Ancient Atheism

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Ancient Atheism

The following is an incomplete extract from Sisyphus, an Ancient Greek satirical play. Written by either Critias (460-403 BC) or Euripides (480-406 BC).

It is one of the earliest (if not the) examples of an atheist world view. Gods are claimed to be the creations of deceitful men and used to frighten people into being docile and law-abiding.

  “A time there was when anarchy did rule
The lives of men, which then were like the beasts’,
Enslaved to force. Nor was there then reward
For good men, nor for wicked punishment.
Next, as I deem, did men establish laws
For punishment, that Justice might be lord
Of all mankind, and Insolence enchained.
And whosoe’er did sin was penalized.
Next, as the laws did hold men back from deeds
Of open violence, but still such deeds
Were done in secret, -- then, as I maintain,
Some shrewd man first, a man in counsel wise,
Discovered unto men the fear of Gods,
Thereby to frighten sinners should they sin
E’en secretly in deed, or word, or thought.
Hence was it that he brought in Deity,
Telling how God enjoys an endless life,
Hears with his mind and sees, and taketh thought
And heeds things, and his nature is divine,
So that he hearkens to men’s every word
And has the power to see men’s every act.
E’en if you plan in silence some ill deed,
The Gods will surely mark it. For in them
Wisdom resides. So, speaking words like these,
Most cunning doctrine did he introduce,
The truth concealing under speech untrue.
The place he spoke of as the God’s abode
Was that whereby he could affright men most, --
The place from which, he knew, both terrors came
And easements unto men of toilsome life --
To wit the vault above, wherein do dwell
The lightnings, he beheld, and awesome claps
Of thunder, and the starry face of heaven,
Fair-spangled by that cunning craftsman Time, --
Whence, too, the meteor’s glowing mass doth speed
And liquid rain descends upon the earth.
Such were the fears wherewith he hedged men round,
And so to God he gave a fitting home,
By this his speech, and in a fitting place,
And thus extinguished lawlessness by laws.”. . .

. . .“Thus first did some man, as I deem, persuade
Men to suppose a race of Gods exists.”


 Whenever I read this I am always torn over whether it is inspiring or disheartening. Your thoughts?

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.