Let’s get deep into some Lucretius, the Roman Epicurean philosopher poet. Today I want to read from “On the Nature of Things”.
* As our Alexander listeners will know, Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher
* 341–270 BCE
* established his own school, known as “the Garden”, in Athens around 300 BCE
* In the period after Alexander died
* Epicurus and his followers were known for eating simple meals and discussing a wide range of philosophical subjects, and he openly allowed women to join the school as a matter of policy.
* An extremely prolific writer, he is said to have originally written over 300 works on various subjects, but the vast majority of these writings have been lost.
* Only three letters written by him and two collections of quotes have survived intact, along with a few fragments and quotations of his other writings.
* Most knowledge of his teachings comes from later authors, particularly the Roman poet Lucretius, the biographer Diogenes Laërtius, Dickero, and the philosophers Philodemus and Sextus Empiricus.
* For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia—peace and freedom from fear— and aponia—the absence of pain— and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends.
* He taught that the root of all human neurosis is death denial, and the tendency for human beings to assume that death will be horrific and painful, which he claimed causes unnecessary anxiety, selfish self-protective behaviors, and hypocrisy.
* According to Epicurus, death is the end of both the body and the soul and therefore should not be feared.
* Likewise, Epicurus taught that the gods, though they do exist, have no involvement in human affairs and do not punish or reward people for their actions.
* Like Aristotle, Epicurus was an empiricist, meaning he believed that the senses are the only reliable source of knowledge about the world.
* He derived much of his physics and cosmology from the earlier philosopher Democritus (c.
* 460–c.370 BC).
* Like Democritus, (c. 460 – c. 370 BC), Epicurus taught that the universe is infinite and eternal and that all matter is made up of extremely tiny, invisible particles known as atoms.
* All occurrences in the natural world are ultimately the result of atoms moving and interacting in empty space.
* Epicurus deviated from Democritus in his teaching of atomic “swerve”, which holds that atoms may deviate from their expected course, thus permitting humans to possess free will in an otherwise deterministic universe.
* Epicureanism reached the height of its popularity during the late years of the Roman Republic, before declining as the rival school of Stoicism grew in popularity at its expense.
* It finally died out in late antiquity in the wake of early Christianity.
* Epicurus himself was popularly, though inaccurately, remembered throughout the Middle Ages as a patron of drunkards, whoremongers, and gluttons.
* Democritus himself was supposedly a student of Leucippus (5th cent. BCE) who was the earliest Greek to develop the theory of atomism
* Although there’s some doubt as to whether or not Leucippus actually existed
* So – Lucretius didn’t invent atomism
* But he articulated it beautifully in poetry
* And I want to read some of it
* He starts off the book with a fairly traditional ode to the goddess Venus:
* Mother of Aeneas’ sons, joy of men and gods,
* nourishing Venus, who beneath the stars
* that glide across the sky, crams full of life
* ship-bearing seas and fruitful lands—through you
* are conceived all families of living things
* which rise up to gaze upon the splendour
* of sunlight, and when you approach, goddess,
* winds and sky clouds scurry off; for your sake,
* artful earth puts forth sweet flowers; for you,
* smooth seas smile, calm sky pours glittering light,
* and once day’s face reveals the spring, winds blow
* freely from the west, bringing fertility,
* and air-born birds whose heart your power strikes
* give first signs of you, goddess, and your approach.
* But before long he he starts talking about gods and religion and how miserable people are, trying to work out what the gods want from them.
* And then he gets into how to rid ourselves of superstition by using reason.
* And so this terror, this darkness of mind,
* must be dispelled, not by rays from the sun
* or bright shafts of daylight, but by reason
* and the face of nature. And we will start
* to weave her first principle as follows:
* nothing is ever brought forth by the gods
* from nothing. That is, of course, how, through fear,
* all mortal men are held in check—they view
* many things done on earth and in the sky,
* effects whose causes they cannot see at all,
* and so they assume that such things happen
* because of gods. Hence, once we understand
* that nothing can be produced from nothing,
* then we shall more accurately follow
* what we are looking for, how everything
* can be created and all work can be done
* without any assistance from the gods.
* Then a little later he explains that if all matter broke down endlessly over time, nothing would exist.
* The world is so old, everything would have disappeared by now:
* Thus, there is no substance
* which is reduced to nothing—but all things,
* once dissolved, go back to material stuff.
* So something remains throughout time which is used to build other things.
* And then a little later he explains how things which are invisible to the naked eye can still carry a powerful force:
* First of all, the power of wind, once roused,
* lashes harbours, annihilates huge ships,
* scatters clouds. Sometimes in swift, whirling storms
* it sweeps across the plains, covering them
* with giant trees, and assaults mountain tops
* with blasts that splinter wood—that’s how fiercely
* the wind howls out in passionate anger,
* screaming and threatening with a frantic howl.
* And therefore we can have no doubt that winds,
* although invisible, are bodies, too.
* They sweep sea and land as well as sky clouds,
* jolt and ravage them with sudden whirlwinds.
* They rush on ahead and spread destruction,
* just as water, whose nature is delicate,
* suddenly carried in a flooding stream
* gorged with massive run-off from heavy rains
* down towering mountains races on, hurling
* broken branches of the trees together,
* whole trees, as well—strong bridges cannot stand
* against the sudden power of the flood
* as it charges on. In that way, swollen
* with so much rain, the river then attacks,
* with its massed, violent force, foundations
* of the bridge—with a mighty roar it spreads
* devastation, rolling immense boulders
* underneath its waves, obliterating
* whatever blocks its flow. And that, therefore,
* must be how blasts of wind are carried, too.
* When, like powerful rivers, they swoop down
* any place they wish, they drive things forward
* and pummel them with repeated onslaughts.
* Sometimes they seize things in a twisting whirl
* and carry objects instantly away
* in a spiraling vortex. That is why,
* to make the point again, winds are bodies,
* although unseen, for in the way they act
* and in what they do, we find they rival
* great streams, which clearly are material stuff. Then, too, we sense the different smells of things,
* yet never glimpse them coming to our nostrils.
* Our eyes do not perceive a fiery heat,
* nor can they see the cold. As for voices,
* we are not used to viewing them. But still,
* all must consist of corporeal stuff,
* since they can strike our senses, for unless
* there is bodily substance, no object
* can touch or itself be touched. Moreover,
* clothes hung up on a beach with breaking waves
* get wet, but these same garments, once spread out
* dry off in sunlight, yet no one has seen
* how water moisture makes its way to them
* or how, by contrast, influenced by heat,
* it escapes again. The moisture, therefore,
* is broken up in tiny particles
* our eyes cannot through any means make out.
* Then he starts to logic how everything must be made of small, invisible things:
* with many yearly solar orbits,
* a ring worn on the finger, through long use,
* wears out underneath, and dripping water
* falling from the eaves hollows out a stone;
* and on a ploughshare, the blade’s curving edge,
* though composed of iron, when used in farm land,
* thanks to some concealed effect, gets smaller.
* We know people’s feet wear down paving stones,
* and bronze statues beside the gates reveal
* that their right hands are being eroded
* by people touching them so frequently,
* when they salute them and then walk on by.
* So we see these things are getting smaller,
* as they are rubbed, but the jealous nature
* of our vision prevents our noticing
* at any moment matter moving off.
* Finally, whatever material stuff
* time and nature little by little add
* to things, forcing them gradually to grow,
* the sharpness of our straining eyes can see
* none of it, nor, once more, what wastes away
* through old age and decay. Nor can you see
* what rocks hanging by the sea and eaten
* by corrosive salt lose in each moment.
* Hence, nature works with unseen particles.
* Next he logics how all objects, no matter how solid they appear, must contain empty space:
* And then, why do we see some things weigh more
* than other things, when there is no difference
* in their size? For if in a ball of wool
* there is just as much matter as in lead,
* they should weigh the same, since material stuff
* has the property of pushing all things down,
* but, by contrast, the nature of a void
* continues on without weighing anything.
* And so, the object which is just as large
* and yet seems lighter clearly demonstrates
* that it contains in it more empty space;
* whereas, the heavier object indicates
* that it has more material stuff inside
* and far less void. Thus, there can be no doubt
* the thing which we, with our keen argument,
* are seeking out, what we describe as void,
* exists, mixed in with substantial matter.
* And so he summarises:
* we shall prove that there are seeds,
* primary elements of matter, from which,
* in the grand total of created things,
* all objects now are made.
* if material stuff had not been eternal,
* all things would have been utterly reduced
* to nothing long ago—and things we see
* would have been reborn from nothing.
* But since,
* as I have previously explained, nothing
* can be produced from nothing and, further,
* what has been produced cannot be reduced
* to nothing, then first elements must be
* made of everlasting stuff, into which,
* when its time is over, every object
* can be dissolved, so matter is produced
* for the renewal of things.
* And that’s just the beginning of Book One!
* There are FIVE books!
* He talks about the gods being separate from man and our universe, he talks about free will, soul, love, and magnets work – you name it.
* And obviously he gets a lot of stuff wrong.
* But also a lot of stuff right.
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