By Juan Bernal
Over two thousand years ago the Roman poet and philosopher, Lucretious (99-55 BCE), expressed a surprisingly modern philosophy, one which he got from a more ancient philosopher, the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE).
A recent book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt, recounts how the text of Lucretious’ great poem, “On the Nature of Things,” was discovered at the dawn of the Renaissance (1400s). In this poem, Lucretious developed an atomistic, materialistic view of reality, one which offers a naturalistic explanation of the world and humanity, and which denies the relevance of the gods and attacks all religions for their superstition and exploitation of fear.
The book recounts the story in which the philosophy of Lucretious was rejected and condemned by the Christian world, but also admired and valued by a few courageous early humanists. Greenblatt’s work is worth reading and has much to teach us regarding the discovery and reclamation of ancient works by scholars and humanists in the 14th and 15th centuries AD, and the extent to which Christian authorities and their ‘scholars’ repressed the philosophy of Epicurus/Lucretious.
Here I will limit myself to a summary of some of the main ideas that the poem advances.
To those not familiar with the philosophy of Epicurus (341-270 BCE), we can summarize some of it by stating that he advocated rational living, pleasure and happiness as the natural ends of life. His view of ‘pleasure’ was that it should be consistent with intelligence and moderation; he emphasized the joys of the mind over corporeal, material pleasure. Since, he accepted the atomism of Democritus, he denied the reality of gods, ghosts, and disembodied beings that survived death of the body; and he added the elements of chance, theorizing that atoms swerve into each other to combine into composite things and explain human free will.
This is the philosophy that Lucretious expresses in his poem. Some of the main points of that philosophy are summarized by Greenblatt in chapter 8, “The Way Things Are.” Here he writes that
“a charge frequently leveled against him [Lucretious], when his poem began once again to be read—is atheism. But Lucretius was not in fact an atheist. He believed that the gods existed. But he also believed that, by virtue of being gods, they could not possibly be concerned with human beings or with anything that we do.”
In short, Lucretious held that the gods were irrelevant to natural and human reality. They did not explain how the world began nor did they intervene in history and human affairs. Greenblatt also notes that
“…much of what “On the Nature of Things” claims about the universe seems deeply familiar, at least among the circle of people who are likely to be reading these words. After all, many of the work’s core arguments are among the foundations on which modern life has been constructed.”
. The point here is the astonishing extent to which the philosophy of Epicurus and Lucretious anticipates significant aspects of modern science. Consider some of the elements that constituted the Lucretian challenge (taken from Ch 8 of Greenblatt’s book, The Swerve – How the world became modern):
Everything is made of invisible particles.
The elementary particles of matter—“the seeds of the things”—are eternal. Time is not limited—a discrete substance with a beginning and an end—but infinite. The invisible particles from which the entire universe is made, from the stars to the lowliest insect, are indestructible and immortal, though any particular object in the universe is transitory.
Neither creation nor destruction ever has the upper hand; the sum total of matter remains the same, and the balance between the living and the dead is always restored:
The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size.
All particles are in motion in an infinite void.
Space, like time, is unbounded. There are no fixed points, no beginnings, middles, or ends, and no limits. Matter is not packed together in a solid mass. There is a void in things, allowing the constitutive particles to move, collide, combine, and move apart. . . .
The universe consists then of matter—the primary particles and all those particles come together to form—and space, intangible and empty. Nothing else exists.
The universe has no creator or designer. The patterns of order and disorder in the world are not the product of any divine scheme. Providence is a fantasy. What exists is not the manifestation of any overarching plan or any intelligent design inherent in matter itself. No supreme choreographer planned their movements, and the seeds of things did not have a meeting in which they decided what would go where.
There is no end or purpose to existence, only ceaseless creation and destruction, governed entirely by chance.
Nature ceaselessly experiments. There is no single moment of origin, no mythic scene of creation. All living beings, from plants and insects to the higher mammals and man, have evolved through a long, complex process of trial and error. The process involves many false starts and dead ends, monsters, prodigies, mistakes, creatures that were not endowed with all the features that they needed to compete for resources and to create offspring. Creatures whose combination of organs enables them to adapt and to reproduce will succeed in establishing themselves, until changing circumstances make it impossible for them any longer to survive. The successful adaptations, like the failures, are the result of a fantastic number of combinations that are constantly being generated (and reproduced or discarded) over an unlimited expanse of time.
The universe was not created for or about humans. The earth—with its seas and deserts, harsh climate, wild beasts, diseases—was obviously not purpose-built to make our species feel at home.
. . . The fate of the entire species (let alone that of any individual) is not the pole around which everything revolves. Indeed, there is no reason to believe that human beings as a species will last forever. On the contrary, it is clear that, over the infinite expanses of time, some species grow, others disappear, generated and destroyed in the ceaseless process of change. There were other forms of life before us, which no longer exist; there will be other forms of life after us, when our kind has vanished.
Humans are not unique. They are part of a much larger material process that links them not only to all other life forms but to inorganic matter as well. The invisible particles out of which living things, including humans, are composed are not sentient nor do they come from some mysterious source. We are made of the same stuff that everything else is made of. Humans do not occupy the privileged place in existence they imagine for themselves…
Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival. There was no original paradaisal time of plenty, as some have dreamed, in which happy, peaceful men and women, living in security and leisure, enjoyed the fruits of nature’s abundance. Early humans, lacking fire, agriculture, and other means to soften a brutally hard existence, struggled to eat and to avoid being eaten.
There may always have been some rudimentary capacity for social cooperation in the interest of survival, but the ability to form bonds and to live in communities governed by settled customs developed slowly. . . The idea that language was somehow given to humans, as a miraculous invention, is absurd. Instead, Lucretius wrote, humans, who like other animals used inarticulate cries and gestures in various situations, slowly arrived at shared sounds to designate the same things. . . . . The arts of civilization—not given to man by some divine lawmaker but painstakingly fashioned by the shared talents and mental power of the species—are accomplishments worth celebrating, but they are not unmixed blessings. They arose in tandem with the fear of the gods, the desire for wealth, the pursuit of fame and power. All of these originated in a craving for security, a craving that reaches back the earliest experiences of the human species struggling to master its natural enemies. That violent struggle—against the wild beasts that threatened human survival—was largely successful, but the anxious, acquisitive, aggressive impulses have metastasized. In consequence, human beings characteristically develop weapons that turn against themselves.
The soul dies. The human soul is made of the same material as the human body.
There is no afterlife. Humans have both consoled and tormented themselves with the thought that something awaits them after they have died. … But once you grasp that your soul dies along with your body, you also grasp that there can be no posthumous punishments or rewards. Life on this earth is all that human beings have.
Death is nothing to us. When you are dead—when the particles that have been linked together, to create and sustain you, have come apart—there will be neither pleasure nor pain, neither longing nor fear.
All organized religions are superstitious delusions. The delusions are based on deeply rooted longings, fears, and ignorance. Humans project images of the power and beauty and perfect security that they would like to possess. Fashioning their gods accordingly, they become enslaved to their own dreams.
Religions are invariably cruel. Religions always promise hope and love, but their deep, underlying structure is cruelty. This is why they are drawn to fantasies of retribution and why they inevitably stir up anxiety among their adherents. The quintessential emblem of religion—and the clearest manifestation of the perversity that lies its core—is the sacrifice of a child by a parent.
There are no angels, demons, or ghosts. Immaterial spirits of any kind do not exist.
The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain. Life should be organized to serve the pursuit of happiness. There is no ethical purpose higher than facilitating this pursuit for oneself and one’s fellow creatures.
The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion. The principal enemies of human happiness are inordinate desire—the fantasy of attaining something that exceeds what the finite mortal world allows—and gnawing fear. . . . Why are humans so unhappy? The answer, Lucretius thought, had to do with the power of the imagination. Though they are finite and mortal, humans are gripped by illusions of the infinite—infinite pleasure and infinite pain. The fantasy of infinite pain helps to account for their proneness to religion: in the misguided belief that their souls are immortal and hence potentially subject to an eternity of suffering, humans imagine that they can somehow negotiate with the gods for a better outcome, an eternity of pleasure in paradise. The fantasy of infinite pleasure helps to account for their proneness to romantic love: in the misguided belief that their happiness depends upon the absolute possession of some single object of limitless desire, humans are seized by a feverish, unappeasable hunger and thirst that can only bring anguish instead of happiness.
Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder. The realization that the universe consists of atoms and void and nothing else, that the world was not made for us by a providential creator, that we are not the center of the universe, that our emotional lives are no more distinct than our physical lives from those of all other creatures, that our souls are as material and as mortal as our bodies—all these things are not the cause for despair. On the contrary, grasping the way things really are is the crucial step toward the possibility of happiness. Human insignificance—the fact that it is not all about us and our fate—is, Lucretius insisted, the good news. It is possible for human beings to live happy lives, but not because they think that they are the center of the universe or because they the gods or because they nobly sacrifice themselves for values that purport to transcend their mortal existence. Unappeasable desire and the fear of death are the principal obstacles to human happiness, but the obstacles can be surmounted through the exercise of reason.. . . . What is needed is to refuse the lies proffered by priests and other fantasymongers and to look squarely and calmly at the true nature of things. All speculation—all science, all morality, all attempts to fashion a life worth living—must start and end with a comprehension of the invisible seeds of things: atoms and the void and nothing else.
Obviously, there is much here that anticipates modern thought: atomic physics, a natural cosmology, biological evolution, a naturalistic, physical explanation of the earth, life, and human culture, anthropological theory, secular humanism and a rejectionl of religious superstition (denial an after-life, denial of the relevance and reality of supernatural beings.) It is small wonder that Christian authorities did all they could to repress and stop publication of the poem. As Greenblatt states it:
“On the Nature of Things” is that rarest of accomplishments: a great work of philosophy that is also a great poem. . . . . . Human beings, Lucretius thought, must not drink in the poisonous belief that their souls are only part of the world temporarily and that they are heading somewhere else. That belief will only spawn in them a destructive relation to the environment in which they live the only lives that they have. These lives, like all other existing forms in the universe, are contingent and vulnerable; all things, including the earth itself, will eventually disintegrate and return to the constituent atoms from which they were composed and out of which other things will form in the perpetual dance of matter. But while we are alive, we should be filled with the deepest pleasure, for we are a small part of a vast process of world-making that Lucretius celebrated as essentially erotic.”