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I.1‑56

This webpage reproduces part of the
De Natura Deorum

by
Cicero

published in the Loeb Classical Library,
1933

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!


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II.1‑nnn

(Vol. XIX) Cicero
De Natura Deorum

p55 21 57 Then Cotta took up the discussion. "Well,
p57
Velleius," he rejoined, with his usual suavity, "unless you had stated a case, you certainly would have had no chance of hearing anything from me. I always find it much easier to think of arguments to prove a thing false than to prove it true. This often happens to me, and did so just now while I was listening to you. Ask me what I think that the divine nature is like, and very probably I shall make no reply; but inquire whether I believe that it resembles the description of it which you have just given, and I shall say that nothing seems to me less likely. But before proceeding to examine your arguments, I will give my opinion of yourself. 58 I fancy I have often heard that friend of yours [Lucius Crassus]25 declare that of all the Roman adherents of Epicureanism he placed you unquestionably first, and that few of those from Greece could be ranked beside you; but knowing his extraordinary esteem for you, I imagined that he was speaking with the partiality of a friend. I myself however, though reluctant to praise you to your face, must nevertheless pronounce that your exposition of an obscure and difficult theme has been most illuminating, and not only exhaustive in its treatment of the subject, but also graced with a charm of style not uncommon in your school. 59 When at Athens, I frequently attended the discourses of Zeno, whom our friend Philo used to call the leader of the Epicurean choir; in fact it was Philo who suggested that I should go to him — no doubt in order that I might be better able to judge how completely the Epicurean doctrine may be refuted when I had heard an exposition of it from the head of the school. Now Zeno, unlike most Epicureans, had a style as clear, cogent and elegant p59as your own. But what often occurred to me in his case happened just now while I was listening to you: I felt annoyed that talents so considerable should have chanced to select (if you will forgive my saying it) so trivial, not to say so stupid, a set of doctrines. 60 Not that I propose at the moment to contribute something better of my own. As I said just now, in almost all subjects, but especially in natural philosophy, I am more ready to say what is not true than what is. 22 Inquire of me as to the being and nature of god, and I shall follow the example of Simonides, who having the same question put to him by the great Hiero, requested a day's grace for consideration; next day, when Hiero repeated the question, he asked for two days, and so went on several times multiplying the number of days by two; and when Hiero in surprise asked why he did so, he replied, 'Because the longer I deliberate the more obscure the matter seems to me.' But Simonides is recorded to have been not only a charming poet but also a man of learning and wisdom in other fields, and I suppose that so many acute and subtle ideas came into his mind that he could not decide which of them was truest, and therefore despaired of truth altogether. 61 But as for your master Epicurus (for I prefer to join issue with him rather than with yourself), which of his utterances is, I do not say worthy of philosophy, but compatible with ordinary common sense?

"In an inquiry as to the nature of the gods, the first question that we ask is, do the gods exist or do they not? 'It is difficult to deny their existence.' No doubt it would be if the question were to be asked in a public assembly, but in private conversation p61and in a company like the present it is perfectly easy. This being so, I, who am a high priest, and who hold it to be a duty most solemnly to maintain the rights and doctrines of the established religion, should be glad to be convinced of this fundamental tenet of the divine existence, not as an article of faith merely but as an ascertained fact. For many disturbing reflections occur to my mind, which sometimes make me think that there are no gods at all. 62 But mark how generously I deal with you. I will not attack those tenets which are shared by your school with all other philosophers — for example the one in question, since almost all men, and I myself no less than any other, believe that the gods exist, and this accordingly I do not challenge. At the same time I doubt the adequacy of the argument which you adduce to prove it. 23 You said that a sufficient reason for our admitting that the gods exist was the fact that all the nations and races of mankind believe it. But argument is both inconclusive and untrue. In the first place, how do you know what foreign races believe? For my part I think that there are many nations so uncivilized and barbarous as to have no notion of any gods at all. 63 Again, did not Diagoras, called the Atheist, and later Theodorus openly deny the divine existence? Since as for Protagoras of Abdera, the greatest sophist of that age, to whom you just now alluded, for beginning a book with the words 'About the gods I am unable to affirm either how26 they exist or how they do not exist,' he was sentenced by a decree of the Athenian assembly to be banished from the city and from the country, and to have his books burnt in the market-place: an example that I can p63well believe has discouraged many people since from professing atheism, since the mere expression of doubt did not succeed in escaping punishment. What are we to say about the men guilty of sacrilege or impiety or perjury?

Suppose that ever Lucius Tubulus,

Lupus or Carbo, or some son of Neptune,27

as Lucilius has it, had believed in the gods, would he have been such a perjurer and scoundrel? 64 We find then that your argument is not so well-established a proof of the view which you uphold as you imagine it to be. Still, as it is a line of reasoning that is followed by other philosophers as well, I will pass it over for the present, and turn rather to doctrines peculiar to your school.

65 "I grant the existence of the gods: do you then teach me their origin, their dwelling-place, their bodily and spiritual nature, their mode of life; for these are the things which I want to know. In regard to all of them you make great play with the lawless domination of the atoms; from these you construct and create everything that comes upon the ground,28 as he says. Now in the first place, there are no such things as atoms. For there is nothing . . .29 incorporeal, but all space is filled with material bodies; hence there can be no such thing as void, and no such thing as an indivisible body. 24 66 In all of this I speak for the time being only as the mouthpiece of our oracles of natural philosophy; whether their utterances are true or false I do not know, but at all events they are more probable than those of your school. As for the outrageous doctrines of Democritus, or perhaps of his predecessor Leucippus, that p65there are certain minute particles, some smooth, others rough, some round, some angular, some curved or hook-shaped, and that heaven and earth were created from these, not by compulsion of any natural law but by a sort of accidental colliding — this is the belief to which you, Gaius Velleius, have clung all your life long, and it would be easier to make you alter all your principles of conduct than abandon the teachings of your master; for you made up your mind that the Epicureanism claimed your allegiance before you learned these doctrines: so that you were faced with the alternative of either accepting these outrageous notions or surrendering the title of the school of your adoption. 67 For what would you take to cease to be an Epicurean? 'For no consideration,' you reply, 'would I forsake the principles of happiness and the truth.' Then is Epicureanism the truth? For as to happiness I don't join issue, since in your view even divine happiness involves being bored to death with idleness. But where is the truth to be found? I suppose in an infinite number of worlds, some coming to birth and others hurled into ruin at every minutest moment of time? or in the indivisible particles that produce all the marvels of creation without any controlling nature or reason? But I am forgetting the indulgence which I began to show you just now, and am taking too wide a range. I will grant therefore that everything is made out of indivisible bodies; but this takes us no farther, for we are trying to discover the nature of the gods. 68 Suppose we allow that the gods are made of atoms: then it follows that they are not eternal. For what is made of atoms came into existence at some time; but if the gods came into existence, before they came into p67existence there were no gods; and if the gods had a beginning, they must also perish, as you were arguing a little time ago about the world as conceived by Plato. Where then do we find that happiness and that eternity which in your system are the two catchwords that denote divinity? When you wish to make this out, you take cover in a thicket of jargon; you gave us the formula just now30 — God has not body but a semblance of body, not blood but a kind of blood.

25 69 "This is a very common practice with your school. You advance a paradox, and then, when you want to escape censure, you adduce in support of it some absolute impossibility; so that you would have done better to abandon the point in dispute rather than to offer so shameless a defence. For instance, Epicurus saw that if the atoms travelled downwards by their own weight, we should have no freedom of the will, since the motion of the atoms would be determined by necessity. He therefore invented a device to escape from determinism (the point had apparently escaped the notice of Democritus): he said that the atom while travelling vertically downward by the force of gravity makes a very slight swerve to the side. 70 This defence discredits him more than if he had had to abandon his original position. He does the same in his battle with the logicians. Their accepted doctrine is that in every disjunctive proposition of the form 'so‑and‑so either is or is not,' one of the two alternatives must be true. Epicurus took alarm; if such a proposition as 'Epicurus either will or will not be alive to‑morrow' were granted, one or other alternative would be necessary. Accordingly he denied the necessity of a disjunctive proposition p69altogether. Now what could be stupider than that? Arcesilas used to attack Zeno because, whereas he himself said that all sense-presentations are false, Zeno said that some were false, but not all. Epicurus feared that if a single sensation were admitted to be false, none would be true: he therefore said that all the senses give a true report. In none of these cases did he behave very cleverly, for to parry a lighter blow he laid himself open to one that was more severe.

71 "He does the same as regards the nature of the gods. In his desire to avoid the assumption of a dense cluster of atoms, which would involve the possibility of destruction and dissipation, he says that the gods have not a body but a semblance of body, and not blood but a semblance of blood. 26 It is thought surprising that an augur can see an augur without smiling; but it is more surprising that you Epicureans keep a grave face when by yourselves. 'It is not body but a semblance of body.' I could understand what this supposition meant if it related to waxen images or figures of earthenware, but what 'a semblance of body' or 'a semblance of blood' may mean in the case of god, I cannot understand; nor can you either, Velleius, only you won't admit it.

72 "The fact is that you people merely repeat by rote the idle vapourings that Epicurus uttered when half asleep; for, as we read in his writings, he boasted that he had never had a teacher. This I for my part could well believe, even if he did not proclaim it, just as I believe the owner of an ill‑built house when he boasts that he did not employ an architect! He shows not the faintest trace of the Academy or the Lyceum, or even of the ordinary schoolboy studies. He might have heard Xenocrates — by heaven, what p71a master! — and some people think that he did, but he himself denies it, and he ought to know! He states that he heard a certain Pamphilus, a pupil of Plato, at Samos (where he resided in his youth with his father and brother — his father Neocles had gone there to take up land, but failing to make a living out of his farm, I believe kept a school). 73 However Epicurus pours endless scorn on this Platonist, so afraid is he of appearing ever to have learnt anything from a teacher. He stands convicted in the case of Nausiphanes, a follower of Democritus, whom he does not deny he heard lecture, but whom nevertheless he assails with every sort of abuse. Yet if he had not heard from him these doctrines of Democritus, what had he heard? for what is there in Epicurus's natural philosophy that does not come from Democritus? Since even if he introduced some alterations, for instance the swerve of the atoms, of which I spoke just now, yet most of his system is the same, the atoms, the void, the images, the infinity of space, and the countless number of worlds, their births and their destructions, in fact almost everything that is comprised in natural science.

74 "As to your formula 'a semblance of body' and 'a semblance of blood,' what meaning do you attach to it? That you have a better knowledge of the matter than I have I freely admit, and what is more, am quite content that this should be so; but once it is expressed in words, why should one of us be able to understand it and not the other? Well then, I do understand what body is and what blood is, but what 'a semblance of body' and 'a semblance of blood' are I don't understand in the very least. You are not trying to hide the truth from me, as Pythagoras p73used to hide it from strangers, nor yet are you speaking obscurely on purpose like Heraclitus, but (to speak candidly between ourselves) you don't understand it yourself any more than I do. 27 75 I am aware that what you maintain is that the gods possess a certain outward appearance, which has no firmness or solidity, no definite shape or outline, and which is free from gross admixture, volatile, transparent. Therefore we shall use the same language as we should of the Venus of Cos: her's is not real flesh but the likeness of flesh, and the mantling blush that dyes her fair cheek is not real blood but something that counterfeits blood; similarly in the god of Epicurus we shall say that there is no real substance but something that counterfeits substance. But assume that I accept as true a dogma that I cannot even understand: exhibit to me, pray, the forms and features of your shadow-deities. 76 On this topic you are at no loss for arguments designed to prove that the gods have the form of men: first because our minds possess a preconceived notion of such a character that, when a man thinks of god, it is the human form that presents itself to him; secondly, because inasmuch as the divine nature surpasses all other things, the divine form also must needs be the most beautiful, and no form is more beautiful than that of man. The third reason you advance is that no other shape is capable of being the abode of intelligence. 77 Well then, take these arguments one by one and consider what they amount to; for in my view they based on an arbitrary and quite inadmissible assumption on your part. First of all, was there ever any student so blind as not to see that human shape has been thus assigned to the gods either by the deliberate contrivance p75of philosophers, the better to enable them to turn the hearts of the ignorant from vicious practices to the observance of religion, or by superstition, to supply images for men to worship in the belief that in so doing they had direct access to the divine presence? These notions moreover have been fostered by poets, painters and artificers, who found it difficult to represent living and active deities in the likeness of any other shape than that of man. Perhaps also man's belief in his own superior beauty, to which you referred, may have contributed to the result. But surely you as a natural philosopher are aware what an insinuating go‑between and pander of her own charms nature is! Do you suppose that there is a single creature on land or in the sea which does not prefer an animal of its own specie to any other? If this were not so, why should not a bull desire to couple with a mare, or a horse with a cow? Do you imagine that an eagle or lion or dolphin thinks any shape more beautiful than its own? Is it then surprising if nature has likewise taught man to think his own species the most beautiful . . .31 that this was a reason why we should think the gods resemble man?

78 "Suppose animals possessed reason,32 do you not think that they would each assign pre‑eminence to their own species? 28 For my part I protest (if I am to say what I think) that although I am not lacking in self-esteem yet I don't presume to call myself more beautiful than the famous bull on which Europa rode; for the question is not here of our intellectual and oratorical33 powers but of our outward form and aspect. Indeed if we choose to make imaginary combinations of shapes, would you p77not like to resemble the merman Triton who is depicted riding upon swimming monsters attached to his man's body? I am on ticklish ground here, for natural instinct is so strong that every man wishes to be like a man and nothing else. 79 Yes, and every ant like an ant! Still, the question is, like what man? How small a percentage of handsome people there are! When I was at Athens, there was scarcely one to be found in each platoon of the training-corps — I see why you smile, but the fact is all the same. Another point: we, who with the sanction of the philosophers of old are fond of the society of young men, often find even their defects agreeable. Alcaeus 'admires a mole upon his favourite's wrist';34 of course a mole is a blemish, but Alcaeus thought it a beauty. Quintus Catulus, the father of our colleague and friend to‑day, was warmly attached to your fellow-townsman Roscius, and actually wrote the following verses in his honour:

By chance abroad at dawn, I stood to pray

To the uprising deity of day;

When lo! upon my left — propitious sight —

Suddenly Roscius dawned in radiance bright.

Forgive me, heavenly pow'rs, if I declare,

Meseem'd the mortal than the god more fair.

To Catulus, Roscius was fairer than a god. As a matter of fact he had, as he has to‑day, a pronounced squint; but no matter — in the eyes of Catulus this in itself gave him piquancy and charm.

80 "I return to the gods. 29 Can we imagine any gods, I do not say as cross-eyed as Roscius, but with a slight cast? Can we picture any of them with a mole, a snub nose, protruding ears, prominent brows and too large a head — defects not unknown among p79us men —, or are they entirely free from personal blemishes? Suppose we grant you that, are we also to say that they are all exactly alike? If not, there will be degrees of beauty among them, and therefore a god can fall short of supreme beauty. If on the other hand they are all alike, then the Academic school must have a large following in heaven, since if there is no difference between one god and another, among the gods knowledge and perception must be impossible.

81 "Furthermore, Velleius, what if your assumption, that when we think of god the only form that presents itself to us is that of a man, be entirely untrue? will you nevertheless continue to maintain your absurdities? Very likely we Romans do imagine god as you say, because from our childhood Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Neptune, Vulcan and Apollo have been known to us with the aspect with which painters and sculptors have chosen to represent them, and not with that aspect only, but having that equipment, age and dress. But they are not so known to the Egyptians or Syrians, or any almost of the uncivilized races. Among these you will find a belief in certain animals more firmly established than is reverence for the holiest sanctuaries and images of the gods with us. 82 For we have often seen temples robbed and images of gods carried off from the holiest shrines by our fellow-countrymen, but no one ever even heard of an Egyptian laying profane hands on a crocodile or ibis or cat. What therefore do you infer? that the Egyptians do not believe their sacred bull Apis to be a god? Precisely as much as you believe the Saviour Juno of your native place to be a goddess. You never see her even in your dreams unless p81equipped with goat-skin, spear, buckler and slippers turned up at the toe. Yet that is not the aspect of the Argive Juno, nor of the Roman. It follows that Juno has one form for the Argives, another for the people of Lanuvium, and another for us. And indeed our Jupiter of the Capitol is not the same as the Africans' Juppiter Ammon. 30 83 Should not the physical philosopher therefore, that is, the explorer and tracker-out of nature, be ashamed to go to minds besotted with habit for evidence of truth? On your principle it will be legitimate to assert that Jupiter always wears a beard and Apollo never, and that Minerva has grey eyes and Neptune blue. Yes, and at Athens there is a much-praised statue of Vulcan made by Alcamenes, a standing figure, draped, which displays a slight lameness, though not enough to be unsightly. We shall therefore deem god to be lame, since tradition represents Vulcan so. Tell me now, do we also make out the gods to have the same names as those by which they are known to us? 84 But in the first place the gods have as many names as mankind has languages. You are Velleius wherever you travel, but Vulcan has a different name in Italy, in Africa and in Spain. Again, the total number of names even in our pontifical books is not great, but there are gods innumerable. Are they without names? You Epicureans at all events are forced to say so, since what is the point of more names when they are all exactly alike? How delightful it would be, Velleius, if when you did not know a thing you would admit your ignorance, instead of uttering this drivel, which must make even your own gorge rise with disgust? Do you really p83believe that god resembles me, or yourself? Of course you do not.

"What then? Am I to say that the sun is a god, or the moon, or the sky? If so, we must also say that it is happy; but what forms of enjoyment constitute its happiness? and wise; but how can wisdom reside in a senseless bulk like that? These are arguments employed by your own school. 85 Well then, if the gods do not possess the appearance of men, as I have proved, nor some such form as that of the heavenly bodies, as you are convinced, why do you hesitate to deny their existence? You do not dare to. Well, that is no doubt wise — although in this matter it is not the public that you fear, but the gods themselves: I personally am acquainted with Epicureans who worship every paltry image, albeit I am aware that according to some people's view Epicurus really abolished the gods, but nominally retained them in order not to offend the people of Athens. Thus the first of his selected aphorisms or maxims, which you call the Kyriai Doxai,35 runs, I believe, thus: That which is blessed and immortal neither experiences trouble nor causes it to anyone. 31 Now there are people who think that the wording of this maxim was intentional, though really it was due to the author's inability to express himself clearly; their suspicion does an injustice to the most guileless of mankind. 86 It is in fact doubtful whether he means that there is a blessed and immortal being, or that, if there is, that being is such as he describes. They fail to notice that although his language is ambiguous here, yet in many other places both he and Metrodorus speak as plainly as you yourself did just now. Epicurus however does actually think p85that the gods exist, nor have I ever met anybody more afraid than he was of those things which he says are not terrible at all, I mean death and the gods. Terrors that do not very seriously alarm ordinary people, according to Epicurus haunt the minds of all mortal men: so many thousands commit brigandage, for which the penalty is death, and other men rob temples whenever they have the chance; I suppose the former are haunted by the fear of death and the latter by the terrors of religion!

87 "But as you have not the courage (for I will now address myself to Epicurus in person) to deny that the gods exist, what should hinder you from reckoning as divine the sun, or the world, or some form of ever-living intelligence? 'I have never seen a mind endowed with reason and with purpose,' he replies, 'that was embodied in any but a human form.' Well, but have you ever seen anything like the sun or the moon or the five planets? The sun, limiting his motion by the two extreme points of one orbit, completes his courses yearly. The moon, lit by the sun's rays, achieves this solar path in the space of a month. The five planets, holding the same orbit, but some nearer to and others farther from the earth, from the same starting-points complete the same distances in different periods of time. 88 Now, Epicurus, have you ever seen anything like this?36 Well, then, let us deny the existence of the sun, moon and planets, inasmuch as nothing can exist save that which we have touched or seen. And what of god himself? You have never seen him, have you? Why then do you believe in his existence? On this principle we must sweep aside everything unusual of which history or science informs us. The next p87thing would be for inland races to refuse to believe in the existence of the sea. How can such narrowness of mind be possible? It follows that, if you had been born in Seriphus and had never left the island, where you had been used to seeing nothing larger than hares and foxes, when lions and panthers were described to you, you would refuse to believe in their existence; and if somebody told you about an elephant, you would actually think that he was making fun of you!

89 "For your part, Velleius, you forsook the practice of your school for that of the logicians — a science of which your clan is entirely ignorant — and expressed the doctrine in the form of a syllogism. You assumed that the gods are happy: we grant it. But no one, you said, can be happy without virtue. 32 This also we give you, and willingly. But virtue cannot exist without reason. To this also we must agree. You add, neither can reason exist save embodied in human form. Who do you suppose will grant you this? for if it were true, what need had you to arrive at it by successive steps? you might have taken it for granted. But what about your successive steps? I see how you proceeded step by step from happiness to virtue, from virtue to reason; but how from reason do you arrive at human form? That is not a step, it is a headlong plunge.

90 "Nor indeed do I understand why Epicurus preferred to say that gods are like men rather than that men are like gods. 'What is the difference?' you will ask me, 'for if A is like B, B is like A.' I am aware of it; but what I mean is, that the gods did not derive the pattern of their form from men; since the gods have always existed, and were never born — p89that is, if they are to be eternal; whereas men were born; therefore the human form existed before mankind, and it was the form of the immortal gods. We ought not to say that the gods have human form, but that our form is divine.

"However, as to that, you may take your choice. What I want to know is, how did such a piece of good luck happen (for according to your school nothing in the universe was caused by design) — but be that as it may, 91 what accident was so potent, how did such a fortunate concourse of atoms come about, that suddenly men were born in the form of gods? Are we to think that divine seed fell from heaven to earth, and that thus men came into being resembling their sires? I wish that this were your story, for I should be glad to acknowledge my divine relations! But you do not say anything of the sort — you say that our likeness to the gods was caused by chance.

"And now is there any need to search for arguments to refute this? I only wish I could discover the truth as easily as I can expose falsehood. 33 For you gave a full and accurate review, which caused me for one to wonder at so much learning in a Roman, of the theological doctrines of the philosophers from Thales of Miletus downward. 92 Did you think they were all out of their minds because they pronounced that god can exist without hands or feet? Does not even a consideration of the adaptation of man's limbs to their functions convince you that the gods do not require human limbs? What need is there for feet without walking, or for hands if nothing has to be grasped, or for the rest of the list of the various parts of the body, in which nothing is useless, nothing without a reason, nothing superfluous, p91so that no art can imitate the cunning of nature's handiwork? It seems then that god will have a tongue, and will not speak; teeth, a palate, a throat, for no use; the organs that nature has attached to the body for the purpose of procreation — these god will possess, but to no purpose; and not only the external but also the internal organs, the heart, lungs, liver and the rest, which if they are not useful are assuredly not beautiful — since your school holds that god possesses bodily parts because of their beauty.

93 "Was it dreams like these that not only encouraged Epicurus and Metrodorus and Hermarchus to contradict Pythagoras, Plato and Empedocles, but actually emboldened a loose woman like Leontium to write a book refuting Theophrastus? Her style no doubt is the neatest of Attic, but all the same! — such was the licence that prevailed in the Garden of Epicurus. And yet you are touchy yourselves, indeed Zeno actually used to invoke the law. I need not mention Albucius. As for Phaedrus, though he was the most refined and courteous of old gentlemen, he used to lose his temper if I spoke too harshly; although Epicurus attacked Aristotle in the most insulting manner, abused Socrates' pupil Phaedo quite outrageously, devoted whole volumes to an onslaught on Timocrates, the brother of his own associate Metrodorus, for differing from him on some point or other of philosophy, showed no gratitude toward Democritus himself, whose system he adopted, and treated so badly his own master Nausiphanes, from whom he had learnt a considerable amount. 34 As for Zeno, he aimed the shafts of his abuse not only at his contemporaries, Apollodorus, p93Silus and the rest, but Socrates himself, the father of philosophy, he declared to have been the Attic equivalent of our Roman buffoons; and he always alluded to Chrysippus in the feminine gender. 94 You yourself just now, when reeling off the list of philosophers like the censor calling the roll of the Senate, said that all those eminent men were fools, idiots and madmen. But if none of these discerned the truth about the divine nature, it is to be feared that the divine nature is entirely non‑existent.

"For as for your school's account of the matter, it is the merest fairy-story, hardly worthy of old wives at work by lamplight. You don't perceive what a number of things you are let in for, if we consent to admit that men and gods have the same form. You will have to assign to god exactly the same physical exercises and care of the person as are proper to men: he will walk, run, recline, bend, sit, hold things in the hand, and lastly even converse and make speeches. 95 As for your saying that the gods are male and female, well, you must see what the consequence of that will be. For my part, I am at a loss to imagine how your great founder arrived at such notions. All the same you never cease vociferating that we must on no account relinquish the divine happiness and immortality. But what prevents god from being happy without having two legs? and why cannot your 'beatitude' or 'beatity,' whichever form we are to use — and either is certainly a hard mouthful, but words have to be softened by use — but whatever it is, why can it not apply to the sun yonder, or to this world of ours, or to some eternal intelligence devoid of bodily shape and members? 96 Your only answer is: 'I have never seen a happy sun or world.' Well, p95but have you ever seen any other world but this one? No, you will reply. Then why did you venture to assert the existence of, not thousands and thousands, but a countless number of worlds? 'That is what reason teaches.' Then will not reason teach you that when we seek to find a being who shall be supremely excellent, and happy and eternal as well — and nothing else constitutes divinity —, even as that being will surpass us in immortality, so also will it surpass us in mental excellence, and even as in mental excellence, so also in bodily. Why then, if we are inferior to god in all else, are we his equals in form? for man came nearer to the divine image in virtue than in outward aspect. 35 97 [Can you mention anything so childish (to press the same point still further) as to deny the existence of the various species of huge animals that grow in the Red Sea or in India? Yet not even the most diligent investigators could possibly collect information about all the vast multitude of creatures that exist on land and in the sea, the marshes and the rivers: the existence of which we are to deny, because we have never seen them!]

"Then take your favourite argument from resemblance: how utterly pointless it really is! Why, does not a dog resemble a wolf? — and, to quote Ennius,

How like us is that ugly brute, the ape! —

but the two differ in habits. The elephant is the wisest of beasts, but the most ungainly in shape. 98 I speak of animals, but is it not the case even with men that when very much alike in appearance they differ widely in character, and when very much alike in character they are unlike in appearance? In fact, p97Velleius, if once we embark on this line of argument, see how far it takes us. You claimed it as axiomatic that reason can only exist in human form; but someone else will claim that it can only exist in a terrestrial creature, in one that has been born, has grown up, has been educated, consists of a soul and a body liable to decay and disease — in fine, that it can only exist in a mortal man. If you stand out against each of these assumptions, why be troubled about shape only? Rational intelligence exists in man, as you saw, only in conjunction with all the attributes that I have set out; yet you say that you can recognize god even with all these attributes stripped off, provided that the outward form remains. This is not to weigh the question, it is to toss up for what you are to say. 99 Unless indeed you happen never to have observed this either, that not only in a man but even in a tree whatever is superfluous or without a use is harmful. What a nuisance it is to have a single finger too many! Why is this? Because, given five fingers, there is no need of another either for appearance or for use. But your god has got not merely one finger more than he wants, but a head, neck, spine, sides, belly, back, flanks, hands, feet, thighs, legs. If this is to secure him immortality, what have these members to do with life? What has even the face? It depends more on the brain, heart, lungs and liver, for they are the abode of life: a man's countenance and features have nothing to do with his vitality.

36 100 "Then you censured those who argued from the splendour and the beauty of creation, and who, observing the world itself, and the parts of the world, the sky and earth and sea, and the sun, moon p99and stars that adorn them, and discovering the laws of the seasons and their periodic successions, conjectured that there must exist some supreme and transcendent being who had created these things, and who imparted motion to them and guided and governed them. Though this guess may be wide of the mark, I can see what they are after; but as for you, what mighty masterpiece pray do you adduce as apparently the creation of divine intelligence, leading you to conjecture that gods exist? 'We have an idea of god implanted in our minds,' you say. Yes, and an idea of Jupiter with a beard, and Minerva in a helmet; but do you therefore believe that those deities are really like that? 101 The unlearned multitude are surely wiser here — they assign to god not only a man's limbs, but the use of those limbs. For they give him bow, arrows, spear, shield, trident, thunderbolt; and if they cannot see what actions the gods perform, yet they cannot conceive of god as entirely inactive. Even the Egyptians, whom we laugh at, deified animals solely on the score of some utility which they derived from them; for instance, the ibis, being a tall bird with stiff legs and a long horny beak, destroys a great quantity of snakes: it protects Egypt from plague, by killing and eating the flying serpents that are brought from the Libyan desert by the south-west wind, and so preventing them from harming the natives by their bite while alive and their stench when dead. I might describe the utility of the ichneumon, the crocodile and the cat, but I do not wish to be tedious. I will make my point thus: these animals are at all events deified by the barbarians for the benefits which they confer, but your gods not only do no service you can point to, but p101they don't do anything at all. 102 'God,' he says, 'is free from trouble.' Obviously Epicurus thinks, as spoilt children do, that idleness is the best thing there is. 37 Yet these very children even when idle amuse themselves with some active game: are we to suppose that god enjoys so complete a holiday, and is so sunk in sloth, that we must fear lest the least movement may jeopardize his happiness? This language not merely robs the gods of the movements and activities suitable to the divine nature, but also tends to make men slothful, if even god cannot be happy when actively employed.

103 "However, granting your view that god is the image and the likeness of man, what is his dwelling-place and local habitation? in what activities does he spend his life? what constitutes that happiness which you attribute to him? For a person who is to be happy must actively enjoy his blessings. As for locality, even the inanimate elements each have their own particular region: earth occupies the lowest place, water covers the earth, to air is assigned the upper realm, and the ethereal fires occupy the highest confines of all. Animals again are divided into those that live on land and those that live in the water, while a third class are amphibious and dwell in both regions, and there are also some that are believed to be born from fire, and are occasionally seen fluttering about in glowing furnaces.37 104 About your deity therefore I want to know, first, where he dwells; secondly, what motive he has for moving in space, that is, if he ever does so move; thirdly, it being a special characteristic of animate beings to desire some end that is appropriate their nature, what is the thing that god desires; fourthly, upon what subject does he p103employ his mental activity and reason; and lastly, how is he happy, and how eternal? For whichever of these questions you raise, you touch a tender spot. An argument based on such insecure premisses can come to no valid conclusion. 105 Your assertion was that the form of god is perceived by thought and not by the senses, that it has no solidity nor numerical persistence,38 and that our perception of it is such that it is seen owing to similarity and succession, a never-ceasing stream of similar forms arriving continually from the infinite number of atoms, and that thus it results that our mind, when its attention is fixed on these forms, conceives the divine nature to be happy and eternal. 38 Now in the name of the very gods about whom we are talking, what can possibly be the meaning of this? If the gods only appeal to the faculty of thought, and have no solidity or definite outline, what difference does it make whether we think of a god or of a hippocentaur? Such mental pictures are called by all other philosophers mere empty imaginations, but you say they are the arrival and entrance into our minds of certain images.39 106 Well then, when I seem to see Tiberius Gracchus in the middle of his speech in the Capitol producing the ballot‑box for the vote on Marcus Octavius, I explain this as an empty imagination of the mind, but your explanation is that the images of Gracchus and Octavius have actually remained on the spot, so that when I come to the Capitol these images are borne to my mind; the same thing happens, you say, in the case of god, whose appearance repeatedly impinges on men's minds, and so gives rise to the belief in happy and eternal deities. 107 Suppose that there are such images constantly impinging p105on our minds: but that is only the presentation of a certain form — surely not also of a reason for supposing that this form is happy and eternal?

"But what is the nature of these images of yours, and whence do they arise? This extravagance, it is true, is borrowed from Democritus; but he has been widely criticized, nor can you find a satisfactory explanation, and the whole affair is a lame and impotent business. For how can be more improbable than that images of Homer, Archilochus, Romulus, Numa, Pythagoras and Plato should impinge on me at all — much less that they should do so in the actual shape that those men really bore? How then do these images arise? and of whom are they the images? Aristotle40 tells us that the poet Orpheus never existed, and the Pythagoreans say that the Orphic poem which we possess was the work of a certain Cecrops; yet Orpheus, that is, according to you, the image of him, often comes into my mind. 108 What of the fact that different images of the same person enter my mind and yours? or that images come to us of things that never existed at all and never can have existed — for instance, Scylla, and the Chimaera? or of people, places and cities which we have never seen? What of the fact that I can call up an image instantaneously, the very moment that I choose to do so? or that they come to me unbidden, even when I am asleep? Velleius, the whole affair is humbug. Yet you stamp these images not only on our eyes but also on our minds — so irresponsibly do you babble. 39 109 And how extravagantly! There is a constant passage or stream of visual presentations which collectively produce a single visual impression. I should be ashamed to say that p107I do not understand the doctrine, if you who maintain it understood it yourselves! How can you prove that the stream of images is continuous, or if it is, how are the images eternal? You say that there is an innumerable supply of atoms. Are you going to argue then that everything is eternal, for the same reason? You take refuge in the principle of 'equilibrium' (for so with your consent we will translate isonomia), and you say that because there is mortal substance there must also be immortal substance. On that showing, because there are mortal men, there are also some that are immortal, and because there are men born on land, there are men born in the water. 'And because there are forces of destruction, there are also forces of preservation.' Suppose there were, they would only preserve things that already exist; but I am not aware that your gods do exist. 110 But be that as it may, how do all your pictures of objects41 arise out of the atoms? even if the atoms existed, which they do not, they might conceivably be capable of pushing and jostling one another about by their collisions, but they could not create form, shape, colour, life. You fail entirely therefore to prove divine immortality.

40 "Now let us consider divine happiness. Happiness is admittedly impossible without virtue. But virtue is in its nature active, and your god is entirely inactive. Therefore he is devoid of virtue. Therefore he is not happy either. 111 In what then does his life consist? 'In a constant succession of things good,' you reply, 'without any admixture of evils.' Things good — what things? Pleasures, I suppose — that is, of course, pleasures of the body, for your school recognizes no pleasures of the mind that do p109not arise from and come back to the body. I don't suppose that you, Velleius, are like the rest of the Epicureans, who are ashamed of certain utterances of Epicurus, in which he protests that he cannot conceive any good that is unconnected with the pleasures of the voluptuary and the sensualist, pleasures which in fact he proceeds without a blush to enumerate by name. 112 Well then, what viands and beverages, what harmonies of music and flowers of various hue, what delights of touch and smell will you assign to the gods, so as to keep them steeped in pleasure? The poets array banquets of nectar and ambrosia, with Hebe or Ganymede in attendance as cup‑bearer; but what will you do, Epicurean? I don't see either where your god is to procure these delights or how he is to enjoy them. It appears then that mankind is more bountifully equipped for happiness than is the deity, since man can experience a wider range of pleasures. 113 You tell me that you consider these pleasures inferior, which merely 'tickle' the senses (the expression is that of Epicurus).42 When will you cease jesting? Why, even our friend Philo was impatient with the Epicureans for affecting to despise the pleasures of senseless indulgence; for he had an excellent memory and could quote verbatim a number of maxims from the actual writings of Epicurus. As for Metrodorus, Epicurus's co‑partner in philosophy, he supplied him with many still more outspoken quotations; in fact Metrodorus takes his brother Timocrates to task for hesitating to measure every element of happiness by the standard of the belly, nor is this an isolated utterance, but he repeats it several times. I see you nod your assent, as you are acquainted with the passages; and did you deny it, I would produce p111the volumes. Not that I am at the moment criticizing your making pleasure the sole standard of value — that belongs to another inquiry. What I am trying to prove is that your gods are incapable of pleasure, and therefore by your verdict can have no happiness either. 41 114 'But they are free from pain.' Does that satisfy the ideal of perfect bliss, overflowing with good things? 'God is engaged (they say) in ceaseless contemplation of his own happiness, for he has no other object for his thoughts.' I beg of you to realize in your imagination a vivid picture of a deity solely occupied for all eternity in reflecting 'What a good time I am having! How happy I am!' And yet I can't see how this happy god of yours is not to fear destruction, since he is subjected without a moment's respite to the buffeting and jostling of a horde of atoms that eternally assail him, while from his own person a ceaseless stream of images is given off. Your god is therefore neither happy nor eternal.

115 " 'Yes, but Epicurus actually wrote books about holiness43 and piety.' But what is the language of these books? Such that you think you are listening to a Coruncanius or a Scaevola, high priests, not to the man who destroyed the very foundations of religion, and overthrew — not by main force like Xerxes, but by argument — the temples and the altars of the immortal gods. Why, what reason have you for maintaining that men owe worship to the gods, if the gods not only pay no respect to men,44 but care for nothing and do nothing at all? 116 'But deity possesses an excellence and pre‑eminence which must of its own nature attract the worship of the wise.' Now how can there be any excellence in a being so p113engrossed in the delights of his own pleasure that he always has been, is, and will continue to be entirely idle and inactive? Furthermore how can you owe piety to a person who has bestowed nothing upon you? or how can you owe anything at all to one who has done you no service? Piety is justice towards the gods; but how can any claims of justice exist between us and them, if god and man have nothing in common? Holiness is the science of divine worship; but I fail to see why the gods should be worshipped if we neither have received nor hope to receive benefit from them. 42 117 On the other hand what reason is there for adoring the gods on the ground of our admiration for the divine nature, if we cannot see that that nature possesses any special excellence?

"As for freedom from superstition, which is the favourite boast of your school, that is easy to attain when you have deprived the gods of all power; unless perchance you think that it was possible for Diagoras or Theodorus to be superstitious, who denied the existence of the gods altogether. For my part, I don't see how it was possible even for Protagoras, who was not certain either that the gods exist or that they do not. For the doctrines of all these thinkers abolish not only superstition, which implies a groundless fear of the gods, but also religion, which consists in piously worshipping them. 118 Take again those who have asserted that the entire notion of the immortal gods is a fiction invented by wise men in the interest of the state, to the end that those whom reason was powerless to control might be led in the path of duty by religion; surely this view was absolutely and entirely destructive of religion. Or Prodicus of Cos, who said that the gods were personifications of things p115beneficial to the life of man — pray what religion was left by his theory? 119 Or those who teach that brave or famous or powerful men have been deified after death, and that it is these who are the real objects of the worship, prayers and adoration which we are accustomed to offer — are not they entirely devoid of all sense of religion? This theory was chiefly developed by Euhemerus, who was translated and imitated especially by our poet Ennius. Yet Euhemerus describes the death and burial of certain gods; are we then to think of him as upholding religion, or rather as utterly and entirely destroying it? I say nothing of the holy and awe‑inspiring sanctuary of Eleusis,

Where tribes from earth's remotest confines seek

Initiation,45

and I pass over Samothrace and those

occult mysteries

Which throngs of worshippers at dead of night

In forest coverts deep do celebrate46

at Lemnos, since such mysteries when interpreted and rationalized prove to have more to do with natural science than with theology.

43 120 "For my own part I believe that even that very eminent man Democritus, the fountain-head from which Epicurus derived the streams that watered his little garden, has no fixed opinion about the nature of the gods. At one moment he holds the view that the universe includes images endowed with divinity; at another he says that there exist in this same universe the elements from which the mind is compounded, and that these are gods; at another, that they are animate images, which are wont to exercise a beneficent or harmful influence over us; and again p117that they are certain vast images of such a size as to envelop and enfold the entire world.47 All these fancies are more worthy of Democritus's native city48 than of himself; 121 for who could form a mental picture of such images? who could adore them and deem them worthy of worship or reverence?

"Epicurus however, in abolishing divine beneficence and divine benevolence, uprooted and exterminated all religion from the human heart. For while asserting the supreme goodness and excellence of the divine nature, he yet denies to god the attribute of benevolence — that is to say, he does away with that which is the most essential element of supreme goodness and excellence. For what can be better or more excellent than kindness and beneficence? Make out god to be devoid of either, and you make him devoid of all love, affection or esteem for any other being, human or divine. It follows not merely that the gods do not care for mankind, but that they have no care for one another. 44 How much more truth there is in the Stoics, whom you censure! They hold that all wise men are friends, even when strangers to each other, since nothing is more lovable than virtue, and he that attains to it will have our esteem in whatever country he dwells. 122 But as for you, what mischief you cause when you reckon kindness and benevolence as weaknesses! Apart altogether from the nature and attributes of deity, do you think that even human beneficence and benignity are solely due to human infirmity? Is there no natural affection between the good? There is something p119attractive in the very sound of the word 'love,' from which the Latin term for friendship is derived. If we base our friendship on its profit to ourselves, and not on its advantage to those whom we love, it will not be friendship at all, but a mere bartering of selfish interests. That is our standard of value for meadows and fields and herds of cattle: we esteem them for the profits that we derive from them; but affection and friendship between men is disinterested; how much more so therefore is that of the gods, who, although in need of nothing, yet both love each other and care for the interests of men. If this be not so, why do we worship and pray to them? why have pontiffs and augurs to preside over our sacrifices and auspices? why make petitions and vow offerings to heaven? 'Why, but Epicurus (you tell me) actually wrote a treatise on holiness.' 123 Epicurus is making fun of us, though he is not so much a humorist as a loose and careless writer. For how can holiness exist if the gods pay no heed to man's affairs? Yet what is the meaning of an animate being that pays no heed to anything?

"It is doubtless therefore truer to say, as the good friend of us all, Posidonius, argued in the fifth book of his On the Nature of the Gods, that Epicurus does not really believe in the gods at all, and that he said what he did about the immortal gods only for the sake of deprecating popular odium. Indeed he could not have been so senseless as really to imagine god to be like a feeble human being, but resembling him only in outline and surface, not in solid substance, and possessing all man's limbs but entirely incapable of using them, an emaciated and transparent being, showing no kindness or beneficence to anybody, p121caring for nothing and doing nothing at all. In the first place, a being of this nature is an absolute impossibility, and Epicurus was aware of this, and so actually abolishes the gods, although professedly retaining them. 124 Secondly, even if god exists, yet is of such a nature that he feels no benevolence or affection towards men, good‑bye to him, say I — not 'God be gracious to me,'49 why should I say that? for he cannot be gracious to anybody, since, as you tell us, all benevolence and affection is a mark of weakness."


The Loeb Editor's Notes:

25 This name is inserted by some MSS., but Crassus in De oratore, III.77 f., is made to disclaim any special knowledge of philosophy. Probably the name of some philosopher resident in Velleius's house has been lost.

26 Cicero appears to mistranslate the Greek περὶ μὲν θεῶν οὐκ ἔχω εἰδέναι οὐθ᾽ ὡς εἰσὶν οὐθ᾽ ὡς οὐκ εἰσίν Diog. L. IX.51 ('either that they exist or that they do not').

27 Proverbial for a rough, savage character.

28 Or perhaps 'that meets the foot.'

29 A considerable number of words seem to have been lost here.

30 Above, § 49.

31 Some words appear to have been lost here.

32 Perhaps the text should be corrected to 'speech.'

33 Perhaps the text should be corrected to 'rational.'

34 The Latin is part of a verse from an unknown source.

35 Epicurus recorded his principal tenets in a series of brief articles of belief which he called κυρίαι δόξαι, Authoritative Opinions. Diog. L. X.139. This one runs τὸ μακάριον καὶ ἄφθαρτον οὔτε αὐτὸ πράγματα ἔχει οὔτε ἄλλῳ παρέχει.

36 i.e., have you seen things perform all these motions under your eyes? we see only parts of the courses of the heavenly bodies.

37 This is stated by Aristotle, Gen. An. III.9, Hist. An. V.19, and Pliny, N. H. XI.42.

38 i.e., permanent identity: it does not continue one and the same.

39 Perhaps the Latin should be altered to give 'images: just as, when while making a speech in the Capitol I seem to see Tiberius Gracchus producing . . .'

40 See note on I.33.

41 Perhaps Cicero wrote 'pictures of the gods.'

42 His phrase was γαργαλισμοὶ σώματος (Athenaeus XII.546).

43 Diogenes Laertius X.29 mentions a treatise of Epicurus Περὶ ὁσιότητος.

44 The Latin runs 'do not worship men,' and perhaps should be altered to give, 'do not study men's interests.'

45 The source of this verse is unknown.

46 Probably from the Philoctetes of Attius.

47 In the actual teaching of Democritus these scattered doctrines formed a consistent whole: the basis of the world is particles of divine fire, floating in space; groups of them form deities, vast beings of long life but not everlasting; some of the particles floating off from these enter the mind, itself composed of similar particles, and give us knowledge of the gods.

48 Abdera in Thrace had a reputation for stupidity.

49 The formula of ceremonious farewell to a deity, in contrast with vale, used in taking leave of a human being.


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