Home > Belief > The Wisdom of Epicurus (341 B.C. – 270 B.C.)

The Wisdom of Epicurus (341 B.C. – 270 B.C.)

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?

-Epicurus (341 B.C. – 270 B.C.)

This is the so-called “Riddle of Epicurus”, and I would like to take a minute to address this. This is going to be a long entry, and I ask the readers to indulge me. I will try to make it worth their while.

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.”

Epicurus’ riddle opens here, and from this statement we can divine (no pun intended) some facts about him. First, he did not believed in God. That in itself is quite surprising, as he existed thousands of years ago. There was absolutely nothing that we would recognize today as scientific research, and very little of what we would recognize as critical thinking and/or philosophy. It was a common acceptance that there was a God, and the fact that there was evil led him to question the validity of a higher power.

The second thing that we are able to obviously deduce is that he believed in evil, or at least understood that others believed in evil and attributed it to a single being. You may be shaking your head in disbelief at my awesome deductive powers, but I believe it needs to be said, as the rest of the entry rides on these two premises. These two concepts contrast powerfully, as both struggle against one another.

Additionally, these two beliefs tell us a third thing.

Amazingly, in the absence of scientific knowledge and logical answers, Epicurus saw no specific reason to attribute a supernatural cause to everything that happened. This drive to attribute a supernatural cause to things is what drives modern day religious peoples. When you don’t know, and you have no reason (or way) to find the answer, you attribute it to something of a higher power, because it is beyond your understanding. It is testament (again, no pun) to the wisdom of Epicurus that he was able to see the errors of Judaic thinking thousands of yeas before any of us were even born. His questions still stand today, and Christians have no more real answers now than they did then.

This requirement for supernatural justification (and vilification, as we will see) is not a surprising concept for people of Epicurus’ time, but it is an unacceptable concept now. It is unacceptable not because it attributes anything to religion (though that is reason enough in its own), but because holding this belief intentionally quells the search for answers and hinders the quest for further knowledge. By attributing something to a “higher power”, there is an implication that the answers or knowledge just “aren’t there”, or that things happen because “the lord works in mysterious ways,” and this is simply not the case.

Many Christians refuse to believe in evolution, or the big bang because they don’t understand them. They believe evolution claims that we are direct descendants of monkeys, or that the big bang claims earth was created in an instant. They don’t understand however, that these theories don’t claim that at all, and that religious texts of all faiths claim things even more ridiculous than their own misunderstandings of evolution and the big bang theory.

Speaking of theories, it could be said that Christianity (and all of its modern incarnations) is simply a theory as well. Remember, a theory can never be proven true. It can simply NOT be proven wrong time and again through rigorous testing. Epicurus disproved the theory of Christianity with a slew of simply phrased questions and answers, while the theories of evolution and the creation of the universe have held up to both scientific and mathematical scrutiny. The only people who seem to be “capable” of proving them wrong are those who are emotionally invested in the “rightness” of their own religious faith.

Epicurus was specifically questioning the Christian and Jewish faiths, and so there is where we will concentrate our exploration of his question. Additionally, we will confine our discussion to the broad scopes of Christianity and Judaism, without delving into specific offshoots such as Mormonism, Kabballah or Protestantism.

We are going to concentrate on the Judeo-Christian faiths not because other faiths have no concept of evil (they do), but because Epicurus was not a Buddhist or Taoist, or a Scientologist. As a matter of fact, we can make a pretty safe assumption that he probably never even heard of these religions. We will concentrate on faiths based on the Old Testament (and these include the New Testament faiths as well). Epicurus was not Indian or Greek, or Nordic, and so whether you are or not, we will not discuss those faiths here today.

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.”

The concept of God being “all-powerful” is the core of religious belief. After all, if he (and I say “he” only because that conforms to centuries of the Judeo-Christian belief system) isn’t all-powerful then he is no better than man (and woman, but simply stated as “man” from here on). The concept of God being impotent and/or handicapped forces a comparison between man and God. The ability to compare both man and God on equal footing robs the God concept of the divinity necessary to uphold belief. It makes God fallible, and that simply can’t be.

We don’t worship things that we can touch. I hate to have to point that out, as obvious as it seems, but worship requires faith. Faith requires something intangible. Bear with me here. If everything were tangible, it would simply be called proof. And faith is the distinct belief in something that requires no proof. You have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow (or, actually, that the Earth will continue turning), though it could be struck by a giant meteor while you sleep. You have faith that when you flick your light-switch, the power will come on. You are surprised when it doesn’t.

Faith is important. Without faith life would be a series of uncertain guesses, with mankind fumbling in the dark for the proverbial light switch. But we have outgrown our dependence on invisible friends and father figures that watch us from above, judging our moves.
Our scope and vision are too broad to require God. Indeed, our scope of knowledge has grown so large that to still believe requires a suspension of intelligence and willfully stepping forward without sight or knowledge. That alone should make any god unworthy of worship. When belief retards progress, it is time to set belief aside.

“Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.”

Again assuming God’s existence for the sake of Epicurus’ argument, you cannot call God “good”, if there is evil that he is unwilling to prevent. If you have the power to intervene at no cost to yourself, and choose not to, then you cannot be acting in a positive manner. You are at best indifferent, and at most, evil or malevolent. If you choose to let a child be hit by a bus, or choose to let someone die of cancer or kidney disease when you have the power to prevent it, then you are no better (and perhaps no worse) than the cause of the suffering itself.

Christian apologists will try to answer this by spouting platitudes about “free-will”, and the fact that Man (Eve, actually) was responsible for the “original sin”, but the book of Genesis tells another story. Satan (Lucifer, the Morning Star, whatever) was responsible for the original sin. It does not say that explicitly, but he was there as the tempter long before Eve even knew who Satan was. He rebelled against God long before man came into the picture. Satan had to be responsible for the first sin, or there would have been no one around to tempt Eve. Additionally, Eve ate from the “tree of knowledge”. Had there been no evil (and therefore no sin and no temptation), there would have been nothing but innocence and no reason NOT to eat from the tree.

And, frankly, if God is all-knowing, then he knew that Eve was going to eat the apple, knew Satan was going to tempt her, and again did nothing to prevent it. So where is the sin, if it was all pre-ordained?

If God is unable to prevent evil then he is unworthy of the title of Lord. So to be able to prevent evil, and still allow it, then he must be unwilling, and thus malevolent himself. So, either he is all-powerful and there is evil because he allows it, or there is evil and there is nothing he can do about it.

“Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?”

Succinctly, were God able and willing to prevent evil, then it would not exist. This presents a logical paradox, as according to Epicurus (and millions upon millions of Judeo-Christians), evil exists. So which is it? Obviously, it cannot be both as the problem of evil is supposed to be
much larger than man.

This logical paradox is the biggest problem of any religion. It is only as our culture matures and progresses that we become aware of the myriad of cultures and cultural experiences that surround us. The internet and mass communication have made the exploration of thousands of religions easy for anyone with a little bit of intellectual curiosity and the willingness to step outside of their spiritual comfort zone.

You will see, through moderate research, that the problem of evil is the crux of disbelief in any monotheistic religion. Polytheistic religions have it easy. They can simply invent a separate God for everything, and claim that disputes among them are responsible for everything from miscarriages to blight and floods.

But to be monotheistic* requires that all of this fall on one person (being?). Consequently, there needs be a scapegoat. There has to be someone to blame it all on, or God becomes fallible. We require evil, just as we require good. More on that later, but in literary sense, it makes a good story.

Movies and books are full of “classic” examples of good and evil. From Shakespeare to Star Wars, the heroes have all worn white and been fair-haired, exactly as the Catholic Church portrayed Jesus Christ in the middle ages. This concept is imbued into our collective consciousness.

Those of us that have any concept of geography must know that Jesus had olive-brown skin, dark (black?) hair and brown eyes. Can you imagine trying to smuggle an Aryan baby out of the Middle East? He would have been too easy to find (unless you attribute that to another “miracle”). Even our concept of Jesus doesn’t fit, and people get offended when you tell them that Jesus looked Middle-Eastern or Black.

“Is he neither able nor willing?Then why call him God?”

This is again back to the question of omnipotence. We all know the answer to this one, as every question prior to this has led us to this exact point. Evil and God cannot exist together if the way that Christians and Jews have portrayed God is correct. Either he is all-powerful and malevolent, or he is good and impotent. That’s assuming his existence at all. I prefer to believe (call it “faith”) that he doesn’t exist at all.

A little bit ago, I said I would come back to the necessity of evil. I would like to do so now. Not literal evil, as though there were such a thing, but the evil mentioned in the Bible.

If you were talking to someone who was born blind, how would you explain the darkness? How would you explain the light? You can tell them that one is the opposite of another, but there is no reference because there is no scope of experience.  After all, what meaning does light have if you have nothing to contrast it with?

It is the same thing with religion. If you have no concept of evil, then the supposed good of God has no meaning or value. There is (again) nothing to contrast it with. Likewise, if there is no good, there is nothing to define evil. It is a dichotomy, as one is completely dependent on the other, just as light it dependent upon dark. Were there no evil, there would be no drive behind the spreading of Christianity, and no reason for the entire book of revelations.

The book of revelations exists for no other reason than to scare Christians into submission by previewing the horrors of the “end-times”, then offering an escape clause through salvation. If you are a Christian, ask yourself what the book of revelations would mean if there were no salvation. It would be nothing more than a bulleted listing of all of the evils that were going to befall you. A virtual laundry list of damnation. It is only through the promise of Heaven that there seems to be any light at the end of the supposed tunnel.

What would salvation mean then, if there were nothing to save you from? As you can see, we are again back to that dichotomy, where one concept is dependent upon the other. Sort of a religious house of cards. Pull one and the other falls. There is a requirement of salvation through the Lord, and a threat of punishment and everlasting hellfire without it. You cannot instill a sense of discipline without the promise of both reward and punishment.

I also said that I would come back to the concept of vilification. Humans are cause-oriented. Our drive to see how and why things work the way that they do has led us to assign reasons for natural and “supernatural” events.  When something was outside of our powers of explanation, religion led us to form these elaborate constructs of reasons that we attributed to the actions in question. This was fine two thousand years ago. It was okay to say that God blocked out the sun as punishment for wickedness. It was okay to believe that a virgin sacrifice appeased him.

Now, of course, we know that eclipses happen as a regular part of the celestial patterns. the moon orbits the Earth. It will occasionally come between it and the sun. These things happen. We hand our children cardboard glasses with pinholes and enjoy the show.  Today, we understand that an earthquake is not punishment for moral ambiguity, but is the result of plate tectonics.

Still, though, the uneducated see the need to blame “God” or “Satan” or man for natural events. Several prominent television preachers claimed that hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for homosexuality. In all actuality, it was a cyclonic air-mass moving over a port city that was below sea level. Nothing more. Combine that with the fact that the levees weren’t maintained because the money for maintenance was squandered, and the storm was worse than experts predicted, and you now have the recipe for disaster. Unless you happen to be a preacher. Then it obviously happened because Tommy is in love with Billy.

In summation, evil and good exist simply to define each other. Evil must exist for good to mean anything and good must exist for evil to mean anything. If God is all powerful, then he would be able to eradicate evil. Therefore, if evil exists (and according to people of Epicurus’ time it must), then God is either impotent and unworthy of worship, or malevolent and not really loving.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Of course, all of this is dependent upon “His” existence. These questions and problems go away if you simply realize that there is no “all-powerful” creator. There is no man in the sky. I am a little sorry for that, but greatly relieved (another topic altogether, for another day). If you do the research yourself, you can answer all of your own questions about evolution, creation, how we came to be, and see the problems and contradictions brought about by all religions. Basically, you have to be willing to think for yourself, and put your beliefs to the test.

If you can put your beliefs to the test, and come out stronger, then your beliefs have obviously withheld scrutiny and are worth holding. If they are discarded, and a new set of beliefs or understandings take their place then you have taken the next step towards becoming a free thinker. I hope to see you along my journey in the search for the real truth.

*Let us clear something up. Christianity is technically a poly-theistic religion. You have three forms of God, each worshiped, and an antagonist in Satan, who, while not normally worshiped, is still a diving being. That’s a minimum of four divine characters. Depending on your flavor of Christianity, you may (or may not) worship saints, the virgin Mary and Mother Theresa. So much for “One True God”.
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  1. cfh
    March 10, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    Good read, nice conclusions you came to. Epicurus was Greek, which you could say actually made him braver in challenging a god or gods due to Socrates death years earlier.

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