On Divine Nature, Book I
(De Natura Deorum)
Written by Marcus Tullius Cicero, (106 - 45 BCE)
Translated by Harris Racham (1868-1944)

This excerpt based on the Loeb Classical Library edition.


Highlights:

VI. Introduction to the dialog.
VIII. Theology of Epicurus expounded by Velleius.
XVI. Theology of poets and of oriental religion scouted.
XVIII. The gods’ nature: they are in quasi-human form.
XX. Divine bliss undisturbed by creating and directing the world.

 


VI. …It was the Latin festival, and I had come at Cotta’s express invitation to pay him a visit. I found him sitting in an alcove, engaged in debate with Gaius Velleius, a member of the Senate, held by the Epicureans as their chief Roman adherent at the time. With them was Quintus Lucilius Balbus, who was so accomplished a student of Stoicism as to rank with the leading Greek exponents of that system.

When Cotta saw me, he greeted me with the words: "You come exactly at the right moment, for I am just engaging in a dispute with Velleius on an important topic, in which you will be interested—with your tastes—to take part."

VII. "Well," I replied, "I too think I have come at the right moment, as you say. For here you are, three leaders of three schools of philosophy, joined in congress. In fact, we only lack Marcus Piso to have every considerable school represented."

"Oh," rejoined Cotta, "if what is said in the book which our master Antiochus lately dedicated to our good Balbus here is true, you have no need to regret the absence of your friend Piso. Antiochus holds the view that the doctrines of the Stoics, though differing in form of expression, agree in substance with those of the Peripatetics. I should like to know your opinion of the book, Balbus."

"My opinion?" said Balbus, "Why, I am surprised that a man of first-rate intellect like Antiochus should have failed to see what a gulf divides the Stoics, who distinguish expediency and right not in name only but in essential nature, from the Peripatetics, who class the right and the expedient together, and only recognize differences of quantity or degree, not of kind, between them. This is not a slight verbal discrepancy, but a fundamental difference of doctrine. However, we can discuss this some other time. For the moment, if you please, we will continue the topic which we had begun."

"Agreed," answered Cotta; "but to let the newcomer know what is the subject at hand"—here he glanced at me—"I must explain that we were debating the nature of the gods: a question which seemed to me, as it always does, an extremely obscure one, and upon which I was therefore inquiring of Velleius as to the opinion of Epicurus. So if you do not mind, Velleius," he continued, "please resume the exposition that you had begun."

"I will do so," replied Velleius, "although it is not I but you who have been reinforced by an ally—since both of you," he said, with a smile in our direction, "are disciples of Philo, and have learned from him to know nothing."

"What we have learned," I rejoined, "shall be Cotta’s affair; but pray don’t think I have come to act as his ally, but as a listener, and an impartial and unprejudiced listener too, under no sort of bond nor obligation whatsoever to uphold some fixed opinion."

VIII. Hereupon Velleius began, in the confident manner (I need not say) that is customary with Epicureans, afraid of nothing so much as lest he should appear to have doubts about anything. One would have supposed he had just come down from the assembly of the gods in the intermundane spaces of Epicurus!

"I am not going to expound to you doctrines that are mere baseless figments of the imagination, such as the artisan deity and world-builder of Plato’s Timaeus, or that old hag of a fortune teller, the Providence of the Stoics; nor yet a world endowed with a mind and senses of its own, a spherical, rotary god of burning fire; these are the marvels and monstrosities of philosophers who do not reason but dream.

"What power of mental vision enabled your master Plato to discern the vast and elaborate architectural process which, as he makes out, the deity adopted in building the structure of the universe? What method of engineering was employed? What tools and levers and derricks? What agents carried out so vast an undertaking? And how were air, fire, water and earth enabled to obey and execute the will of the architect? How did the five regular solids* which are the bases of all other forms of matter, come into existence so nicely adapted to make impressions on our minds and produce sensations? It would be a lengthy task to premeditate upon every detail of a system that seems to be the result of idle theorizing rather than of real research; but the prize example is that the thinker who represented the world not merely as having had an origin but, although made by hand, also declared that it will exist forever. Can you suppose that this man could even dip into natural philosophy if he imagines that anything that has come into being can be eternal? What composite whole is not capable of dissolution? What thing is there that has a beginning but not an end?

"And as for your Stoic Providence, Lucilius, if it is the same thing as Plato’s creator, I repeat my previous questions, what were its agents and instruments, and how was the entire undertaking planned out and carried though? If, on the contrary, it is something different, I ask why it made the world mortal, and not everlasting as did Plato’s divine creator?

IX. "Moreover, I would put the question to both of you, why did these deities suddenly awake into activity as world-builders after countless ages of slumber? For though the world did not exist, it does not follow that ages did not exist (meaning by ages, not periods made up of a number of days and nights in annual courses—for ages in this sense, I admit, could not have been produced without the circular motion of the heavens) but from the infinite past there has existed an eternity not measured by limited divisions of time, but of a nature intelligible in terms of extension; since it is inconceivable that there was ever a time when time did not exist. Well then, Balbus, what I ask is, why did your Providence remain idle all though that extent of time of which you speak? Was it in order to avoid fatigue? But a god cannot know fatigue; and also there was no fatigue in question, since all the elements, sky, fire, earth, and sea, were obedient to the divine will. Also, why should a god take a fancy to decorate the heavens with figures and illuminations, like an aedile**? If it was to embellish his own abode, then it seems that he had previously been dwelling for an infinite time in a dark and gloomy hovel! And are we to suppose that thenceforward, the varied beauties which we see adorning the earth and sky have afforded him pleasure? How could a god take pleasure in things of this sort? And if he did, he could not have dispensed with it so long. Or were these beauties designed for the sake of men, as your school usually maintains? For the sake of wise men? If so, all this vast effort of construction took place on account of a handful of people. For the sake of fools then? But in the first place, there was no reason for a god to do a service to the wicked; and secondly, what good did he do?—inasmuch as all fools are beyond question extremely miserable, precisely because they are fools (for what can be more miserable than folly?), and in the second place, because there are so many troubles in life that, though wise men can assuage them by balancing against them life’s advantages, fools can neither avoid their approach nor endure their presence.

"Those on the other hand who said that the world is itself endowed with life and with consciousness, failed entirely to discern what shape the nature of an intelligent living being could conceivably possess. I will touch on this a little later; for the present, I will confine myself to expressing my surprise at their stupidity in holding that a being who is immortal and also blessed is of a spherical shape, merely on the ground that Plato pronounces a sphere to be the most beautiful of all figures. As for myself, on the score of appearance I prefer either a cylinder or a cube or a cone or a pyramid. Then, what mode of existence is assigned to their spherical deity? Why, he is in a state of rotation, spinning around with a velocity that surpasses all powers of conception. But what room can there be in such an existence for stability of mind and for happiness—I cannot see. Also, why should a condition that is painful in the human body, if even the smallest part of it is affected, be supposed to be painless in the deity? Now clearly the earth, being a part of the world, is also a part of the god. Yet we see that vast portions of the earth’s surface are uninhabitable deserts, being either scorched by the sun’s proximity, or frost-bound and covered with snow owing to its extreme remoteness. But if the world is god, these, being parts of the world, must be regarded as limbs of the god, undergoing the extremes of heat and cold respectively. ~

XVI. "I have given a rough account of what are more like the dreams of madmen than the carefully thought-out opinions of philosophers. For they are barely less absurd than the outpourings of the poets, harmful as these have been owing to the mere charm of their style. The poets have represented the gods as inflamed by anger and maddened by lust, and have displayed to our gaze their wars and battles, their fights and wounds, their hatreds, animosity, and quarrels, their births and deaths, their complaints and lamentations, the utter and unbridled license of their passions, their adulteries and imprisonments, their unions with human beings and the birth of mortal progeny from an immortal parent. Along with the errors of the poets we may include the monstrous doctrines of the magi and the insane mythology of Egypt, and also the popular beliefs, which are a mere mass of inconsistencies springing from ignorance.

"Anyone pondering on the baseless and irrational character of these doctrines ought to regard Epicurus with reverence, and to rank him as one of the very gods about whom we are inquiring***. For he alone perceived, first, that the gods exist, because nature herself has imprinted a conception of them on the minds of all mankind. For what nation or what tribe of men is there but possesses untaught some ‘preconception’ of the gods? Such notions Epicurus designates by the word prolepsis, that is, a sort of preconceived mental picture of a thing, without which nothing can be understood or investigated or discussed. The force and value of this argument we learn in that work of genius, Epicurus’ Criterion of Judgment.

XVII. "You see, therefore, that the foundation (for such it is) of inquiry has been well and truly laid. For the belief in the gods has not been established by authority, custom, or law, but rests on the unanimous and abiding consensus of mankind; their existence is therefore a necessary inference, since we possess an instinctive or rather an innate concept of them; but a belief which all men by nature share must necessarily be true; therefore, it must be admitted that the gods exist. And since this truth is almost universally accepted not only among philosophers but also among the unlearned, we must admit it as also being an accepted truth that we possess a ‘preconception,’ as I called it, or ‘prior notion,’ of the gods. (For we are bound to employ novel terms to denote novel ideas, just as Epicurus himself employed the word prolepsis in a sense which no one had ever used before.) We have, therefore, a preconception of such a nature that we believe the gods to be blessed and immortal. Or nature, which bestowed upon us an idea of the gods themselves, also engraved on our minds the belief that they are eternal and blessed. If this is so, the famous maxim of Epicurus[4] truthfully enunciates that ‘that which is blessed and eternal can neither know trouble itself nor cause trouble to another, and accordingly cannot feel either anger or favor, since all such things belong only to the weak.’

"If we sought to attain nothing else beside piety in worshipping the gods and freedom from superstition, what has been said had sufficed; since the exalted nature of the gods, being both eternal and supremely blessed, would receive man’s pious worship (for what is highest commands the reverence that is its due); and furthermore, all fear of the divine power or divine anger would have been banished (since it is understood that anger and favor alike are excluded from the nature of a being at once blessed and immortal, and that these being eliminated we are menaced by no fears in regard to the powers above). But the mind strives to strengthen this belief by trying to discover the form of a god, the mode of his activity and the operation of his intelligence.

XVIII. "For the divine form we have the hints of nature supplemented by the teachings of reason. All men of all races naturally derive the notion of gods as having human shape and none other; for in what other shape do they ever appear to anyone, awake or asleep? But not to make primary concepts the sole test of all things, reason itself delivers the same pronouncement. For it seems appropriate that the being who is the most exalted, whether by reason of his happiness or of his immortality, should also be the most beautiful; but what disposition of the limbs, what cast of features, what shape or outline can be more beautiful than the human form? You Stoics, at least, Lucilius, (for my friend Cotta says one thing at one time and another at another) habitually portray the skill of the divine creator by enlarging on the beauty as well as the utility of design displayed in all parts of the human figure. But if the human figure surpasses the form of all other living beings, and a god is a living being, then a god must possess the shape which is the most beautiful of all; and since it is agreed that the gods are supremely happy, and no one can be happy without virtue, and virtue cannot exist without reason, and reason is only found in the human shape, it follows that the gods possess the form of man. Yet their form is not corporeal, but only resembles bodily substance; it does not contain blood, but the semblance of blood.

XIX. "These discoveries of Epicurus are so acute in themselves and so subtly expressed that not everyone would be capable of appreciating them. Still I may rely on your intelligence, and make my exposition briefer than the subject demands. Epicurus then, as he not merely discerns abstruse and obscure things with his mind’s eye, but handles them as tangible realities, teaches that the substance and nature of the gods is such that, in the first place, it is perceived not by the senses but by the mind, and not materially or individually, like the solid objects which Epicurus in virtue of their substantiality entitles steremnia; but by our perceiving images owing to their similarity and succession, because an endless train of precisely similar images arises from the innumerable atoms and streams towards us from the gods, our mind with the keenest feelings of pleasure fixes its gaze on these images, and so attains an understanding of the nature of being both blessed and eternal. Moreover there is the supremely potent principle of infinity, which claims the closest and most careful study; we must understand that it has the following property, that in the sum of things, everything has its exact match and counterpart. This property is termed by Epicurus isonomia, or the principle of uniform distribution. From this principle it follows that if the whole number of mortals be a certain number, then there must exist no less a number of immortals, and if the causes of destruction are beyond count, then the causes of conservation also are bound to be infinite.

"You Stoics are also found of asking us, Balbus, what is the mode of life of the gods and how they pass their days. the answer is: their life is the happiest conceivable, and the one most bountifully furnished with all good things. A god is entirely inactive and free from all ties of occupation; he toils not neither does he labor, but he takes delight in his own wisdom and virtue, and knows with absolute certainty that he will always enjoy pleasures at once consummate and everlasting.

XX. "This is the god whom we should call happy in the proper sense of the term; your Stoic god seems to us to be grievously overworked. If the world itself is god, what can be less restful than to revolve at incredible speed around the axis of the heavens without a single moment of respite? But repose is an essential condition of happiness. If, on the other hand, some god resides within the world as its governor and pilot, maintaining the courses of the stars, the changes of the seasons and all the ordered process of creation, and keeping a watch on land and sea to guard the interests of lives and men, why, what a bondage of irksome and laborious business is his!

"We, for our part, deem happiness to consist in tranquillity of mind and entire exemption from all duties. For he who taught us all of our other teaching has also taught us that the world was the product of nature, without needing an artificer to construct it, and that the act of creation, which according to you cannot be performed without divine skill, is so easy, that nature will create, is creating and has created worlds without number. You, on the contrary, cannot see how nature can achieve all this without the aid of some intelligence, and so, like the tragic poets, being unable to bring the plot of your drama to a conclusion, you have resorted to a deus ex machina; whose intervention you assuredly would not require if you would but contemplate the measureless and boundless extent of space that stretches in every direction, into which when the mind projects and propels itself, it journeys onward far and wide without ever sighting any margin or ultimate point where it can stop.

"Well then, in this immensity of length and breadth and height, there fits an infinite quantity of atoms, which—though separated by void—cohere together, and taking hold of one another, form unions from which are created those shapes and forms of things which you think cannot be created without the aid of bellows and anvils, and so have saddled us with an eternal master, whom day and night we are to fear; for who would not fear a prying busybody of a god, who foresees, thinks of, and notices all things, and deems that everything is his concern? An outcome of this theology was first of all you doctrine of Necessity or Fate—the theory that every event is the result of an eternal truth and an unbroken sequence of causation. But what value can be assigned to a philosophy which thinks that everything happens by fate? It is a belief for old women, and ignorant old women at that! And next follows your doctrine of Divination, which would so steep us in superstition, if we consented to listen to you, that we should be the devotees of soothsayers, augurs, oracle-mongers, seers and interpreters of dreams. But Epicurus has set us free from superstitious terrors and delivered us out of captivity, so that we have no fear of beings who, we know, create no trouble for themselves and seek to cause none to others, while we worship with pious reverence the transcendent majesty of nature.

"But I fear that my enthusiasm for this subject has made me long-winded. It is difficult, however, to leave such a vast and splendid theme unfinished, although really it was not my business to be a speaker so much as a listener."


Footnotes:

* The tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron (known in modernity as the "five perfect solids") were representative of (respectively): fire, earth, air, Šther, and water.

** In ancient Rome, an official who had the care of public monuments and thoroughfares, and the charge of adorning the city for festivals.

*** Cf. Lucretius, proem of Book V.

[4] Principal Doctrines 1.