Cosmos of the Ancients
The Greek Philosophers on Myth and Cosmology
Diagoras of Melos
ot much more is known about Diagoras of Melos (for lack of any information on the matter, I estimate his year of flourishing to 400 BC, which should only be seen as an approximation), than that he was called atheist - probably not only in the meaning 'ungodly' of that word. Athenagoras said about him, that he "made the downright assertion that god does not exist at all." Cicero states the same about him.
Cicero also tells of how a friend of Diagoras tried to convince him of the existence of the gods, by pointing out how many votive pictures tell about people being saved from storms at sea by "dint of vows to the gods", to which Diagoras replied that "there are nowhere any pictures of those who have been shipwrecked and drowned at sea." And Cicero goes on to give another example, where Diagoras was on a ship in hard weather, and the crew thought that they had brought it on themselves by taking this ungodly man onboard. He then wondered if the other boats out in the same storm also had a Diagoras onboard.
According to Sextus Empiricus he became an atheist when an enemy of his perjured himself in court and got away with it. There are some variations in other sources to this anecdote, though not changing its moral content - immorality seems to go unpunished, so how can there be any gods in the sense of watchers over human virtue?
He is said to have been a student of Democritus, who may have initiated his disbelief in the existence of the gods, and was expelled from Athens in 411 BC for his attacks on religion. Other sources claim that he was bought from slavery by Democritus in 411 BC, when Melos was captured by Alcibiades, and then became his student.
Barnes, Jonathan, The Presocratic Philosophers
, volume 2, London 1979.
Cicero, De natura deorum, 1.2, translated by H. Rackham, Loeb, London 1979.
Freeman, Kathleen, The Pre-Socratic Philosophers, Oxford 1946.
© Stefan Stenudd 2000
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