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Not Traditional, Original

Epicurus

Epicureanism is named after its founder, Epicurus. Epicureanism is one of the philosophies that appeared in Greek culture after the demise of Aristotle. Stoicism was another philosophy that appeared about the same time (we will discuss Stoicism in a future article, but it is important note that Stoicism and Epicureanism competed in the “cultural marketplace” of the time.) Along with Stoicism, it represented the shift in philosophy from the pure Hellenistic roots of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and displayed oriental influence, especially related to resignation and apathy. It was a philosophy built upon the pursuit of peace in unsettling times.

Epicurus (342 – 270 BC) was born in Samos, seven years before the death of Plato. He went to Athens at age 18 to join a Platonic school but could only stay a year because Antipater banished some 12,000 of the poorer citizens from Athens. He was especially stimulated by some of the writings of Democritus and formulated his own philosophy, gradually gathering some disciples. In 307 he was able to return to Athens and he lived there the rest of his life.

Epicurus started a community of men and women following his philosophy. Actually, he built a garden and sought to achieve contentment using his philosophy living in that beautiful place. The co-ed living prompted charges of licentiousness by Stoic opponents. The Stoics even produced forged letters to substantiate their charges, however the many followers of Epicurus, including some authorities, testified to Epicurus’s character.

A common misconception is that the quote “Let us eat drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” is attributed to the epicureans, but that quote is most closely seen in the Old Testament:

and behold, joy and gladness, slaying oxen and killing sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine: let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we shall die.(Isaiah 22:13)

Contrary to feasting on food and wine, Epicurean community life was plain. Participants generally drank water and ate barley bread with a small portion of wine, and perhaps cheese.  There was no community property, instead there was emphases on friendship and freedom from anxiety.

Epicureans sought to live exempt from anger and partiality, with a disregard for death, and taking no pleasure in evil.[i] They sought to free themselves from the myths that the gods were mysteriously working for and against them in life.

“That which is sublimely happy and immortal experiences no trouble itself nor does it inflict trouble on anything else, so that it is not affected by passion or partiality. Such things are found only in what is weak”[ii]

This Epicurean quote emphasizes the Epicurean discomfort over the idea of gods controlling the affairs of men. That is not to say that Epicurus was atheistic, as he did believe in gods. He simply did not believe that men were affected by any kind of divine intervention.[ii] Epicurus’ challenge to the movement of gods in the cosmos was probably in contrast to the cosmology of Plato and Aristotle who talked of celestial movements as evidence of the gods moving things. Epicureans viewed such attitudes as superstitious and a cause of human anxiety.

If the gods are constantly at work doing things in the cosmos and the world, then men are powerless to achieve happiness on their own. However, if the gods are indifferent to us, and men are capable of steering their own way, then men can achieve happiness by their own choices.  This logic is at the basis of the Epicurean argument

The Epicurean idea of pleasure was freedom from pain, from anxiety, not the hedonistic pursuit of gluttony and lasciviousness, although there is no evidence they practiced abstinence either.

Furthermore, to Epicureans there is no consciousness in death. There is no afterlife. Therefore the sum and total of man’s existence are the days between birth and death, and there is no concern for anything beyond the days of this life. Knowing this removes anxiety, according to Epicurean doctrine.

Religions which preach an afterlife create anxiety in several ways, according to Epicureanism. Religions hoodwink people into thinking they will be benefited both now and in the afterlife by observing certain rituals. Otherwise, if they ignore the rituals they will face a terrible catastrophe. Epicureanism seeks to remove the anxiety over these proposals by saying that the religions are false; the gods are not interested in our rituals, there is neither benefit nor catastrophe by following or disregarding religious rituals. Removing these complications enables us to pursue peace much more simply.

Some sayings of Epicureans show that their emphasis is on seeking peace in simple things like enjoying nature, maintaining a simple life, limiting possessions, emphasizing personal character, seeking the pleasure of the mind over sensual pleasure, being flexible, and valuing friendship:

Nature’s wealth at once has its bounds and is easy to procure; but the wealth of vain fancies recedes to an infinite distance.

The just man enjoys the greatest piece of mind, while the unjust is full of the utmost disquietude.

Pleasures themselves and their consequences – cause the mind the greatest alarms.

He who understands the limits of life knows how easy it is to procure enough to remove the pain of want and make the whole life complete and perfect. Hence he has no longer any need of things which are not to be won save by labor and conflict.

Of all the means which are procured by wisdom to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.

Nothing we have to fear is eternal or even of long duration… Nothing enhances our security so much as friendship.

There never was an absolute justice, but only an agreement made in reciprocal intercourse in whatever localities now and again from time to time, providing against the infliction or suffering of harm.[iii]

Epicureanism became another one of the Greek philosophies that replaced religion in ancient Greek culture, and impacted cultures throughout the centuries. It was prominent in the culture around the time of Christ, and had an effect on what people believed and practiced. But it was not as powerful an influence as Stoicism, which we will look at next.


[i] EPICUREANS AND STOICS, edited by the Axios Institute, Axios Press, Mt. Jackson Virginia, 2008, p. 3f

[ii] HELLENISTIC PHILOSOPHY, A A Long, Scribners, Great Britain, 1974, p. 41

[iii] EPICUREANS AND STOICS, p. 17

© copyright 2010 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.

November 24th, 2010 Posted by | Philosophy | no comments

Pythagorus, a Pre-Socratic Religious Philosopher, and Also, Mathematician

Pythagorus (Samos, 582 – 500 BC), is famous for his Pythagorean theorem, but in reality he was a pre-Socratic philosopher who emphasized the metaphysical more than mathematics.

In fact, while the first time I heard about Pythagoras was in a math class because of the famous Pythagorean theorem, I spent much more time talking about him in the metaphysics portion of a physics class in high school. It was there in a Catholic high school that I was taught that Pythagoras was the leader of a cult and that  Pythagoras’s emphasis was on understanding the universe and the supernatural, and that his development of mathematics was probably a byproduct of his cultic beliefs.

Pythagoras is a pre-Socratic philosopher, both because he lived before Socrates and his emphasis was for the most part on the physis, the nature of the external, the laws and make up of a material and measurable world. Especially in his use of mathematics, you can see that he is endeavoring to measure the metaphysical.

Despite his fame very little of absolute certainty is known about him.  Pythagoras lived before Heraclitus and Parmenides. Some say he was a shaman who claimed supernatural wisdom. There are legends that he performed miracles. He believed, most probably, in metempsychosis, the migration of the soul from one body to another, and reincarnation.  Some say that because of this, the view that the soul is immortal is traced back to him. Plato refers to some Pythagorean traditions, especially in his Phaedo.[i]

Pythagoreans sought the supernatural in numbers and harmony. In their study of music they discovered that musical intervals could be represented as numerical ratios.  The concepts of fourths, fifths, octaves, as any musician knows, are extremely mathematical.  The general belief is, then, that the Pythagoreans pursued both music and mathematics as a means of understanding the universe and even the supernatural.[ii]

Pythagorus was quoted by Plato:

“‘Friends should have all things in common’, as Pythagorus used to say”[iii]

Pythagorean tradition is mentioned by or associated with the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Francis Bacon, and Hegel.  Plato, himself, lived for a time with the Pythagorean community in Italy, “vegetarian and communist, which had for generations controlled the Greek colony in which it lived.”[iv]

The Pythagorean religion continued for some time. Of the religion itself we know it was:

“a society of disciples which has been very influential for some time. Men and women in the society were treated equally -an unusual thing at the time- and all property was held in common. Members of the society practised the master’s teachings, a religion the tenets of which included the transmigration of souls and the sinfulness of eating beans. Pythagoras’ followers had to obey strict religious orders where it was forbidden to eat beans, to touch white cocks, or to look into a mirror beside a light. Pythagoras founded a society of disciples which has been very influential for some time. Men and women in the society were treated equally -an unusual thing at the time- and all property was held in common. Members of the society practised the master’s teachings, a religion the tenets of which included the transmigration of souls and the sinfulness of eating beans. Pythagoras’ followers had to obey strict religious orders where it was forbidden to eat beans, to touch white cocks, or to look into a mirror beside a light.”[v]

Pythagoreanism is an important example of the integration of philosophy and religion.  The fact that it dates 600 years before Christ and that its ideas were part of the philosophical development people as influential as Plato and Bacon shows how prevalent the concept of the integration of philosophy and religion was and continues to be in the culture.


[i] Philosophy 1, A. C. Grayling, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, P. 356

[ii] ibid. p. 357

[iii] Laws, 807, referenced in The story of philosophy, Will Durant, Touchstone, Simon & Schuster New York, 1961. p.43

[iv] ibid. P. 51

[v] The BigView.com, this page at http://www.thebigview.com/greeks/pythagoras.html

© copyright 2010 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.

November 24th, 2010 Posted by | Philosophy | no comments

Jesus Taught Men To Pray

We find in the gospels numerous places where Jesus instructed on prayer.  Jesus taught us both how to pray, and how not to pray. And some of his instruction on prayer appears contrary to human nature.  For example, in these next verses, we see Jesus telling us to pray for our enemies, and those that use us:

But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, (Mat 5:44 WEB)

bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. (Luk 6:28 WEB)

Jesus also spent talking about how not to pray. For example, he says that we are not to make a big deal in front of people with our prayer.  He further says that those that pray in front of men because they want to be praised for their great prayer have received their reward.

“When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Most certainly, I tell you, they have received their reward. (Mat 6:5 WEB)

So, instead of making a big deal of our prayer, Jesus tells us to go by ourselves, and pray somewhere where it’s just between you and the Father.

But you, when you pray, enter into your inner room, and having shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. (Mat 6:6 WEB)

Here is some food for thought: While Jesus does teach the group how to pray there are no records where Jesus led the group in prayer.  Every time it talks about Jesus praying he is doing it alone.

Here is some food for thought: Jesus never once led the group in prayer.  Every time it talks about Jesus praying he is doing it alone.

Another warning that Jesus gave about prayer is that we are not to pray the same prayer over and over again.  Rote repetition of prayers is fruitless.

In praying, don’t use vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their much speaking. Therefore don’t be like them, for your Father knows what things you need, before you ask him. (Mat 6:7-8 WEB)

How does this fit with the Catholic practice of saying Rosaries or praying repetitious prayers for “penance”?  For example, I remember confessing sins to a priest one time and being told to say five “Our Fathers”, five “Hail Marys”, and an Act of Contrition.  Did I have to say those prayers repeatedly so God would eventually hear?  Is it penance to pray to God?  This practice looks contrary to Matthew 6:7-8 to me.

Here is another account where Jesus tells a parable that compares a hypocritical prayer to a righteous one.  The Pharisee is proud and thinks that he is praying justly but he is bragging.  He brags that he is not a sinner and that he fasts and faithfully tithes.   On the other hand, the humble publican beats his breast and asks for mercy.  Jesus praised the publican’s prayer.   He ends the parable with the proverb that if you exalt yourself before God you will be humbled, but if you humble yourself before God you will be exalted:

“Two men went up into the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself like this: ‘God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men, extortionists, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far away, wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  (Luk 18:10-14 WEB)

How to Pray

Jesus said:

Pray like this:… (Mat 6:9a WEB)

“Pray like this” does not mean to say these exact words, but to use the example as a guide for a righteous prayer.  Here is the “Lord’s Prayer”:

Matthew Luke
‘Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy. Let your Kingdom come. Let your will be done, as in heaven, so on earth. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors. Bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For yours is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.’
(Mat 6:9b-13 WEB)
He said to them, “When you pray, say, ‘Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy. May your Kingdom come. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us day by day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. Bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’”
(Luk 11:2-4 WEB)

I have included the versions of the Lord’s prayer from both the gospel of Matthew and the one in Luke. There is no doubt that while they are very similar, they are not the same, especially that Matthew has phrases that Luke does not. This is not cause for alarm as it is more than reasonable that Jesus would teach the same teaching more than once.  But if we are to speak exactly the same words each time, wouldn’t the above prayers be identical.  Yes, they would.  So the “Our Father” is a model upon which to base our prayers, not the one prayer that we are to memorize and say repeatedly.

Some of the elements in the Lord’s prayer include praising God for the great things he has done for us, asking for our needs to be met, asking for forgiveness, guidance, and deliverance.

Pray from the heart. Speak to God, telling him the great things that he has done for you and everyone. Confess your sins to him, and ask for forgiveness. Ask the Lord to guide you and provide for you. Recognize his greatness, and talk to him. That is how you pray

The Power of Prayer

The Gospels give us clear accounts of what is possible when we pray:

Peter, remembering, said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered away.” Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. For most certainly I tell you, whoever may tell this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and doesn’t doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is happening; he shall have whatever he says. Therefore I tell you, all things whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you have received them, and you shall have them. Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father, who is in heaven, may also forgive you your transgressions.  (Mar 11:21-25 WEB)

Here we have clear guidance from the Lord on the tremendous availability of power when we pray. There’s more on this in a previous post.

More Encouragement on Prayer

While we are told not to use vain repetitions as in one of the verses above, the next verses tell us that there is power in presenting our case to the Father more than once.

He also spoke a parable to them that they must always pray, and not give up, saying, “There was a judge in a certain city who didn’t fear God, and didn’t respect man. A widow was in that city, and she often came to him, saying, ‘Defend me from my adversary!’ He wouldn’t for a while, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God, nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will defend her, or else she will wear me out by her continual coming.’” The Lord said, “Listen to what the unrighteous judge says. Won’t God avenge his chosen ones, who are crying out to him day and night, and yet he exercises patience with them? I tell you that he will avenge them quickly. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”  (Luk 18:1-8 WEB)

Some of the things that we are guided to pray for include praying for workers to evangelize and disciple new believers, and to help us avoid temptation:

Then he said to them, “The harvest is indeed plentiful, but the laborers are few. Pray therefore to the Lord of the harvest, that he may send out laborers into his harvest.  (Luk 10:2 WEB)

Watch and pray, that you don’t enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mat 26:41 WEB)

Lastly, if we take to heart that Jesus taught us to pray from our hearts to the father, then this is something that we can do whenever and wherever. Certainly, we can take a few minutes to pray when we get up, before we nod off to sleep, and before we receive a meal. If prayer is just talking to God, then this is something that we can do all day long.

© copyright 2010-20 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

November 24th, 2010 Posted by | Jesus' Teaching and Miracles | no comments