For three weeks, I’ve been looking for the original source of The Problem of Evil commonly attributed to Epicurus. I found it, finally! An early Christian author and advisor to Constantine, Lactantius, wrote a piece called De Ira Dei (On the Anger of God), during which he attempts to refute Epicurus’ argument that the gods exist in perfect peace, detached from and uninterested in human affairs. Epicurus argues that the gods are ideals that we should attempt to emulate and understand through ceremony, but we should not attempt to interact with them, for they live in a harmony untouched by human vice. It’s easy to see why people commonly believed the Epicureans to be atheists, but they weren’t. Perhaps the passage that best inspires that misconception is Epicurus’ Problem of Evil:
Deus, inquit [Epicurus], aut vult tollere mala et non potest; aut et vult et potest. Si vult et non potest, imbecillis est; quod in Deum non cadit. Si potest et non vult, invidus; quod aeque alienum a Deo. Si neque vult, neque potest, et invidus et imbecillis est; ideoque neque Deus. Si vult et potest, quod solum Deo convenit, unde ergo sunt mala? Aut curilla non tollit?
God, Epicurus says, is either willing to take away evil and cannot; or he is both willing and able. If he is willing and not able, he is powerless, which does not fall into [our notion] of God. If he is able and not willing, he is malevolent; which is equally foreign of a God. If he is neither willing nor able, he is both powerless and malevolent; therefore he is not God. If he is willing and able, which alone is in accordance with God, whence, therefore, are there evils? Or why does he not lift them?
Epicurus basically argues that a powerless and malevolent God would not make sense with the common conception of divinity. If he allows evil, he cannot be God, for we were placed under His providence and forcing us to suffer would be inconsistent. Thus, God is far off, apathetic, and happy. Of course, the major hole is this: Evil isn’t necessarily bad!
Sed hoc non vidit Epicurus, nec alius quisquam; si tollantur mala, tolli pariter sapientiam, nec ulla in homine virtutis remanere vestigia, cuius ratio in sistinenda et superanda malorum acerbitate consistit.
But this man Epicurus did not see this, and nor did anyone else. If evils are lifted, wisdom is equally lifted, and not any vestiges of virtue shall remain in humanity, whose reason consists of a standing up to and an overcoming of evil through hardship.
I believe that Epicurus recognized this, since he believed in withstanding temporary evil for long-term pleasure informed by virtue. I’m gonna look up a bit more on this after I get started on this Anthropology essay… But, hey! At least I found the source!