March 02, 2010

Lucretius On the Nature of Things

For my lit project, I read On the Nature of Things by Lucretius.

Lucretius's project in On the Nature of Things is to banish from the minds of men the fear of gods and death. Lucretius does this by showing that the Nature of Things can be explained by Atomism, atoms being indivisible bodies flying through void. Each book of the poem is devoted to different aspects of nature, and each phenomenon is explained through Atomism/materialism in various ways. A reader, thoroughly absorbed in this work, concludes that since everything can be explained by atoms, gods do not participate in nature (and remain ever-serene, happy, aloof), and since humans are atoms and the atoms dissipate when the body dies, death is nothing to us (no Hades, just nothingness). If Order and Gods cause us pain, then Chaos and Void are our balm.

So say the Epicureans. This is the only major surviving work of Epicureanism (written 200 years after Epicurus). Before reading this, I had already been aware of my affinity with Epicureanism; I was an expert, in fact ... but I need not boast of my wisdom, which should be immediate to everyone. What follows are notes on what was most banal and most bizarre in this work--

Lucretius has a grand time insulting every major philosopher and philosophy before him. The only exceptions are Epicurus, Democritus, and Parmenides (he defies the first and borrows heavily from (while lightly criticizing) the latter two). He quite happily attacks everybody else, sometimes calling them by name, other times describing their ideas without approaching their character. He likes to show why they are wrong and he is right. He loves to call them idiots*. Not even Heraclitus is safe, though I do believe Lucretius is wrong for criticizing Heraclitus for not being "logical."

"Logic" raises a most bizarre trait of Lucretius's scientific method -- he demands logical rigor from philosophy while he asserts that sense perception is the basis for all truth. Presumably this is a counter to Parmenides, who brought logical consistency to the point of utterly denying sense perception; no, say the Epicureans, this is wrong. The senses are everything, and if you see it, it must be true. The Epicureans are thus proto-scientists, but before the age of experimental testing and observation; and so Lucretius, in explaining the Nature of Things, proposes bizarre hypothesis after bizarre hypothesis, offering multiple explanations for one phenomenon insofar as the explanations do not contradict themselves (logically). The sun, for example, is as large as we see it to be, a small blazing disc traveling a vast sky; greater animals are born from lesser animals (Ancient Evolution); earthquakes happen when subterranean mountains fall; &c.

Lucretius's many explanations are sometimes aligned with modern science, sometimes totally absurd. Modern readers ought to be surprised to discover Ancient theories of atoms, evolution, and light, while explanations of magnetism, lightning, and earthquakes will undoubtedly make modern readers smile because of their whimsy and naivete. Lucretius's Ancient earnestness is hard to fault.

The poetry itself has similar highs and lows. The final 250 lines of Book III are the boldest in the book and some of the boldest in Classical Lit. "Hell does exist on earth -- in the life of fools." Lucretius argues that the hellish afterlife humans so fear is present here in life, that life is a loan, and that Wisdom is necessary to banish this fear and suffering. Only a book later, however, at the end of Book IV, Lucretius is arguing a most curious argument against sex (as a cause of pain). There is nothing in the argument I do not agree with, but I cannot help but wonder how Lucretius could fall so far.

Bold, bizarre; few words describe this poem better.

On the Nature of Things lacks Epicurean ethics. This is disappointing. What little survives of Epicurus's writings remains the definitive work on the subject. Though Ancient Natural Science is interesting in its way, Epicurean ethics is what interests me most. It is misunderstood today. People drink expensive wine and eat expensive cheese and gossip and call themselves Epicureans while Epicurus sits in his corner and nibbles bread and sips water. I always hesitate to mention Epicurus to anyone who does not know Ancient philosophy. This has ruined a perfectly awful pun which I have never dared use but have always wanted to: Epicure-Ian.

Read more about Epicurus here:
I recommend his surviving letters. Lucretius struggles to say in a poem what Epicurus says in a line. Lucretius is fine, though; everyone should read the end of Book III at least.

[*Lucretius is especially insistent about applying this to DG]


Zain said...

What do you think of Stoics and Platonists, and other such of similar sects? And how are you faring with Montaigne's views on Epicurus? I don't think he was totally against his philosophy considering that he extensively quotes Lucretius and even occasionally quotes Epicurus favorably. Though, I believe he quotes them outside of their Epicurean context. If that makes any sense.

I would have never taken you for an Epicurean. But that has nothing to do with you. It is just that I have never read anything by him. My first infatuation with philosophy was Seneca, so you can probably trace my reluctance to approach Epicurus. I will say, however, that I do plan on reading Epicurus sometime soon, because I am interested in learning why he promoted an ascetic lifestyle while arguing for the truth in senses.

Lucretius theory of hell on earth is similar to what I read from Arthur Schopenhauer, it is definitely the most insightful thought I acquired from him.

Ian said...

I have nothing to say about Stoicism or Plato or other similar sects. Unless you ask specifics, at least.

Montaigne seems favorable to Epicureanism from what I have read. He seems to take from it what he agrees with and provides reasons for what he disagrees with, as he does with Stoicism (though he is more inclined to the Stoics).

Don't take me for an Epicurean. I sympathize with Epicurus a lot and support his ethics founded in materialism, but I separate myself from Epicureanism in some key ways, I think.

Let me know if you read Epicurus.