Anders_Bjorn_Drachmann_-_Atheism_in_Pagan_Antiquity

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY

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    ATHEISM INPAGAN ANTIQUITY

    BYA. B. DRACHMANN

    PROFESSOR OF CLASSICAL PHILOLOGY IN THE UNIVERSITY OF COPENHAGEN

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    PREFACE

    THEpresent treatise originally appeared in Danish

    as a University publication {Kj&benhavns Uni-versitets Festskrift, November 1919). In submitting

    it to the English public, I wish to acknowledge myprofound indebtedness to Mr. G. F. Hill of the BritishMuseum, who not only suggested the English edition, butalso with untiring kindness has subjected the translation,as originally made by Miss Ingeborg Andersen, M.A. ofCopenhagen, to a painstaking and most valuable revision.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 whichprecede the Notes.

    A. B. DRACHMANN.Charlottenlund,July 1922.

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    CONTENTSPrefaceIntroduction . . . . . . Pp. 1-4

    Definition of atheism ; its extension in antiquity and later ;doubtful cases, i. Limitation of the inquiry; its relationto the conception of antiquity, 4.

    CHAPTER IConception and Treatment of Denial of the Gods

    in Antiquity; Accounts of Deniers . . Pp. 5-14Atheism and atheist modern words ; the terms of antiquityand their meaning, 5. Judicial conception and treatmentof deniers at Athens and at Rome, 6. Risumt, II. Listsof atheists, 13.

    CHAPTER IINaive Criticism of Popular Religion ; Xenophanes Pp. 15-21

    Character of the ancient religion : higher and lowernotions; the beginning of criticism (Pindar, Euripides), 15.

    Xenophanes, 17.

    CHAPTER IIIIonic Naturalism ; Diagoras . . . .Pp. 22-34

    Natural philosophy critical of popular belief, but its criticismnot radical. Pantheism. Democritus, 22. Anaxagoras ;circle of Pericles ; Thucydides, 25. Hippo and Diogenes,29. Diagoras, 31.

    vii

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    viii CONTENTSCHAPTER IV

    Sophistic and its Influence . . . .Pp. 35-63Character of Sophistic : relativism ; sociological point ofview ; practical purpose ; inconsistency, 35. Protagoras,39; Prodicus, 42. Critias, 44. Euripides, 51.Socrates in Aristophanes and in the indictment ; Ari-stodemus in Xenophon, 56. Mutilation of the Hermae,60. Plato's Laws, 61. CHAPTER V

    Socrates and the Socratics . . . .Pp. 64-88Contrast between Sophists and Socratics, 64. Socratesin Aristophanes ; in the indictment ; in the defence, 67.Socrates no theologian, but a religious moralist ; hisadherence to popular belief and to the old religiousthought ; causes of his condemnation ; the Delphic Oracleand what it meant to him; his daimonion, 67. TheSocratics : Cynics, Megarians, Cyrenaics ; Theodorus,74. Plato : his views in youth and in old age ; ir-rationality of the conceptions of the gods, 76. Xeno-crates and demonology, 81. Aristotle : his trial;theology ; denial of the gods of popular belief, 83.Strato, 87. Concluding remarks, 87.

    CHAPTER VIHellenism. ...... Pp. 89-119

    Advance of oriental religions ; weakening of popularbelief; Polybius on popular belief in Greece and atRome, 89. The Tyche-religion : in Thucydides andDemosthenes, 92 ; under Alexander and his successors,93 ; in Polybius and the elder Pliny, 94 ; in theRomances, 95. Decline of the oracles, 96. Want ofrespect to sanctuaries, 97. Decay of Roman state-wor-ship, 98. Philosophy ; Stoics, 103 ; Epicureans, 105 ;Sceptics, 107; Cynics, 109; Euhemerus, ill.Individuals: Polybius, Cicero, 113. Reaction underAugustus; the elder Pliny, 117.

    CHAPTER VIIPeriod of the Roman Empire . . . Pp. 120-132

    Reaction in the second century; Stoicism, 120.Tendencies in opposition : the Cynics ; Oenomaus ;Lucian, 123. Monotheism: Judaism, 126; Christianityand demonology, 128.

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    CONTENTS ixCHAPTER VIII

    Middle Ages and Recent Times . . . Pp. 133-145Difficulties of treatment, 133. Demonology in Milton,G. I. Voss, Thomas Aquinas ; in Dante and other poets ;in magic ; in the view of contemporary paganism, 134.Worship of pagan gods in the Renaissance, 138.Naturalistic interpretations in Thomas Aquinas andlater ; Hebraism and Huet ; allegorical interpretationin Natalis Comes and Bacon ; alchemistic interpretation,138. Demonology as explanation of the oracles; criti-cised in the Renaissance (Rhodiginus, Calcagninus,Pomponazzi) and by van Dale and Fontenelle ; con-servative opposition of Banier, 140. 1 8th century:Vico ; Euhemerism in Banier and Bryant ; nature-sym-bolism in Dupuis, 143. 19th century, 144.

    CHAPTER IXRetrospect ...... Pp. 146-152

    Atheism only in the upper classes, and even there rare,except in certain periods ; Philosophy critical and yetaccommodating towards popular belief; victory ofdemonology, 146. Causes of the scarceness of atheism :defective knowledge of nature. Its victory in the 18thcentury conditioned by the progress of natural science ;the positive insight into the essence of paganism due toNew Humanism, 149.

    Notes ....... Pp. 153-164Index ....... Pp. 165-168

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    ATHEEM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYINTRODUCTION

    TIE present inquiry is the outcome of arquest to write an article on " Atheism "or a projected dictionary of the religioushistory : classical antiquity. On going throughthe sourcs I found that the subject might welldeserve i more comprehensive treatment than thescope ol dictionary would allow. It is such atreatme." that I have attempted in the followingpages.A diiculty that occurred at the very beginningof the iquiry was how to define the notion ofatheism. Nowadays the term is taken to designatethe attitde which denies every idea of God. Evenantiquit"

    sometimes referred to atheism in thissense ; ut an inquiry dealing with the history ofreligion ould not start from a definition of thatkind. 1 would have to keep in view, not thephilosopical notion of God, but the conceptions ofthe god . s they appear in the religion of antiquity.Hence ][ ame to define atheism in Pagan antiquityas the pint of view which denies the existence of theancient ods. It is in this sense that the word willbe used in the following inquiry.

    Eve. though we disregard philosophical athe-

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYINTRODUCTION

    THE present inquiry is the outcome of arequest to write an article on " Atheism "for a projected dictionary of the religioushistory of classical antiquity. On going throughthe sources I found that the subject might welldeserve a more comprehensive treatment than thescope of a dictionary would allow. It is such atreatment that I have attempted in the followingpages.A difficulty that occurred at the very beginningof the inquiry was how to define the notion ofatheism. Nowadays the term is taken to designatethe attitude which denies every idea of God. Evenantiquity sometimes referred to atheism in thissense ; but an inquiry dealing with the history ofreligion could not start from a definition of thatkind. It would have to keep in view, not thephilosophical notion of God, but the conceptions ofthe gods as they appear in the religion of antiquity.Hence I came to define atheism in Pagan antiquityas the point of view which denies the existence of theancient gods. It is in this sense that the word willbe used in the following inquiry.Even though we disregard philosophical athe-

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    2 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYism, the definition is somewhat narrow ; forin antiquity mere denial of the existence of thegods of popular belief was not the only attitudewhich was designated as atheism. But it has theadvantage of starting from the conception of theancient gods that may be said to have finally pre-vailed. In the sense in which the word is usedhere we are nowadays all of us atheists. We donot believe that the gods whom the Greeks and theRomans worshipped and believed in exist or haveever existed ; we hold them to be productions ofthe human imagination to which nothing real corre-sponds. This view has nowadays become so in-grained in us and appears so self-evident, that wefind it difficult to imagine that it has not beenprevalent through long ages ; nay, it is perhaps awidely diffused assumption that even in antiquityeducated and unbiased persons held the sameview of the religion of their people as we do. Inreality both assumptions are erroneous : our" atheism " in regard to ancient paganism is ofrecent date, and in antiquity itself downright denialof the existence of the gods was a comparativelyrare phenomenon. The demonstration of this fact,rather than a consideration of the various inter-mediate positions taken up by the thinkers ofantiquity in their desire to avoid a complete rupturewith the traditional ideas of the gods, has been oneof the chief purposes of this inquiry.

    Though the definition of atheism set down heremight seem to be clear and unequivocal, and thoughI have tried to adhere strictly to it, cases haveunavoidably occurred that were difficult to classify.

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 3The most embarrassing are those which involve areinterpretation of the conception of the gods, i.e.which, while acknowledging that there is some realitycorresponding to the conception, yet define thisreality as essentially different from it. Moreover,the acknowledgment of a certain group of gods (thecelestial bodies, for instance) combined with therejection of others, may create difficulties in de-fining the notion of atheism ; in practice, however,this doctrine generally coincides with the former,by which the gods are explained away. On thewhole it would hardly be just, in a field of inquirylike the present, to expect or require absolutelyclearly defined boundary-lines ; transition forms willalways occur.The persons of whom it is related that theydenied the existence of the ancient gods are inthemselves few, and they all belong to the highestlevel of culture ; by far the greater part of themare simply professional philosophers. Hence theinquiry will almost exclusively have to deal withphilosophers and philosophical schools and theirdoctrines ; 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 historyof religion, not with philosophy ; therefore in ac-cordance with the definition of its object it willdeal as little as possible with the purely philosophicalnotions of God that have nothing to do with popularreligion. What it aims at illustrating is a certainif you like, the negative aspect of ancient religion.But its result, if it can be sufficiently established,will not be without importance for the under-

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    4 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYstanding of the positive religious sense of antiquity.If you want to obtain some idea of the hold acertain religion had on its adherents, it is not amissto know something about the extent to which itdominated even the strata of society most exposedto influences that went against it.

    It might seem more natural, in dealing withatheism in antiquity, to adopt the definition currentamong the ancients themselves. That this methodwould prove futile the following investigation will,I hope, make sufficiently evident ; antiquity suc-ceeded as little as we moderns in connecting anyclear and unequivocal idea with the words thatsignify " denial of God." On the other hand, it is,of course, impossible to begin at all except from thetraditions of antiquity about denial and deniers.Hence the course of the inquiry will be, first to makeclear what antiquity understood by denial of thegods and what persons it designated as deniers, andthen to examine in how far these persons wereatheists in our sense of the word.

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    CHAPTER I

    ATHEISMand atheist are words formed from

    Greek roots and with Greek derivativeendings. Nevertheless they are notGreek ; their formation is not consonant with

    Greek usage. In Greek they said atheos andatheotes ; to these the English words ungodly andungodliness correspond rather closely. In exactlythe same way as ungodly, atheos was used as anexpression of severe censure and moral condemna-tion ; this use is an old one, and the oldest that canbe traced. Not till later do we find it employedto denote a certain philosophical creed ; we evenmeet with philosophers bearing atheos as a regularsurname. We know very little of the men inquestion ; but it can hardly be doubted that atheos,as applied to them, implied not only a denial of thegods of popular belief, but a denial of gods in thewidest sense of the word, or Atheism as it is nowa-days understood.

    In this case the word is more particularly aphilosophical term. But it was used in a similarsense also in popular language, and correspondsthen closely to the English " denier of God," de-noting a person who denies the gods of his peopleand State. From the popular point of view theinterest, of course, centred in those only, not in the

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    6 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYexponents of philosophical theology. Thus wefind the word employed both of theoretical denialof the gods (atheism in our sense) and of practicaldenial of the gods, as in the case of the adherentsof monotheism, Jews and Christians.

    Atheism, in the theoretical as well as the practi-cal sense of the word, was, according to the ancientconception of law, always a crime ; but in practiceit was treated in different ways, which varied bothaccording to the period in question and accordingto the more or less dangerous nature of the threatit offered to established religion. It is only as faras Athens and Imperial Rome are concerned thatwe have any definite knowledge of the law and thejudicial procedure on this point ; a somewhatdetailed account of the state of things in Athensand Rome cannot be dispensed with here.In the criminal law of Athens we meet withthe term asebeia literally : impiety or disrespecttowards the gods. As an established formulaof accusation of asebeia existed, legislation musthave dealt with the subject ; but how it wasdefined we do not know. The word itself conveysthe idea that the law particularly had offencesagainst public worship in view ; and this is con-firmed by the fact that a number of such offencesfrom the felling of sacred trees to the profanation ofthe Eleusinian Mysteries were treated as asebeia.When, in the next place, towards the close of thefifth century B.C., free-thinking began to assumeforms which seemed dangerous to the religion ofthe State, theoretical denial of the gods was alsoincluded under asebeia. From about the beginning

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 7of the Peloponnesian War to the close of thefourth century B.C., there are on record a numberof prosecutions of philosophers who were tried andcondemned for denial of the gods. The indict-ment seems in most cases the trial of Socrates isthe only one of which we know details to havebeen on the charge of asebeia, and the procedureproper thereto seems to have been employed,though there was no proof or assertion of theaccused having offended against public worship ;as to Socrates, we know the opposite to have beenthe case ; he worshipped the gods like any othergood citizen. This extension of the conception ofasebeia to include theoretical denial of the godsno doubt had no foundation in law ; this is amongstother things evident from the fact that it was neces-sary, in order to convict Anaxagoras, to pass aspecial public resolution in virtue of which his free-thinking theories became indictable. The law pre-sumably dated from a time when theoretical denial ofthe gods lay beyond the horizon of legislation. Never-theless, in the trial of Socrates it is simply takenfor granted that denial of the gods is a capital crime,and that not only on the side of the prosecution, butalso on the side of the defence : the trial only turnson a question of fact, the legal basis is taken forgranted. So inveterate, then, at this time was theconception of the unlawful nature of the denial ofthe gods among the people of Athens.

    In the course of the fourth century B.C. severalphilosophers were accused of denial of the gods orblasphemy ; but after the close of the century wehear no more of such trials. To be sure, our know-

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    8 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYledge of the succeeding centuries, when Athens wasbut a provincial town, is far less copious than of thedays of its greatness ; nevertheless, it is beyonddoubt that the practice in regard to theoreticaldenial of the gods was changed. A philosopherlike Carneades, for instance, might, in view of hissceptical standpoint, just as well have been con-victed of asebeia as Protagoras, who was convictedbecause he had declared that he did not knowwhether the gods existed or not ; and as to such aprocess against Carneades, tradition would not haveremained silent. Instead, we learn that he wasemployed as the trusted representative of the Stateon most important diplomatic missions. It isevident that Athens had arrived at the point of viewthat the theoretical denial of the gods might betolerated, whereas the law, of course, continued toprotect public worship.In Rome they did not possess, as in Athens, ageneral statute against religious offences ; therewere only special provisions, and they were, more-over, few and insufficient. This defect, however,was remedied by the vigorous police authoritywith which the Roman magistrates were invested.In Rome severe measures were often taken againstmovements which threatened the Roman officialworship, but it was done at the discretion of theadministration and not according to hard-and-fastrules ; hence the practice was somewhat varying,and a certain arbitrariness inevitable.No example is known from Rome of actiontaken against theoretical denial of the gods cor-responding to the trials of the philosophers in

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 9Athens. The main cause of this was, no doubt,that free-thinking in the fifth century B.C. invadedHellas, and speciallyAthens, like a floodwhich threat-ened to overthrow everything ; in Rome, on theother hand, Greek philosophy made its way inslowly and gradually, and this took place at a timewhen in the country of its origin it had long agofound a modus vivendi with popular religion andwas acknowledged as harmless to the establishedworship. The more practical outlook of theRomans may perhaps also have had something tosay in the matter: they were rather indifferentto theoretical speculations, whereas they were notto be trifled with when their national institutionswere concerned.

    In consequence of this point of view the Romangovernment first came to deal with denial of thegods as a breach of law when confronted with thetwo monotheistic religions which invaded theEmpire from the East. That which distinguishedJews and Christians from Pagans was not that theydenied the existence of the Pagan gods the Chris-tians, at any rate, did not do this as a rule butthat they denied that they were gods, and thereforerefused to worship them. They were practical,not theoretical deniers. The tolerance which theRoman government showed towards all foreigncreeds and the result of which in imperial times was,practically speaking, freedom of religion over thewhole Empire, could not be extended to the Jewsand the Christians ; for it was in the last resortbased on reciprocity, on the fact that worship of theEgyptian or Persian gods did not exclude worship

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    10 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYof the Roman ones. Every convert, on the otherhand, won over to Judaism or Christianity was eoipso an apostate from the Roman religion, anatheos according to the ancient conception. Hence,as soon as such religions began to spread, they con-stituted a serious danger to the established religion,and the Roman government intervened. Judaismand Christianity were not treated quite alike; inthis connexion details are of no interest, butcertain principal features must be dwelt on assignificant of the attitude of antiquity towardsdenial of the gods. To simplify matters I con-fine myself to Christianity, where things are lesscomplicated.The Christians were generally designated asatheoi, as deniers of the gods, and the objectionagainst them was precisely their denial of thePagan gods, not their religion as such. When theChristian, summoned before the Roman magis-trates, agreed to sacrifice to the Pagan gods(among them, the Emperor) he was acquitted;he was not punished for previously having at-tended Christian services, and it seems that hewas not even required to undertake not to do so infuture. Only if he refused to sacrifice, was hepunished. We cannot ask for a clearer proof thatit is apostasy as such, denial of the gods, againstwhich action is taken. It is in keeping with thisthat, at any rate under the earlier Empire, no at-tempt was made to seek out the Christians at theirassemblies, to hinder their services or the like ; itwas considered sufficient to take steps when in-formation was laid.

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 11The punishments meted out were different, in

    that they were left solely to the discretion ofthe magistrates. But they were generally severe :forced labour in mines and capital punishment werequite common. No discrimination was made be-tween Roman citizens and others belonging to theEmpire, but all were treated alike ; that the Romancitizen could not undergo capital punishment withoutappeal to the Emperor does not affect the principle.This procedure has really no expressly formulatedbasis in law ; the Roman penal code did not, asmentioned above, take cognizance of denial of thegods. Nevertheless, the sentences on the Christianswere considered by the Pagans of the earlier timeas a matter of course, the justice of which was notcontested, and the procedure of the governmentwas in principle the same under humane and con-scientious rulers like Trajan and Marcus Aureliusas under tyrants like Nero and Domitian. Hereagain it is evident how firmly rooted in the mindof antiquity was the conviction that denial of thegods was a capital offence.To resume what has here been set forth con-cerning the attitude of ancient society to atheism :it is, in the first place, evident that the frequentlymentioned tolerance of polytheism was not extendedto those who denied its gods ; in fact, it was appliedonly to those who acknowledged them even ifthey worshipped others besides. But the assertionof this principle of intolerance varied greatly inpractice according to whether it was a question oftheoretical denial of the gods atheism in oursense or practical refusal to worship the Pagan

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    12 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYgods. Against atheism the community took actiononly during a comparatively short period, and, asfar as we know, only in a single place. The latterlimitation is probably explained not only by thedefectiveness of tradition, but also by the fact thatin Athens free-thinking made its appearance aboutthe year 400 as a general phenomenon and thereforeattracted the attention of the community. Apartfrom this case, the philosophical denier of God wasleft in peace all through antiquity, in the same wayas the individual citizen was not interfered with, asa rule, when he, for one reason or another, refrainedfrom taking part in the worship of the deities. Onthe other hand, as soon as practical refusal to be-lieve in the gods, apostasy from the establishedreligion, assumed dangerous proportions, ruthlessseverity was exercised against it.The discrimination, however, made in the treat-ment of the theoretical and practical denial of thegods is certainly not due merely to consideration ofthe more or less isolated occurrence of the phe-nomenon ; it is rooted at the same time in the verynature of ancient religion. The essence of ancientpolytheism is the worship of the gods, that is, cultus ;of a doctrine of divinity properly speaking, oftheology, there were only slight rudiments, andthere was no idea of any elaborate dogmatic system.Quite different attitudes were accordingly assumedtowards the philosopher, who held his own opinionsof the gods, but took part in the public worship likeanybody else ; and towards the monotheist, to whomthe whole of the Pagan worship was an abomination,which one should abstain from at any cost, and

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 13which one should prevail on others to give up for thesake of their own good in this life or the next.

    In the literature of antiquity we meet withsporadic statements to the effect that certainphilosophers bore the epithet atheos as a sort ofsurname ; and in a few of the later authors ofantiquity we even find lists of men almost all ofthem philosophers who denied the existence ofthe gods. Furthermore, we possess informationabout certain persons these also, if Jews andChristians are excluded, are nearly all of themphilosophers having been accused of, and event-ually convicted of, denial of the gods ; some ofthese are not in our lists. Information of this kindwill, as remarked above, be taken as the point ofdeparture for an investigation of atheism in anti-quity. For practical reasons, however, it is reason-able to include some philosophers whom antiquitydid not designate as atheists, and who did not comeinto conflict with official religion, but of whom ithas been maintained in later times that they didnot believe in the existence of the gods of popularbelief. Thus we arrive at the following list, inwhich those who were denoted as atheoi are italicisedand those who were accused of impiety are markedwith an asterisk :

    Xenophanes.

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    14 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYThe persons are put down in chronological

    order. This order will in some measure be pre-served in the following survey ; but regard for thecontinuity of the tradition of the doctrine willentail certain deviations. It will, that is to say, benatural to divide the material into four groups :the pre-Socratic philosophy ; the Sophists ; Socratesand the Socratics ; Hellenistic philosophy. Eachof these groups has a philosophical character of itsown, and it will be seen that this character alsomakes itself felt in the relation to the gods of thepopular belief, even though we here meet withphenomena of more isolated occurrence. The fourgroups must be supplemented by a fifth, a surveyof the conditions in Imperial Rome. Atheists ofthis period are not found in our lists ; but a gooddeal of old Pagan free-thinking survives in the firstcenturies of our era, and also the epithet atheoi wasbestowed generally on the Christians and sometimeson the Jews, and if only for this reason they cannotbe altogether passed by in this survey.

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    CHAPTER II

    THEpaganism of antiquity is based on a

    primitive religion, i.e. it is originally inthe main homogeneous with the religions

    nowadays met with in the so-called primitivepeoples. It underwent, however, a long process ofevolution parallel with and conditioned by thedevelopment of Greek and later Roman civilisation.This evolution carried ancient religion far awayfrom its primitive starting-point ; it producednumerous new formations, above all a huge systemof anthropomorphic gods, each with a definitecharacter and personality of his own. This develop-ment is the result of an interplay of numerousfactors : changing social and economical conditionsevoked the desire for new religious ideas ; theinfluence of other peoples made itself felt ; poetryand the fine arts contributed largely to the mould-ing of these ideas ; conscious reflection, too, aroseearly and modified original simplicity. But what ischaracteristic of the whole process is the fact thatit went on continuously without breaks or suddenbounds. Nowhere in ancient religion, as far as wecan trace it, did a powerful religious personalitystrike in with a radical transformation, with adirect rejection of old ideas and dogmatic accentua-tion of new ones. The result of this quiet growth

    15

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    16 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYwas an exceedingly heterogeneous organism, inwhich remains of ancient, highly primitive customsand ideas were retained along with other elements ofa far more advanced character.

    Such a state of things need not in itself troublethe general consciousness ; it is a well-establishedfact that in religion the most divergent elementsare not incompatible. Nevertheless, among theGreeks, with their strong proclivity to reflectivethought, criticism early arose against the traditionalconceptions of the gods. The typical method ofthis criticism is that the higher conceptions of thegods are used against the lower. From the earliesttimes the Greek religious sense favoured absolute-ness of definition where the gods are concerned ;even in Homer they are not only eternal and happy,but also all-powerful and all-knowing. Correspond-ing expressions of a moral character are hardlyto be found in Homer ; but as early as Hesiod andSolon we find, at any rate, Zeus as the representativeof heavenly justice. With such definitions a largenumber of customs of public worship and, above all,a number of stories about the gods, were in violentcontradiction ; thus we find even so old and sopious a poet as Pindar occasionally rejectingmythical stories which he thinks at variance withthe sublime nature of the gods. This form ofcriticism of popular beliefs is continued throughthe whole of antiquity ; it is found not only inphilosophers and philosophically educated laymen,but appears spontaneously in everybody of areflective mind ; its best known representative inearlier times is Euripides. Typical of its popu-

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 17lar form is in the first place its casualness ; itis directed against details which at the momentattract attention, while it leaves other thingsalone which in principle are quite as offensive,but either not very obviously so, or else notrelevant to the matter in hand. Secondly, it isnaive : it takes the gods of the popular belief forgranted essentially as they are ; it does not raisethe crucial question whether the popular belief is notquite justified in attributing to these higher beingsall kinds of imperfection, and wrong in attributingperfection 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 ofcriticism is outside the scope of our inquiry.

    Still, there is one single personality in earlyGreek thought who seems to have proceeded stillfurther on the lines of this naive criticism, namely,Xenophanes of Colophon. He is generally includedamongst the philosophers, and rightly in so far ashe initiated a philosophical speculation which wasof the highest importance in the developmentof Greek scientific thought. But in the presentconnexion it would, nevertheless, be misleading toplace Xenophanes among those philosophers whocame into conflict with the popular belief becausetheir conception of Existence was based on science.The starting-point for his criticism of the popularbelief is in fact not philosophical, but religious ; heranks with personalities like Pindar and Euripideshe was also a verse-writer himself, with consider-able poetic gift and is only distinguished from themby the greater consistency of his thought. Hence,

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    18 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYthe correct course is to deal with him in this placeas the only eminent thinker in antiquity aboutwhom it is known that starting from popularbelief and religious motives he reached a stand-point which at any rate with some truth may bedesignated as atheism.

    Xenophanes lived in the latter part of the sixthand the beginning of the fifth centuries B.C. (accord-ing to his own statement he reached an age of morethan ninety years). He was an itinerant singer whotravelled about and recited poetry, presumablynot merely his own but also that of others. Inhis own poems he severely attacked the mannerin which Homer and Hesiod, the most famous poetsof Greece, had represented the gods : they hadattributed to them everything which in man's eyesis outrageous and reprehensible theft, adultery anddeception of one another. Their accounts of thefights of the gods against Titans and Giants hedenounced as " inventions of the ancients." Buthe did not stop at that : " Men believe that thegods are born, are clothed and shaped and speaklike themselves" ; "if oxen and horses and lionscould draw and paint, they would delineate their godsin their own image " ; " the Negroes believe thattheir gods are flat-nosed and black, the Thraciansthat theirs have blue eyes and red hair." Thus heattacked directly the popular belief that the godsare anthropomorphic, and his arguments testifythat he clearly realised that men create their godsin their own image. On another main point, too,he was in direct opposition to the religious ideasof his time : he rejected Divination, the belief that

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 19the gods imparted the secrets of the future to menwhich was deemed a mainstay of the belief in theexistence of the gods. As a positive counterpartto the anthropomorphic gods, Xenophanes set upa philosophical conception of God : God must beOne, Eternal, Unchangeable and identical withhimself in every way (all sight, all hearing and allmind). This deity, according to the explicit state-ments of our earliest sources, he identified with theuniverse.

    If we examine more closely the arguments putforth by Xenophanes in support of his remarkableconception of the deity, we realise that he every-where starts from the definitions of the nature ofthe gods as given by popular religion ; but, be itunderstood, solely from the absolute definitions.He takes the existence of the divine, with its absoluteattributes, for granted ; it is in fact the basis of allhis speculation. His criticism of the popular ideasof the gods is therefore closely connected with hisphilosophical conception of God ; the two are thepositive and negative sides of the same thing.Altogether his connexion with what I call the naivecriticism of the popular religion is unmistakable.

    It is undoubtedly a remarkable fact that wemeet at this early date with such a consistentrepresentative of this criticism. If we take Xeno-phanes at his word we must describe him as anatheist, and atheism in the sixth century B.C. is avery curious phenomenon indeed. Neither was itacknowledged in antiquity ; no one placed Xeno-phanes amongst atheoi ; and Cicero even sayssomewhere (according to Greek authority) that

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    20 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYXenophanes was the only one of those who believedin gods who rejected divination. In more recenttimes, too, serious doubt has been expressed whetherXenophanes actually denied the existence of thegods. Reference has amongst other things beenmade to the fact that he speaks in several placesabout " gods " where he, according to his view,ought to say " God " ; nay, he has even formulatedhis fundamental idea in the words : " One God, thegreatest amongst gods and men, neither in shape normind like unto any mortal." To be sure, Xeno-phanes is not always consistent in his language ;but no weight whatever ought to be attached tothis, least of all in the case of a man who exclusivelyexpressed himself in verse. Another theory restson the tradition that Xenophanes regarded hisdeity and the universe as identical, consequentlywas a pantheist. In that case, it is said, he mayvery well have considered, for instance, the heavenlybodies as deities. Sound as this argument is ingeneral, it does not apply to this case. When athinker arrives at pantheism, starting from a criti-cism of polytheism which is expressly based on theantithesis between the unity and plurality of thedeity then very valid proofs, indeed, are needed inorder to justify the assumption that he after allbelieved in a plurality of gods ; and such proofs arewanting in the case of Xenophanes.

    Judging from the material in hand one can hardlyarrive at any other conclusion than that the stand-point of Xenophanes comes under our definition ofatheism. But we must not forget that only frag-ments of his writings have been preserved, and that

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 21the more extensive of them do not assist usgreatly to the understanding of his religious stand-point. It is possible that we might have arrivedat a different conclusion had we but possessed hischief philosophical work in its entirety, or at leastlarger portions of it. And I must candidly confessthat 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, myanswer would be in the negative.That Xenophanes was not considered an atheistby the ancients may possibly be explained by thefact that they objected to fasten this designation ona 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 realitystood on the ground of popular belief, even if hewent beyond it. Still more curious is the fact thathis religious view does not seem to have influencedthe immediately succeeding philosophy at all. Hissuccessors, Parmenides and Zeno, developed hisdoctrine of unity, but in a pantheistic direction,and on a logical, not religious line of argument ;about their attitude to popular belief we are toldpractically nothing. And Ionic speculation took aquite different direction. Not till a century later,in Euripides, do we observe a distinct influence ofhis criticism of popular belief ; but at that time othercurrents of opinion had intervened which are notdependent on Xenophanes, but might direct atten-tion to him.

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    CHAPTER IIIANCIENT

    Greek naturalism is essentiallycalculated to collide with the popularbelief. It seeks a natural explanation of

    the world, first and foremost of its origin, but inthe next place of individual natural phenomena.As to the genesis of the world, speculations of amythical kind had already developed on the basisof the popular belief. They were not, however,binding on anybody, and, above all, the idea of thegods having created the world was altogether aliento Greek religion. Thus, without offence to themit might be maintained that everything originatedfrom a primary substance or from a mixture ofseveral primary substances, as was generally main-tained by the ancient naturalists. On the otherhand, a conflict arose as soon as the heavenlyphenomena, such as lightning and thunder, wereascribed to natural causes, or when the heavenlybodies were made out to be natural objects ; for tothe Greeks it was an established fact that Zeus sentlightning and thunder, and that the sun and themoon were gods. A refusal to believe in the latterwas especially dangerous because they were visiblegods, and as to the person who did not believe intheir divinity the obvious conclusion would be thathe believed still less in the invisible gods.

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 23That this inference was drawn will appear before

    long. But the epithet " atheist " was very rarelyattached to the ancient naturalists ; only a few ofthe later (and those the least important) were giventhe nickname atheos. Altogether we hear verylittle of the relation of these philosophers to thepopular belief, and this very silence is surely signifi-cant. No doubt, most of them bestowed but ascant attention on this aspect of the matter ; theywere engrossed in speculations which did not bringthem into conflict with the popular belief, and eventheir scientific treatment of the " divine " naturalphenomena did not make them doubt the existenceof the gods. This is connected with a peculiarity intheir conception of existence. Tradition tells usof several of them, and it applies presumably alsoto those of whom it is not recorded, that theydesignated their primary substance or substancesas gods ; sometimes they also applied this designa-tion to the world or worlds originating in the primarysubstance. This view is deeply rooted in the Greekpopular belief and harmonises with its fundamentalview of existence. To these ancient thinkers theprimary substance is at once a living and a super-human power ; and any living power which tran-scended that of man was divine to the Greeks.Hylozoism (the theory that matter is alive) con-sequently, when it allies itself with popular belief,leads straight to pantheism, whereas it excludesmonotheism, which presupposes a distinction be-tween god and matter. Now it is a matter of ex-perience that, while monotheism is the hereditaryfoe of polytheism, polytheism and pantheism go

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    24 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYvery well together. The universe being divine,there is no reason to doubt that beings of a higherorder than man exist, nor any reason to refuse tobestow on them the predicate " divine " ; and withthis we find ourselves in principle on the standpointof polytheistic popular belief. There is nothingsurprising, then, in the tradition that Thalesidentified God with the mind of the universe andbelieved the universe to be animated, and filled with" demons." The first statement is in this formprobably influenced by later ideas and hardly acorrect expression of the view of Thales ; the restbears the very stamp of genuineness, and similarideas recur, more or less completely and variouslyrefracted, in the succeeding philosophers.

    To follow these variations in detail is outside thescope of this investigation ; but it may be of interestto see the form they take in one of the latest andmost advanced representatives of Ionian naturalism.In Democritus's conception of the universe, personalgods would seem excluded a priori. He works withbut three premises : the atoms, their movements,and empty space. From this everything is derivedaccording to strict causality. Such phenomenaalso as thunder and lightning, comets and eclipses,which were generally ascribed to the gods, areaccording to his opinion due to natural causes,whereas people in the olden days were afraid of thembecause they believed they were due to the gods.Nevertheless, he seems, in the first place, to havedesignated Fire, which he at the same time recog-nised as a " soul-substance," as divine, the cosmicfire being the soul of the world; and secondly,

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 25he thought that there was something real under-lying the popular conception of the gods. Hewas led to this from a consideration of dreams,which he thought were images of real objects whichentered into the sleeper through the pores of thebody. Now, since gods might be seen in dreams,they must be real beings. He did actually say thatthe gods had more senses than the ordinary five.When he who of all the Greek philosophers wentfurthest in a purely mechanical conception ofnature took up such an attitude to the religion ofhis people, one cannot expect the others, who wereless advanced, to discard it.

    Nevertheless, there is a certain probabilitythat some of the later Ionian naturalists wentfurther in their criticism of the gods of popularbelief. One of them actually came into conflictwith popular religion ; it will be natural to beginwith him.

    Shortly before the outbreak of the Pelopon-nesian War, Anaxagoras of Clazomenae was accusedof impiety and had to leave Athens, where he hadtaken up his abode. The object of the accusationwas in reality political ; the idea being to hit Periclesthrough his friend the naturalist. What Anaxa-goras was charged with was that he had assumedthat the heavenly bodies were natural objects ; hehad taught that the sun was a red-hot mass, andthat the moon was earth and larger than Pelopon-nese. To base an accusation of impiety on this, itwas necessary first to carry a public resolution,giving power to prosecute those who gave naturalexplanations of heavenly phenomena.

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    26 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYAs to Anaxagoras's attitude to popular belief, we

    hear next to nothing apart from this. There is astory of a ram's head being found with one horn inthe middle of the forehead ; it was brought toPericles, and the soothsayer Lampon explained theportent to the effect that, of the two men, Periclesand Thucydides, who contended for the leadershipof Athens, one should prove victorious. Anaxa-goras, on the other hand, had the ram's head cutopen and showed that the brain did not fill up thecranium, but was egg-shaped and lay gatheredtogether at the point where the horn grew out.He evidently thought that abortions also, whichotherwise were generally considered as signs fromthe gods, were due to natural causes. Beyond this,nothing is said of any attack on the popular beliefon the part of Anaxagoras, and in his philosophynothing occurred which logically entailed a denial ofthe existence of the gods. Add to this that it wasnecessary to create a new judicial basis for theaccusation against Anaxagoras, and it can be takenas certain that neither in his writings nor in anyother way did he come forward in public as a denierof the gods.

    It is somewhat different when we consider thepurely personal point of view of Anaxagoras. Thevery fact that no expression of his opinion concern-ing the gods has been transmitted affords food forthought. Presumably there was none ; but thisvery fact is notable when we bear in mind thatthe earlier naturalists show no such reticence. Addto this that, if there is any place and any time inwhich we might expect a complete emancipation

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 27from popular belief, combined with a decided dis-inclination to give expression to it, it is Athensunder Pericles. Men like Pericles and his friendsrepresent a high level, perhaps the zenith, in Hellenicculture. That they were critical of many of thereligious conceptions of their time we may take forgranted ; as to Pericles himself, this is actuallystated as a fact, and the accusations of impietydirected against Aspasia and Pheidias prove thatorthodox circles were very well aware of it.But the accusations prove, moreover, that Periclesand those who shared his views were so much inadvance of their time that they could not affordto let their free-thinking attitude become a matterof public knowledge without endangering theirpolitical position certainly, and possibly even morethan that. To be sure, considerations of that kinddid not weigh with Anaxagoras ; but he was andthat we know on good authority a quiet scholarwhose ideal of life was to devote himself to problemsof natural science, and he can hardly have wishedto be disturbed in this occupation by affairs in whichhe took no sort of interest. The question is thenonly how far men like Pericles and himself may haveventured in their criticism. Though all directtradition is wanting, we have at any rate circum-stantial evidence possessing a certain degree ofprobability.To begin with, the attempt to give a naturalexplanation of prodigies is not in itself withoutinterest. The mantic art, i.e. the ability to predictthe future by signs from the gods or direct divineinspiration, was throughout antiquity considered

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    28 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYone of the surest proofs of the existence of the gods.Now, it by no means follows that a person who wasnot impressed by a deformed ram's head woulddeny, e.g., the ability of the Delphic Oracle to pre-dict the future, especially not so when the personin question was a naturalist. But that there wasat this time a general tendency to reject the art ofdivination is evident from the fact that Herodotus aswell as Sophocles, both of them contemporaries ofPericles and Anaxagoras, expressly contend againstattempts in that direction, and, be it remarked,as if the theory they attack was commonly held.Sophocles is in this connexion so far the moreinteresting of the two, as, on one hand, he criticisesprivate divination but defends the Delphic oraclevigorously, while he, on the other hand, identifiesdenial of the oracle with denial of the gods. Andhe does this in such a way as to make it evidentthat he has a definite object in mind. That inthis polemic he may have been aiming preciselyat Anaxagoras is indicated by the fact that Dio-peithes, who carried the resolution concerning theaccusation of the philosopher, was a soothsayer byprofession.The strongest evidence as to the free-thinking ofthe Periclean age is, however, to be met with inthe historical writing of Thucydides. In his workon the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides completelyeliminated the supernatural element ; not only didhe throughout ignore omens and divinations, exceptin so far as they played a part as a psychologicalfactor, but he also completely omitted any referenceto the gods in his narrative. Such a procedure was

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 29at this time unprecedented, and contrasts sharplywith that of his immediate forerunner Herodotus,who constantly lays stress on the intervention of thegods. That is hardly conceivable except in a manwho had altogether emancipated himself from thereligious views of his time. Now, Thucydides is notonly a fellow-countryman and younger contem-porary of Pericles, but he also sees in Pericles hisideal not only as a politician but evidently also as aman. Hence, when everything is considered, it isnot improbable that Pericles and his friends wentto all lengths in their criticism of popular belief,although, of course, it remains impossible to stateanything definite as to particular persons' in-dividual views. Curiously enough, even in anti-quity this connexion was observed ; in a biographyof Thucydides it is said that he was a disciple ofAnaxagoras and accordingly was also consideredsomething of an atheist.While Anaxagoras, his trial notwithstanding,is not generally designated an atheist, probablybecause there was nothing in his writings to whichhe might be pinned down, that fate befel two of hiscontemporaries, Hippo of Rhegium and Diogenes ofApollonia. 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 every-thing ; as to the reason why he earned the nick-name atheos, it is said that he taught that Water wasthe primal cause of all, as well as that he maintainedthat nothing existed but what could be perceived bythe senses. There is also quoted a (fictitious) inscrip-tion, which he is said to have caused to be put on his

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    30 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYtomb, to the effect that Death has made him theequal of the immortal gods (in that he now existsno more than they). Otherwise we know nothingspecial of Hippo ; Aristotle refers to him as shallow.As to Diogenes, we learn that he was influencedby Anaximenes and Anaxagoras ; in agreement withthe former he regarded Air as the primary substance,and like Anaxagoras he attributed reason to hisprimary substance. Of his doctrine we have ex-tensive accounts, and also some not inconsider-able fragments of his treatise On Nature ; butthey 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 isrecorded that he identified Zeus with the air. In-directly, however, we are able to demonstrate, bythe aid of an almost contemporary witness, thatthere must have been some foundation for theaccusation of " atheism." For in The Clouds, whereAristophanes wants to represent Socrates as anatheist, he puts in his mouth scraps of the naturalismof Diogenes ; that he would hardly have done, ifDiogenes had not already been decried as anatheist.

    It is of course impossible to base any statementof the relation of the two philosophers to popularbelief on such a foundation. But it is, nevertheless,worth noticing that while not a single one of theearlier naturalists acquired the designation atheist,it was applied to two of the latest and otherwiselittle-known representatives of the school. Takethis in combination with what has been said aboveof Anaxagoras, and we get at any rate a suspicion

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 31that Greek naturalism gradually led its adherentsbeyond the naive stage where many individualphenomena were indeed ascribed to natural causes,even if they had formerly been regarded as causedby divine intervention, but where the foundationsof the popular belief were left untouched. Oncethis path has been entered on, a point will bearrived at where the final conclusion is drawn andthe existence of the supernatural completely denied.It is probable that this happened towards the closeof the naturalistic period. If so early a philosopheras Anaxagoras took this point of view, his personalcontribution as a member of the Periclean circlemay have been more significant in the religious fieldthan one would conjecture from the character of hiswork.

    Before we proceed to mention the sophists, thereis one person on our list who must be examinedthough the result will be negative, namely, Diagorasof Melos. As he appears in our records, he fallsoutside the classification adopted here ; but as hemust have lived, at any rate, about the middleof the fifth century (he is said to have

    " flourished "in 464) he may most fitly be placed on theboundary line between the Ionian philosophy andSophistic.For later antiquity Diagoras is the typicalatheist ; he heads our lists of atheists, and roundhis person a whole series of myths have been formed.He is said to have been a poet and a pious man likeothers ; but then a colleague once stole an ode fromhim, escaped by taking an oath that he was innocent,and afterwards made a hit with the stolen work.

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    32 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYSo Diagoras lost his faith in the gods and wrote atreatise under the title of apopyrgizontes logoi(literally, destructive considerations) in which heattacked the belief in the gods.

    This looks very plausible, and is interesting inso far as it, if correct, affords an instance of atheismarising in a layman from actual experience, not in aphilosopher from speculation. If we ask, however,what is known historically about Diagoras, we aretold a different tale. There existed in Athens,engraved on a bronze tablet and set up on theAcropolis, a decree of the people offering a rewardof one talent to him who should kill Diagoras ofMelos, and of two talents to him who should bringhim alive to Athens. The reason given was that hehad scoffed at the Eleusinian Mysteries and divulgedwhat took place at them. The date of this decreeis given by a historian as 415 B.C. ; that this iscorrect is seen from a passage in Aristophanes's con-temporary drama, The Birds. Furthermore, one ofthe disciples of Aristotle, the literary historianAristoxenus, states that no trace of impiety wasto be found in the works of the dithyrambic poetDiagoras, and that, in fact, they contained definiteopinions to the contrary. A remark to the effectthat Diagoras was instrumental in drawing up thelaws of Mantinea is probably due to the samesource. The context shows that the reference isto the earlier constitution of Mantinea, whichwas a mixture of aristocracy and democracy, andis praised for its excellence. It is inconceivablethat, in a Peloponnesian city during the courseof, nay, presumably even before the middle of

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 33the fifth century, a notorious atheist shouldhave been invited to advise on the revision of itsconstitution. It is more probable that Aristoxenusadduced this fact as an additional disproof ofDiagoras's atheism, in which he evidently did notbelieve.

    The above information explains the origin ofthe legend. Two fixed points were in existence :the pious poet of c. 460 and the atheist who wasoutlawed in 415 ; a bridge was constructed betweenthem by the story of the stolen ode. This disposesof the whole supposition of atheism growing out ofa basis of experience. But, furthermore, it must beadmitted that it is doubtful whether the poet andthe atheist are one and the same person. Theinterval of time between them is itself suspicious,for the poet, according to the ancient system ofcalculation, must have been about forty years oldin 464, consequently between eighty and ninety in415. (There is general agreement that the treatise,the title of which has been quoted, must have beena later forgery.) If, in spite of all, I dare not abso-lutely deny the identity of the two Diagorases oftradition, the reason is that Aristophanes, where hementions the decree concerning Diagoras, seems tosuggest that his attack on the Mysteries was anold story which was raked up again in 415. Butfor our purpose, at any rate, nothing remains of thecopious mass of legend but the fact that oneDiagoras of Melos in 415 was outlawed in Athens onthe ground of his attack on the Mysteries. Such anattack may have been the outcome of atheism ;there was no lack of impiety in Athens at the end

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    34 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYof the fifth century. But whether this was the caseor not we cannot possibly tell ; and to throw lighton free-thinking tendencies in Athens at this time,we have other and richer sources than the historicalnotice of Diagoras.

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    CHAPTER IV

    WITHthe movement in Greek thought which

    is generallyknown as sophistic, a new

    view of popular belief appears. Thecriticism of the sophists was directed against theentire tradition on which Greek society was based,and principally against the moral conceptions whichhitherto had been unquestioned : good and evil,right and wrong. The criticism was essentiallynegative ; that which hitherto had been imaginedas absolute was demonstrated to be relative, andthe relative was identified with the invalid. Thusthey could not help running up against the popularideas of the gods, and treating them in the sameway. A leading part was here played by thesophistic distinction between nomos and physis,Law and Nature, i.e. that which is based on humanconvention, and that which is founded on the natureof things. The sophists could not help seeing thatthe whole public worship and the ideas associatedwith it belonged to the former to the domain of" the law." Not only did the worship and theconceptions of the gods vary from place to place inthe hundreds of small independent communities intowhich Hellas was divided a fact which the sophistshad special opportunity of observing when travel-ling from town to town to teach ; but it was even

    35

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    36 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYofficially admitted that the whole ritual which,popularly speaking, was almost identical withreligion was based on convention. If a Greekwas asked why a god was to be worshipped in suchand 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 itfollowed in principle that religion came under thedomain of " the law," being consequently the workof man ; and hence again the obvious conclusion,according to sophistic reasoning, was that it wasnothing but human imagination, and that there wasno physis, no reality, behind it at all. In the case ofthe naturalists, it was the positive foundation of theirsystem, their conception of nature as a whole, thatled them to criticise the popular belief. Hence theircriticism was in the main only directed against thoseparticular ideas in the popular belief which were atvariance with the results of their investigations. Tobe sure, the sophists were not above making use ofthe results of natural science in their criticism of thepopular belief ; it was their general aim to impartthe highest education of their time, and of a liberaleducation natural science formed a rather importantpart. But their starting-point was quite differentfrom that of the naturalists. Their whole interestwas concentrated on man as a member of thecommunity, and it was from consideration of thisrelation that they were brought into collision withthe established religion. Hence their attack wasfar more dangerous than that of the naturalists ;no longer was it directed against details, it laid barethe psychological basis itself of popular belief and

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 37clearly revealed its unstable character. Their criti-cism was fundamental and central, not casual andcircumstantial.From a purely practical point of view also, thecriticism of the sophists was far more dangerousthan that of the old philosophers. They were nottheorists themselves, but practitioners ; theirbusiness was to impart the higher education to themore mature youth. It was therefore part of theirprofession to disseminate their views not by meansof learned professional writings, but by the per-suasive eloquence of oral discourse. And in theircriticism of the existing state of things they did notstart with special results which only science couldprove, and the correctness of which the laymanneed not recognise ; they operated with facts andprinciples known and acknowledged by everybody.It is not to be wondered at that such efforts evokeda vigorous reaction on the part of established society,the more so as in any case the result of sophisticcriticism though not consciously its object wasto liquefy the moral principles on which the socialorder was based.

    Such, in principle, appeared to be the state ofthings. In practice, here as elsewhere, the devilproved not so black as he was painted. First, notall the sophists hardly even the majority of themdrew the logical conclusions from their views inrespect of either morals or religion. They wereteachers of rhetoric, and as such they taught, forinstance, all the tricks by which a bad cause might bedefended ; that was part of the trade. But it mustbe supposed that Gorgias, the most distinguished of

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    38 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYthem, expressly insisted that rhetoric, just like anyother art the aim of which was to defeat an opponent,should only be used for good ends. Similarly many ofthem may have stopped short in their criticism ofpopular belief at some arbitrary point, so that it waspossible for them to respect at any rate somethingof the established religion, and so, of course, firstand foremost the very belief in the existence ofthe gods. That they did not as a rule interferewith public worship, we may be sure ; that wasbased firmly on " the Law." But, in addition, evensophists who personally took an attitude radicallycontradictory to popular belief had the mostimportant reasons for being careful in advancingsuch a view. They had to live by being the teachersof youth ; they had no fixed appointment, theytravelled about as lecturers and enlisted disciplesby means of their lectures. For such men it wouldhave been a very serious thing to attack the estab-lished order in its tenderest place, religion, andabove all they had to beware of coming into conflictwith the penal laws. This risk they did not incurwhile confining themselves to theoretical discussionsabout right and wrong, nor by the practical applica-tion of them in their teaching of rhetoric ; but theymight very easily incur it if attacking religion.This being the case, it is not to be wondered atthat we do not find many direct statements ofundoubtedly atheistical character handed down fromthe more eminent sophists, and that trials forimpiety are rare in their case. But, nevertheless,a few such cases are met with, and from these asour starting-point we will now proceed.

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 39As to Protagoras of Abdera, one of the earliestand most famous of all the sophists, it is stated thathe began a pamphlet treating of the gods with thewords : " 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 manythings which prevent one from knowing that,namely, both the uncertainty of the matter and theshortness of man's life." On this account, it is said,he was charged with impiety at Athens and wasoutlawed, and his works were publicly burned. Thedate of this trial is not known for certain ; but it isreasonably supposed to have coincided with that ofDiagoras, namely, in 415. At any rate it must havetaken place after 423-421, as we know that Prota-goras was at that time staying in Athens. As hemust have been born about 485, the charge over-took him when old and famous ; according to oneaccount, his work on the gods seems to belong to hisearlier writings.To doubt the correctness of this tradition wouldrequire stronger reasons than we possess, althoughit is rather strange that the condemnation ofProtagoras is mentioned neither in our historicalsources nor in Aristophanes, and that Plato, whomentions Protagoras rather frequently as dead,never alludes to it. At any rate, the quotationfrom the work on the gods is certainly authentic,for Plato himself referred to it. Hence it iscertain that Protagoras directly stated the problemas to the existence of the gods and regarded it as anopen question. But beyond that nothing muchcan be deduced from the short quotation ; and as

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    40 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYto the rest of the book on the gods we know nothing.The meagre reasons for scepticism adduced prob-ably do not imply any more than that the diffi-culties are objective as well as subjective. If, inthe latter respect, the brevity of life is specially men-tioned it may be supposed that Protagoras had inmind a definite proof of the existence of thegods which was rendered difficult by the factthat life is so brief ; prediction of the futuremay be guessed at, but nothing certain can bestated.

    Protagoras is the only one of the sophists ofwhom tradition says that he was the object of per-secution owing to his religious views. The trial ofSocrates, however, really belongs to the same cate-gory when looked at from the accusers' point ofview ; Socrates was accused as a sophist. But ashis own attitude towards popular religion differedessentially from that of the sophists, we cannot con-sider him in this connexion. Protagoras's trialitself is partly determined by special circumstances.In all probability it took place at a moment whena violent religious reaction had set in at Athensowing to some grave offences against the publicworship and sanctuaries of the State (violation ofthe Mysteries and mutilation of the Hermae). Thework on the gods had presumably been in existenceand known long before this without causing scandalto anybody. But, nevertheless, the trial, like thoseof Anaxagoras and Socrates, plainly bears witnessto the animosity with which the modern free-thought was regarded in Athens. This animositydid not easily manifest itself publicly without

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 41special reasons ; but it was always there and mightalways be used in case of provocation.

    As to Protagoras's personal attitude to thequestion of the existence of the gods, much may beguessed and much has been guessed ; but nothingcan be stated for certain. However, judging fromthe man's profession and his general habit of lifeas it appears in tradition, we may take for grantedthat he did not give offence in his outward behaviourby taking a hostile attitude to public worship orattacking its foundations ; had that been so, he wouldnot for forty years have been the most distinguishedteacher of Hellas, but would simply not have beentolerated. An eminent modern scholar has there-fore advanced the conjecture that Protagorasdistinguished between belief and knowledge, andthat his work on the gods only aimed at showingthat the existence of the gods could not be scien-tifically demonstrated. Now such a distinctionprobably, if conceived as a conscious principle,is alien to ancient thought, at any rate at thetime of Protagoras ; and yet it may contain agrain of truth. When it is borne in mind that theincriminated passage represents the very exordiumof the work of Protagoras, the impression cannot beavoided that he himself did not intend his work todisturb the established religion, but that he quitenaively took up the existence of the gods as a sub-ject, as good as any other, for dialectic discussion.All that he was concerned with was theory andtheorising ; religion was practice and ritual ; andhe had no more intention of interfering with thatthan the other earlier sophists of assailing the legal

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    42 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYsystem of the community in their speculation as torelativity of right and wrong.

    All this, however, does not alter the fact that thework of Protagoras posed the very question ofthe existence of the gods as a problem which mightpossibly be solved in the negative. He seems tohave been the first to do this. That it could bedone is significant of the age to which Protagorasbelongs ; that it was done was undoubtedly ofgreat importance for the development of thought inwide circles.

    Prodicus of Ceos, also one of the most famoussophists, advanced the idea that the concep-tions of the gods were originally associated withthose things which were of use to humanity : sunand moon, rivers and springs, the products of theearth and the elements ; therefore bread wasidentified with Demeter, wine with Dionysus, waterwith Poseidon, fire with Hephaestus. As a specialinstance he mentioned the worship of the Nile bythe Egyptians.In Democritus, who was a slightly elder con-temporary of Prodicus, we have already met withinvestigation into the origin of the conceptions ofthe gods. There is a close parallel between hishandling of the subject and that of Prodicus, butat the same time a characteristic difference. Demo-critus was a naturalist, hence he took as his starting-point the natural phenomena commonly ascribed tothe influence of the gods. Prodicus, on the otherhand, started from the intellectual life of man. Welearn that he had commenced to study synonyms,and that he was interested in the interpretation of

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 43the poets. Now he found that Homer occasionallysimply substituted the name of Hephaestus for fire,and that other poets went even further on the samelines. Furthermore, while it was common know-ledge to every Greek that certain natural objects,such as the heavenly bodies and the rivers, wereregarded as divine and had names in common withtheir gods, this to Prodicus would be a speciallyattractive subject for speculation. It is plainlyshown by his instances that it is linguistic observa-tions of this kind which were the starting-point ofhis theory concerning the origin of the conceptionsof the gods.In the accounts of Prodicus it is taken for grantedthat he denied the existence of the gods, and inlater times he is classed as atheos. Neverthelesswe have every reason to doubt the correctness ofthis opinion. The case of Democritus already showsthat a philosopher might very well derive the con-ceptions of the gods from an incorrect interpretationof certain phenomena without throwing doubt ontheir existence. As far as Prodicus is concerned itmay be assumed that he did not believe that Bread,Wine or Fire were gods, any more than Democritusimagined that Zeus sent thunder and lightning ;nor, presumably, did he ever believe that riverswere gods. But he need not therefore have deniedthe 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 pointsin quite a different direction from that of atheism.To Prodicus it was evidently the conception ofutility that mattered : if these objects came to be

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    44 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYregarded as gods it was because they " benefitedhumanity." This too is a genuinely sophisticview, characteristically deviating from that of thenaturalist Democritus in its limitation to thehuman and social aspect of the question. Such apoint of view, if confronted with the question of theexistence of the gods, may very well, according tosophistic methods of reasoning, lead to the con-clusion that primitive man was right in so far asthe useful, i.e. that which " benefits humanity,"really is an essential feature of the gods, and wrongonly in so far as he identified the individual usefulobjects with the gods. Whether Prodicus adoptedthis point of view, we cannot possibly tell ; butthe general body of tradition concerning the man,which does not in any way suggest religious radi-calism, indicates as most probable that he did notconnect the question of the origin of the conceptionsof the gods with that of the existence of the gods,which to him was taken for granted, and that it wasonly later philosophers who, in their researches intothe ideas of earlier philosophers about the gods,inferred his atheism from his speculations on thehistory of religion.

    Critias, the well-known reactionary politician,the chief of the Thirty Tyrants, is placed amongstthe atheists on the strength of a passage in a satyricdrama, Sisyphus. The drama is lost, but ourauthority quotes the objectionable passage inextenso ; it is a piece of no less than forty lines.The passage argues that human life in its originsknew no social order, that might ruled supreme.Then men conceived the idea of making laws in

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 45order that right might rule instead of might. Theresult of this was, it is true, that wrong was not doneopenly ; but it was done secretly instead. Then awise man bethought himself of making men believethat there existed gods who saw and heard every-thing which men did, nay even knew their inner-most thoughts. And, in order that men might standin proper awe of the gods, he said that they lived inthe sky, out of which comes that which makes menafraid, such as lightning and thunder, but also thatwhich benefits them, sunshine and rain, and thestars, those fair ornaments by whose course menmeasure time. Thus he succeeded in bringing law-lessness to an end. It is expressly stated that itwas all a cunning fraud : "by such talk he madehis teaching most acceptable, veiling truth withfalse words."

    In antiquity it was disputed whether the dramaSisyphus was by Critias or Euripides ; nowadays allagree in attributing it to Critias ; nor does the styleof the long fragment resemble that of Euripides.The question is, however, of no consequence in thisconnexion : whether the drama is by Critias orEuripides it is wrong to attribute to an authoropinions which he has put into the mouth of a char-acter in a drama. Moreover, Sisyphus was a satyricplay, i.e. it belonged to a class of poetry the liberty ofwhich was nearly as great as in comedy, and thespeech was delivered by Sisyphus himself, who,according to the legend, is a type of the craftycriminal whose forte is to do evil and elude punish-ment. There is, in fact, nothing in that which weotherwise hear of Critias to suggest that he cherished

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    46 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYfree-thinking views. He was or in his later yearsbecame a fanatical adversary of the Attic demo-cracy, and he was, when he held power, unscrupulousin his choice of the means with which he opposedit and the men who stood in the path of his reaction-ary policy ; but in our earlier sources he is neveraccused of impiety in the theoretical sense. Andyet there had been an excellent opportunity ofbringing forward such an accusation ; for in hisyouth Critias had been a companion of Socrates,and his later conduct was used as a proof thatSocrates corrupted his surroundings. But it isalways Critias's political crimes which are adducedin this connexion, not his irreligion. On the otherhand, posterity looked upon him as the pure type oftyrant, and the label atheist therefore suggesteditself on the slightest provocation.

    But, even if the Sisyphus fragment cannot beused to characterise its author as an atheist, it is,nevertheless, of the greatest interest in this con-nexion, and therefore demands closer analysis.The introductory idea, that mankind hasevolved from an animal state into higher stages,is at variance with the earlier Greek conception,namely, that history begins with a golden agefrom which there is a continual decline. The theoryof the fragment is expressed by a series of authorsfrom the same and the immediately succeedingperiod. It occurs in Euripides ; a later and other-wise little-known tragedian, Moschion, developedit in detail in a still extant fragment ; Platoaccepted it and made it the basis of his presentationof the origin of the State ; Aristotle takes it for

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 47granted. Its source, too, has been demonstrated :it was presumably Democritus who first advancedit. Nevertheless the author of the fragment hashardly got it direct from Democritus, who at thistime was little known at Athens, but from anintermediary. This intermediary is probably Pro-tagoras, of whom it is said that he composed atreatise, The Original State, i.e. the primary state ofmankind. Protagoras was a fellow-townsman ofDemocritus, and recorded by tradition as one of hisdirect disciples.

    In another point also the fragment seems tobetray the influence of Democritus. When it issaid that the wise inventors of the gods made themdwell in the skies, because from the skies comethose natural phenomena which frighten men, it ishighly suggestive of Democritus's criticism of thedivine explanation of thunder and lightning and thelike. In this case also Protagoras may have beenthe intermediary. In his work on the gods he hadevery opportunity of discussing the question indetail. But here we have the theory of Democrituscombined with that of Prodicus in that it is main-tained that from the skies come also those thingsthat benefit men, and that they are on this accountalso a suitable dwelling-place for the gods. It isobvious that the author of the fragment (or hissource) was versed in the most modern wisdom.

    All this erudition, however, is made to servea certain tendency : the well-known tendency torepresent religion as a political invention havingas its object the policing of society. It is a theorywhich in antiquity to its honour be it said is but

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    48 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYof rare occurrence. There is a vague indication ofit in Euripides, a more definite one in Aristotle, andan elaborate application of it. in Polybius ; and thatis in reality all. (That many people in more en-lightened ages upheld religion as a means of keepingthe masses in check, is a different matter.) How-ever, it is an interesting fact that the Critias frag-ment is not only the first evidence of the existenceof the theory known to us, but also presumably theearliest and probably the best known to later anti-quity. Otherwise we should not find reference forthe theory made to a fragment of a farce, but to aquotation from a philosopher.This might lead us to conclude that the theorywas Critias's own invention, though, of course, itwould not follow that he himself adhered to it.But it is more probable that it was a ready-mademodern theory which Critias put into the mouthof Sisyphus. Not only does the whole characterof the fragment and its scene of action favour thissupposition, but there is also another factor whichcorroborates it.

    In the Gorgias Plato makes one of the characters,Callicles a man of whom we otherwise knownothing profess a doctrine which up to a certainpoint is almost identical with that of the fragment.According to Callicles, the natural state (and theright state ; on this point he is at variance with thefragment) is that right belongs to the strong. Thisstate has been corrupted by legislation ; the lawsare inventions of the weak, who are also the majority,and their aim is to hinder the encroachment of thestrong. If this theory is carried to its conclusion,

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 49it is obvious that religion must be added to thelaws ; if the former is not also regarded as aninvention for the policing of society, the wholetheory is upset. Now in the Gorgias the questionas to the attitude of the gods towards the problem ofwhat is right and what is wrong is carefully avoidedin 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 consequenceof his point of view : after death the gods rewardthe just and punish the unjust ; but he expresslyassumes that Callicles will regard it all as an oldwives' tale.

    In Callicles an attempt has been made to see apseudonym for Critias. That is certainly wrong.Critias was a kinsman of Plato, is introduced byname in several dialogues, nay, one dialogue evenbears his name, and he is everywhere treated withrespect and sympathy. Nowadays, therefore, it isgenerally acknowledged that Callicles is a realperson, merely unknown to us as such. Howeverthat may be, Plato would never have let a leadingcharacter in one of his longer dialogues advance(and Socrates refute) a view which had no betterauthority than a passage in a satyric drama. Onthe other hand, there is, as shown above, difficultyin supposing that the doctrine of the fragment wasstated in the writings of an eminent sophist ; so wecome to the conclusion that it was developed anddiffused in sophistic circles by oral teaching, andthat it became known to Critias and Plato in thisway. Its originator we do not know. We might

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    50 ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITYthink of the sophist Thrasymachus, who in the firstbook of Plato's Republic maintains a point of viewcorresponding to that of Callicles in Gorgias. Butwhat we otherwise learn of Thrasymachus is notsuggestive of interest in religion, and the only state-ment of his as to that kind of thing which has comedown to us tends to the denial of a providence, notdenial of the gods. Quite recently Diagoras ofMelos 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 Sisyphusfragment, it is because it is our first direct andunmistakable evidence of ancient atheism. Herefor the first time we meet with the direct statementwhich we have searched for in vain among all thepreceding authors : that the gods of popular beliefare fabrication pure and simple and without anycorresponding reality, however remote. The natureof our tradition precludes our ascertaining whethersuch a statement might have been made earlier ;but the probability is a priori that it was not. Thewhole development of ancient reasoning on religiousquestions, as far as we are able to survey it, leads inreality to the conclusion that atheism as an expressed(though perhaps not publicly expressed) confessionof faith did not appear till the age of the sophists.With the Critias fragment we have also broughtto an end the inquiry into the direct statements ofatheistic tendency which have come down to usfrom the age of the sophists. The result is, as we see,rather meagre. But it may be supplemented withindirect testimonies which prove that there wasmore of the thing than the direct tradition would

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    ATHEISM IN PAGAN ANTIQUITY 51lead us to conjecture, and that the denial of theexistence of the gods must have penetrated verywide circles.The fullest expression of Attic free-thought at theend of the fifth century is to be found in the tra-gedies of Euripides. They are leavened with re-flections on all possible moral and religious problems,and criticism of the traditional conceptions of thegods plays a leading part in them. We shall,however, have some difficulty in using Euripides as asource of what people really thought at this period,partly because he is a very pronounced personalityand by no means a mere mouthpiece for the ideasof his contemporaries during his lifetime he wasan object of the most violent animosity owing,among other things, to his free-thinking viewspartly because he, as a dramatist, was obliged toput his ideas into the mouths of his characters, sothat in many cases it is difficult to decide how muchis due to dramatic considerations and how much tothe personal opinion of the poet. Even to this daythe religious standpoint of Euripides is matter ofdispute. In the most recent detailed treatment o