I have lately been perplexed about questions related to the nature of pleasure and pain and have turned to several sources in this inquiry, among them the Greek philosopher of hedonism: Epicurus. An enjoyable website, which models itself as “a modern on-line version of the Garden” writes that Epicurus helped “lay the intellectual foundations for modern science and for secular individualism... His world-view is an optimistic one that stresses that philosophy can liberate one from fears of death and the supernatural... [emphasis added].” In other parts of the website, the author writes that future Epicurean thinkers like John Locke and Isaac Newton reverted to “intellectual contortions... to make room for God in their metaphysical systems”, in opposition to “modern science and modern social organization” which do away with deity altogether. The author of this website assumes that, even if Epicurus himself was not an atheist, then his philosophy naturally lends itself and evolved into secular humanism and that the Master would surely agree with such progress.
Admittedly, I have not read all of the primary sources concerning Epicurus, but his own Letter to Menoeceus does not suggest to me that Epicurus would approve of modern secular humanism. The first thing Epicurus writes after exhorting Menoeceus to follow his teachings is, “believe that God is a living being immortal and blessed, according to the notion of a god indicated by the common sense of mankind.” Epicurus continues, “it is that the greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the hand of the gods, seeing that they are always favorable to their own good qualities and take pleasure in men like themselves, but reject as alien whatever is not of their kind.” Finally, towards the end of his letter, the first thing that Epicurus suggests a “superior” man possess is “a holy belief concerning the gods” and that he be “altogether free from the fear of death.” So, according to this letter of Epicurus’, God (or the gods) does exist though “the multitude” might not have correct beliefs about him, he punishes the ungodly and upholds the pious, and the ideal man must correctly understand God.
Hence I am puzzled that the author of the above website, as well as perhaps other contemporary Epicureans, sees Epicurus as the harbinger of atheistic/agnostic secular humanism. Even the entry in the Oxford Classical Dictionary perplexes me, which states that in the Epicurean system the gods “take no thought for this cosmos or any other” and that men should not “[expect] favours or punishments from them.” Epicurus’ own Letter to Menoeceus seems to say something different.