Imagens da página



T>Y philosophic atheism I mean speculative ■*-^ denial of a supermundane, conscious intelligence,— theories of the universe which regard it as the product of blind force, or as a selfsubsisting, self-governing, independent being. Of these theories, however repugnant to practical reason and religious faith, we are not authorized to say with Milton,—

"Of such doctrine never was there school
But the heart of the fool,
And no man therein doctor but himself."'

Justice compels us to admit the claim of some who have reasoned thus, to be counted philosophers,— lovers of wisdom, seekers of truth.

1 Not to be confounded with the scientific atheism of the Positivists.

* Samson Agonistes, 297-290.

The moment we begin to speculate about the universe, there arises the question of origin. Philosophy, even atheistic philosophy, cannot stop short of the "primordia rerum;" it wants to know "unde Natura creet res, auctet alatque." The arch-atheist of antiquity could not rest in a given phenomenal world, but pushed his inquiry, says his great commentator,1 "extra flammantia moenia mundi." The question Whence? is found to be involved in the questions What? and How? And here it is that philosophic atheists differ among themselves almost as widely as they differ from theists. I select as illustrations two prominent examples, an ancient and a modern, representing two opposite types, — Epicurus and Schopenhauer.

1 Lucretius: De Rerum Natura, i. 73, 74.


'I WERE are few philosophers, and indeed few men, about whom such opposite opinions have been formed and such different judgments pronounced as those concerning Epicurus. To speak of him as an atheist at all, in the view of some, is to misrepresent him. There have not been wanting defenders of his philosophy who acquit it of that charge, and have even sought to adjust its principles with Christian doctrine. Prominent among them is Gassendi, who published toward the middle of the seventeenth century an elaborate account of Epicurus, entitled "De vita, moribus, et philosophia Epicuri;" to which he afterward added "Animadversiones in Diogencm Laertium," the biographer of Epicurus, and also a "Syntagma philosophiae Epicuri." Among ancient critics, his best advocate was a leader of the sect most opposed to his own, — the Stoic Seneca.

I call him an atheist in philosophy; for though he recognizes the existence of the national gods, it is only as accidents, not as powers. He recognizes no divine agency in his system. His gods have no right to be, in the light of his philosophy. They have none of the attributes proper to deity; they are chance collections of atoms, destined sooner or later, like all other creatures, to perish and dissolve. To him they have only an ethical import. Finding them fixed in the popular belief, he uses them as illustrations of a blessed life. The testimony of the ancients is decisive on this subject. Lucretius makes it his special merit to have freed his followers from the yoke of religion.1

As to his morals, the authorities differ. Plutarch represents him as licentious; but, on the whole, the balance of testimony gives the impression of a man who led a blameless, and unquestionably a very frugal and abstemious, life.

An Athenian by nation, he was born in Samos, where his father, as KXrjpovxos, had settled himself on his allotted estate, in the third year of the 109th Olympiad, about 342 B. C, on the seventh day of the month Gamelion.2 His father, Neocles, earned a meagre livelihood by giving instruction in reading and writing. His mother, Charestrata, added a little to the res angusta by her magic arts; being what would be called in 'modern times a fortune-teller. Her social position was of the lowest; but Epicurus says she had in her body all the atoms which go to make a philosopher. The only

1 De Rerum Natura, ubi supra.

2 The marriage month, the seventh of the Attic year, comprising part of January and part of February.

memorable thing recorded of his boyhood is the well-known anecdote mentioned by Apollodorus. His teacher was explaining the theogony of Hesiod, how everything sprang from original chaos. "But whence sprang chaos?" the boy demanded. The question revealed an inquisitive mind. The chaos of Greek mythology seems to have served the same purpose as the tortoise of Hindu speculation. It was the ultimate ground, the foundation of all things. You must stop somewhere in your inquiry. With the Hindu the question was one of statics; and he stopped with the big tortoise, which bears the elephant, which bears something else, which bears the world. With the Greek the question was one of genesis; and he stopped with chaos: from that all things were made. But the boy Epicurus would not stop there. What made chaos? It was a boyish inquisitiveness, nothing more; the man Epicurus found, after all, nothing better than chaos to begin with or end with.

At the age of eighteen he first visited Athens, where it is thought he may have studied philosophy in the Old Academy. Plato had left it, and the city, and the world, a quarter of a century before; but the school on the old Platonic foundation remained. It was run by Xenocrates. It is not very likely that Epicurus was admitted to its teachings. He probably wanted the qualification

« AnteriorContinuar »