The "reception" of Epicurus in media this month presents a number of references to the supposed "Epicurean paradox" directed against the idea of divine providence. In Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Part X), the thoughts are identified by Philo as Epicurean: "Epicurus's old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?" So now Dinesh D'Souza [Christianity Today]; the ever-amusing Vox Day [WorldNetDaily]*--both of whom argue against "Epicurus"; and a column by one Chris Jepson [Winter Park / Maitland (FL) Observer]--who cites Epicurus with approbation.
So what's the problem? The paradox is in fact very un-Epicurean. It is attributed to Epicurus by the Church Father Lactantius, which looks to me like the source of Hume's attribution and much of his phrasing:
...illud argumentum Epicuri. 'deus' inquit 'aut vult tollere mala et not potest, aut potest et non vult, aut neque vult neque potest, aut et vult et potest. si vult et non potest, inbecillus est, quod in deum non cadit; si potest et non vult, invidus, quod aeque alienum est a deo; si neque vult neque potest, et invidus et inbecillus est ideoque nec deus; si et vult et potest, quod solum deo convenit, unde ergo sunt mala aut cur illa non tollit?' (De Ira Dei 13.21)
But the Epicurean conception of the gods is precisely that they are perfect examples of freedom from disturbance--and paying close attention to the world to ensure its happiness would certainly count as a disturbance to be avoided rather than a sign of weakness or malignity. And of course, Epicurus claimed to believe in the gods! Hence, the assumptions of the "Epicurean paradox" do not fit Epicureanism.
Basically the same argument, however, appears in Sextus Empiricus, with no connection to Epicureanism:
...Either they both want to and can provide for all, or they want to but cannot, or they can but do not want to, or they neither want to nor can. If they both wanted to and could, then they would provide for all; but they do not provide for all, for the reason I have just given; therefore it is not the case that they both want to and can provide for all. If they want to but cannot, they are weaker than the cause in virtue of which they cannot provide for the things for which they do not provide; but it is contrary to the concept of god that a god should be weaker than anything. If they can provide for all but do not want to, they will be thought to be malign. If they neither want to nor can, they are both malign and weak--and only the impious would say this about the gods. The gods, therefore, do not provide for the things in the universe. (Outlines of Skepticism 3.10-11)
And thus the train of thought comes off more as a Skeptical response to philosophies that espoused Providence, rather than an Epicurean one. Presumably Epicurus was, for Lactantius or his source, a convenient tag for the label "atheist" and thus the attribution seemed (and still seems) plausible to many...
*Some irrelevant but also funny bits: "It's worth noting, however, that Epicurus is not believed to have ever applied his paradox to the biblical God for the very good reason that he died in 270 B.C. ... This may explain why Epicurus formulated his paradox as a justification for a philosophy of indifferent stoicism, not as a logical argument against the existence of God." [emphasis mine] Of course it is true that Lactantius, sort of as Vox Day may be thinking, does say that Epicurus used the argument to challenge the idea of Providence, not that of the existence itself of the gods...