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.