Standing at radical variance with Platonism in the ancient world is Epicureanism. Plato, the moralist and theologian – the incipient monotheist – developed in his dialogues a representation of the cosmos as grounded in a divine will, or at least in a divine intelligence. So congenial is the Platonic vision to the faith of the Gospels that seven hundred years after Plato's death and after political, social, and cultural transformations in the Mediterranean world, Saint Augustine of Hippo could see in his philosophical precursor a genuine anticipation of Christianity.
Recent historical commentary indeed takes Augustine's conclusion almost for granted and converges on an agreement close to unanimous that the Catholic religion bequeathed by Late Antiquity to the early medieval period in Western Europe quite deliberately made a hybrid of Platonic intellectualism and Gospel morality. The tradition of Platonic Christianity begins with John and passes through Justin Martyr and Origen down to Augustine himself. At least among the faithful, Plato has long received respect and "good press." In the centuries of Christendom and perhaps even down to the present moment, Epicureanism has by contrast served fideistic Christianity for an object of dismissal and even sometimes of contempt.
Plato spoke of the God in the exclusive singular. In the dialogue Timaeus he represented the cosmos as the artifact of a rational and benevolent designer, the demiurge. By contrast Epicurus (342-270 BC) not only demoted the gods – giving them the status of superior people living on another plane of existence – but he also denied to the cosmos any divine ground or any metaphysical or transcendent component whatever. Epicurus, the follower of the original Greek atomists, allowed that only two things existed – matter, as he put it, and the void. Epicurus was, as his commentators usually denominate him, the grandfather of all radical materialists. Among others, Karl Marx admired him. But are the modern commentators, the radically materialistic and Marxist ones, right in assimilating the ancient doctrine to their own?
One could say both yes and no to their characterization, with the emphasis falling on the negative. Epicureanism is (or was) indeed a rigorous materialism that, while not quite atheistic, nevertheless roundly criticizes religiosity in general as mere superstition based on fears arising from ignorance of natural processes. Yet in relegating the gods to effective neutrality, Epicureanism importantly avoids misotheism, that contempt for God or the gods so characteristic of modern materialism. No, the gods were not enemies of mankind in the Epicurean outlook. Something else was inimical to human happiness: the aggrandizing kingdom or empire.
Epicureanism represented the response of its founder to the catastrophic break-up of the world of the Greek polis under the double impact of Macedonian overlord-ship under Phillip and Alexander and subsequently the rancorous breakup of Alexander's empire into the ceaselessly warring successor kingdoms. A profound autobiographical causality generates key elements of Epicureanism. According to Diogenes Laertius, Epicurus began his life in the Athenian colony on the island of Samos, but after Alexander's death, as the unity of the conquest-domain disintegrated, the local tyrant expelled the colonists. (Think of the Sudeten Germans after the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1945 or other people displaced by arbitrary fiat.) This early experience of being pushed around by contenders for imperial power acted formatively on the Epicurean moral and political outlook. Epicurus developed acute sensitivity to propagandistic justifications of arbitrary power.
The role of propaganda, using vocabulary filched from philosophy, has its beginnings in the Hellenistic period. Already among Alexander's successor-rivals, an official, imperial cult had manifested itself drawing on Platonic theology (unfairly, no doubt) to justify the absolute rule of the king and savior. The first Ptolemy, for example, styled himself as soter or "savior." In Epicureanism – at the center of which lies the idea not so much of the atoms as of the canon, or "measure" – its founder reacted to the hypertrophy of political structures and to the experiential paradox that the larger the organized entity and the stricter the style of organization, the more such greatness and strictness appeared to ordinary people as pure chaos. From the point of view of an ordinary subject, the absolutely arbitrary remains indistinguishable from the absolutely chaotic. And in any political dispensation, chaos is the equivalent of injustice. The late Samuel Francis understood this condition and claimed that existing governments liked to create social chaos because it enhanced their power over people. He called it "Anarcho-Tyranny."
Epicureans understood that princes tend to be moral monsters and that coercive societies obedient to princes stultify humanity. The famous "garden" of the Epicureans is not quite a religious but at any rate is a moral and intellectual community whose members seek internal emigration from the pressures of empire, much as Christians would do, by cultivating their mystic communion, in the first and second centuries AD.
The most illustrious Epicurean after Epicurus himself is his Latin follower of the first century BC, Titus Lucretius Carus (99-55), known by his middle name as the author of a long and literarily important poem, On the Nature of Things, left unfinished at his death. Before the Aeneid, On the Nature of Things heralds the maturity and sophistication of Latin literature. George Santayana once devoted a chapter to it in book about Philosophical Poems. Epicurus lived in the age of the Macedonian and diadochic empires. Not by coincidence did the foremost Latin Epicurean live at precisely the time when Italiote republicanism, through civil wars and dictatorships and the addition of foreign territories under Roman governance, commenced its capitulation to the allure of empire. Like his teacher, whom Lucretius portrays in his poem under the guise of a secular saint, the author of The Nature of Things takes provocation from his sense that burgeoning empire threatens an old and fundamentally decent order of life through the raw power of its vast scale and by the brutality necessary to sustain its colossal structure. Lucretius sees empire as essentially sacrificial, as built on a basis of uncounted victims.
In a long passage in The Nature of Things, Book One, Lucretius traces a genealogy of the imperial idea and draws from it an important Epicurean moral. He characterizes the Greek expedition against Troy, as reported by Homer, as the prototype of an imperial endeavor. The city-states enjoy nominal independence except that various feudal oaths oblige their princes to support an over-king, in this case Agamemnon, in war. As Lucretius reads Homer, Agamemnon's scheme to mobilize Greece against Troy participates in real madness because it lies outside any canon of response to its putative cause, the elopement of Helen with Paris. Lucretius reminds his readers that the Greek fleet stalled out in the doldrums at Aulis when the winds failed and that Agamemnon's method of setting his madness again in motion involved offering his own daughter in blood-sacrifice to the indisposed deities. An empire, in other words, is for Lucretius a political monster that, like Saturn in the primitive myth, eats its own children. There is some precedent for Lucretius' interpretation of the Homeric myth in the Iphigenia of Euripides, but the tragedians communicate indirectly whereas Lucretius, in composing a didactic poem, draws the moral emphatically.
A powerful piety instinct in the cosmic vision of Lucretius' Nature of Things led Walter Pater, despite the poem's materialist doctrine, to have his protagonist in Marius the Epicurean (1885) pass through Epicureanism on his journey from Platonism to Christianity, as a necessary stage in his moral development. Before one can appreciate the concept of a non-magical deity, one must perhaps sojourn in a frame of mind dismissive of supernatural concepts entirely. Although Lucretius like Epicurus demotes the gods without quite doing away with them and regards the state forms of religion as superstition, he begins On the Nature of Things, after a brief invocation of Epicurus himself as an intellectual liberator, with a long paean to Venus, the symbol of love and fertility. Chaucer echoes the passage in the Prologue to Canterbury Tales. Although Lucretius, as a good Epicurean, disdains to worship at any temple and although he believes that the universal natural processes go forth autonomously according to the intrinsic properties of the atoms, he shares with the theological cosmology whose chief proponent is Platonism the view that the world is a thing of sublime beauty, rightly inspirational of awe.
Precisely because they continuously regulate themselves, natural processes offer a political lesson in self-regulation and self-governance. Lucretius' scientific notion of natural law passes seamlessly into his political notion of natural law and like Plato he understands that order in the republic comes from order in the individual soul. Like Cicero, Lucretius believed that Rome had enjoyed its happiest moments at the very beginning of the Republic before ambitious kings and generals embarked on the route of conquest and empire building. All political ambitions, Lucretius argues, demand the sacrifice of free individuals to a super-individual and indeed an inhumane cause, for whom the pathetic Iphigenia stands as the sad symbol.
Epicureanism remembers the gods, but it reserves its awe for the beauty of nature, constituting in the antique context something anticipatory of a Romantic sensitivity. The chief expression of Epicureanism as an organized activity (which it was) took the form of the garden societies. The like-minded would pool their resources to buy land within the city limits for the establishment of a garden, where the subscribers could come to contemplate and think amidst natural scenery transplanted within the geometrical rigidity of the urban grid. Pater makes his Marius something of a cross between a Morris-type craft-socialist, an American Southern Agrarian, and a Wordsworthian nature-mystic. There is a rational "ecological" sensibility in the Epicurean literature. The politics of "Global Warming" are, however, definitely not the modern counterpart of Epicurean naturalism. Both Epicurus and Lucretius would soon sniff out the odor of superstition in the currently active "Green Meme" strain of our culture and both would note the coercive, imperializing tendency of eco-politicians.
Perhaps Epicureanism, or the renewed study of it, could benefit those who prefer republics to empires and the contemplation of natural beauty to the machinations of an implacable and aggrandizing politics whose fanatical pleasure is to order people around.