Monday, June 29, 2009

The mysterious case of the totally bogus Epicurus quote

If you do a google search on the following words (without quotes):
"Is he willing to prevent evil, but unable?"
you will get over 2 million hits. Most of those hits ascribe these words to Epicurus, who is supposed to have posed the above question concerning "God". The only problem is that Epicurus never wrote any such thing, and, in fact, directly contradicted the sentiment expressed in that question.

The quote actually comes from David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. More specifically it is found on page 134 of the 1907 edition of Hume's Dialogues (look here and search for the word "malevolent").

Hume has Philo, one of the fictional speakers of his Dialogues, say the following:
Epicurus' old questions are yet unanswered.

Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?

Why does Hume attribute something to Epicurus that the philosopher never thought, said or wrote? The problem is traceable to the "Church Father" Lactantius who wrote the following:
You see, therefore, that we have greater need of wisdom on account of evils; and unless these things had been proposed to us, we should not be a rational animal. But if this account is true, which the Stoics were in no manner able to see, that argument also of Epicurus is done away. God, he says, either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able, and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? Or why does He not remove them?
[De Ira Dei, Chapter 13]
It is easy to produce quotes from Epicurus and also from other reliable sources, to show that Epicurus and Epicureans rejected precisely what Lactantius attributes to them.

In his letter to Monoeceus, Epicurus states very clearly that
[T]he greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the hand of the Gods....
And Epicurus further states that the Gods visit evil on the wicked and blessings on the good because the Gods "take pleasure in men like themselves, but reject as alien whatever is not of their kind."

In fact the Epicurean explanation of the origins of evil bears no resemblance to the idiotic "paradoxes" dreamt up by Lactantius. To an Epicurean, death, first of all, "is nothing to us." Physical pain, second of all, is, when intense, of proportionately short duration, and, therefore, bearable; or if of longer duration of proportionately less instensity, and, therefore, also bearable. Cicero has Torquatas, his Epicurean spokesperson in De Finibus (the link is to the Annas/Woolf translation, which is reviewed here) state this basic principle succinctly:
"[O]ne must have a strength of mind which fears neither death nor pain, for in death there is no sensation, and pain is either long-lasting but slight, or intense but brief. Thus intense pain is moderated by its short duration, and chronic pain by its lesser force.
Torquatas also tells us that
The root cause of all life's troubles is ignorance of what is good and bad.
And, moreover, that
There is never any reason to do wrong. Desires which arise from nature are easily satisfied without resort to wrondoing, while the other, empty [ie, not "natural"] desires are not to be indulged in since they aim at nothing which is truly desirable. The loss inherent in any act of wrongdoing is greater than any profit which wrongdoing brings.
Therefore, genuine evil is of our own doing, and has nothing, whatsoever, to do with the Gods. Even when the Gods punish the wicked, this is not evil, but is Just, and for the common good of humanity.

The Epicurean perspective is that what most people imagine to be evil is not really so, while that which is genuinely evil only happens to us because of our own ignorance. And this ignorance itself is completely curable. One may, obviously, disagree with the Epicurean position on the causes and cures of "life's troubles." But Lactantius, David Hume, and modern-day know-nothing atheists do not have the slightest idea of what the Pagan philosophy of Epicureanism actually teaches. They dishonestly create a fabricated Epicureanism, complete with fabricated "quotes" from Epicurus, for their own delusional purposes.

Many thanks to Darlene, whose very interesting comment on one of the previous posts on Pagan Theology was the inspiration for me to dig deeper into this "quote" from Epicurus.


Sannion said...

Hey there. This topic actually came up on one of my lists, and I directed folks to your post on it, which was very helpful in answering their question. (Nice synchronicity of you posting about it a couple days before their question came up! Love when that happens.)

So, anyway, another question has come up.

Apparently Sarah Palin Twittered the following quote:

"You learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of

This is widely attributed to Plato, however the person who asked the question can't find it or anything that resembles it in their collection of the complete works of Plato. Since you are fairly authoritative when it comes Platonic matters, I figured it wouldn't hurt to ask and see if you'd ever come across that quote before, and if so, where.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

The quote appears to be from a 17th century writer named Richard Lindgard, from his "Etiquette Guide" (published in 1670:

Apuleius Platonicus said...

The proper citation appears to be: "A Letter of Advice to a Young Gentleman Leaving the University Concerning His Behavior and Conversation in the World".

The following appears on p. 39 of that work:

"If you would read a man's Disposition, see him Game, you then learn more of him in one hour, than in seven Years Conversation, and little Wagers will try him as soon as great Stakes, for then he is off his Guard."

The whole book appears to be available at googlebooks:

Sannion said...

Thank you, dear friend, a thousand times thank you!

Andrius said...

You are missunderstanding, missreading, and missquoating Epicurus.
Check the letter to Menoceaus:

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Andrius, the topic of the post is the widespread misattribution of the following quote (or some variation on it) to Epicurus:

"Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?"

As I showed, the quote is actually from David Hume, who obliquely attributes it (wrongly) to Epicurus in his "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion".

As I further showed, Hume's error is traceable to Lacantius.

Did you even read the post? That is a rhetorical question, because obviously you did not.