the man.

    I am currently reading the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and while he talks a lot about god, it is quite obvious from the majority of his comments he was not a member of the Cult of the Jewish Zombie. My mom, an enthusiastic member of that cult, just read the same book and came away with the opposite impression. Confirmation bias?

  2. re: "By “pleasure” Epicurus was not referring to copious amounts of rich food, great wine, or sex, but rather to the simpler pleasures of learning, discourse, moderation, and living without fear."
    Truthfully, this is not what I was taught in government school.


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