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

Friday, May 29, 2009

Early Christians Speak

My last post on the growth of the early church was an essay for my Western Civilization class (Thankfully now over). While writing it I scoured my bookshelves for material and had quite a little pile of reference works on my desk. Some of them I had read before and some of them I don't plan on ever reading; however, one book is particularly handy to have around when dealing with the history of the early church. The book is Early Christians Speak: Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries by Everett Ferguson.

Although I wasn't able to glean much from it during the writing of this essay, it has been invaluable in the past. I first stumbled across it at the Simpson University library a few years ago while researching a high school paper on early Christian poetry. After that I put it on my Christmas list and received my own copy. It is more of a reference resource than something to read through. The book is divided into chapters, each one dealing with an issue of early church life and practice such as baptism, worship services, the Lord's Supper, military service, etc. The thing that makes this book great is that it is a collection of quotes. The title says it all: Early Christians Speak, not some historian almost two thousand years later. Each chapter has 10-20 relevant quotes from early church fathers and Christian apocrypha from the first three centuries. But never fear, if this seems too simple and straightforward there is also a heavily footnoted “discussion” of the material at the end of each chapter which regurgitates the information and gives some helpful historical scholarship.

A list of relevant New Testament passages are given at the beginning of each chapter so that the quotes of the fathers can be compared to them. Everett Ferguson explains in his forward that “there is, thus, a stress on historical continuity. We are talking about the same community of people, the same church, as existed in the New Testament. We are tracing out some features of its historical development through the second century” (vii). Other features of the book include a glossary, time chart, and extensive index of references.

I have not read it all but, as I mentioned before, the chapter on “Some Early Christian Hymns and Poetry” was invaluable. Other chapters I've found fascinating are: “Christian Assemblies,” “Early Worship Services,” “The Love Feast,” and “Women in the Early Church.” With each of the nineteen chapters an average of twelve pages long it is possible to get a fairly good understanding of what the early church's position on these topics were without spending a great deal of time reading and studying. Building the book around what early Christians actually said in primary documents makes this an authoritative reference. It is also interesting to hear the very words that early Christians speak.

Everett Ferguson, Early Christians speak: Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries. 3rd edition, ACU Press, Abilene, Texas, 1999.

The Spread of the Early Church

Like an unwatched fire creeping through the leaves before setting the forest on fire, the early Christian church, from unpretentious beginnings, began to threaten even the mighty Roman Empire. It began in a far-away insignificant corner of the Empire. The arsonist: a gentle man of whom it was said: “a bruised reed he would not break.” This man claimed he was God; an idea so ludicrous to the authorities of the time that they crucified him. They wrote off the lunatic without even considering the possibility that he might really be Lord. He said that his kingdom was not of this world, and by the way his first subjects acted, it would appear that he was right. His high ranking officials were fishermen and other unpretentious poor people of no account. His subjects spanned broad demographic lines, scattered across the known world. We will examine the rapid spread of Christianity in the first century A.D and some of the unsuccessful efforts by the Romans to stop the fire from spreading.

The impetus behind the spread of Christianity in the First Century was Jesus' command to his fellow Jewish followers to, “go make disciples of all nations.”1 Quickly spreading from the Middle-eastern Judea, Christianity was soon known in much of the Roman Empire. Jerusalem started out as the major center of Christianity. It was here that Jesus was crucified and here that his few disciples remained and began preaching the Gospel. The primary documents from the period show that in the days after the death of Jesus there were about a hundred and twenty Christians in Jerusalem.2 This number quickly grew till there were some five thousand Christians in Jerusalem soon after Jesus' death.3 The number continued to increase until the Jewish authorities in power became jealous of the rapidly increasing influence of this new religion.

Persecution against Christians began with the imprisonment of leading believers, called apostles. When, in rebellion to the temporal authorities, these men refused to give up their freedom of speech and instead continued to speak to others about their faith, the punishment grew more violent. Flogging and stoning along with imprisonment became common. A first century writer states that: “a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.”4

The persecution in Jerusalem had this unforeseen and ironic effect: it caused fleeing Christians to rapidly disperse over a wide area, thereby disseminating their beliefs in areas not previously acquainted with Christianity. Because of the unique message of Christianity being a fulfillment of the Jewish law and prophesies, Jews in Israel were particularly receptive to it. As Christianity continued to spread it followed the footsteps of Jews sojourning in other parts of the Roman Empire. This large and scattered diaspora of Jews—by some estimates as many Jews lived abroad as lived in Palestine5--had established synagogues in the cities and towns where they had taken up residence. Such an arrangement made it easy for Jewish Christians fleeing the persecutions in Jerusalem and other areas of the Jewish province to resettle with members of their own culture in what were considered “Gentile” cities. Christians fleeing to other parts of the Roman Empire were, therefore, missionaries from necessity as well as conviction.

Using synagogues as pulpits in many cases and reasoning from Jewish scripture that the claims of Christianity were true was an effective way to spread Christianity. To the Jews, that is. Soon though, Christianity began reaching non-Jews also. As one of the earliest examples of this, a first century history explains: “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Antioch, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.”6 The missionary activity of Paul also had a great deal to do with the expansion of Christianity beyond Jews only.

Paul must figure large in any examination of the growth and spread of Christianity. A Roman citizen but also a Jew, he had a Greek education as well as a Hebrew training. He was an apt man to persuasively bring Christianity to the attention of Jews, Greeks, and Romans. He established churches across the Mediterranean region and had a lasting influence. Yet it is an error to think that he single-handedly took Christianity across the Roman Empire. Churches in many major cities, including Rome, were already established before Paul visited, showing just how quickly Christianity spread. Indeed, “by the end of Paul's life, outposts of the new faith were flourishing from the Holy Land north to Syria and across the northern rim of the Mediterranean through Asia minor and Greece and Rome.”7

The end of Paul's life brings to mind the new trouble facing Christians about three decades after the death and resurrection of Christ. Emperor Nero in 64 A.D began a bloody persecution of the Christians living in Rome that also extended to other parts of the Empire. According to tradition, Paul was beheaded by Nero in Rome. Before this time Christians had largely escaped the notice of the Roman government. The official cause of this persecution was the fire that destroyed much of Rome. Blaming Christians was a convenient way to get rid of what was thought to be a disruptive segment of society. Christians by this time had become a nuisance to the government for their refusal to worship the Emperor; for their condemnation of Roman vice; and for considering themselves citizens of heaven first and citizens of the Roman Empire second.8 Their religion made them outsiders and potential dissidents of the state. Christians were sometimes called atheists because, “for the Romans, religion was first and foremost a social activity that promoted unity and loyalty to the state--a religious attitude the Romans called pietas, or piety.”9 By rejecting the Roman paganism, Christians were thought to be disrupting the unity of society. So while Nero was a more likely arson suspect in the burning of Rome, Christians were the perfect scapegoat.

In the first century, Christians were still very much a minority despite their explosive growth. While estimates vary, historian Edward Gibbon suggests that before the conversion of Constantine in 312, only about one in twenty Roman subjects professed Christianity. Those living in Rome at the time of Nero's persecution “did not exceed seven thousand.”10 Nevertheless, “by the year 100, it is estimated that there were already upward of 300,000 believers throughout the empire—an eight fold increase in 30 years--and of these some 80,000 were concentrated in Asia Minor.”11 Dr. Everett Ferguson reveals that the main centers of Christianity were, not surprisingly, in the main cities of the Empire: Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome. Further he says, “At the end of the first century Ephesus and the Roman province of Asia were the center of the numerical strength of the church.”12

The demographics of Christians in the first century covered a broad spectrum. Pliny the Younger reported to Emperor Trajan that Christians composed “persons of all ages and classes and of both sexes... The contagion of this superstition has spread not only in the cites but in the villages and rural districts as well.”13 Christianity was not just a religion of the poor and downtrodden, but proportionally there have always been a greater number of disadvantaged. Edward Gibbon points out that
the Christian religion,which addresses itself to the whole human race, must consequently collect a far greater number of proselytes from the lower than from the superior ranks of life. This innocent and natural circumstance has been improved [to falsely show]... that the new sect of Christians was almost entirely composed of the dregs of the populace.”14
What Gibbon and Pliny are trying to say is what Christian belief does say. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”15

Maybe it was ideas like these that gave Christianity part of its appeal. The unity and largeness of it transcended class and nationality. Everyone could become a Christian and feel they had a place. This unity was also perhaps what earned it the hatred of the established authorities. For Christians said that there was another king in another sphere, in which the Roman and Jewish rulers had no authority. No wonder it spread like wildfire and could not be contained by the Jews or Romans. When Nero set the Christians on fire to light his garden at night, he mockingly said: “now you are the light of the world,”16 not knowing that the fires he was lighting would be swallowed up in a greater spiritual fire that that would in turn swallow up the Roman Empire.

1. Matthew 28:19

2. Acts 1:15

3. Acts 4:4

4. Acts 8:1

5. Joseph L. Gardner, editor. Atlas of the Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the Holy Land. Reader's Digest Association, Inc. 1983, second edition. 205.

6. Acts 11:19-20

7. Joseph L. Gardner, editor. Atlas of the Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the Holy Land. Reader's Digest Association, Inc. 1983, second edition. 204.

8. Boise State University. “Disasters: An Ancient Persecution”. http://www.boisestate.edu/history/ncasner/hy210/nero.htm

9. Religion Facts. “Persecution in the Early Church.” http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/history/persecution.htm

10. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Edited and abridged by D. M. Low. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1960. pg.184, 187.

11. Joseph L. Gardner, editor. Atlas of the Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the Holy Land. Reader's Digest Association, Inc. 1983, second edition. 205.

12. Everett Ferguson. Early Christians Speak: Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries. A.C.U. Press, Abilene, Texas, 1999, third edition. 11.

13. Henry Bettenson, editor. Documents of the Christian Church. Oxford University Press, New York, 1960, eighth printing. 7.

14. Edward Gibbon. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Edited and abridged by D.M.Low. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1960. 187.

15. Galatians 3:28

16. Boise State University. “Disasters: An Ancient Persecution”. http://www.boisestate.edu/history/ncasner/hy210/nero.htm

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Literature in the High Middle Ages

This post and the last one are parts of a paper on the intellectual and artistic achievements of the High Middle Ages I worked on in my Western civ. class. I included the missing footnotes in my last post in case anyone cares. This fragment ends somewhat abruptly because it was part of a longer essay I worked on. You'll just have to use your imagination to envision a nice concluding paragraph that wraps the topic up.

The High Middle Ages also placed great importance on books. Medieval historian C. S. Lewis shows that culture in, “the Middle Ages depended primarily on books. Though literacy was of course far rarer then than now, reading was in one way a more important ingredient of the total culture.”1 Literature from the past—particularly Greek and Latin—was looked upon reverently by the authors of the Middle Ages. Consequently, they modeled much their own work on previously written manuscripts. They embellished familiar stories, expanded on old subjects, and wrote down the legends of their fore bearers. To lend credence to their writing, authors from the Middle Ages would often claim they got their subject from an “auctour”--an author from Greek or Roman antiquity.2

The greatest work of literature from the High Middle Ages shows this tendency. The Divine Comedy of Dante not only borrows from earlier authors but goes to the extreme of actually including the Roman poet Virgil as one of the Characters who inhabit the Inferno. All the other characters Dante meets on his dream journey are also from history or legend. There is ample space in this huge poem about the after-life to retell the well-known stories of the people he meets.

One of the most easily recognized types of literature from the High Middle Ages is the epic romance. The tales of King Arthur and the Round Table are the most famous of these. Again, the earliest authors of these stories, such as the Frenchman Christien De Troyes, did not try to claim credit for inventing the tales but tried to show that they were ancient histories with just a little embellishment. The Arthurian stories were picked up by numerous authors in the middle ages. Intellectual property rights were not what they are today nor was this "plagiarism" seen as anything but flattery. Besides the “Matter of Britain” dealing with King Arthur, numerous other romances of chivalry were written. The “Matter of France” is another cycle of stories dealing with another king; this time the French Charlemagne. Called “chanson de geste,” these epic poems written by mostly unknown authors extolled the mythical exploits of Charlemagne against the Muslim invaders of Europe in the Early Middle Ages. The Song of Roland written around 1100 3 retells the simi-historical ambush on Charlemagne's rear-guard in the pass of Rounceval.

In Northern Europe a similar body of national epic literature was being developed during the same period. The German Nibelungenlied has been compared to The Song of Roland or even the Greek Iliad.4 The tragic death of Sigfried and the terrible revenge of his wife Kriemhild set among the forests and mead-halls of Germany has been the inspiration for stories and operas even into recent times. This corpus of German literature borrows from the same legends as the thirteenth century Eddas and tales of Scandinavia.

An important development in literature during the High Middle Ages came with the troubadour poets. The troubadours wrote and performed lyrical songs--often about love. Practicing a form of oral literature, delivered much like the famous bards of antiquity, troubadours usually had a rich patron who payed a troubadour to entertain his guests although some troubadours were nobles themselves. An important aspect of troubadour poetry that is characteristic of the literature of the High Middle Ages was “courtly love.” This term is both a literary and a real life characteristic of the period. The literary meaning is a lyrical poem written to an idealized lady whom the poet loves. But C. S. Lewis points out that this poet, “is no light-hearted gallant: his love is represented as a despairing and tragical emotion.” (sic)5

1. C. S. Lewis. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. (Canto Books, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995). 5

2. Ibid. 5

3. Jackson J. Spielvogel. Western Civilization: A Brief History, 3rd. ed. (Thomson-Wadsworth, 2005). 166

4. Arthur Thomas Hatto, editor. The Nibelungenlied. (Penguin Classics, Penguin Books, 1669). 8

5. C. S. Lewis. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. (Oxford University Press, 1968). 3

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Philosophy in the High Middle Ages

The philosophy of the High Middle Ages was a mix of Aristotle and Christianity. While the Early Middle Ages were dominated by platonic thought, Aristotle's philosophical system had a resurgence in the writings of such celebrated philosophers and university teachers from the High Middle Ages as Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham. According to Paul Vincent Spade: “This 'recovery' of Aristotle in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was a momentous event in the history of medieval philosophy.”1

To understand why a Greek philosopher who died some fifteen hundred years before should have such a great influence on the philosophy of the High Middle Ages it is necessary to understand the attitude of the period to the past. Previous philosophers and writers were looked upon with near reverence. Greek and Latin authors in particular were treasured by the philosophers of Western Europe.2 These previous writers were “authorities,” whether on history, literature, science or philosophy. Albert Ascoli explains the unchallenged influence the past had on medieval intellectuals: “In the Middle Ages an “author” (Latin auctor and autor; Italian autore) was not any old writer of literature, but was instead, and against the modern definition, a person who possessed auctoritas [authority], and who might also have produced texts that were known as auctoritates.”3 He explains further that they are almost exempt from challenge and believed to have a corner on the truth.4

Unfortunately, since they considered a wide range of authors to all be right they ran into a problem. C.S. Lewis explains: “they find it hard to believe that anything an old auctor has said is simply untrue. And they inherit a very heterogeneous collection of books; Judaic, pagan, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoical, Primitive Christian, Patristic... Obviously their auctors will contradict one another.”5 Trying to remedy the blatant contradictions between the pagan philosophers and the Christian Patriarchs became the overarching goal of the philosophers in the High Middle Ages. This attempt came to be called scholasticism.

Scholasticism was not so much a philosophy itself as a framework in which to look at and compare different philosophies. The medieval mind loved to organize things so when the jumbled mass of Greek and Roman philosophy tumbled into the Christian edifice, the scholastics picked up the pieces and constructed a new building that recycled elements from both. On the one hand, points out Paul Vincent Spade, classical pagan philosophy—particularly Aristotle—was “crucial for the development of medieval philosophy.” On the other hand, Spade reveals that the early Christian philosopher Augustine from the fifth century who had such a crucial role in orthodox church doctrine was “an authority who simply had to be accommodated. He shaped medieval thought as no one else did.”6 The self-appointed task of the scholastics was to synthesize these two philosophical systems.

At this point it should be clear that philosophy during the middle ages cannot be separated from theology. The philosophers of that time were theologians and vise versa. St. Thomas Aquinas is indisputably the greatest of these philosopher churchmen. He called philosophy the handmaiden of theology. His book written in Latin called the Summa Theologiae was “the first completed attempt to establish Christian theology as a scientific discipline.”7 Aquinas's life and work was the high point of philosophy in the High Middle Ages. He embodied the thinking of the scholastics when he wrote: “it is impossible that those things which are of philosophy can be contrary to those things which are of faith.”8

Some other distinctive philosophical questions from the High Middle Ages include the problem of evil and the possibility of freewill. In addition, the High Middle Ages were famous for the development of logic that took place at this time. I. M. Bocheński, in his study on the history of logic classified this period as one of the three greatest periods in the development of logic throughout history.9

The philosophical contribution of the High Middle Ages should not be underestimated. It was one of the most sophisticated mental climates in history. Thomas Aquinas, the leading philosopher of the period, is considered one of the greatest philosophers of all time. Gorge Gracia asserts that, “In intensity, sophistication, and achievement, the philosophical flowering in the thirteenth century could be rightly said to rival the golden age of Greek philosophy in the fourth century B.C.”10

1. Paul Vincent Spade: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Medieval Philosophy.” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/medieval-philosophy/

2. Jackson J. Spielvogel Western Civilization: A Brief History, 3rd ed. (Thomson-Wadsworth, 2005). 164

3. Albert Russel Ascoli. Dante and the Making of a Modern Author. http://www.cambridge.org/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780511380464&ss=exc

4. Ibid.

5. C. S. Lewis. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. (Canto Books, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995). 11

6. Paul Vincent Spade: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Medieval Philosophy.” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/medieval-philosophy/

7. Thomas Gilby, editor. Summa Theologiae, Volume 1: The Existence of God. (Image Books, Doubleday and Company, 1969). 12

8. As quoted in Jackson J. Spielvogel. Western Civilization: A Brief History, 3rd ed. (Thomson-Wadsworth, 2005) 166

9. As cited in Paul Vincent Spade: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Medieval Philosophy.” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/medieval-philosophy/).

10. Gorge Gracia and T.B. Noone. A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages, London 2003 pg. 1

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Aura Around Marcus Aurelius

An emperor, a general, a philosopher; someone who has been described as “modest, unselfish, high-minded, and with the highest sense of duty.”1 Not many people fit this description. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius may be the only one. Born in A.D. 121, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was adopted by Emperor Antoninus so that he could succeed him as ruler of the Roman Empire. He was called one of “the good emperors.” The reason for this epithet can be seen in his philosophical memoir, Meditations.

Marcus Aurelius' Meditations were written, in a way, for himself. He addresses himself and gives himself encouragement and advice. The Meditations are “the private thoughts of a man communing with his own soul.”2 These private thoughts, however, are far from the sappy or sentimental ramblings of a diary. They are instead filled with calm reflections on man's place in the universe and how to live a virtuous, serene life. In consequence, the Meditations would appeal to any civic-minded Roman.

The document would also appeal to any Stoic. Marcus Aurelius is one of the most famous and oft quoted Stoic philosophers. The Meditations are a philosophical exploration of the principles of Stoicism. The topics covered are varied and are not really organized in any particular order. Some general categories covered are: living in harmony with nature, reason, duty, morality, and patience. For a Stoic, everything in nature is interconnected so it is important to live in harmony with it. Nature for Marcus Aurelius has a larger meaning than just physical things, it includes: “one universe made up of all things, one god who pervades all things, one substance, one law, one reason common to all intelligent beings, and one truth.”3

This interconnected order is the sum total of the universe for a Stoic. For them, and for Marcus Aurelius, the universe operates smoothly like a vast machine. All things go as planned. There are no accidents. “Everything which happens has been apportioned and spun out to you.”4 Because they believe reason is universal in humans and that there is “one law” and “one truth,” Stoics believe in certain norms of behavior from humans. While evil, too, has been fated to exist, the best way to live is according to “reason and Justice”5 Reason makes it clear what a person should, and should not, do.

The emphasis on moral laws was characteristic of Stoics in the Roman Empire. Marcus Aurelius places the foundation of a moral law on reason. This “natural law” is common to all people because—as Marcus Aurelius explains it--“If our intellectual part is common, the reason also, because of which we are rational beings, is common: if this is so, common also is the reason which commands us what to do, and what not to do; if this is so, there is a common law also.”6 This “common law” was important for a Roman because they had a high regard for law and order in society. People are social beings but when they live together they need some form of governance. If universal laws could be arrived at then all people in the world could live together in peace. Under a common law, “we are fellow-citizens; if this is so, we are members of some political community; if this is so, the world is in a manner a state. For of what other common political community will any one say that the whole human race are members?”7 The Roman Empire that spanned much of the known world in the time of Marcus Aurelius was the outgrowth of this philosophy put into practice.

Within Roman society--with its firm insistence on law and order--was the complementary emphasis on duty. Marcus Aurelius admonishes to, “every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what you have in hand with perfect and simple dignity.”8 He goes on to say that “if you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you... if you hold to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with your present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man who is able to prevent this.”9 In fact, this quote embodies the core of Stoicism; the idea that if a person does his or her duty, nothing should disturb or cause unhappiness.

Marcus Aurelius would have much to say about the hectic American lifestyle if he were alive today. Living a simple life of duty is his ideal. The easiest way to achieve tranquility is to keep a free schedule10 “For the greater part of what we say and do being unnecessary, if a man takes this away, he will have more leisure and less uneasiness. Accordingly, on every occasion a man should ask himself, is this one of the unnecessary things?”11

Although Marcus Aurelius was a hardened soldier inured to brutality and also known for persecuting Christians, this aspect of his life is not shown in the Meditations. For a pagan without divine revelation, he has a sharp perception of reality. From reading his Meditations alone it is very easy to see why he was called a “good emperor.” The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are filled with commonsense advice. His commonsense came from exercising his reason. With a right reason, he believed, would come happiness and the ability to cope with anything life threw in his way. He gives this challenge: “have you reason? I have.--Why then not use it?12

1. Donald S. Gochberg. Classics of Western Thought: The Ancient World. (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Fourth ed. 1988) 511

2. Marcus Aurelius, Thoughts. Classics of Western Thought: The Ancient World. Ed Donald S. Gochberg. (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Fourth ed. 1988) 510

3. Ibid. 511

4. Ibid. 516

5. Ibid. 516

6. Ibid. 512

7. Ibid. 512

8. Ibid. 513

9. Ibid. 514

10. Ibid. 515

11. Ibid. 515

12. Ibid. 513

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 naiveté 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