Blog Archives

On The Nature of the Universe by Titus Lucretius Carus

On the Nature of the Universe (aka Of the Nature of Things) book cover, Penguin edition

The entire universe is constantly moving. Objects, images, even souls are really unending streams of atoms, eternally reconfiguring themselves. Everything contains the seeds of its own creation and destruction. No sooner have the atoms assumed a form than it starts to decay–whether that thing is a person, a world, or a universe. This is the world view of first century Epicureanism, which the poet Lucretius tried to spread to the masses by casting it in the form of a book-length philosophical poem called De Rerum Natura. As a poem, it was apparently a hit when it was published posthumously about 55 BCE (possibly after having been edited by Cicero, although this story is usually considered apocryphal). Nonetheless, Epicureanism never really took off in the Roman Empire. The claims that there was no afterlife, nothing except matter, and that the gods, if they existed, had no interaction with the world of men, held no resonance with the people. The takeaway point, that the philosopher should live simply, enjoying simple pleasures and avoiding ambition and the pursuit of wealth, was anathema to Roman society, which was, if possible, even more bourgeoisie than our own. Stoicism and Neoplatonism were the dominant philosophies of Rome, until both were replaced (and largely absorbed by) Christianity.  Epicurus, Lucretius, and their fellows were centuries before their time; it was not until Spinoza, their natural scion, rediscovered and built upon their ideas in the 16th century that Western Civilization began to seriously incorporate these ideas in its main stream of thought.

In Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante and Goethe, George Santayana writes the Epicurus was primarily a moral philosopher who adopted and adapted the natural philosophy of Democritus to support his moral platform, “Epicurus, the Herbert Spencer of antiquity, was in his natural philosophy an encyclopaedia of second-hand knowledge.”  Lucretius, on the other hand, puts the natural philosophy in the foreground in his poem, striving to present a well justified, internally consistent system–a grand unified theory, if you will. When I read it, I was surprised how many things he got right, well before his time. For instance, his understanding of air resistance is fairly sophisticated. He also correctly identified smells as being composed of tiny particles which slowly diffused through the air. He was half right when he advanced a similar explanation for light (photons sometimes behave like a particle, and sometimes like a wave depending on circumstances) but makes up for it by correctly arguing that light will move faster in a vacuum than in a medium like air or water. He also correctly identifies that the shapes of particles are an important determinant of the physical properties of substances. At times he brushes tantalizingly close to a notion of entropy.

Of course he gets plenty of things wrong, mainly because he is mistaken about some of his fundamental axioms. For instance, his anatomy suffers from the fact that he thinks the mind is lodged in the upper abdomen. He does not question that the earth is the center of the solar system. Most importantly, because he feels everything is made up of matter, he advances completely erroneous explanations for many phenomena which really involve energy. For example, he believes that lightning is a concentrated form of the kind of matter which is found in fire. He sees the human brain as being composed of a multitude of microscopic moving particles which shift around rapidly, sort of like a very complex pachinko machine.  He believes that magnets extrude microscopic fibers of iron to entangle other iron pieces. He believes that what we would call chemical bonds are caused by a physical hooking together of the shapes of atoms. Many of these errors were unavoidable, however, since he had no instruments with which to detect energy or fundamental forces. And on one level he was absolutely correct: Einstein would eventually prove, with his famous E=mc2, that everything is matter, or at least convertible into matter.

Despite these occasional quaint misconceptions, On the Nature of Things is a fascinating piece of work. To me, the epicurean viewpoint is much more intuitive that that of Plato and Aristotle, whose books I have recently been studying. I attribute this to the fact that, since my early training was in engineering, I have taken quite a few science classes in my life, so it is very easy for me to slip into the materialist/naturalist viewpoint. Then again, Spinoza–who, as I said, is the Epicureans philosophical heir–has long been one of my favorite philosophers. That being said, I find that I just can’t accept Lucretius’ contention that there is nothing beyond the material world. As fabulous and infinite as the universe (multiverse?) is, I just can’t accept that this is all there is. Lucretius seems to have been unquestioning in his atheism. For myself–even if I were not a Christian–I just find it hard to be that sure about anything.

Note About Editions:

Lucretius’ original poem was written in Latin in dactylic hexameter, a meter which isn’t compatible with English (or Latin, really–Lucretius literally couldn’t use certain words and phrases because they wouldn’t fit). English translations are either in verse or prose. The poetry translations give more of a sense of the original experience, but the prose translations are much easier to read. Project Gutenberg has William Leornards’ blank verse translation. Penguin’s prose translation (by Ronald Latham) is sold as On the Nature of the Universe. It would be preferable, of course, to read the poem in the original language, but that would require a better recollection of high school Latin than I can boast.


Role of the Philosopher in Greek and Roman Society

Lately I have been drilling down to write about specific works by individual Greek authors. It seems worthwhile, though, to break for a bit to write generally about the role of the philosopher in Hellenistic society. By “Hellenistic” I mean not only the society of Greece in Socrates’ time, but also under the Macedonians and their successors and the thoroughly Hellenized pagan Rome. Indirectly, though, since our own western civilization is itself a successor to these cultures, considering how philosophers fit into them might yield some clues about the place of intellectuals in our own society.

Greek Philosophers [photo by J.D. Falk CC BY-SA 2.0]

Greek Philosophers [photo by J.D. Falk CC BY-SA 2.0]

Many feel that philosophy was born in the work of epic poets, and no one can deny that works of Homer, at least, are laden with philosophical concepts. Philosophy and literature have always been linked. However, the first people we would consider to be philosophers, in the modern sense, all affluent men from the Ionian cities of Asia Minor. The Greek economy had evolved and society had stabilized, to the point where the upper classes had leisure to contemplate the great questions and write down their conclusions for the edification of their friends. Interest in philosophy as an aristocratic hobby soon spread to the Sicily and the Greek mainland, particularly the Attic peninsula and the newly boobing town of Athens. For generations, however, no one considered philosophy to be a career: philosophy was something one did, not something one was. The business of Greek aristocrats to govern the polis and their own estates; philosophy was nothing but an interesting distraction.

By the time of the Periclean golden age, this was beginning to change. Sophists like Protagoras and Hippias earned fame and a comfortable living by teaching practical rhetoric, spiced with philosophy, to aspiring politicians. Judging by the descriptions of them in Plato’s dialogs, they were happy to accept free room and board on their travels and “sing for their supper” by lecturing or engaging in philosophical discourse. When Socrates became interested in philosophy, probably some time in his thirties, he began seeking these men out whenever he heard they were in town. Socrates, however, was a different kind of philosopher. While he was a member of the citizen class, he never seems to have been wealthy. He came from a family of stone cutters and probably followed the trade himself as a young man. Unlike some of his aristocratic friends, he spent at least half his life as a full time philosopher. Unlike the sophists, and to the consternation of his wife Xanthippe, he never attempted to charge tuition from his students. He was always desperately poor, and is the first and most famous of many in history to choose a life of philosophical poverty.

By the time of Plato, philosophy seems to have been regarded as a legitimate career choice. Young Plato considered becoming a politician like his uncle, almost became a playwright, and finally chose to be a philosopher after being influenced by Socrates. Plato had family money and his academy itself seems to have been bought with money originally raised by his friends to rescue him when he got in trouble during an ill-advised foray into in Sicilian politics, effectively making him the first endowed chair of philosophy in Western history. Even so, it is important to draw the distinction that he was a full time philosopher from an aristocratic background, rather than an a full time aristocrat who happened to be interested in philosophy.

Socrates and Plato became the archetypes for generations of philosophers who came to Athens from all over the known world to teach and study philosophy. Some were wealthy, others much less so, but material affluence had little affect on life at the Athenian academies. John Henry Newman, The University: Its Rise and Progress (of which I recently edited a new edition) describes the entry of the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes (born about a century later than Plato) in Athens,

So now let us fancy our Scythian, or Armenian, or African, or Italian, or Gallic student, after tossing on the Saronic waves, which would be his more ordinary course to Athens, at last casting anchor at Piraeus. He is of any condition or rank of life you please, and may be made to order, from a prince to a peasant. Perhaps he is some Cleanthes, who has been a boxer in the public games. How did it ever cross his brain to betake himself to Athens in search of wisdom? or, if he came thither by accident, how did the love of it ever touch his heart? But so it was, to Athens he came with three drachmas in his girdle, and he got his livelihood by drawing water, carrying loads, and the like servile occupations. He attached himself, of all philosophers, to Zeno the Stoic—to Zeno, the most high-minded, the most haughty of speculators; and out of his daily earnings the poor scholar brought his master the daily sum of an obolus, in payment for attending his lectures. Such progress did he make, that on Zeno’s death he actually was his successor in his school; and, if my memory does not play me false, he is the author of a hymn to the Supreme Being, which is one of the noblest effusions of the kind in classical poetry. Yet, even when he was the head of a school, he continued in his illiberal toil as if he had been a monk; and, it is said, that once, when the wind took his pallium, and blew it aside, he was discovered to have no other garment at all;—something like the German student who came up to Heidelberg with nothing upon him but a great coat and a pair of pistols.

The academy of Athens continued until it was finally closed at the order of Justinian I in 529 AD. In other parts of the Greek world we find professional philosophers serving as tutors to royals and nobles, as Aristotle did to Alexander, or occasionally as state employees, such as those at the library of Alexandria under the Ptolemies. Everywhere in the East though, the philosophy was considered a respectable–if rarely lucrative–profession.

Ancient Library of Alexandria.  O. Von Corven [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Ancient Library of Alexandria. O. Von Corven [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

In Rome and the eastern Mediterranean things were somewhat different. Roman culture had been heavily influenced by Greece from a very early point. After Rome annexed the Greek mainland following the Third Macedonian War (an event Will Durant called “The Conquest By Greece”) Roman and Greek high culture became nearly indistinguishable. However, the professional philosopher never attained the same stature as in the east. Ironically, philosophy itself was extremely popular in the pagan Roman Empire. All young upper class Romans (of both sexes) were exposed to Greek philosophy as part of their education and some even studied in Athens. All individuals of cultivation were expected to have articulate opinions on philosophy. Many leading citizens identified with particular philosophic sects: most often Stoicism, but sometimes Epicureanism, Cynicism, or Neo-Platonism. Paul Veyne, in A History of Private Life From Pagan Rome to Byzantium writes about how it was fashionable for senators and even emperors to style themselves as “philosophers” and adopt the unkempt beards and simple robes of the profession, yet few or none of them actually practiced the ideals of this philosophy in their daily lives. They were far too busy holding offices, running their estates, and finding ways to become even more wealthy.

These Romans were very much like a modern American bourgeoisie who takes yoga classes and wears yoga clothes everywhere, yet doesn’t bother to integrate the teachings into her career in any way. According to Veyne, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius was actually a writing assignment, one of the “steps” of a three step self-help program.

There were professional philosophers in the Western Empire, but most of them seem to have been attached to the household staff of wealthy Romans, and at least some of them were slaves (as were many many doctors, accountants, and other professionals in Rome). As tutors to the pater familias and his children they probably had a high status relative to other household servants, but they were still poor and dependent on their patrons for protection. Those who didn’t have a patron tried to find one quickly, or else headed back East.

The one group of affluent Romans who came closest to actually practicing philosophy were the philosophical poets of the early Imperial period: particularly Lucretius, but also Horace, Virgil, and others. Clearly, there work contains much philosophy, but were they themselves philosophers? George Santayana dealt with this question in Three Philosophical Poets,

Here, I think, we have the solution to our doubt. The reasonings and investigations of philosophy are arduous, and if poetry is to be linked with them, it can be artificially only, and with a bad grace. But the vision of philosophy is sublime. The order it reveals in the world is something beautiful, tragic, sympathetic to the mind, and just what every poet, on a small or on a large scale, is always trying to catch.

[E]ven if we grant that the philosopher, in his best moments, is a poet, we may suspect that the poet has his worst moments when he tries to be a philosopher, or rather, when he succeeds in being one.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that Lucretius and his fellows did not discover any great new ideas in philosophy. Every truth which they included in their poems, no matter how beautifully and clearly, was parroted from one or another of the Greeks. There work, like Homer’s before, is great literature. It is not great philosophy.

And so, the Eastern and Western halves of the Hellenistic world had more or less similar conceptions of the amateur gentleman-philosopher, and very different ideas of the professional philosopher. In Greece and the East he became a revered academic who devoted his life to the pursuit of philosophic truth. In Rome and the West he was simply one more hanger-on of the well equipped household, almost a human fashion accessory. At this time I am not going to comment on the present status of philosophers in Western Civilization, having already run some six centuries ahead of myself in my Great Books program. I will say only that our own society’s views contain elements of both the Greek and the Roman, yet seem to be trending more towards the Roman as time passes.