More about Epicurus

In my previous post about Epicurus, I said I would be back soon with more on his ideas and why he is so important. Bear with me in this post, it’s a bit of a deep dive…so, take a deep breath and…dive!

First I need to bring in from stage left, Strato of Lampsacus who was slightly younger than Epicurus by a few years, and who played a major part in the life of Aristarchus. Strato (also sometimes referred to as Straton) was Aristarchus’ teacher and mentor. The question remains as to where he was his tutor, was it Alexandria or Athens or even both. There is confusion around this, with some scholars saying Strato took over the Lyceum in Athens from Theophrastus when he died in 286/7 BC and that he taught Aristarchus in Alexandria before this time. Others say that he only led the Lyceum in Alexandria. If this is the case then Aristarchus may never have travelled to Athens.

Strato was a contemporary of Epicurus. They had many things in common in their ideas, but one that has major significance to our story here, was the belief that the gods did not play a part in what could be attributed to natural events. Wherever Strato taught, Athens or Alexandria, he had been under Aristotle’s teaching in Athens, and he knew and was familiar with the teachings of those who taught in Athens.

Atheism in Ancient Greece was not the same as modern atheism, but there was a great deal which was similar. Cicero said of Strato,

“Nor does…Strato, who is called the natural philosopher, deserve to be listened to; he holds that all divine force is resident in nature, which contains, he says, the principles of birth, increase, and decay, but which lacks, as we could remind him, all sensation and form.”  (Cicero, De Natura Deorum, i.13)

Cicero was clearly rather unhappy with Strato’s view of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

I will return to Strato in future posts, but here, around the same time as Strato, was also Epicurus, whose writings and teachings would have been known widely in Ancient Greece.

Epicurus’ views on the gods and the way the Universe runs was that the gods have nothing to do with the material world, that they cannot possibly because they themselves are not of this material world.

He says,

“Nay more : we are bound to believe that in the sky, revolutions, solstices, eclipses, risings and settings, and the like, take place without the ministration or command, either now or in the future, of any being who at the same time enjoys perfect bliss along with immortality. [77]” (Diogenes Laertius in R.D. Hicks. 1925) 

This was a hugely significant declaration by Epicurus. He continues later with what he believed about the gods or God and declared his belief in them, but, then explains that what the multitudes believed about them was in error. This, in essence, is taking the power of the gods away from how the Universe runs and attributed it all to natural causes. Earlier he wrote,

“For the existence of bodies is everywhere attested by sense itself, and it is upon sensation that reason must rely when it attempts to infer the unknown from the known. [40]” (Diogenes Laertius in R.D. Hicks. (1972)).

Then with irrefutable (well at least as irrefutable as today’s modern cosmological statements) logic, wrote,

“Again, the sum of things is infinite. For what is finite has an extremity, and the extremity of anything is discerned only by comparison with something else. (Now the sum of things is not discerned by comparison with anything else, hence, since it has no extremity, it has no limit ; and, since it has no limit, it must be unlimited or infinite.” (Diogenes Laertius in R.D. Hicks. (1972).

In other words, the size of the Universe was inestimable. This was a bold statement, and a concept which becomes significant in Archimedes’ The Sand Reckoner, when he mentions Aristarchus.

Epicurus was a prolific writer, said to have written at least 300 books, and these are a smattering of his thoughts. The point is, that along with Strato, Aristarchus’ teacher, the place of the gods in the observable Universe was taken away.

Ideas generally do not come out of nowhere, they emerge, from discussion, learning, reading, and listening to others. Aristarchus would have read, heard, been taught and pondered about the teachings of his time and especially of those with greatest influence over him. I imagine him sometimes as a young man, in a lonely place, in the hills, looking up at the night sky, thinking…which of the cosmologies he had been taught, and had learned about, was true, if any?

Aristarchus was known as The Mathematician. His only extant work is a mathematical treatise ‘On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon’. This was a brilliant piece of mathematics which showed his knowledge of Euclid’s maths. Aristarchus had, no doubt about it, a brilliantly creative mind. He thought in ways no one else had thought or considered. at the time, nor would for eighteen centuries. This extant work casts a strong light on his heliocentric theory.

First though, enter Philolaus, who had upset a lot of people about a hundred years earlier than Aristarchus.

Philolaus of Croton was born around 470 BC. he died around 385 BC.  He was a follower of Pythagoras and so known to be a Pythagorean and therefore a great mathematician. Up until Philolaus, the Earth was in the centre of the Universe. I mentioned him in my second post on here. I am now going to return to him in the next.

back soon with more tea and cake…


For those who want to look up the Epicurus quotes, here is the citation,

(Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Diogenes Laertius. R.D. Hicks. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1972 (First published 1925). From the Perseus Digital Library)

Published by theclassicalastronomer

Yorkshire tea drinker, contemplator of our beautiful universe, loves Jesus, semi-retired astronomy and maths teacher, autistic and autism consultant, MA Classics student with the wonderful OU, interested in science, arts, random things. ..

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