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Charles Darwin and the Ghost of Epicurus

Photo: Epicurus, in The Louvre, by Sting, CC BY-SA 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a new series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham, “Charles Darwin and the Ghost of Epicurus.” This is the first article in the series. Look here for the full series so far. Professor Thomas’s recent book is Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design (Discovery Institute Press).

Strange as it might at first appear, Darwinism, when viewed from a philosophical perspective, might more accurately be understood as a late sub-branch of ancient speculative thought than as science in the more rigorous, modern sense of that term. Indeed, some classically educated contemporaries of Darwin saw in his ideas little but a 19th-century rehash of thoughts that they had once studied in ancient Greek and Latin authors in their university days. “I cannot understand why you scientific people make such a fuss about Darwin. Why, it’s all in Lucretius,” harrumphed Victorian educator and poet Matthew Arnold to a biology professor in his circle.1

Foundations of Darwinian Materialism

For the ancient Greek writer Epicurus and his later Roman follower, Lucretius, the entire mystery of the world’s awe-inducing complexity was to be sought in different shapes and objects generated at random by the chance interaction of elements. Life and mind, the (unsubstantiated) claim went, had come about as the emergent properties of particular types of atomic configuration (hence the term “atomism” commonly applied to this philosophical school). In vague and question-begging terms was it contended that Nature had evolved “spontaneously” (magically?) into more complex combinations driven by purely contingent occurrences. Plants and animals had “evolved” via that extended process of trial-and-error which Darwin would later term natural selection. In short, Epicurus had conceived of nature as an aggregate of material entities operated by blind and unvarying natural laws later to become better known to the modern world under the heading of Darwinian materialism. 

The doctrine of atomism clearly rendered unnecessary the invocation of any Greek demiurge or originating creator. According to the curiously hybrid conception of Lucretius, gods did exist but inhabited a separate intermundia or intermediate realm where they remained largely indifferent to human concerns. Epicurus was hostile to the capricious, uncaring and amoral gods of the ancient Greek pantheon, so hostile in fact that he conceived of his philosophy as a kind of balm for the soul or spiritual therapy for his peers. His ambition as a philosopher was to enable people to live in simple amity with each other without having to fear the gods or the terrors of the afterlife.2

Ancient Psychological Therapy

The supreme good for Epicurus was that people should be free to live out their allotted span of life free from the fear that the worst was yet to come. His ultimate aim was to bring comfort and peace of mind (ataraxia) to his fellows by all such argumentative and rhetorical means that he could muster. Atomism was in a sense not so much what we today would consider (neutral) science or unbiased philosophical speculation as an activist form of psychological therapy for his Athenian fellow citizens whom he deemed to be oppressed by untoward cosmic forces of which the gods were the personifications. 

Next, “The Enlightenment (Re)turn to Atomism.”


  1. See John W. Judd, The Coming of Evolution, originally 1912 (republished, Gloucester: Echo), p. 13. 
  2. It will be recalled that when Aeneas encounters his father in the Underworld in Virgil’s Aeneid, it is a rather depressing place of eternal gloom — although it does not evidence the vivid torments of the Christian doctrine of hell.  

Neil Thomas

Neil Thomas is a Reader Emeritus in the University of Durham, England and a longtime member of the British Rationalist Association. He studied Classical Studies and European Languages at the universities of Oxford, Munich and Cardiff before taking up his post in the German section of the School of European Languages and Literatures at Durham University in 1976. There his teaching involved a broad spectrum of specialisms including Germanic philology, medieval literature, the literature and philosophy of the Enlightenment and modern German history and literature. He also taught modules on the propagandist use of the German language used both by the Nazis and by the functionaries of the old German Democratic Republic. He published over 40 articles in a number of refereed journals and a half dozen single-authored books, the last of which were Reading the Nibelungenlied (1995), Diu Crone and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle (2002) and Wirnt von Gravenberg's 'Wigalois'. Intertextuality and Interpretation (2005). He also edited a number of volumes including Myth and its Legacy in European Literature (1996) and German Studies at the Millennium (1999). He was the British Brach President of the International Arthurian Society (2002-5) and remains a member of a number of learned societies.



afterlifeAtheniansatomismCharles DarwinCharles Darwin and the Ghost of Epicurus (series)Darwinian theorydemiurgeEpicurusevolutiongodsGreekintermundiaLatinLucretiusmaterialismMatthew ArnoldphilosophyVictorians