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The Ghost of Epicurus and the Doctrine of Natural Selection

Neil Thomas
Image: Artemis, goddess of the hunt, with nymphs; a fresco from Pompeii, by ArchaiOptix, CC BY-SA 4.0 , 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 third 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).

The ancient voices of Epicurus and Lucretius, whose resonance in antiquity right up to the middle of the 19th century was but meagre, have been hugely amplified by the appropriations of post-Darwinian mediators who have, in effect, co-opted the atomist philosophy and adapted it for consumption by the modern world on the back of the Darwinian hypothesis of “natural selection.” Such voices have rendered considerably less audible the voices of the ancient teleologists whose ideas successfully supported Western civilization for two millennia. Atomism as instrumentalized by Epicurus and his successors was, as David Sedley remarked, “a vital weapon against divine creation.”1 The atomists’ contention that all was due to accident was touted not as what it was — an unsubstantiated philosophical lucubration without any empirical back-up — but taken at face value and used as a means of freeing fellow citizens from what was taken at the time to be multiple divine persecutions. 

One can understand and even sympathize with the atomists’ argument from a purely tactical point of view. From all that we know from Homer, the gods and goddesses of popular conception were little but fallible human beings writ large. They had the same vices as their mortal counterparts and had little enough to do with the later human tendency to project moral ideals into that non-finite and unconditioned realm imagined to be that of the divine. The classical pantheon, lacking the moral credibility that goes with an identification of gods with ideals of purity and moral sublimity, had become a source of embarrassment to thoughtful Greeks. Lucretius contended that the gods inspired fear rather than allegiance and were more to be propitiated than venerated.2

Epicurus as “Anti-Theist”

Hence Epicurus was an atheist in the original sense of the word of being an “anti-theist,” one who rejected the baleful and destructive values of the Athenian pantheon. His was more a declaration of war against the flawed moral nature of the gods (technically termed “theomachy” or “misotheism”) than it was a statement of outright disbelief (a-theism).3 He was often in fact referred to by his contemporaries as “Epicurus theomakhos.”4 Today we have thankfully come a long way from the times of child sacrifice and other cruel propitiatory rites, yet the anachronistic thought of divine persecution has curiously been rescued from near-oblivion in our own day by the atheistic proselytizing of Richard Dawkins.

When some two decades ago Dawkins paid to have a somewhat underwhelming motto — “There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life” — emblazoned on the side of London buses, many were bemused and prompted to ask themselves what precisely they might have to be “worried” about. The sentiment seems more than a little anachronistic. It is as if Dawkins were living in the time of Epicurus when conceptions of the gods as capricious, amoral, and unhelpful to humankind were commonly held. The slogan appeared to represent a projection of Dawkins’s own thinking rather than an effective means of outreach to the generality of people.5 It is perhaps not too difficult to imagine him clothed in an Epicurean toga with an imposing-looking scroll in hand intoning the message of Absolute Truth in his latter-day guise of Grand Pontiff of Humanity.

Dawkins as Latter-Day Atomist

However much Dawkins lays himself open to parody,6 there is no denying that this latter-day avatar of the ancient atomists has achieved some degree of traction through his indefatigable “channeling” of the spirits of Darwin, Epicurus, and Lucretius. Indeed countless instances of Epicurean notions abound in modern, “advanced” thought. In Jacques Monod’s Le Hasard et la Necessité (Chance and Necessity), for instance, the author advances a number of arguments which are quintessentially Epicurean/Lucretian, to such an extent, it has been observed, “that it would be an exaggeration, but a pardonable one, to say that no leading principle of significance separates Monod from Lucretius than that the former merely knows more chemistry.”7

In fact, David Sedley has gone so far as to claim that the atomists, “with their faltering anticipations of Darwinism, may for the majority of readers have emerged as today’s winners by proxy.”8 Quite so. Darwin, largely innocent of formal philosophy himself, was nevertheless able to pull off a dazzling intellectual coup against the major thinkers of repute in the Western tradition going back over two millennia and to single-handedly rehabilitate the reputation of a philosophical school once almost universally excoriated. The coup is particularly notable since Darwin succeeded where all the argumentative brilliance of David Hume had struck little fire. So how did Darwin pull off this astounding philosophical manoeuvre?

Next, “For Darwin, Timing Was Everything.”

Notes

  1. Sedley, Creationism and Its Critics, p. 134.
  2. Such was for instance the sorry case with the notorious action of Agamemnon, whose fear of the goddess Artemis caused him to sacrifice his own daughter at the goddess’s whim in order to secure a favorable wind for his fleet’s sea voyage to Troy. 
  3. As mentioned (and somewhat curiously), Epicurus went along with the then universal consensus that the gods existed but he thought that they were wholly impassible and morally disengaged and therefore pragmatically irrelevant to humankind and its concerns.
  4. See Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (London: Faber and Faber, 2016), pp. 173-185.
  5. As Oxford mathematics professor John Lennox noted, “I do not associate the existence of God as much with worry but with joy.” See Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists are Missing the Target (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2011), p. 12.
  6. To such an extent that I am tempted to take at least some of his shtick to be self-parody (although to what end I cannot imagine!).
  7. Richard Spilsbury, Providence Lost: A Critique of Darwinism (Oxford: OUP, 1974), p. 111.
  8. Sedley, Creationism and Its Critics, p. 142.     

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.

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atomismChance and NecessityCharles DarwinCharles Darwin and the Ghost of Epicurus (series)ChemistryDarwinismDavid HumeDavid SedleyEpicurusEpicurus theomakhosevolutionfearGreek pantheonhuman beingsJacques MonodLucretiusmisotheismnatural selectionphilosophyRichard Dawkinstheomachy