Lucretius and Wang Chong the Rational Skepticism About the Afterlife in Rome and China Term Paper

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Wang Chong and Lucretius on their beliefs of afterlife. We will also discuss how their beliefs were shaped by other philosophers of their time. Finally, we will conclude by providing an analysis of the subject matter.

Rome and Lucretius

The success of the Roman Empire is often attributed to the auspicious religious beliefs that permeated that society. A book entitled, The World of Rome, describes the thoughts of the historian Polybius who asserted that The quality in which the Roman commonwealth is most distinctly superior is in my opinion the nature of their religious convictions. I believe that what maintains the cohesion of the Roman state is the very thing which among other peoples is an object of reproach: I mean superstition... It is a course which perhaps would not have been necessary had it been possible to form a state composed of wise men, but since every multitude is fickle, full of lawless desires, unreasoned passion, and violent anger, the multitude must be held in by invisible terrors and suchlike pageantry. For this reason I think, not that the ancients acted rashly and at haphazard in introducing among the people notions concerning the gods and beliefs in the terrors of hell, but that the moderns are most rash and foolish in banishing such beliefs." (Grant 1960)

Lucretius was an influential figure in Rome but he was not an advocate of religion.

This attitude was somewhat undesirable in the Roman Empire that various religious beliefs. Lucretius believed that religion created all sorts of evil and misery. (Sloan 2001) The philosopher asserted that people simply used religion to escape reality -- he believed that religion was a method of avoidance. (Sloan 2001) He encouraged thought and believed that people should observe the world with a tranquil mind. (Sloan 2001)

He also believed that religion caused men o become confused and frustrated. He is often referred to as an atheist; however this description is somewhat inaccurate. (Sloan 2001) He did believe in gods but he did not believe that they managed events, created the universe or answered the prayers of men. (Sloan) Lucretius, who was a pupil of Epicurus, did not believe in the concept of the after life. Sloan (2001) explains Lucretius views on the fallacies of the afterlife,

Assuredly whatsoever things are fabled to exist in deep Acheron [Hades], these all exist in this life. There is no wretched Tantalus, fearing the great rock that hangs over him in the air and frozen with vain terror. Rather, it is in this life that fear of the gods oppresses mortals without cause, and the rock they fear is any that chance may bring... When people think of themselves dead, they instinctively imagine that they retain bodily sensations: "They do not see that in real death there will be no other self that lives to bewail the perished self or stands by to feel pain that they lie there lacerated, burning, or mauled by wild beasts." They fancy they will miss life's pleasures, forgetting that "no longer will any desires possess them." (Sloan 2001)

Grant (1960) asserts that although many Romans held religious convictions there was a contingent that sought philosophical guidance concerning life and purpose. Grant (1960) explains that those that were philosophically minded were minimal because philosophical inclination required a degree of self-control and self-cultivation that was beyond the reach of most men. Grant (1960) also explains that Philosophy also relied entirely on the didactic means of precept and example; its gatherings did not possess the comforting common life of the religions; its beliefs were not enshrined in sensational myths and glamorous cults; and it offered no promises for the afterlife -- indeed, no rewards at all except consciousness of right." (Grant 1960)

Indeed the Roman Age did not contribute greatly to the philosophies that had already been set forth in c. 300 BC by Aristotle and Plato. However, Lucretius was passionate about the doctrines of Epicurus and taught them with vigor. The doctrines were opposed to many of the pagan religious beliefs that were being practiced at the time. Epicurus also asserted that the only basis of knowledge was sense perception. (Grant 1960)

China and Wang Chong

Wang Chong was a Han skeptic that had some of the same beliefs as Lucretius. A book entitled, Fortune-Tellers and Philosophers: Divination in Traditional Chinese Society, explains that Chong did not believe that humans could influence or communicate with heaven. Neither did he believe in the concept of cosmic resonance nor would that heaven reward good and evil. Instead he proposed that fate was the determinant of rewards. He explains,

Man's] nature and destiny are distinct from one another, for there are persons whose natures are good and yet who meet an unlucky fate, whereas there are others whose natures are bad and yet who meet a lucky fate. The doing of good or bad depends on one's nature, but calamity or good fortune and good or bad luck depend on fate. Some people perform good deeds and yet reap calamity; this is a case where the nature is good but fate is unlucky. Others perform bad deeds and yet gain good fortune; this is a case where the nature is bad but fate is good. (Smith 1991)

Indeed some of the beliefs that Chong possessed were related to Confucianism which is deeply embedded into Chinese culture. He was certainly influenced by some of the popular beliefs of the time. Chong was also vehemently opposed to the rituals surrounding burials, the cutting of clothes, sacrifices and house building. (Smith 1991)

However, he did believe in some of the principles of yinyang/wuxing interaction and the astrology played a role in human destiny. (Smith 1991)

Unlike Lucretius, Chong did believe in the concept of the afterlife. He contended that when a person dies their spirit ascends to heaven. However he also believed that dead people do not become ghosts. He asserts that,

People who have died will not turn into ghosts," yet at the same time, he held that "when a person has died, his spirit will go to Heaven and his skeleton will return to the earth." That is to say, the human being itself includes two components -- a physical shape and spirit. Further, spirit is a temporary guest residing in this physical shape such that once a person dies, the spirit will depart the physical shape and ascend to Heaven. (Jingshan, 1995)

Indeed, Chong asserted that there was an afterlife and that individual must understand what occurs at death. Chong contends that humans are composed of two parts which include the physical and the spiritual. He contends that the spirit is only one earth temporarily. (Jingshan, 1995) Eventually, when the physical part of an individual no longer exists, the physical is taken away to heaven.

Chinese culture and philosophical beliefs shaped Chong's belief about the after life. His beliefs can be found in several different schools of thought that are present in China. These schools include Confucianism and astrology.

Analysis and Conclusion

The purpose of this discussion was to explain the different views of Wang Chong and Lucretius on their beliefs of the afterlife. We focused on the details of their beliefs of the afterlife and how they were received in their society. We also discussed how their beliefs were cultivated from the various philosophical beliefs of the time.

Our research suggests that many people that lived during the Roman age were very religious. We also found that there was a segment of the population that sought to understand life through philosophy.

Our investigation discovered that Lucretius, whose master was Epicurus, did not believe in religion or the afterlife. He asserted that heaven and hell were both on earth and that all human beings simply cease to exist and the time of their deaths. Lucretius was also vehemently opposed to religion and believed that it caused chaos and confusion. He also believed that human beings practice religion in an attempt to escape reality. Lucretius did not believe that God created the earth or that human beings could communicate with God through prayer.

Our investigation then focused on Wang Chong, who possessed some of the same ideas that Lucretius held. However his ideas about the afterlife were in total contrast to Lucretius beliefs. Chong believed that there is an afterlife and that human beings are body and spirit and that their spirit ascends at the time of death. In addition, he believed in some Confucianism principles which were prevalent in China during this time.


Berlinski, D. (2001, April). What Brings a World into Being?. Commentary, 111, 17. Retrieved May 14, 2004, from Questia database,

Grant, M. (1960). The World of Rome (1st ed.). Cleveland, OH: World Pub. Co.

Hine, W.L. (1995). Inertia and Scientific Law in Sixteenth-Century Commentaries on Lucretius. Renaissance Quarterly, 48(4), 728+. Retrieved May 14, 2004, from Questia database,

Jensen, L.M. (1997). Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions & Universal Civilization. Durham, NC:…[continue]

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