As far as Greek philosophers go, Epicurus was pretty O.K.
Contrary to the customs of his era, he allowed women as students in his school. Though there is absolutely no historical fact to justify this, I would love to think that the legendary Xanthippe (of whom he most certainly knew) and her famous debates versus Socrates, may have influenced him in this. After all, his philosophy was not really all that far removed from hers (at least, the few little bits of her philosophy that have survived).
But, unlike Socrates, who was busy gazing at the navel of his immortal soul, Epicurus saw humans as having physical, intellectual, spiritual and social needs: the ideal, then, was to strike a harmonious balance in one’s life. Frankly, this seems almost too reasonable an opinion to be held by a ‘philosopher’!
After all, where is the brooding, the derisive scowl at the cares of the world – isn’t that the image the word ‘philosopher’ is supposed to evoke? I bet his ‘reasonableness’ cost him a lot of ‘pretentiousness points’ among the lofty circles…
He would likely have been written off and forgotten, had he not also voiced some very provocative ideas. Most (though certainly not all) of his contemporaries aspired to the creed of monotheism, describing God in a way modern day Christians would recognize: omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent towards mankind, his creation. In the still predominantly polytheistic environment, this idea – coupled with the notion Socrates had taught of the immortality of one’s soul – seemed very deep and mystical. Yet, Epicurus directed some very pointed questions at this creed…and none of them have been satisfactorily answered as yet!
Is God willing to prevent evil, and not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is He able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is God both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is He neither able, nor willing?
Then why call him God?
– Epicurus, 341-271 BCE
This is perhaps the most famous group of his questions and has been handed down to us under the name the ‘Epicurean riddle’, or the ‘Epicurean paradox’. It has been much paraphrased over the millennia, but the above is one of my favourite renditions.
People say that pain can, at times, bring ‘things’ into a sharp focus. This was true for me, as I deeply questioned every single one of my life’s decisions, whiling away the endless hours of late-stage labour. Truly, I came to question everything!
And then, it occurred to me: in order to make people (especially female people) truly comprehend the meaning of the Epicurean paradox, perhaps I could re-phrase it into terms that had more immediate impact on our lives. It’s almost as if the words came to me of their own volition:
Is God is truly omniscient? Then He must know the pain of childbirth!
And if He is also omnipotent, and he did not invent ‘the epidural’ waaaay before inventing this whole childbirth thing, then he is most certainly not benevolent!
I like to think of this as the Epidurean paradox!
I would go on, but I don’t want to belabour the point….