Atheism In Pagan Antiquity
A. B. Drachmann
Professor of Classical Philology in the University of Copenhagen
11 Hanover Square, London, W.1
Preface Introduction Chapter I Chapter II Chapter III Chapter IV Chapter V Chapter VI Chapter VII Chapter VIII Chapter IX Notes Index Footnotes
The present treatise originally appeared in Danish as a University publication (Kjoebenhavns Universitets Festskrift, November 1919). In submitting it to the English public, I wish to acknowledge my profound indebtedness to Mr. G. F. Hill of the British Museum, who not only suggested the English edition, but also with untiring kindness has subjected the translation, as originally made by Miss Ingeborg Andersen, M.A. of Copenhagen, to a painstaking and most valuable revision.
For an account of the previous treatments of the subject, as well as of the method employed in my investigation, the reader is referred to the introductory remarks which precede the Notes.
A. B. DRACHMANN. CHARLOTTENLUND, July 1922.
The present inquiry is the outcome of a request to write an article on "Atheism" for a projected dictionary of the religious history of classical antiquity. On going through the sources I found that the subject might well deserve a more comprehensive treatment than the scope of a dictionary would allow. It is such a treatment that I have attempted in the following pages.
A difficulty that occurred at the very beginning of the inquiry was how to define the notion of atheism. Nowadays the term is taken to designate the attitude which denies every idea of God. Even antiquity sometimes referred to atheism in this sense; but an inquiry dealing with the history of religion could not start from a definition of that kind. It would have to keep in view, not the philosophical notion of God, but the conceptions of the gods as they appear in the religion of antiquity. Hence I came to define atheism in Pagan antiquity as the point of view which denies the existence of the ancient gods. It is in this sense that the word will be used in the following inquiry.
Even though we disregard philosophical atheism, the definition is somewhat narrow; for in antiquity mere denial of the existence of the gods of popular belief was not the only attitude which was designated as atheism. But it has the advantage of starting from the conception of the ancient gods that may be said to have finally prevailed. In the sense in which the word is used here we are nowadays all of us atheists. We do not believe that the gods whom the Greeks and the Romans worshipped and believed in exist or have ever existed; we hold them to be productions of the human imagination to which nothing real corresponds. This view has nowadays become so ingrained in us and appears so self-evident, that we find it difficult to imagine that it has not been prevalent through long ages; nay, it is perhaps a widely diffused assumption that even in antiquity educated and unbiased persons held the same view of the religion of their people as we do. In reality both assumptions are erroneous: our "atheism" in regard to ancient paganism is of recent date, and in antiquity itself downright denial of the existence of the gods was a comparatively rare phenomenon. The demonstration of this fact, rather than a consideration of the various intermediate positions taken up by the thinkers of antiquity in their desire to avoid a complete rupture with the traditional ideas of the gods, has been one of the chief purposes of this inquiry.
Though the definition of atheism set down here might seem to be clear and unequivocal, and though I have tried to adhere strictly to it, cases have unavoidably occurred that were difficult to classify. The most embarrassing are those which involve a reinterpretation of the conception of the gods, i.e. which, while acknowledging that there is some reality corresponding to the conception, yet define this reality as essentially different from it. Moreover, the acknowledgment of a certain group of gods (the celestial bodies, for instance) combined with the rejection of others, may create difficulties in defining the notion of atheism; in practice, however, this doctrine generally coincides with the former, by which the gods are explained away. On the whole it would hardly be just, in a field of inquiry like the present, to expect or require absolutely clearly defined boundary-lines; transition forms will always occur.
The persons of whom it is related that they denied the existence of the ancient gods are in themselves few, and they all belong to the highest level of culture; by far the greater part of them are simply professional philosophers. Hence the inquiry will almost exclusively have to deal with philosophers and philosophical schools and their doctrines; of religion as exhibited in the masses, as a social factor, it will only treat by exception. But in its purpose it is concerned with the history of religion, not with philosophy; therefore—in accordance with the definition of its object—it will deal as little as possible with the purely philosophical notions of God that have nothing to do with popular religion. What it aims at illustrating is a certain—if you like, the negative—aspect of ancient religion. But its result, if it can be sufficiently established, will not be without importance for the understanding of the positive religious sense of antiquity. If you want to obtain some idea of the hold a certain religion had on its adherents, it is not amiss to know something about the extent to which it dominated even the strata of society most exposed to influences that went against it.
It might seem more natural, in dealing with atheism in antiquity, to adopt the definition current among the ancients themselves. That this method would prove futile the following investigation will, I hope, make sufficiently evident; antiquity succeeded as little as we moderns in connecting any clear and unequivocal idea with the words that signify "denial of God." On the other hand, it is, of course, impossible to begin at all except from the traditions of antiquity about denial and deniers. Hence the course of the inquiry will be, first to make clear what antiquity understood by denial of the gods and what persons it designated as deniers, and then to examine in how far these persons were atheists in our sense of the word.
Atheism and atheist are words formed from Greek roots and with Greek derivative endings. Nevertheless they are not Greek; their formation is not consonant with Greek usage. In Greek they said atheos and atheotes; to these the English words ungodly and ungodliness correspond rather closely. In exactly the same way as ungodly, atheos was used as an expression of severe censure and moral condemnation; this use is an old one, and the oldest that can be traced. Not till later do we find it employed to denote a certain philosophical creed; we even meet with philosophers bearing atheos as a regular surname. We know very little of the men in question; but it can hardly be doubted that atheos, as applied to them, implied not only a denial of the gods of popular belief, but a denial of gods in the widest sense of the word, or Atheism as it is nowadays understood.
In this case the word is more particularly a philosophical term. But it was used in a similar sense also in popular language, and corresponds then closely to the English "denier of God," denoting a person who denies the gods of his people and State. From the popular point of view the interest, of course, centred in those only, not in the exponents of philosophical theology. Thus we find the word employed both of theoretical denial of the gods (atheism in our sense) and of practical denial of the gods, as in the case of the adherents of monotheism, Jews and Christians.
Atheism, in the theoretical as well as the practical sense of the word, was, according to the ancient conception of law, always a crime; but in practice it was treated in different ways, which varied both according to the period in question and according to the more or less dangerous nature of the threat it offered to established religion. It is only as far as Athens and Imperial Rome are concerned that we have any definite knowledge of the law and the judicial procedure on this point; a somewhat detailed account of the state of things in Athens and Rome cannot be dispensed with here.
In the criminal law of Athens we meet with the term asebeia—literally: impiety or disrespect towards the gods. As an established formula of accusation of asebeia existed, legislation must have dealt with the subject; but how it was defined we do not know. The word itself conveys the idea that the law particularly had offences against public worship in view; and this is confirmed by the fact that a number of such offences—from the felling of sacred trees to the profanation of the Eleusinian Mysteries—were treated as asebeia. When, in the next place, towards the close of the fifth century B.C., free-thinking began to assume forms which seemed dangerous to the religion of the State, theoretical denial of the gods was also included under asebeia. From about the beginning of the Peloponnesian War to the close of the fourth century B.C., there are on record a number of prosecutions of philosophers who were tried and condemned for denial of the gods. The indictment seems in most cases—the trial of Socrates is the only one of which we know details—to have been on the charge of asebeia, and the procedure proper thereto seems to have been employed, though there was no proof or assertion of the accused having offended against public worship; as to Socrates, we know the opposite to have been the case; he worshipped the gods like any other good citizen. This extension of the conception of asebeia to include theoretical denial of the gods no doubt had no foundation in law; this is amongst other things evident from the fact that it was necessary, in order to convict Anaxagoras, to pass a special public resolution in virtue of which his free-thinking theories became indictable. The law presumably dated from a time when theoretical denial of the gods lay beyond the horizon of legislation. Nevertheless, in the trial of Socrates it is simply taken for granted that denial of the gods is a capital crime, and that not only on the side of the prosecution, but also on the side of the defence: the trial only turns on a question of fact, the legal basis is taken for granted. So inveterate, then, at this time was the conception of the unlawful nature of the denial of the gods among the people of Athens.
In the course of the fourth century B.C. several philosophers were accused of denial of the gods or blasphemy; but after the close of the century we hear no more of such trials. To be sure, our knowledge of the succeeding centuries, when Athens was but a provincial town, is far less copious than of the days of its greatness; nevertheless, it is beyond doubt that the practice in regard to theoretical denial of the gods was changed. A philosopher like Carneades, for instance, might, in view of his sceptical standpoint, just as well have been convicted of asebeia as Protagoras, who was convicted because he had declared that he did not know whether the gods existed or not; and as to such a process against Carneades, tradition would not have remained silent. Instead, we learn that he was employed as the trusted representative of the State on most important diplomatic missions. It is evident that Athens had arrived at the point of view that the theoretical denial of the gods might be tolerated, whereas the law, of course, continued to protect public worship.
In Rome they did not possess, as in Athens, a general statute against religious offences; there were only special provisions, and they were, moreover, few and insufficient. This defect, however, was remedied by the vigorous police authority with which the Roman magistrates were invested. In Rome severe measures were often taken against movements which threatened the Roman official worship, but it was done at the discretion of the administration and not according to hard-and-fast rules; hence the practice was somewhat varying, and a certain arbitrariness inevitable.
No example is known from Rome of action taken against theoretical denial of the gods corresponding to the trials of the philosophers in Athens. The main cause of this was, no doubt, that free-thinking in the fifth century B.C. invaded Hellas, and specially Athens, like a flood which threatened to overthrow everything; in Rome, on the other hand, Greek philosophy made its way in slowly and gradually, and this took place at a time when in the country of its origin it had long ago found a modus vivendi with popular religion and was acknowledged as harmless to the established worship. The more practical outlook of the Romans may perhaps also have had something to say in the matter: they were rather indifferent to theoretical speculations, whereas they were not to be trifled with when their national institutions were concerned.
In consequence of this point of view the Roman government first came to deal with denial of the gods as a breach of law when confronted with the two monotheistic religions which invaded the Empire from the East. That which distinguished Jews and Christians from Pagans was not that they denied the existence of the Pagan gods—the Christians, at any rate, did not do this as a rule—but that they denied that they were gods, and therefore refused to worship them. They were practical, not theoretical deniers. The tolerance which the Roman government showed towards all foreign creeds and the result of which in imperial times was, practically speaking, freedom of religion over the whole Empire, could not be extended to the Jews and the Christians; for it was in the last resort based on reciprocity, on the fact that worship of the Egyptian or Persian gods did not exclude worship of the Roman ones. Every convert, on the other hand, won over to Judaism or Christianity was eo ipso an apostate from the Roman religion, an atheos according to the ancient conception. Hence, as soon as such religions began to spread, they constituted a serious danger to the established religion, and the Roman government intervened. Judaism and Christianity were not treated quite alike; in this connexion details are of no interest, but certain principal features must be dwelt on as significant of the attitude of antiquity towards denial of the gods. To simplify matters I confine myself to Christianity, where things are less complicated.
The Christians were generally designated as atheoi, as deniers of the gods, and the objection against them was precisely their denial of the Pagan gods, not their religion as such. When the Christian, summoned before the Roman magistrates, agreed to sacrifice to the Pagan gods (among them, the Emperor) he was acquitted; he was not punished for previously having attended Christian services, and it seems that he was not even required to undertake not to do so in future. Only if he refused to sacrifice, was he punished. We cannot ask for a clearer proof that it is apostasy as such, denial of the gods, against which action is taken. It is in keeping with this that, at any rate under the earlier Empire, no attempt was made to seek out the Christians at their assemblies, to hinder their services or the like; it was considered sufficient to take steps when information was laid.
The punishments meted out were different, in that they were left solely to the discretion of the magistrates. But they were generally severe: forced labour in mines and capital punishment were quite common. No discrimination was made between Roman citizens and others belonging to the Empire, but all were treated alike; that the Roman citizen could not undergo capital punishment without appeal to the Emperor does not affect the principle. This procedure has really no expressly formulated basis in law; the Roman penal code did not, as mentioned above, take cognizance of denial of the gods. Nevertheless, the sentences on the Christians were considered by the Pagans of the earlier time as a matter of course, the justice of which was not contested, and the procedure of the government was in principle the same under humane and conscientious rulers like Trajan and Marcus Aurelius as under tyrants like Nero and Domitian. Here again it is evident how firmly rooted in the mind of antiquity was the conviction that denial of the gods was a capital offence.
To resume what has here been set forth concerning the attitude of ancient society to atheism: it is, in the first place, evident that the frequently mentioned tolerance of polytheism was not extended to those who denied its gods; in fact, it was applied only to those who acknowledged them even if they worshipped others besides. But the assertion of this principle of intolerance varied greatly in practice according to whether it was a question of theoretical denial of the gods—atheism in our sense—or practical refusal to worship the Pagan gods. Against atheism the community took action only during a comparatively short period, and, as far as we know, only in a single place. The latter limitation is probably explained not only by the defectiveness of tradition, but also by the fact that in Athens free-thinking made its appearance about the year 400 as a general phenomenon and therefore attracted the attention of the community. Apart from this case, the philosophical denier of God was left in peace all through antiquity, in the same way as the individual citizen was not interfered with, as a rule, when he, for one reason or another, refrained from taking part in the worship of the deities. On the other hand, as soon as practical refusal to believe in the gods, apostasy from the established religion, assumed dangerous proportions, ruthless severity was exercised against it.
The discrimination, however, made in the treatment of the theoretical and practical denial of the gods is certainly not due merely to consideration of the more or less isolated occurrence of the phenomenon; it is rooted at the same time in the very nature of ancient religion. The essence of ancient polytheism is the worship of the gods, that is, cultus; of a doctrine of divinity properly speaking, of theology, there were only slight rudiments, and there was no idea of any elaborate dogmatic system. Quite different attitudes were accordingly assumed towards the philosopher, who held his own opinions of the gods, but took part in the public worship like anybody else; and towards the monotheist, to whom the whole of the Pagan worship was an abomination, which one should abstain from at any cost, and which one should prevail on others to give up for the sake of their own good in this life or the next.
In the literature of antiquity we meet with sporadic statements to the effect that certain philosophers bore the epithet atheos as a sort of surname; and in a few of the later authors of antiquity we even find lists of men—almost all of them philosophers—who denied the existence of the gods. Furthermore, we possess information about certain persons—these also, if Jews and Christians are excluded, are nearly all of them philosophers—having been accused of, and eventually convicted of, denial of the gods; some of these are not in our lists. Information of this kind will, as remarked above, be taken as the point of departure for an investigation of atheism in antiquity. For practical reasons, however, it is reasonable to include some philosophers whom antiquity did not designate as atheists, and who did not come into conflict with official religion, but of whom it has been maintained in later times that they did not believe in the existence of the gods of popular belief. Thus we arrive at the following list, in which those who were denoted as atheoi are italicised and those who were accused of impiety are marked with an asterisk:
Xenophanes. *Anaxagoras. Diogenes of Apollonia. Hippo of Rhegium. *Protagoras. Prodicus. Critias. *Diagoras of Melos. *Socrates. Antisthenes. Plato. *Aristotle. Theophrastus. *Stilpo. *Theodorus. *Bion. Epicurus. Euhemerus.
The persons are put down in chronological order. This order will in some measure be preserved in the following survey; but regard for the continuity of the tradition of the doctrine will entail certain deviations. It will, that is to say, be natural to divide the material into four groups: the pre-Socratic philosophy; the Sophists; Socrates and the Socratics; Hellenistic philosophy. Each of these groups has a philosophical character of its own, and it will be seen that this character also makes itself felt in the relation to the gods of the popular belief, even though we here meet with phenomena of more isolated occurrence. The four groups must be supplemented by a fifth, a survey of the conditions in Imperial Rome. Atheists of this period are not found in our lists; but a good deal of old Pagan free-thinking survives in the first centuries of our era, and also the epithet atheoi was bestowed generally on the Christians and sometimes on the Jews, and if only for this reason they cannot be altogether passed by in this survey.
The paganism of antiquity is based on a primitive religion, i.e. it is originally in the main homogeneous with the religions nowadays met with in the so-called primitive peoples. It underwent, however, a long process of evolution parallel with and conditioned by the development of Greek and later Roman civilisation. This evolution carried ancient religion far away from its primitive starting-point; it produced numerous new formations, above all a huge system of anthropomorphic gods, each with a definite character and personality of his own. This development is the result of an interplay of numerous factors: changing social and economical conditions evoked the desire for new religious ideas; the influence of other peoples made itself felt; poetry and the fine arts contributed largely to the moulding of these ideas; conscious reflection, too, arose early and modified original simplicity. But what is characteristic of the whole process is the fact that it went on continuously without breaks or sudden bounds. Nowhere in ancient religion, as far as we can trace it, did a powerful religious personality strike in with a radical transformation, with a direct rejection of old ideas and dogmatic accentuation of new ones. The result of this quiet growth was an exceedingly heterogeneous organism, in which remains of ancient, highly primitive customs and ideas were retained along with other elements of a far more advanced character.
Such a state of things need not in itself trouble the general consciousness; it is a well-established fact that in religion the most divergent elements are not incompatible. Nevertheless, among the Greeks, with their strong proclivity to reflective thought, criticism early arose against the traditional conceptions of the gods. The typical method of this criticism is that the higher conceptions of the gods are used against the lower. From the earliest times the Greek religious sense favoured absoluteness of definition where the gods are concerned; even in Homer they are not only eternal and happy, but also all-powerful and all-knowing. Corresponding expressions of a moral character are hardly to be found in Homer; but as early as Hesiod and Solon we find, at any rate, Zeus as the representative of heavenly justice. With such definitions a large number of customs of public worship and, above all, a number of stories about the gods, were in violent contradiction; thus we find even so old and so pious a poet as Pindar occasionally rejecting mythical stories which he thinks at variance with the sublime nature of the gods. This form of criticism of popular beliefs is continued through the whole of antiquity; it is found not only in philosophers and philosophically educated laymen, but appears spontaneously in everybody of a reflective mind; its best known representative in earlier times is Euripides. Typical of its popular form is in the first place its casualness; it is directed against details which at the moment attract attention, while it leaves other things alone which in principle are quite as offensive, but either not very obviously so, or else not relevant to the matter in hand. Secondly, it is naive: it takes the gods of the popular belief for granted essentially as they are; it does not raise the crucial question whether the popular belief is not quite justified in attributing to these higher beings all kinds of imperfection, and wrong in attributing perfection to them, and still less if such beings, whether they are defined as perfect or imperfect, exist at all. It follows that as a whole this form of criticism is outside the scope of our inquiry.
Still, there is one single personality in early Greek thought who seems to have proceeded still further on the lines of this naive criticism, namely, Xenophanes of Colophon. He is generally included amongst the philosophers, and rightly in so far as he initiated a philosophical speculation which was of the highest importance in the development of Greek scientific thought. But in the present connexion it would, nevertheless, be misleading to place Xenophanes among those philosophers who came into conflict with the popular belief because their conception of Existence was based on science. The starting-point for his criticism of the popular belief is in fact not philosophical, but religious; he ranks with personalities like Pindar and Euripides—he was also a verse-writer himself, with considerable poetic gift—and is only distinguished from them by the greater consistency of his thought. Hence, the correct course is to deal with him in this place as the only eminent thinker in antiquity about whom it is known that—starting from popular belief and religious motives—he reached a standpoint which at any rate with some truth may be designated as atheism.
Xenophanes lived in the latter part of the sixth and the beginning of the fifth centuries B.C. (according to his own statement he reached an age of more than ninety years). He was an itinerant singer who travelled about and recited poetry, presumably not merely his own but also that of others. In his own poems he severely attacked the manner in which Homer and Hesiod, the most famous poets of Greece, had represented the gods: they had attributed to them everything which in man's eyes is outrageous and reprehensible—theft, adultery and deception of one another. Their accounts of the fights of the gods against Titans and Giants he denounced as "inventions of the ancients." But he did not stop at that: "Men believe that the gods are born, are clothed and shaped and speak like themselves"; "if oxen and horses and lions could draw and paint, they would delineate their gods in their own image"; "the Negroes believe that their gods are flat-nosed and black, the Thracians that theirs have blue eyes and red hair." Thus he attacked directly the popular belief that the gods are anthropomorphic, and his arguments testify that he clearly realised that men create their gods in their own image. On another main point, too, he was in direct opposition to the religious ideas of his time: he rejected Divination, the belief that the gods imparted the secrets of the future to men—which was deemed a mainstay of the belief in the existence of the gods. As a positive counterpart to the anthropomorphic gods, Xenophanes set up a philosophical conception of God: God must be One, Eternal, Unchangeable and identical with himself in every way (all sight, all hearing and all mind). This deity, according to the explicit statements of our earliest sources, he identified with the universe.
If we examine more closely the arguments put forth by Xenophanes in support of his remarkable conception of the deity, we realise that he everywhere starts from the definitions of the nature of the gods as given by popular religion; but, be it understood, solely from the absolute definitions. He takes the existence of the divine, with its absolute attributes, for granted; it is in fact the basis of all his speculation. His criticism of the popular ideas of the gods is therefore closely connected with his philosophical conception of God; the two are the positive and negative sides of the same thing. Altogether his connexion with what I call the naive criticism of the popular religion is unmistakable.
It is undoubtedly a remarkable fact that we meet at this early date with such a consistent representative of this criticism. If we take Xenophanes at his word we must describe him as an atheist, and atheism in the sixth century B.C. is a very curious phenomenon indeed. Neither was it acknowledged in antiquity; no one placed Xenophanes amongst atheoi; and Cicero even says somewhere (according to Greek authority) that Xenophanes was the only one of those who believed in gods who rejected divination. In more recent times, too, serious doubt has been expressed whether Xenophanes actually denied the existence of the gods. Reference has amongst other things been made to the fact that he speaks in several places about "gods" where he, according to his view, ought to say "God"; nay, he has even formulated his fundamental idea in the words: "One God, the greatest amongst gods and men, neither in shape nor mind like unto any mortal." To be sure, Xenophanes is not always consistent in his language; but no weight whatever ought to be attached to this, least of all in the case of a man who exclusively expressed himself in verse. Another theory rests on the tradition that Xenophanes regarded his deity and the universe as identical, consequently was a pantheist. In that case, it is said, he may very well have considered, for instance, the heavenly bodies as deities. Sound as this argument is in general, it does not apply to this case. When a thinker arrives at pantheism, starting from a criticism of polytheism which is expressly based on the antithesis between the unity and plurality of the deity—then very valid proofs, indeed, are needed in order to justify the assumption that he after all believed in a plurality of gods; and such proofs are wanting in the case of Xenophanes.
Judging from the material in hand one can hardly arrive at any other conclusion than that the standpoint of Xenophanes comes under our definition of atheism. But we must not forget that only fragments of his writings have been preserved, and that the more extensive of them do not assist us greatly to the understanding of his religious standpoint. It is possible that we might have arrived at a different conclusion had we but possessed his chief philosophical work in its entirety, or at least larger portions of it. And I must candidly confess that if I were asked whether, in my heart of hearts, I believed that a Greek of the sixth century B.C. denied point-blank the existence of his gods, my answer would be in the negative.
That Xenophanes was not considered an atheist by the ancients may possibly be explained by the fact that they objected to fasten this designation on a man whose reasoning took the deity as a starting-point and whose sole aim was to define its nature. Perhaps they also had an inkling that he in reality stood on the ground of popular belief, even if he went beyond it. Still more curious is the fact that his religious view does not seem to have influenced the immediately succeeding philosophy at all. His successors, Parmenides and Zeno, developed his doctrine of unity, but in a pantheistic direction, and on a logical, not religious line of argument; about their attitude to popular belief we are told practically nothing. And Ionic speculation took a quite different direction. Not till a century later, in Euripides, do we observe a distinct influence of his criticism of popular belief; but at that time other currents of opinion had intervened which are not dependent on Xenophanes, but might direct attention to him.
Ancient Greek naturalism is essentially calculated to collide with the popular belief. It seeks a natural explanation of the world, first and foremost of its origin, but in the next place of individual natural phenomena. As to the genesis of the world, speculations of a mythical kind had already developed on the basis of the popular belief. They were not, however, binding on anybody, and, above all, the idea of the gods having created the world was altogether alien to Greek religion. Thus, without offence to them it might be maintained that everything originated from a primary substance or from a mixture of several primary substances, as was generally maintained by the ancient naturalists. On the other hand, a conflict arose as soon as the heavenly phenomena, such as lightning and thunder, were ascribed to natural causes, or when the heavenly bodies were made out to be natural objects; for to the Greeks it was an established fact that Zeus sent lightning and thunder, and that the sun and the moon were gods. A refusal to believe in the latter was especially dangerous because they were visible gods, and as to the person who did not believe in their divinity the obvious conclusion would be that he believed still less in the invisible gods.
That this inference was drawn will appear before long. But the epithet "atheist" was very rarely attached to the ancient naturalists; only a few of the later (and those the least important) were given the nickname atheos. Altogether we hear very little of the relation of these philosophers to the popular belief, and this very silence is surely significant. No doubt, most of them bestowed but a scant attention on this aspect of the matter; they were engrossed in speculations which did not bring them into conflict with the popular belief, and even their scientific treatment of the "divine" natural phenomena did not make them doubt the existence of the gods. This is connected with a peculiarity in their conception of existence. Tradition tells us of several of them, and it applies presumably also to those of whom it is not recorded, that they designated their primary substance or substances as gods; sometimes they also applied this designation to the world or worlds originating in the primary substance. This view is deeply rooted in the Greek popular belief and harmonises with its fundamental view of existence. To these ancient thinkers the primary substance is at once a living and a superhuman power; and any living power which transcended that of man was divine to the Greeks. Hylozoism (the theory that matter is alive) consequently, when it allies itself with popular belief, leads straight to pantheism, whereas it excludes monotheism, which presupposes a distinction between god and matter. Now it is a matter of experience that, while monotheism is the hereditary foe of polytheism, polytheism and pantheism go very well together. The universe being divine, there is no reason to doubt that beings of a higher order than man exist, nor any reason to refuse to bestow on them the predicate "divine"; and with this we find ourselves in principle on the standpoint of polytheistic popular belief. There is nothing surprising, then, in the tradition that Thales identified God with the mind of the universe and believed the universe to be animated, and filled with "demons." The first statement is in this form probably influenced by later ideas and hardly a correct expression of the view of Thales; the rest bears the very stamp of genuineness, and similar ideas recur, more or less completely and variously refracted, in the succeeding philosophers.
To follow these variations in detail is outside the scope of this investigation; but it may be of interest to see the form they take in one of the latest and most advanced representatives of Ionian naturalism. In Democritus's conception of the universe, personal gods would seem excluded a priori. He works with but three premises: the atoms, their movements, and empty space. From this everything is derived according to strict causality. Such phenomena also as thunder and lightning, comets and eclipses, which were generally ascribed to the gods, are according to his opinion due to natural causes, whereas people in the olden days were afraid of them because they believed they were due to the gods. Nevertheless, he seems, in the first place, to have designated Fire, which he at the same time recognised as a "soul-substance," as divine, the cosmic fire being the soul of the world; and secondly, he thought that there was something real underlying the popular conception of the gods. He was led to this from a consideration of dreams, which he thought were images of real objects which entered into the sleeper through the pores of the body. Now, since gods might be seen in dreams, they must be real beings. He did actually say that the gods had more senses than the ordinary five. When he who of all the Greek philosophers went furthest in a purely mechanical conception of nature took up such an attitude to the religion of his people, one cannot expect the others, who were less advanced, to discard it.
Nevertheless, there is a certain probability that some of the later Ionian naturalists went further in their criticism of the gods of popular belief. One of them actually came into conflict with popular religion; it will be natural to begin with him.
Shortly before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, Anaxagoras of Clazomenae was accused of impiety and had to leave Athens, where he had taken up his abode. The object of the accusation was in reality political; the idea being to hit Pericles through his friend the naturalist. What Anaxagoras was charged with was that he had assumed that the heavenly bodies were natural objects; he had taught that the sun was a red-hot mass, and that the moon was earth and larger than Peloponnese. To base an accusation of impiety on this, it was necessary first to carry a public resolution, giving power to prosecute those who gave natural explanations of heavenly phenomena.
As to Anaxagoras's attitude to popular belief, we hear next to nothing apart from this. There is a story of a ram's head being found with one horn in the middle of the forehead; it was brought to Pericles, and the soothsayer Lampon explained the portent to the effect that, of the two men, Pericles and Thucydides, who contended for the leadership of Athens, one should prove victorious. Anaxagoras, on the other hand, had the ram's head cut open and showed that the brain did not fill up the cranium, but was egg-shaped and lay gathered together at the point where the horn grew out. He evidently thought that abortions also, which otherwise were generally considered as signs from the gods, were due to natural causes. Beyond this, nothing is said of any attack on the popular belief on the part of Anaxagoras, and in his philosophy nothing occurred which logically entailed a denial of the existence of the gods. Add to this that it was necessary to create a new judicial basis for the accusation against Anaxagoras, and it can be taken as certain that neither in his writings nor in any other way did he come forward in public as a denier of the gods.
It is somewhat different when we consider the purely personal point of view of Anaxagoras. The very fact that no expression of his opinion concerning the gods has been transmitted affords food for thought. Presumably there was none; but this very fact is notable when we bear in mind that the earlier naturalists show no such reticence. Add to this that, if there is any place and any time in which we might expect a complete emancipation from popular belief, combined with a decided disinclination to give expression to it, it is Athens under Pericles. Men like Pericles and his friends represent a high level, perhaps the zenith, in Hellenic culture. That they were critical of many of the religious conceptions of their time we may take for granted; as to Pericles himself, this is actually stated as a fact, and the accusations of impiety directed against Aspasia and Pheidias prove that orthodox circles were very well aware of it. But the accusations prove, moreover, that Pericles and those who shared his views were so much in advance of their time that they could not afford to let their free-thinking attitude become a matter of public knowledge without endangering their political position certainly, and possibly even more than that. To be sure, considerations of that kind did not weigh with Anaxagoras; but he was—and that we know on good authority—a quiet scholar whose ideal of life was to devote himself to problems of natural science, and he can hardly have wished to be disturbed in this occupation by affairs in which he took no sort of interest. The question is then only how far men like Pericles and himself may have ventured in their criticism. Though all direct tradition is wanting, we have at any rate circumstantial evidence possessing a certain degree of probability.
To begin with, the attempt to give a natural explanation of prodigies is not in itself without interest. The mantic art, i.e. the ability to predict the future by signs from the gods or direct divine inspiration, was throughout antiquity considered one of the surest proofs of the existence of the gods. Now, it by no means follows that a person who was not impressed by a deformed ram's head would deny, e.g., the ability of the Delphic Oracle to predict the future, especially not so when the person in question was a naturalist. But that there was at this time a general tendency to reject the art of divination is evident from the fact that Herodotus as well as Sophocles, both of them contemporaries of Pericles and Anaxagoras, expressly contend against attempts in that direction, and, be it remarked, as if the theory they attack was commonly held. Sophocles is in this connexion so far the more interesting of the two, as, on one hand, he criticises private divination but defends the Delphic oracle vigorously, while he, on the other hand, identifies denial of the oracle with denial of the gods. And he does this in such a way as to make it evident that he has a definite object in mind. That in this polemic he may have been aiming precisely at Anaxagoras is indicated by the fact that Diopeithes, who carried the resolution concerning the accusation of the philosopher, was a soothsayer by profession.
The strongest evidence as to the free-thinking of the Periclean age is, however, to be met with in the historical writing of Thucydides. In his work on the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides completely eliminated the supernatural element; not only did he throughout ignore omens and divinations, except in so far as they played a part as a psychological factor, but he also completely omitted any reference to the gods in his narrative. Such a procedure was at this time unprecedented, and contrasts sharply with that of his immediate forerunner Herodotus, who constantly lays stress on the intervention of the gods. That is hardly conceivable except in a man who had altogether emancipated himself from the religious views of his time. Now, Thucydides is not only a fellow-countryman and younger contemporary of Pericles, but he also sees in Pericles his ideal not only as a politician but evidently also as a man. Hence, when everything is considered, it is not improbable that Pericles and his friends went to all lengths in their criticism of popular belief, although, of course, it remains impossible to state anything definite as to particular persons' individual views. Curiously enough, even in antiquity this connexion was observed; in a biography of Thucydides it is said that he was a disciple of Anaxagoras and accordingly was also considered something of an atheist.
While Anaxagoras, his trial notwithstanding, is not generally designated an atheist, probably because there was nothing in his writings to which he might be pinned down, that fate befell two of his contemporaries, Hippo of Rhegium and Diogenes of Apollonia. Very little, however, is known of them. Hippo, who is said to have been a Pythagorean, taught that water and fire were the origin of everything; as to the reason why he earned the nickname atheos, it is said that he taught that Water was the primal cause of all, as well as that he maintained that nothing existed but what could be perceived by the senses. There is also quoted a (fictitious) inscription, which he is said to have caused to be put on his tomb, to the effect that Death has made him the equal of the immortal gods (in that he now exists no more than they). Otherwise we know nothing special of Hippo; Aristotle refers to him as shallow. As to Diogenes, we learn that he was influenced by Anaximenes and Anaxagoras; in agreement with the former he regarded Air as the primary substance, and like Anaxagoras he attributed reason to his primary substance. Of his doctrine we have extensive accounts, and also some not inconsiderable fragments of his treatise On Nature; but they are almost all of them of purely scientific, mostly of an anatomical and physiological character. In especial, as to his relation to popular belief, it is recorded that he identified Zeus with the air. Indirectly, however, we are able to demonstrate, by the aid of an almost contemporary witness, that there must have been some foundation for the accusation of "atheism." For in The Clouds, where Aristophanes wants to represent Socrates as an atheist, he puts in his mouth scraps of the naturalism of Diogenes; that he would hardly have done, if Diogenes had not already been decried as an atheist.
It is of course impossible to base any statement of the relation of the two philosophers to popular belief on such a foundation. But it is, nevertheless, worth noticing that while not a single one of the earlier naturalists acquired the designation atheist, it was applied to two of the latest and otherwise little-known representatives of the school. Take this in combination with what has been said above of Anaxagoras, and we get at any rate a suspicion that Greek naturalism gradually led its adherents beyond the naive stage where many individual phenomena were indeed ascribed to natural causes, even if they had formerly been regarded as caused by divine intervention, but where the foundations of the popular belief were left untouched. Once this path has been entered on, a point will be arrived at where the final conclusion is drawn and the existence of the supernatural completely denied. It is probable that this happened towards the close of the naturalistic period. If so early a philosopher as Anaxagoras took this point of view, his personal contribution as a member of the Periclean circle may have been more significant in the religious field than one would conjecture from the character of his work.
Before we proceed to mention the sophists, there is one person on our list who must be examined though the result will be negative, namely, Diagoras of Melos. As he appears in our records, he falls outside the classification adopted here; but as he must have lived, at any rate, about the middle of the fifth century (he is said to have "flourished" in 464) he may most fitly be placed on the boundary line between the Ionian philosophy and Sophistic.
For later antiquity Diagoras is the typical atheist; he heads our lists of atheists, and round his person a whole series of myths have been formed. He is said to have been a poet and a pious man like others; but then a colleague once stole an ode from him, escaped by taking an oath that he was innocent, and afterwards made a hit with the stolen work. So Diagoras lost his faith in the gods and wrote a treatise under the title of apopyrgizontes logoi (literally, destructive considerations) in which he attacked the belief in the gods.
This looks very plausible, and is interesting in so far as it, if correct, affords an instance of atheism arising in a layman from actual experience, not in a philosopher from speculation. If we ask, however, what is known historically about Diagoras, we are told a different tale. There existed in Athens, engraved on a bronze tablet and set up on the Acropolis, a decree of the people offering a reward of one talent to him who should kill Diagoras of Melos, and of two talents to him who should bring him alive to Athens. The reason given was that he had scoffed at the Eleusinian Mysteries and divulged what took place at them. The date of this decree is given by a historian as 415 B.C.; that this is correct is seen from a passage in Aristophanes's contemporary drama, The Birds. Furthermore, one of the disciples of Aristotle, the literary historian Aristoxenus, states that no trace of impiety was to be found in the works of the dithyrambic poet Diagoras, and that, in fact, they contained definite opinions to the contrary. A remark to the effect that Diagoras was instrumental in drawing up the laws of Mantinea is probably due to the same source. The context shows that the reference is to the earlier constitution of Mantinea, which was a mixture of aristocracy and democracy, and is praised for its excellence. It is inconceivable that, in a Peloponnesian city during the course of, nay, presumably even before the middle of the fifth century, a notorious atheist should have been invited to advise on the revision of its constitution. It is more probable that Aristoxenus adduced this fact as an additional disproof of Diagoras's atheism, in which he evidently did not believe.
The above information explains the origin of the legend. Two fixed points were in existence: the pious poet of c. 460 and the atheist who was outlawed in 415; a bridge was constructed between them by the story of the stolen ode. This disposes of the whole supposition of atheism growing out of a basis of experience. But, furthermore, it must be admitted that it is doubtful whether the poet and the atheist are one and the same person. The interval of time between them is itself suspicious, for the poet, according to the ancient system of calculation, must have been about forty years old in 464, consequently between eighty and ninety in 415. (There is general agreement that the treatise, the title of which has been quoted, must have been a later forgery.) If, in spite of all, I dare not absolutely deny the identity of the two Diagorases of tradition, the reason is that Aristophanes, where he mentions the decree concerning Diagoras, seems to suggest that his attack on the Mysteries was an old story which was raked up again in 415. But for our purpose, at any rate, nothing remains of the copious mass of legend but the fact that one Diagoras of Melos in 415 was outlawed in Athens on the ground of his attack on the Mysteries. Such an attack may have been the outcome of atheism; there was no lack of impiety in Athens at the end of the fifth century. But whether this was the case or not we cannot possibly tell; and to throw light on free-thinking tendencies in Athens at this time, we have other and richer sources than the historical notice of Diagoras.
With the movement in Greek thought which is generally known as sophistic, a new view of popular belief appears. The criticism of the sophists was directed against the entire tradition on which Greek society was based, and principally against the moral conceptions which hitherto had been unquestioned: good and evil, right and wrong. The criticism was essentially negative; that which hitherto had been imagined as absolute was demonstrated to be relative, and the relative was identified with the invalid. Thus they could not help running up against the popular ideas of the gods, and treating them in the same way. A leading part was here played by the sophistic distinction between nomos and physis, Law and Nature, i.e. that which is based on human convention, and that which is founded on the nature of things. The sophists could not help seeing that the whole public worship and the ideas associated with it belonged to the former—to the domain of "the law." Not only did the worship and the conceptions of the gods vary from place to place in the hundreds of small independent communities into which Hellas was divided—a fact which the sophists had special opportunity of observing when travelling from town to town to teach; but it was even officially admitted that the whole ritual—which, popularly speaking, was almost identical with religion—was based on convention. If a Greek was asked why a god was to be worshipped in such and such a way, generally the only answer was: because it is the law of the State (or the convention; the word nomos expresses both things). Hence it followed in principle that religion came under the domain of "the law," being consequently the work of man; and hence again the obvious conclusion, according to sophistic reasoning, was that it was nothing but human imagination, and that there was no physis, no reality, behind it at all. In the case of the naturalists, it was the positive foundation of their system, their conception of nature as a whole, that led them to criticise the popular belief. Hence their criticism was in the main only directed against those particular ideas in the popular belief which were at variance with the results of their investigations. To be sure, the sophists were not above making use of the results of natural science in their criticism of the popular belief; it was their general aim to impart the highest education of their time, and of a liberal education natural science formed a rather important part. But their starting-point was quite different from that of the naturalists. Their whole interest was concentrated on man as a member of the community, and it was from consideration of this relation that they were brought into collision with the established religion. Hence their attack was far more dangerous than that of the naturalists; no longer was it directed against details, it laid bare the psychological basis itself of popular belief and clearly revealed its unstable character. Their criticism was fundamental and central, not casual and circumstantial.
From a purely practical point of view also, the criticism of the sophists was far more dangerous than that of the old philosophers. They were not theorists themselves, but practitioners; their business was to impart the higher education to the more mature youth. It was therefore part of their profession to disseminate their views not by means of learned professional writings, but by the persuasive eloquence of oral discourse. And in their criticism of the existing state of things they did not start with special results which only science could prove, and the correctness of which the layman need not recognise; they operated with facts and principles known and acknowledged by everybody. It is not to be wondered at that such efforts evoked a vigorous reaction on the part of established society, the more so as in any case the result of sophistic criticism—though not consciously its object—was to liquefy the moral principles on which the social order was based.
Such, in principle, appeared to be the state of things. In practice, here as elsewhere, the devil proved not so black as he was painted. First, not all the sophists—hardly even the majority of them—drew the logical conclusions from their views in respect of either morals or religion. They were teachers of rhetoric, and as such they taught, for instance, all the tricks by which a bad cause might be defended; that was part of the trade. But it must be supposed that Gorgias, the most distinguished of them, expressly insisted that rhetoric, just like any other art the aim of which was to defeat an opponent, should only be used for good ends. Similarly many of them may have stopped short in their criticism of popular belief at some arbitrary point, so that it was possible for them to respect at any rate something of the established religion, and so, of course, first and foremost the very belief in the existence of the gods. That they did not as a rule interfere with public worship, we may be sure; that was based firmly on "the Law." But, in addition, even sophists who personally took an attitude radically contradictory to popular belief had the most important reasons for being careful in advancing such a view. They had to live by being the teachers of youth; they had no fixed appointment, they travelled about as lecturers and enlisted disciples by means of their lectures. For such men it would have been a very serious thing to attack the established order in its tenderest place, religion, and above all they had to beware of coming into conflict with the penal laws. This risk they did not incur while confining themselves to theoretical discussions about right and wrong, nor by the practical application of them in their teaching of rhetoric; but they might very easily incur it if attacking religion. This being the case, it is not to be wondered at that we do not find many direct statements of undoubtedly atheistical character handed down from the more eminent sophists, and that trials for impiety are rare in their case. But, nevertheless, a few such cases are met with, and from these as our starting-point we will now proceed.
As to Protagoras of Abdera, one of the earliest and most famous of all the sophists, it is stated that he began a pamphlet treating of the gods with the words: "Concerning the gods I can say nothing, neither that they exist nor that they do not exist, nor of what form they are; because there are many things which prevent one from knowing that, namely, both the uncertainty of the matter and the shortness of man's life." On this account, it is said, he was charged with impiety at Athens and was outlawed, and his works were publicly burned. The date of this trial is not known for certain; but it is reasonably supposed to have coincided with that of Diagoras, namely, in 415. At any rate it must have taken place after 423-421, as we know that Protagoras was at that time staying in Athens. As he must have been born about 485, the charge overtook him when old and famous; according to one account, his work on the gods seems to belong to his earlier writings.
To doubt the correctness of this tradition would require stronger reasons than we possess, although it is rather strange that the condemnation of Protagoras is mentioned neither in our historical sources nor in Aristophanes, and that Plato, who mentions Protagoras rather frequently as dead, never alludes to it. At any rate, the quotation from the work on the gods is certainly authentic, for Plato himself referred to it. Hence it is certain that Protagoras directly stated the problem as to the existence of the gods and regarded it as an open question. But beyond that nothing much can be deduced from the short quotation; and as to the rest of the book on the gods we know nothing. The meagre reasons for scepticism adduced probably do not imply any more than that the difficulties are objective as well as subjective. If, in the latter respect, the brevity of life is specially mentioned it may be supposed that Protagoras had in mind a definite proof of the existence of the gods which was rendered difficult by the fact that life is so brief; prediction of the future may be guessed at, but nothing certain can be stated.
Protagoras is the only one of the sophists of whom tradition says that he was the object of persecution owing to his religious views. The trial of Socrates, however, really belongs to the same category when looked at from the accusers' point of view; Socrates was accused as a sophist. But as his own attitude towards popular religion differed essentially from that of the sophists, we cannot consider him in this connexion. Protagoras's trial itself is partly determined by special circumstances. In all probability it took place at a moment when a violent religious reaction had set in at Athens owing to some grave offences against the public worship and sanctuaries of the State (violation of the Mysteries and mutilation of the Hermae). The work on the gods had presumably been in existence and known long before this without causing scandal to anybody. But, nevertheless, the trial, like those of Anaxagoras and Socrates, plainly bears witness to the animosity with which the modern free-thought was regarded in Athens. This animosity did not easily manifest itself publicly without special reasons; but it was always there and might always be used in case of provocation.
As to Protagoras's personal attitude to the question of the existence of the gods, much may be guessed and much has been guessed; but nothing can be stated for certain. However, judging from the man's profession and his general habit of life as it appears in tradition, we may take for granted that he did not give offence in his outward behaviour by taking a hostile attitude to public worship or attacking its foundations; had that been so, he would not for forty years have been the most distinguished teacher of Hellas, but would simply not have been tolerated. An eminent modern scholar has therefore advanced the conjecture that Protagoras distinguished between belief and knowledge, and that his work on the gods only aimed at showing that the existence of the gods could not be scientifically demonstrated. Now such a distinction probably, if conceived as a conscious principle, is alien to ancient thought, at any rate at the time of Protagoras; and yet it may contain a grain of truth. When it is borne in mind that the incriminated passage represents the very exordium of the work of Protagoras, the impression cannot be avoided that he himself did not intend his work to disturb the established religion, but that he quite naively took up the existence of the gods as a subject, as good as any other, for dialectic discussion. All that he was concerned with was theory and theorising; religion was practice and ritual; and he had no more intention of interfering with that than the other earlier sophists of assailing the legal system of the community in their speculation as to relativity of right and wrong.
All this, however, does not alter the fact that the work of Protagoras posed the very question of the existence of the gods as a problem which might possibly be solved in the negative. He seems to have been the first to do this. That it could be done is significant of the age to which Protagoras belongs; that it was done was undoubtedly of great importance for the development of thought in wide circles.
Prodicus of Ceos, also one of the most famous sophists, advanced the idea that the conceptions of the gods were originally associated with those things which were of use to humanity: sun and moon, rivers and springs, the products of the earth and the elements; therefore bread was identified with Demeter, wine with Dionysus, water with Poseidon, fire with Hephaestus. As a special instance he mentioned the worship of the Nile by the Egyptians.
In Democritus, who was a slightly elder contemporary of Prodicus, we have already met with investigation into the origin of the conceptions of the gods. There is a close parallel between his handling of the subject and that of Prodicus, but at the same time a characteristic difference. Democritus was a naturalist, hence he took as his starting-point the natural phenomena commonly ascribed to the influence of the gods. Prodicus, on the other hand, started from the intellectual life of man. We learn that he had commenced to study synonyms, and that he was interested in the interpretation of the poets. Now he found that Homer occasionally simply substituted the name of Hephaestus for fire, and that other poets went even further on the same lines. Furthermore, while it was common knowledge to every Greek that certain natural objects, such as the heavenly bodies and the rivers, were regarded as divine and had names in common with their gods, this to Prodicus would be a specially attractive subject for speculation. It is plainly shown by his instances that it is linguistic observations of this kind which were the starting-point of his theory concerning the origin of the conceptions of the gods.
In the accounts of Prodicus it is taken for granted that he denied the existence of the gods, and in later times he is classed as atheos. Nevertheless we have every reason to doubt the correctness of this opinion. The case of Democritus already shows that a philosopher might very well derive the conceptions of the gods from an incorrect interpretation of certain phenomena without throwing doubt on their existence. As far as Prodicus is concerned it may be assumed that he did not believe that Bread, Wine or Fire were gods, any more than Democritus imagined that Zeus sent thunder and lightning; nor, presumably, did he ever believe that rivers were gods. But he need not therefore have denied the existence of Demeter, Dionysus and Hephaestus, much less the divinity of the sun and the moon. And if we consider his theory more closely it points in quite a different direction from that of atheism. To Prodicus it was evidently the conception of utility that mattered: if these objects came to be regarded as gods it was because they "benefited humanity." This too is a genuinely sophistic view, characteristically deviating from that of the naturalist Democritus in its limitation to the human and social aspect of the question. Such a point of view, if confronted with the question of the existence of the gods, may very well, according to sophistic methods of reasoning, lead to the conclusion that primitive man was right in so far as the useful, i.e. that which "benefits humanity," really is an essential feature of the gods, and wrong only in so far as he identified the individual useful objects with the gods. Whether Prodicus adopted this point of view, we cannot possibly tell; but the general body of tradition concerning the man, which does not in any way suggest religious radicalism, indicates as most probable that he did not connect the question of the origin of the conceptions of the gods with that of the existence of the gods, which to him was taken for granted, and that it was only later philosophers who, in their researches into the ideas of earlier philosophers about the gods, inferred his atheism from his speculations on the history of religion.
Critias, the well-known reactionary politician, the chief of the Thirty Tyrants, is placed amongst the atheists on the strength of a passage in a satyric drama, Sisyphus. The drama is lost, but our authority quotes the objectionable passage in extenso; it is a piece of no less than forty lines. The passage argues that human life in its origins knew no social order, that might ruled supreme. Then men conceived the idea of making laws in order that right might rule instead of might. The result of this was, it is true, that wrong was not done openly; but it was done secretly instead. Then a wise man bethought himself of making men believe that there existed gods who saw and heard everything which men did, nay even knew their innermost thoughts. And, in order that men might stand in proper awe of the gods, he said that they lived in the sky, out of which comes that which makes men afraid, such as lightning and thunder, but also that which benefits them, sunshine and rain, and the stars, those fair ornaments by whose course men measure time. Thus he succeeded in bringing lawlessness to an end. It is expressly stated that it was all a cunning fraud: "by such talk he made his teaching most acceptable, veiling truth with false words."
In antiquity it was disputed whether the drama Sisyphus was by Critias or Euripides; nowadays all agree in attributing it to Critias; nor does the style of the long fragment resemble that of Euripides. The question is, however, of no consequence in this connexion: whether the drama is by Critias or Euripides it is wrong to attribute to an author opinions which he has put into the mouth of a character in a drama. Moreover, Sisyphus was a satyric play, i.e. it belonged to a class of poetry the liberty of which was nearly as great as in comedy, and the speech was delivered by Sisyphus himself, who, according to the legend, is a type of the crafty criminal whose forte is to do evil and elude punishment. There is, in fact, nothing in that which we otherwise hear of Critias to suggest that he cherished free-thinking views. He was—or in his later years became—a fanatical adversary of the Attic democracy, and he was, when he held power, unscrupulous in his choice of the means with which he opposed it and the men who stood in the path of his reactionary policy; but in our earlier sources he is never accused of impiety in the theoretical sense. And yet there had been an excellent opportunity of bringing forward such an accusation; for in his youth Critias had been a companion of Socrates, and his later conduct was used as a proof that Socrates corrupted his surroundings. But it is always Critias's political crimes which are adduced in this connexion, not his irreligion. On the other hand, posterity looked upon him as the pure type of tyrant, and the label atheist therefore suggested itself on the slightest provocation.
But, even if the Sisyphus fragment cannot be used to characterise its author as an atheist, it is, nevertheless, of the greatest interest in this connexion, and therefore demands closer analysis.
The introductory idea, that mankind has evolved from an animal state into higher stages, is at variance with the earlier Greek conception, namely, that history begins with a golden age from which there is a continual decline. The theory of the fragment is expressed by a series of authors from the same and the immediately succeeding period. It occurs in Euripides; a later and otherwise little-known tragedian, Moschion, developed it in detail in a still extant fragment; Plato accepted it and made it the basis of his presentation of the origin of the State; Aristotle takes it for granted. Its source, too, has been demonstrated: it was presumably Democritus who first advanced it. Nevertheless the author of the fragment has hardly got it direct from Democritus, who at this time was little known at Athens, but from an intermediary. This intermediary is probably Protagoras, of whom it is said that he composed a treatise, The Original State, i.e. the primary state of mankind. Protagoras was a fellow-townsman of Democritus, and recorded by tradition as one of his direct disciples.
In another point also the fragment seems to betray the influence of Democritus. When it is said that the wise inventors of the gods made them dwell in the skies, because from the skies come those natural phenomena which frighten men, it is highly suggestive of Democritus's criticism of the divine explanation of thunder and lightning and the like. In this case also Protagoras may have been the intermediary. In his work on the gods he had every opportunity of discussing the question in detail. But here we have the theory of Democritus combined with that of Prodicus in that it is maintained that from the skies come also those things that benefit men, and that they are on this account also a suitable dwelling-place for the gods. It is obvious that the author of the fragment (or his source) was versed in the most modern wisdom.
All this erudition, however, is made to serve a certain tendency: the well-known tendency to represent religion as a political invention having as its object the policing of society. It is a theory which in antiquity—to its honour be it said—is but of rare occurrence. There is a vague indication of it in Euripides, a more definite one in Aristotle, and an elaborate application of it in Polybius; and that is in reality all. (That many people in more enlightened ages upheld religion as a means of keeping the masses in check, is a different matter.) However, it is an interesting fact that the Critias fragment is not only the first evidence of the existence of the theory known to us, but also presumably the earliest and probably the best known to later antiquity. Otherwise we should not find reference for the theory made to a fragment of a farce, but to a quotation from a philosopher.
This might lead us to conclude that the theory was Critias's own invention, though, of course, it would not follow that he himself adhered to it. But it is more probable that it was a ready-made modern theory which Critias put into the mouth of Sisyphus. Not only does the whole character of the fragment and its scene of action favour this supposition, but there is also another factor which corroborates it.
In the Gorgias Plato makes one of the characters, Callicles—a man of whom we otherwise know nothing—profess a doctrine which up to a certain point is almost identical with that of the fragment. According to Callicles, the natural state (and the right state; on this point he is at variance with the fragment) is that right belongs to the strong. This state has been corrupted by legislation; the laws are inventions of the weak, who are also the majority, and their aim is to hinder the encroachment of the strong. If this theory is carried to its conclusion, it is obvious that religion must be added to the laws; if the former is not also regarded as an invention for the policing of society, the whole theory is upset. Now in the Gorgias the question as to the attitude of the gods towards the problem of what is right and what is wrong is carefully avoided in the discussion. Not till the close of the dialogue, where Plato substitutes myth for scientific research, does he draw the conclusion in respect of religion. He does this in a positive form, as a consequence of his point of view: after death the gods reward the just and punish the unjust; but he expressly assumes that Callicles will regard it all as an old wives' tale.
In Callicles an attempt has been made to see a pseudonym for Critias. That is certainly wrong. Critias was a kinsman of Plato, is introduced by name in several dialogues, nay, one dialogue even bears his name, and he is everywhere treated with respect and sympathy. Nowadays, therefore, it is generally acknowledged that Callicles is a real person, merely unknown to us as such. However that may be, Plato would never have let a leading character in one of his longer dialogues advance (and Socrates refute) a view which had no better authority than a passage in a satyric drama. On the other hand, there is, as shown above, difficulty in supposing that the doctrine of the fragment was stated in the writings of an eminent sophist; so we come to the conclusion that it was developed and diffused in sophistic circles by oral teaching, and that it became known to Critias and Plato in this way. Its originator we do not know. We might think of the sophist Thrasymachus, who in the first book of Plato's Republic maintains a point of view corresponding to that of Callicles in Gorgias. But what we otherwise learn of Thrasymachus is not suggestive of interest in religion, and the only statement of his as to that kind of thing which has come down to us tends to the denial of a providence, not denial of the gods. Quite recently Diagoras of Melos has been guessed at; this is empty talk, resulting at best in substituting x (or NN) for y.
If I have dwelt in such detail on the Sisyphus fragment, it is because it is our first direct and unmistakable evidence of ancient atheism. Here for the first time we meet with the direct statement which we have searched for in vain among all the preceding authors: that the gods of popular belief are fabrication pure and simple and without any corresponding reality, however remote. The nature of our tradition precludes our ascertaining whether such a statement might have been made earlier; but the probability is a priori that it was not. The whole development of ancient reasoning on religious questions, as far as we are able to survey it, leads in reality to the conclusion that atheism as an expressed (though perhaps not publicly expressed) confession of faith did not appear till the age of the sophists.
With the Critias fragment we have also brought to an end the inquiry into the direct statements of atheistic tendency which have come down to us from the age of the sophists. The result is, as we see, rather meagre. But it may be supplemented with indirect testimonies which prove that there was more of the thing than the direct tradition would lead us to conjecture, and that the denial of the existence of the gods must have penetrated very wide circles.
The fullest expression of Attic free-thought at the end of the fifth century is to be found in the tragedies of Euripides. They are leavened with reflections on all possible moral and religious problems, and criticism of the traditional conceptions of the gods plays a leading part in them. We shall, however, have some difficulty in using Euripides as a source of what people really thought at this period, partly because he is a very pronounced personality and by no means a mere mouthpiece for the ideas of his contemporaries—during his lifetime he was an object of the most violent animosity owing, among other things, to his free-thinking views—partly because he, as a dramatist, was obliged to put his ideas into the mouths of his characters, so that in many cases it is difficult to decide how much is due to dramatic considerations and how much to the personal opinion of the poet. Even to this day the religious standpoint of Euripides is matter of dispute. In the most recent detailed treatment of the question he is characterised as an atheist, whereas others regard him merely as a dialectician who debates problems without having any real standpoint of his own.
I do not believe that Euripides personally denied the existence of the gods; there is too much that tells against that theory, and, in fact, nothing that tells directly in favour of it, though he did not quite escape the charge of atheism even in his own day. To prove the correctness of this view would, however, lead too far afield in this connexion. On the other hand, a short characterisation of Euripides's manner of reasoning about religious problems is unavoidable as a background for the treatment of those—very rare—passages where he has put actually atheistic reflections into the mouths of his characters.
As a Greek dramatist Euripides had to derive his subjects from the heroic legends, which at the same time were legends of the gods in so far as they were interwoven with tales of the gods' direct intervention in affairs. It is precisely against this intervention that the criticism of Euripides is primarily directed. Again and again he makes his characters protest against the manner in which they are treated by the gods or in which the gods generally behave. It is characteristic of Euripides that his starting-point in this connexion is always the moral one. So far he is a typical representative of that tendency which, in earlier times, was represented by Xenophanes and a little later by Pindar; in no other Greek poet has the method of using the higher conceptions of the gods against the lower found more complete expression than in Euripides. And in so far, too, he is still entirely on the ground of popular belief. But at the same time it is characteristic of him that he is familiar with and highly influenced by Greek science. He knows the most eminent representatives of Ionian naturalism (with the exception of Democritus), and he is fond of displaying his knowledge. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that he uses it in a contentious spirit against popular belief; on the contrary, he is inclined in agreement with the old philosophers to identify the gods of popular belief with the elements. Towards sophistic he takes a similar, but less sympathetic attitude. Sophistic was not in vogue till he was a man of mature age; he made acquaintance with it, and he made use of it—there are reflections in his dramas which carry distinct evidence of sophistic influence; but in his treatment of religious problems he is not a disciple of the sophists, and on this subject, as on others, he occasionally attacked them.
It is against this background that we must set the reflections with an atheistic tone that we find in Euripides. They are, as already mentioned, rare; indeed, strictly speaking there is only one case in which a character openly denies the existence of the gods. The passage is a fragment of the drama Bellerophon; it is, despite its isolation, so typical of the manner of Euripides that it deserves to be quoted in full.
"And then to say that there are gods in the heavens! Nay, there are none there; if you are not foolish enough to be seduced by the old talk. Think for yourselves about the matter, and do not be influenced by my words. I contend that the tyrants kill the people wholesale, take their money and destroy cities in spite of their oaths; and although they do all this they are happier than people who, in peace and quietness, lead god-fearing lives. And I know small states which honour the gods, but must obey greater states, which are less pious, because their spearmen are fewer in number. And I believe that you, if a slothful man just prayed to the gods and did not earn his bread by the work of his hands—" Here the sense is interrupted; but there remains one more line: "That which builds the castle of the gods is in part the unfortunate happenings ..." The continuation is missing.
The argumentation here is characteristic of Euripides. From the injustice of life he infers the non-existence of the gods. The conclusion evidently only holds good on the assumption that the gods must be just; and this is precisely one of the postulates of popular belief. The reasoning is not sophistic; on the contrary, in their attacks the sophists took up a position outside the foundation of popular belief and attacked the foundation itself. This reasoning, on the other hand, is closely allied to the earlier religious thinking of the Greeks; it only proceeds further than the latter, where it results in rank denial.
The drama of Bellerophon is lost, and reconstruction is out of the question; if only for that reason it is unwarrantable to draw any conclusions from the detached fragment as to the poet's personal attitude towards the existence of the gods. But, nevertheless, the fragment is of interest in this connexion. It would never have occurred to Sophocles or Aeschylus to put such a speech in the mouth of one of his characters. When Euripides does that it is a proof that the question of the existence of the gods has begun to present itself to the popular consciousness at this time. Viewed in this light other statements of his which are not in themselves atheistic become significant. When it is said: "If the gods act in a shameful way, they are not gods"—that indeed is not atheism in our sense, but it is very near to it. Interesting is also the introduction to the drama Melanippe: "Zeus, whoever Zeus may be; for of that I only know what is told." Aeschylus begins a strophe in one of his most famous choral odes with almost the same words: "Zeus, whoe'er he be; for if he desire so to be called, I will address him by this name." In him it is an expression of genuine antique piety, which excludes all human impertinence towards the gods to such a degree that it even forgoes knowing their real names. In Euripides the same idea becomes an expression of doubt; but in this case also the doubt is raised on the foundation of popular belief.