"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Life of Lucretius and His Lawless Outlook

Lucretius was a philosopher and poet from the first century B.C. He died around 55 B.C. still in his 40's—some say through suicide. He was a writer who, contrary to the custom of the time, withdrew from public life in Roman society and instead devoted himself to a pastoral pursuit of philosophy. Lucretius modeled much of his own philosophy on the Epicurean philosophical system. Its founder, Epicurus, was a Greek philosopher from the third century B.C. who posited that pleasure and the absence of pain are the highest good.

Lucretius was in a minority of Romans who held this view. His writings had an uphill battle to convince people that a life away from public service and any other thing that could cause worry leading to pain was to be avoided. His book De Rerum Natura (On The Nature of Things), therefore, was an apology or defense of his views to a largely skeptical audience of first century B.C. Romans. Yet the quest for happiness, so important to the Greeks and Romans, was reason enough to propel Lucretius to write. He believed that Epicureanism had a corner on happiness and he wished to proclaim this to the world. In fact, “Lucretius gave himself with missionary fervor to proclaiming Epicurus' 'liberating' gospel.”1

The mode of writing that Lucretius used to present his materialist “gospel” in the De Rerum Natura, was a long poem. It seems a strange vehicle to discuss deep matters of philosophy, but the Romans liked poetry. Just as their liberal arts schooling demanded that young Romans learn rhetoric to speak with eloquence, so they expected writers to argue eloquently and persuasively. The way it was said was just as important as what was said. This long treatise poem set forth Lucretius's views on, among other things, the physical universe, the soul, and death.

Perhaps most interesting to many today are his views on the natural world. He believed that all things were made up of tiny particles called “atoms.” The size, order, and arrangement of these atoms determined the shape and properties of all visible things. Water for instance is formed:
Of tiny round motes, adaptable
Most easily for rolling. Honey, though,
Is more cohesive, less disposed to flow,
More sluggish, for its whole supply of matter
Is more condensed; its motes are not as smooth,
As round, as delicate.2

Empty spaces or “voids” between atoms account for differences in weight and texture. His views on the elemental properties of objects, although imprecise and simplistic, do resemble modern discoveries in Chemistry in some ways.

The insights into society raised by Lucretius are not unique to Roman society in the first century B.C. Religion was a big part of their culture as it has been in all cultures. Lucretius tries to use Dawkinesque examples of how, “religion mothers crime and wickedness”3 to prove that religion is bad. He also admits that all people, “seem to feel some burden on their souls, some heavy weariness.”4 The insights into Roman society are interesting because of the insights they give us into our own society and human society in general. It is man's preoccupation with God and immortality; his attempts through studying the visible universe to explain (or explain away) the invisible parts like the soul, or God. Lucretius tries to show that humanity's inner restlessness that leaves “each one ignorant of what he wants, except a change, some other place to lay his burden down...hat[ing] himself because he does not know the reason for his sickness,” is a foolish waste of time because the sickness is imaginary and the soul will not live on after death.5 An opposing view on humanity's restlessness presented 400 years later by Augustine is that the soul is an immortal creation of God seeking its meaning from that Creator. Augustine cries out: “you have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in you.”6

What makes Lucretius so relevant today is his early advocacy of Darwinian evolution 1900 years before Darwin. His position is essentially that of evolutionary atheists like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. He imagines a world that came about purely by chance. If it is by chance then there is no need for an intelligent designer, who might go about by the name “God.” Without a god there could be no immortality of the soul, an idea that was fundamental to both previous Greco/Roman philosophy and most religions. With no immortality of the soul, upon death the particles of the body separated and that was indeed the end. This left Lucretius free of worry about what was “beyond.” There was nothing beyond. Therefore life on earth had no meaning and the best one could do was avoid pain and enjoy pleasure during the short time one was alive. One did not have to be constrained by a platonic doctrine of immortality whereby, “as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another... [and] when the pilgrim arrives in the world below, he is delivered from our earthly professors of justice, and finds the true judges who are said to give judgment there.”7 Without the fear of judgment after death restraining his actions as it did in part for Plato, Lucretius could do away with the idea of morality. Virtue, instead of being a universal reality that transcended nature, as it was for Plato, became merely whatever brought pleasure and safety to the temporary swarm of atoms called Lucretius. In other words: “since the universe is ultimately material, Lucretius believed, pleasure and pain are the only real guides of conduct.”8

While in naivetĂ© one could fail to see a problem with this, a closer inspection will show that the whole basis of law, an essential component of civil society, is compromised. Criminal law could no longer be universally applied. One's actions could always be defended on the principle that “it brought me pleasure:” “Stealing brought me pleasure;” or “murdering brought me pleasure.” Further, to abandon one's duty at the first hint of pain or danger, could not be reprimanded, because that too is perfectly natural and acceptable. In a civil society, however, it is necessary to think of others. One person's pleasure may be in the way of another person's; by Darwinian standards one will eliminate the other in a process of “survival of the fittest.” Without an objective law code outside of nature, such as Plato and other philosophers of the Western tradition have recognized, society will crumble into chaos and arbitrary force.


1. Donald S. Gochberg. Classics of Western Thought: The Ancient World. (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Fourth ed. 1988) 450

2. Lucretius. On the Nature of Things. Classics of Western Thought: The Ancient World. ed. Donald S. Gochberg (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Fourth ed. 1988) 463

3. Ibid. 452

4. Ibid. 465

5. Ibid 465-6

6. Augustine. The Confessions of St. Augustine. (Garden City, New York. Doubleday and Company, Image books, 1960) Book 1, ch. 1. pg. 43

7. Plato. Apology. Classics of Western Thought: The Ancient World. ed. Donald S. Gochberg (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Fourth ed. 1988) 312

8. Donald S. Gochberg. Classics of Western Thought: The Ancient World. (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Fourth ed. 1988) 451


David Haddon said...

You appeal to civil law and the civil order, a rather Roman thing to do. But different civil orders come up with rather different laws. Shar'ia law permits a man four wives, for example, and under the Third Reich in Germany, killing certain varieties of human beings was legal, encouraged. So you may be vulnerable to the argument from cultural relativism.

You might want to look into Natural Law arguments such as those of J. Budziszewski's "What We Can't Not Know." or his "The Revenge of Conscience" or "Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law," this last published by InterVarsity Press. I have some of these books and MHA discussions of them, not to mention exceprts from the books in "Touchstone."

Jonathan Marshall said...

I was going to make a similar point about cultural relativism, but despite that I think Brian's point stands. He's simply trying to show that the philosophy of pleasure and pain can't work in society.

If you'll allow me to delve into my world, I'll use geometry to show you what I mean.

A statement can only be considered true if it is always true. To disprove a statement, one must come up with only one counter-example. Brian has given us a great counter-example to the philosophy in question - civil law and the order of society. True, it was a very Roman thing to do, but it's also quite relevant to our modern western thought process.

Good work Brian, I enjoyed this immensely.

Brian Carpentier said...

Thank you one and all! The criticism is constructive and I, the mathophobe (is that a word?), learned something about geometry.

True, I didn't define law. A whole new post on “natural law” is in order after I've read up on it a little. I'd like to take a look at those resources some time, David, if I get the chance. I wasn't thinking of Nazi law in my post when in my last sentence I said: without law “society will crumble into chaos and arbitrary force.” For truly, Jews being dragged out of their homes at night and executed is quite the example of chaos and arbitrary force. Since I already sound like a Roman, quoting Cicero won't hurt my reputation any more. He asks, “what of the many deadly, the many pestilential statutes which nations put in force? These no more deserve to be called laws than the rules a band of robbers might pass in their assembly.” Humm. Yes, definitely another post is in order.