Theodorus the Atheist

Theodorus the Atheist

Theodorus ( _el. Θεόδωρος) the Atheist, of Cyrene, was a philosopher of the Cyrenaic school who lived around 300 BC. He lived in both Greece and Alexandria, before ending his days in his native city of Cyrene. As a Cyrenaic philosopher, he taught that the goal of life was to obtain joy and avoid grief, but his principal claim to fame was his alleged atheism. He was usually designated by ancient writers "Atheus" ( _el. ὁ ἄθεος), the Atheist.


Theodorus was a disciple of the younger Aristippus,Diogenes Laërtius, [ "The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, ii"] .] grandson of the elder and more celebrated Aristippus. [Suda, "Aristippos".] He heard the lectures of a number of philosophers beside Aristippus; such as Anniceris, and Dionysius the dialectician, Zeno of Citium, and Pyrrho.Suda, "Theodoros".]

He was banished from Cyrene, but for what reason is not stated; and it is from the saying recorded of him on this occasion, "Men of Cyrene, you do ill in banishing me from Cyrene to Greece", as well as from his being a disciple of Aristippus, that we infer that he was a native of Cyrene. Of his subsequent history we have no connected account; but the anecdotes of him show that he was at Athens, where he narrowly escaped being cited before the Areopagus court. The influence, however, of Demetrius Phalereus shielded him; and this incident may therefore probably be placed during Demetrius' ten years of administration at Athens, 317-307 BC. As Theodore was banished from Athens, and was afterwards in the service of Ptolemy in Egypt, it is not unlikely that he shared the overthrow and exile of Demetrius. The account of Amphicrates cited by Laërtius, that he was condemned to drink hemlock and so died, is doubtless an error. While in the service of Ptolemy, Theodore was sent on an embassy to Lysimachus, whom he offended by the freedom of his remarks. One answer which he made to a threat of crucifixion which Lysimachus had used, has been celebrated by many ancient writers (Cicero, [Cicero, "Quaest Tusc.", i. 43] Seneca [Seneca, "de Tranq. An."] , etc.): "Employ such threats to those courtiers of yours; for it matters not to Theodore whether he rots on the ground or in the air." From the court or camp of Lysimachus he returned apparently to that of Ptolemy. We read also of his going to Corinth with a number of his disciples: but this was perhaps only a transient visit during his residence at Athens. He returned at length to Cyrene, and lived there, says Diogenes Laërtius, with Marius. This Roman name is very questionable; and it is possible that we should read Magas, who was stepson of Ptolemy, and ruled over Cyrene for fifty years (from 308-258 BC), either as viceroy or king. Theodore probably ended his days at Cyrene. Various characteristic anecdotes of Theodore are preserved (Laërtius, Plutarch, [Plutarch, "De Animi Tranquill.", vii.; "De Exsilio", viii.] Philo, [Philo, "Jud. Quod omnis probus liber", c. 18, vol. ii., vol. v.] etc.), from which he appears to have been a man of keen and ready wit.


Theodore was the founder of a sect which was called after him "Theodorei" ( _el. Θεοδώρειοι), "Theodoreans." The opinions of Theodore, as we gather from the perplexed statement of Diogenes Laërtius, were of the Cyrenaic school. He taught that the great end of human life is to obtain joy and avoid grief, the one the fruit of prudence, the other of folly; that prudence and justice are good, their opposites evil; that pleasure and pain are indifferent. He made light of friendship and patriotism, and affirmed that the world was his country. He taught that there was nothing really disgraceful in theft, adultery, or sacrilege; but that they were branded only by public opinion, which had been formed in order to restrain fools. But the great charge against him was atheism. "He did away with all opinions respecting the Gods," says Laërtius, but some critics doubt whether he was absolutely an atheist, or simply denied the existence of the deities of popular belief. The charge of atheism is sustained by the popular designation of "Atheus", by the authority of Cicero, [Cicero, "de Natura Deorum", i. 1] Laërtius, Plutarch, [Plutarch, "De Placit. Philos.", i. 7] Sextus Empiricus, [Sextus Empiricus, "Pyrrhon. Hypotyp.", lib. iii.] and some Christian writers; while some others (e.g. Clement of Alexandria) [Clement of Alexandria, "Protrept. ad Gentes"] speak of him as only rejecting the popular theology.

Theodore wrote a book "On the gods" ( _el. Περὶ Θεῶν), which Laërtius who had seen it, says was not to be dismissed; and he adds that it was said to have been the source of many of the statements or arguments of Epicurus. According to the Suda he wrote many works both on the doctrines of his sect and on other subjects.

ee also

*Diagoras the Atheist
*Atheism#Classical antiquity




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