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Diagoras the Atheist of Melos was a Greek poet and sophist of the 5th century BC. He became an atheist after an incident that happened against him went unpunished by the gods. He spoke out against the orthodox religions, and criticized the Eleusinian Mysteries. He once threw a wooden image of a god into a fire, remarking that the deity should perform another miracle and save itself.

The incident is reported in Chapter 4 of Athenagoras the Athenian's A Plea for the Christians:

As regards, first of all, the allegation that we are atheists-for I will meet the charges one by one, that we may not be ridiculed for having no answer to give to those who make them-with reason did the Athenians adjudge Diagoras guilty of atheism, in that he not only divulged the Orphic doctrine, and published the mysteries of Eleusis and of the Cabiri, and chopped up the wooden statue of Hercules to boil his turnips, but openly declared that there was no God at all. But to us, who distinguish God from matter, and teach that matter is one thing and God another, and that they are separated by a wide interval (for that the Deity is uncreated and eternal, to be beheld by the understanding and reason alone, while matter is created and perishable), is it not absurd to apply the name of atheism? If our sentiments were like those of Diagoras, while we have such incentives to piety-in the established order, the universal harmony, the magnitude, the colour, the form, the arrangement of the world-with reason might our reputation for impiety, as well as the cause of our being thus harassed, be charged on ourselves.[1]

J.M. Robertson writes on Diagoras that

It was about that time ["415 B.C."] that the poet Diagoras of Melos ["active in Athens in the last decades of the 5th cent. BC" (Ox. Classical Dict., 1996)] was proscribed for atheism, he having declared that the non-punishment of a certain act of iniquity proved that there were no Gods. It has been surmised, with some reason, that the iniquity in question was the slaughter of the Melians by the Athenians in 416 B.C., and the Athenian resentment in that case was personal and political rather than religious. For some time after 415 the Athenian courts made strenuous efforts to punish every discoverable case of impiety; and parodies of the Eleusinian mysteries (resembling the mock Masses of Catholic Europe) were alleged against Alkibiades and others. Diagoras, who was further charged with divulging the Eleusinian and other mysteries, and with making firewood of an image of Herakles, telling the god thus to perform his thirteenth labour by cooking turnips, became thenceforth one of the proverbial atheists of the ancient world, and a reward of a silver talent was offered for killing him, and of two talents for his capture alive; despite which he seems to have escaped.[2]

Diagoras has been called a student of Democritus, although some sources claim that he was bought from slavery by Democritus in 411 BC, when Melos was captured by Alcibiades, and then became his student.

The Roman philosopher Cicero, writing in the 1st century BC, 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.

The Christian writer Athenagoras of Athens (second century AD) mentions that Diagoras was punished because he "divulged the Orphic doctrine, and published the mysteries of Eleusis and of the Cabiri, and chopped up the wooden statue of Hercules to boil his turnips."[1]

Diagoras was condemned to death at Athens and a price was put on his head. He fled to Corinth, where he was said to have died.

[edit] See Also

Theodorus of Cyrene

[edit] External Links

[edit] References

  1. ^ Athenagoras the Athenian, A Plea for the Christians, Chapter 4
  2. ^ A History of Freethought, Ancient and Modern, to the Period of the French Revolution, J.M. Robertson, Fourth Edition, Revised and Expanded, In Two Volumes, Vol. I, Watts, 1936. p173 - 174
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