Discussions on the History of Conscience and Ethics
Early Atheists & Morality, Cont'd
Retrospective on UnbelieversGRiggs
Looking over the available history on early atheists and morality, a whole slew of pathbreaking, peerbucking secularists throughout history demonstrate a thought-provoking trend: rarely, if ever, do they articulate a strikingly independent code of ethics to go with their occasionally quite courageous non-theism. Yes, plenty of atheists have been impeccably upstanding moralists, plenty have suffered heroically from having steadfastly abided by their unexceptionable ethical creed. But that creed, even when clearly altruistic and admirably self-forgetful, almost always stems from a code already established by others, not themselves. This is in marked contrast to more theistic figures like Socrates or Jesus, whose moral tenets are entirely original.
Frankly, I was surprised by such a consistent pattern. It was certainly not what I was expecting.
For example, the ancient Greek atomist Leucippos, arguably the first atheist, was, as Epicurus pointed out, "no philosopher." Leucippos would be regarded today as a straightforward physicist, though a primitive one. (He is still a formidable pathbreaker, though, in having been the first to intuit that all matter is made up of atoms.) It was, in fact, left to his pupil, Democritus, to put an ethical "spin" on Leucippos's findings. Thus, however upright Democritus's moral creed, and however valid his standing as a true "philosopher" (unlike Leucippos), Democritus, at the same time, was no independent atheist, having inherited his atomism from his "non-philosophical" teacher.
In fact, there seems to be some doubt whether or not Democritus was an unequivocal, comprehensive atheist at all, in the sense generally meant today. Some early sources have him guardedly crediting the existence of certain lesser divinities responsible for inspiring certain ideas, generating dreams, etc. He does appear -- inferentially -- skeptical of Deity as a cosmic force responsible for ordering all that is, but that’s different from being a throroughgoing nonbeliever in anything at all associated with Divinity, something that Democritus may not really have been.
When it comes to that, even Leucippos’s stance is unclear, due to the paucity of first-hand documentation regarding his atomic theories for the universe. We have him providing a materialistic explanation for the cosmos itself, but never once is he quoted explicitly refuting (or affirming) the notion of divinities, let alone providing any ethical pronouncements in addition. Since Democritus may have seen fit to shoehorn ideas of lesser divinities into a strictly atomic, materialistic structure for all that is, why not Leucippos his revered teacher? Would Democritus have really strayed so far from his teacher’s own take, both on the cosmos and on divinities? The evidence, in the end, remains equivocal.
For unequivocal, comprehensive unbelief in Divinity as we mean it today, two additional names from the fifth century B.C. emerge far more frequently than either Leucippos or Democritus: Critias, judged by most scholars as an exact contemporary of Democritus (most scholars place their births at or around 460 B.C.), and Diagoras, a pupil of Democritus. Both these individuals appear to have been younger than Leucippos.
The evidence suggests that Diagoras was more overt than Leucippos in rejecting the truth of religious belief. . . .but what religious belief? Belief in Divinity generally or in the traditional beliefs of the polytheistic Athenians in particular?
According to some, Diagoras was a dithyrambic poet who had one of his happy conceits stolen by a rival. When the rival swore up and down that the conceit had not been plagiarized but was his alone, Diagoras, fairly theistic at the time, waited for the gods to punish his perjurious rival. When no comeuppance seemed forthcoming, Diagoras, outraged, abruptly concluded that the gods were fictions and, among other things, started scoffing at the Eleusinian Mysteries. For this, he had to flee from the law c. 415 B.C., and a price of one talent was put on his head, two talents if brought in alive. After fleeing Athens, he never returned.
The questions that arise concern, on the one hand, the nature of the few fragments from his poetry that have, indeed, survived and, on the other, certain contradictions regarding chronology. All of the fragments that survive show a deeply pious writer without even the mild skepticism of his apparent teacher, Democritus, let alone the comprehensive skepticism associated with Diagoras’s later transformation. Conceding the bare possibility that only his more pious writings would survive, this detail still remains curious. That a fair amount of time elapsed between his apostasy and his effective banishment from Athens is shown in a brief reference in Aristophanes’ The Clouds to Diagoras as a thoroughgoing atheist. Since The Clouds was premiered 423 B.C., we have, therefore, at least eight years, 423 -415 B.C., where Diagoras was a free citizen writing poetry in Athens -- and an acknowledged atheist. It seems fortuitous, then, that none of his verse from these eight years has come to light -- the very years, moreover, when his notoriety was apparently at its height, if we go by Aristophanes.
This is where chronology comes in. One ambiguous source seems to suggest that Diagoras was already on the scene c.465 B.C., about five years before Democritus was even born. So how likely is it that a budding poet would take as his teacher a man at least five years younger than himself? Other circumstances surrounding Diagoras and Democritus suggest that it’s impossible for Diagoras to have been older than his teacher. Apparently, so goes the story, Diagoras was sold in slavery in his youth and Democritus generously offered to free him and rear him up to manhood. That certainly does not suggest a relationship of contemporaries. Furthermore, if Diagoras was already a presence in 465 B.C., that would suggest he was, in fact, born quite some while before, making him an aged individual indeed by the time Athens put a price on his head in 415 B.C.
All of the foregoing is not entirely out of the question, but it does seem a bit awkward.
To resolve all this, A. B. Drachmann, in Atheism in Pagan Antiquity, has strongly suggested that Diagoras the poet and Diagoras the pupil of Democritus are two entirely different individuals, the poet having lived somewhat earlier than the atheist and pupil of Democritus. (It’s not unlikely they did overlap.) Drachmann’s theory would certainly explain the oddly pious nature (even by Democritus’s lights) of Diagoras’s surviving fragments, the seemingly unlikely age of Diagoras the “student” -- and the apparent fact that, aside from the one story (apocryphal?) linking Diagoras the atheist to poetry and to an unhappy rivalry with another writer, Diagoras the-notorious-sojourner-in-Athens is never once associated with poetry, only with apostasy and with Democritus. I believe Drachmann may be right.
With all of this, Diagoras the atheist is never associated with peer-bucking, autonomous ethical precepts as an adjunct to his unbelief. On the one hand, if he was not the poet, his probable inheritance from Democritus of whatever pro forma ethical precepts he had becomes more plausible than ever, precepts that Diagoras never, apparently, refined. On the other, if he was also the poet after all, and a very long-lived one at that, his apostasy appears to have come out of a frustrated desire for personal revenge, not from any wish to free his fellow citizens from a perceived tyranny of thought. This does not make Diagoras’s promulgation of freethought very edifying or particularly ethical.
Since we do not have a precise exposition of Diagoras’s apostasy in his own voice, this leaves Critias as the earliest extant formulator of an overt, unequivocal, comprehensive atheistic stance left to posterity. Since it now seems likely that Diagoras the atheist was, in fact, of a younger generation than Critias anyway, that may indeed make Critias’s own formulation the first such exposition ever, not merely the first that survives -- making the Critias fragment of incalculable historic importance. It was preserved, with one lacuna, in Section I of Sextus Empiricus’s Against the Physicists and was lifted from Critias’s satyr-play Sisyphus. Since a satyr-play was frequently tongue-in-cheek, it may be that this first exposition of comprehensive nonbelief was intended to be tongue-in-cheek as well. We cannot be certain, since the context for the original speech is now lost. Nevertheless, whether intended seriously or not, its historical precedence as, conceivably, the first formulation of its kind warrants its citation here in full:
“A time there was when anarchy did rule
The lives of men, which then were like the beasts’,
Enslaved to force. Nor was there then reward
For good men, nor for wicked punishment.
Next, as I deem, did men establish laws
For punishment, that Justice might be lord
Of all mankind, and Insolence enchain’d.
And whosoe’er did sin was penalized.
Next, as the laws did hold men back from deeds
Of open violence, but still such deeds
Were done in secret, -- then, as I maintain,
Some shrewd man first, a man in counsel wise,
Discovered unto men the fear of Gods,
Thereby to frighten sinners should they sin
E’en secretly in deed, or word, or thought.
Hence was it that he brought in Deity,
Telling how God enjoys an endless life,
Hears with his mind and sees, and taketh thought
And heeds things, and his nature is divine,
So that he hearkens to men’s every word
And has the power to see men’s every act.
E’en if you plan in silence some ill deed,
The Gods will surely mark it. For in them
Wisdom resides. So, speaking words like these,
Most cunning doctrine did he introduce,
The truth concealing under speech untrue.
The place he spoke of as the God’s abode
Was that whereby he could affright men most, --
The place from which, he knew, both terrors came
And easements unto men of toilsome life --
To wit the vault above, wherein do dwell
The lightnings, he beheld, and awesome claps
Of thunder, and the starry face of heaven,
Fair-spangled by that cunning craftsman Time, --
Whence, too, the meteor’s glowing mass doth speed
And liquid rain descends upon the earth.
Such were the fears wherewith he hedged men round,
And so to God he gave a fitting home,
By this his speech, and in a fitting place,
And thus extinguished lawlessness by laws.”. . .
- - - - - - - - - - - -[ lacuna ] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
. . .“Thus first did some man, as I deem, persuade
Men to suppose a race of Gods exists.”
Whether or not Critias, in introducing atheism to humanity, did so as a “satyr”ist or as a genuinely committed freethinker, his ethics are, sadly, recorded for all time. He was the chief oligarch among the Thirty Tyrants at Athens, 404 - 403 B.C., instituting policies like abrogating the promise to cobble a new Constitution, executing without trial statesmen like his friend Theramenes when faced with advocacy for a moderate course between oligarchy and democracy, and summarily executing without trial dozens of private citizens as well, just to facilitate the use of their wealth -- in the process thinning out the population in various pockets of the surrounding countryside. Even if we accept the notion that tyranny of this sort was less frowned upon in ancient times than it would be today, the Athenians of that era, in fact, reeling from such a Draconian reaction to the world’s first democracy, came to regard the brief reign of the Thirty Tyrants as a singularly cruel and bloodthirsty chapter by any standards.
After sifting through these unsettling details, it’s somewhat reassuring for an agnostic like myself to find that, at least, the first agnostic of all, Protagoras the trailblazer for the Sophist school, did not wreak quite the same havoc on fifth-century Athens as his confreres. Active when Critias and Diagoras were around, Protagoras espoused a relativistic doctrine for everything. Thus, in addition to maintaining that he neither knew the existence of nor the non-existence of the Divine, he refrained from espousing an ethical creed of his own, explicitly advocating that one must abide scrupulously by the code of one’s homeland, no matter one’s personal feelings or the radical differences from state to state. Pragmatism in all things was what this boiled down to. Again, we find no independent, autonomous ethical creed here, but, at least, there is no explicitly vindictive path (like Diagoras?) nor an overwhelmingly predatory one (like Critias). Protagoras simply fits the general pattern, noted above, of skepticism in tandem with non-independent moral thinking.
Moving on to the fourth century B.C., we switch our attention to the Cyrenaic school founded in the early fourth century by Aristippus the Elder, a one-time pupil of Socrates. One of Aristippus’s adherents later that century was Theodorus, who pretty much adopted, with relatively minor variations, the moderately hedonistic ethics of Aristippus. Theodorus is our next atheist, and, again unlike Leucippos, he was quite explicit in his atheistic spin on what had been Aristippus’s somewhat skeptical doctrine to begin with. Unlike the possibly posing(?), merely character-portraying(?), simply speech-writing(?) Critias, it’s abundantly clear that Theodorus was a genuinely committed proponent of non-theism. Since, along with his more explicit nonbelief (unlike the less overt Leucippos), he does not fashion an altogether new-minted moral philosophy to go with his atheism, he fits the pattern suggested above of pitting genuine independence from prevailing cosmic beliefs against general acceptance and lack of scrutiny into the moral ways of his immediate peers.
Similarly, Straton of Lampsacus articulated an even more overt materialism than Leucippos had, explicitly ascribing various effects in physics and nature to entirely observable forces, rejecting any inference of the divine. And here we have a thoroughly upright individual and a formidable intellect who succeeded to the presidency of the Peripatos (the Peripatetic school in Athens) upon Theophrastus' death. But, beyond that, the prevailing pattern holds. As an inheritor of the Peripatetic tradition, Straton unquestioningly accepted (and why not?) the high-minded ethics of Socrates and Plato, without developing any original moral reflections of his own.
When we jump ahead to the A.D. era, we do have a (possible) martyr to atheism in the finest, though harrowing, tradition of a Socrates or a Jesus: Vanini, whose horrifying execution in France during the early seventeenth century (his tongue was amputated and he was strangled and burned at the stake) is shrouded in contradictions. On the one hand, his clear rejection of extreme unction on the way to execution was described by at least one contemporary observer as being accompanied with Vanini's explicit disavowal of any adherence to either a god or a devil. On the other hand, Vanini's own extant writings only a few years prior to his execution show him still subscribing to the beliefs of Pietro Pomponazzi, a professor of the early sixteenth century whose ideas Vanini had always revered from youth. Pomponazzi was probably the first to put forward the concept of all religions being equally valid emanations of a true deity. In subscribing to this, Vanini's writings do not come off as atheistic in any way. But, we can wonder, Had Vanini changed his thinking by the time of his martyrdom? That is not clear. What is clear though is his continued acceptance of Pomponazzi's moral tenets, shown in Vanini's gallant statement on his way to execution that he wished to die "en philosophe" -- with equanimity. Pomponazzi's ethics followed Plato's and Aristotle's up to a point -- and Vanini was apparently faithful to Pomponazzi's new variation on Aristotle. Instead of viewing the Good Life as ultimately residing in contemplation, Pomponazzi viewed the Good Life as residing ultimately in moral action, and to this Vanini remained faithful. In this instance, where there are fewer historical contradictions, we clearly find Vanini unequivocally adopting, living, and even dying by an exalted moral code, though one not his very own. Once again, then, we have a possible non-theist who may be impeccably upright but without a truly original set of moral beliefs in tandem with his courageous apostasy.
We can see that Knutzen, though not apparently a victim of some hideous punishment, parallels this same prevailing combination -- seen in so many others -- of original precedent-setting apostasy amongst even one's own peers with the adoption of perfectly upright moral tenets not necessarily one's own (in Knutzen's case, those of Jesus, Paul, Gregory Nazianzus, and Ulpian).
This would seem to leave only one figure with the genuine distinction of having developed both a thoroughly original, courageous apostasy amongst his immediate peers and also a platform of equally independent moral action and ethics: Jean Meslier (see chapter immediately following.) At the outset of Meslier's posthumous tract, he explicitly rejects the veracity of any and all concepts relating to deity, maintaining that all theism is arrant superstition and that all reality is readily observable by the humblest mortals here on Earth. He maintains there is no dimension beyond the temporal, mortal one, and all lives exist strictly within the three-dimensional universe that we already know. In the excerpted chapter following, we give a translation of Meslier's call to moral action consequent to his initial declaration of non-belief. For the time being, I leave it to other readers to provide their own assessments as to the degree of probity, altruism, even-handedness and selflessness in Meslier's independent ideas on an ethical, moral society.
Table of contents for "The Jefferson Bible"