On Nature, Lucretius

I haven’t read philosophy since my 20s. Without a classmates and a teacher to be accountable to, philosophy is just behind math, science and cook books on my snore setting. But a girlfriend wanted to read it so I agreed to temporarily form a book club of two and let my selfish guard down slightly. She better not flake out and not read it because it’s pretty fucking tedious. But gold mining is tedious too, and occasionally the odd nugget makes the process completely worthwhile.

Yes, I definitely learned a few things reading Lucretius’ On Nature, but truthfully I could have gone my whole life not realizing that a few brilliant men over 2,000 years ago already theorized the existence of atoms and the fact that matter contains mostly space or void. I got a little excited when I found out that Epicureans did not believe the gods created the world or cared if they were worshiped. The idea was that there are too many flaws in the world for it to have been created by a perfect divine being or beings.

I would have preferred to learn that Epicurus and his followers did not believe in the gods at all, after all, their philosophy centers around giving up fear and superstition in order to be happy during this life on earth. They believed that worship of  the gods made them better people; at least they didn’t worship because they feared punishment. They believed the gods had no interest in humans whatsoever. Venus and Mars, et al, served as inspiration; a model of perfection for which to strive. It’s like me with Cindy Crawford in the 90s; she had no idea I worked out to her exercise tape every day and wouldn’t have cared. The lunges, squats and prayers for lean thighs were for my benefit, not Cindy’s (although today the gods get royalties).

Translator Martin Ferguson Smith was only in his 20s when he translated this book in 1969. The translation is a classic and was reprinted in 2006 and again in 2011. Author Lucretius lived all the way back in 99BC and died in 55BC at the age of 44. He lived just before Julius Caesar came into power and was 20 when Spartacus led the slave revolt in Italy. He spoke both Greek and Roman and was probably well-educated from a wealthy family.

On Nature was written as a poem in six books, but the translation reads like essays. There is a lot of alliteration and metaphor throughout, sometimes to the point of silliness with the alliteration.

Lucretius believes Epicurus (born 341BC, six years after Plato’s death) was the savior of humanity because his philosophy meant to allow humans to create heaven on earth by releasing fear of death and superstition about natural occurrences. Epicurus believed our chief concerns should be developing wisdom and friendships.

Epicurus expounded on his philosophy in 37 volumes of work. Happiness, Epicureans believe, comes from self-sufficiency and freedom from disturbance (fear). Using the senses to figure out why things happen (for example, a lightening bolt has natural causes, it is not a random act of the gods) and investigating nature and behavior closely will help ease fear of death (which is mostly a fear of a horrible afterlife in Hades/hell) and retribution from the gods. You’d think over 2,000 years later mankind would have gotten the memo, even if it was written on disintegrating papyrus.

Epicurus taught that there are three criterion of truth: the senses, preconception (which is basically things you’ve sensed before that when you encounter similar circumstances reinforce the learning) and feelings (the pleasure or pain which gives more information about what is going on).

It’s a trip to find out that these guys knew the universe was infinite and made up of tiny particles which they named atoms. They got so much right, and without any technology to assist them. Just by looking at the motes of dust in a sunbeam they conjectured the tiny particles that make up everything from air to iron.

They believed, so wisely, that desires for wealth or status should be eliminated because they can never be sated and so will bring only pain. Most people think the Epicureans were hedonists because it is a materialistic philosophy, but actually they are closer to acestics because they knew that over-indulgence of anything will lead to pain ater and so should be avoided.

The Introduction very clearly lays out the six books. Book One and Two concern atoms and the void; Books Three and Four concern psychology and Books Five and Six are about the world and natural phenomena.

There are a lot of great images in the text, many of them borrowed from earlier works, but this wasn’t plagiarism, it was a way for Lucretius to connect with his audience who would have known all these references very well. My favorite is a few lines about how species change and “like runners, pass the torch of life from hand to hand.”

I also like one of his many proofs for the invisible atoms (aka particles or seeds), that of a wet garment drying in the sun. We cannot see the moisture leaving the garment, but it does and soon the garment has changed from wet to dry. The water (molecules but he calls the particles atoms) have departed.

It’s amazing what Lucretius and Co could fathom without aid of microscopes and other instruments. For example, in Book two he states that atoms are colorless and that color depends on light for its existence. On the other hand, he still believed in spontaneous generation, such as worms generating from mud.

The question that somewhat still stumps us all is, “what animates us?” What causes insensible matter to become sensible?

He also believed what I’ve always believed–that an infinite universe contains infinite worlds. when I was a kid, I stared at my desk top or into the grass on the playground and imagined the tiny worlds going on that I couldn’t see. Every mote of swirling dust was a cosmos to some tiny being. And then there’s all the possible worlds out in the vastness beyond our atmosphere.

Even back in 55 BC they thought the earth was spent; soils barren, resources feeble (page 64, regarding free radicals, aging and death). I remember a song lyric, “Every generation thinks it’s the end of the world.” He continues to write that war and conflict are a result of greed and ambition and that the wise man will not strive for power and money to avoid fear of death.

On the soul: it is made of four elements, heat, air, wind and a nameless, subtle element that causes animation. The body and soul are co-partners in life. The eyes, ears, nose and mouth are the doors with which the soul perceives the world.

Also, nice to hear for someone sober, is his argument against wine because it “confounds the spirit.”

The soul without the body could sense nothing, Lucretius writes when explaining why a fear of death is illogical. If the spirit is immortal, he asks, why is there no memory of past lives? If all the past is obliterated, it might as well be a death. You would be a new creation unattached to any past memories.

I love the lines on page 93, which could be from any modern spiritual guidebook: You continually crave what is not present and scorn what is–your life has slipped away, incomplete and  unenjoyed. An ungrateful mind is always unsatisfied.


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