Image: Détail from l’École d’Athènes, représenting Diagoras (left) and Critias (right); 1509.
Diagoras "the Atheist of Melos” was a Greek poet and sophist of the Fifth Century BC. Throughout antiquity, he was regarded as an atheist, but very little is known for certain about what he actually believed. Anecdotes about his life indicate that he spoke out against ancient Greek religion. . . . Cicero [gave an] 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 on board. He then wondered if the other boats out in the same storm also had a Diagoras on board.
Long before the European Enlightenment and the Darwinian revolution, which we often take to mark the birth of the modern revolt against religious explanations of the world, brave people doubted the power of the gods. Religion provoked scepticism in ancient Greece, and heretics argued that history must be understood as a result of human action rather than divine intervention. They devised theories of the cosmos based on matter, and notions of matter based on atoms. They developed mathematical tools that could be applied to the world around them and tried to understand that world in material terms. Their scepticism left a rich legacy of literature, philosophy, and science and was defended by such great writers as Epicurus, Lucretius, Cicero, and Lucian.
Tim Whitmarsh tells the story of the tension between orthodoxy and heresy with great panache, a story that ended—for the moment—with the imposition of Christianity on the Roman Empire in 313 CE.