The star of this article is Lucretius, a Roman poet living within 1st BCE Republican Rome. What makes this poet extraordinary and quite unique is that he wrote an epic length poem not of romance, heroism, adventure or any of that sentimental claptrap but wrote a philosophical poem on that of nature. You see, Lucretius was both a poet and a philosopher who synthesised the two into his magnum opus, The Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura, in Latin) a work dedicated to Epicurean philosophy.
Typical of all works of naturalistic philosophy you will begin to notice the frequent patterns and habits that characterise it, being that of emphasising the role of the physical, the natural and the laws of physics rather than human society and culture (humanities) which is often downplayed. Lucretius is no different, right here its all physical and nothing else. All phenomena, everything, is touched with a naturalistic explanation of its origin and development, If Lucretius heard an explanation of some phenomenon caused by supernatural means (in other words, the God did it explanations) he’d tut-tut the pious person to scorn and retort:
“Mortals who can’t fathom a cause assign these explanations to divine power.”
This article is about Lucretius’ work and Epicureanism in general. I evaluate the key themes of the work and philosophy with among a copious number of quotes from Lucretius and the addition of giving that a commentary also!
Atoms And Void
For Epicurean philosophy and especially its own metaphysics, there are two fundamental features that make up reality or the universe and that being the duality of atoms and void. These two pillars of Epicurean metaphysics are the features of the universe you cannot see with the naked eye but they are the bedrock that make up all of existence and enable all the phenomenon that is known to be known.
In addition, the Epicureans believed that the universe is limitless, does not have an edge or bottom. Combine the concepts of atoms and void and you get the physical. The physical is the undivided wholeness of reality
Starting with atoms, these particles that make all (at least for baryonic matter, protons and neutrons e.g) are restless and always in motion. The atoms that make up macroscopic bodies especially, though we can’t see them with our own eyes they are always in motion too. The heat of the body is in constant motion, which is an example of kinetic energy. The atoms are the origin of all forms for, logically, without atoms there cannot be visible bodies, without visible (macroscopic) bodies there can be no shape and without shape there cannot be beauty.
The void has special meaning in Epicureanism as the enabler of all motion, which renders null the need for a supernatural mover. Whenever there is emptiness there is void since matter is absent. However because of that emptiness of space, matter moved by an outside force can occupy that space and restrict other objects from occupying that very same space. If there were no void, then all of existence would be filled ‘chock-a-block with mass’ If there were no emptiness nothing could move and everything would stand as a solid mass.
“Why, even solid things are not as dense as they appear everything is riddled with emptiness, as I’ll make clear. Take rock – through walls of stony caves, a clammy moisture seeps, and all around, the place with many drops of water weeps’ food is dispersed throughout the frames of animals. And fruits are put forth in good time by a growing tree, as it distributes nutrients through trunk and branches, from the deepest roots.”
For does not the bolus (chewed food) after being swallowed, need empty space to traverse the lumen of the digestive system in order to finally arrive at the small intestine to be finally absorbed? Or how can water move in plants from the roots to the leaves through the xylem vessels if there be no empty space? For without the void nothing can be animated. The world is not all solid; it’s alloyed with emptiness, for things are mixed of matter and of void.
Neither the atoms nor void dominate over the other in the universe but instead are interspersed. We for instance are most familiar to matter because:
- We are made of it
- We eat and respire it
- We live near large concentrations of it
While matter has mass and weight the void is absent of mass or weight and so logically an object on Earth that weighs heavier than the other has more matter amounted inside it and the other that weighs less has more void or empty space between its atoms and molecules.
We can analogise what is said above about atoms and void with the physics concept of density or in its formula format.
where ρ (lower case greek letter pronounced ‘rho’) is density, m is mass measured in kilograms(kg) and v is volume measured in cubic metres (m3)
atoms are the mass (m)
void is the volume (v)
Water has a density of 1000kg/m3 while lead has a density of about 11,340 kg/m3. So in the language of the Epicureans water has more void because it does not have as much matter in it compared to lead. Lo and behold! An atom of lead has far more matter than a molecule of water because it simply has more subatomic particles in its space.
On The Eternal
Epicurean philosophy has its own standard on what qualifies as eternal. It measures something as eternal by the things ability to be invulnerable to dividing forces, decay and change. Epicureanism states the three things that last forever:
- Atoms because by their very name comes from the Greek ‘uncuttable’ that which is exempt from division cannot decay. Atoms by being so utterly solid, shrug off any type of blow and prohibit anything from penetrating it; even that of divine power should it exist.
- The void, because it has no matter of any kind, no parts for any interaction to occur and, as Lucretius states: ‘it remains untouched by blows, and blows affect it not a bit… blows cannot ripple emptiness one jot.’
- The Universe, because it is the sum totality of everything then there’s no place beyond its ramparts. Not even its own scattered elements (which are a part of it) could go.
Lucretius gave thought to motion in its various modes of implementation, the first was motion by will of the mind. To elaborate, we can voluntarily move our skeletal muscles at will and walk wherever we are at liberty to do so. Lucretius, probably from his own observations, was inspired to speak of motion, when he saw horses galloping out at the moment the starting gates swung open:
‘How the horse’s energy, champing at the bit cannot burst free as quickly as the mind itself desires? For the whole supply of matter in the flesh must be spurned on, with a great try throughout the frame, so it can follow the yearning of the mind.’
The other mode of motion is unwilled or involuntary motion, when something shoves you from behind launching you forward, when a strong gust of wind launches you in the opposite direction, when you fall through ice on a frozen lake because of gravity dragging you down, all these mentioned are examples of unwilled motion. Motion that causes our bodies to be moved by external mass objects.
What do I say of these musing of Lucretius? Well, these categories of motion, voluntary and involuntary have a common cause; force. Force is what approves the movement of all motion, just crack open your physics textbooks. What voluntary motion is referring to in a naturalistic perspective is the workings of the somatic nervous system that division of the nervous system which enables us to voluntarily move our skeletal muscles. By the cause of our will (or cortex), a mechanical cascade of operations is played out just to contract or relax a tissue of muscle so that a purpose can be achieved.
Nothing Emerges From Nothing And Nothing Dissolves Into Nothing
Mentioned in at the beginning of the work is nature’s first principle:
“That nothings brought forth by any supernatural power our of naught.”
Everything that exists in this universe cannot come into existence from supernatural means or from spontaneous creation by means of a divine mind, nature is totally independent and so Lucretius proudly declare ‘nothing can come from nothing’
So everything needs a seed, it all emerges from a prior condition in order to be so. Look at life itself! We don’t see birds pop out of existence from clouds, nor schools of fish swimming in the fields, nor maggots from corpses, nor do we see trees take root in the clouds and nor has it been ever observed peaches, oranges and apples growing from the same fruit tree. We do see however all these things retain the nature of its parents, the physical attributes for instance which distinguishes it from other species, and behaviour of its race. Every complex thing needs its ‘seed’ to sprout, all things know a fixed allotted habitat where they can thrive and grow. From our modern eyes, the ‘seed’ for all life is DNA the instrument of inheritance and its transmission.
Moreover, we got ourselves here an ancient version of the law of conservation of mass:
“All things grow, little by little, as they ought, from a certain seed, preserving their own species as they go.”
“Thus things that seem to perish utterly, do not. See how nature refashions one thing from another and won’t allow a birth unless it’s midwived by another’s death”
The phrase ‘midwived by another’s death’ I would like to take and update to give a broader appeal to its effects
Let’s give an example of something not so much alive. We set down a pile of wood, prep the conditions for it to combust, sprinkle some oil here and there, throw the lighted match as a source of ignition and the wood begins burning. The embers slowly changing the wood into smoke, ash and maybe some charcoal if its hardwood that’s burning. The burning of the wood results in nothing being erased from existence only refashioned; the atomic constituents of the wood are only rearranged. The atoms themselves are conserved across chemical reactions but not the molecules that are just the arrangement of those atoms. Matter can never be destroyed only converted to other forms, even forms of energy in the process of being refashioned by nature’s laws.
To summarise, we see no spontaneous generation of complex organised beings in nature everything is limited by the matter that does exist and must make do with these limited building blocks.
Entropy In Antiquity
We got entropy mentioned here way before thermodynamics, throughout the books that make up this work the effect of time is often mentioned; the effect we now call entropy. Indeed, Epicurean philosophy and Lucretius especially were no strangers to the concept of entropy, although the word and modern definition is not provided, throughout the poem the effects are well explained and lauded in good delivery as a cornerstone of the doings of nature. If you could perceive all matter and note its macroscopic changes over long stretches of time the conclusion; decay and ruin… everywhere is the ‘order’ of the day.
Hither here and hear the preaching of Lucretius:
“Nature does not render anything to naught, but she instead reduces everything that she has wrought back to its elemental particles again for say that anything, in all its parts were subjects to decay then snatched of a sudden from our sight, each thing would pass away.”
“For all that can decay, devoured by the ages, should by now have passed away.”
“Year after circling year, the ring upon a finger thins from inside out with wear. The steady drip of water causes stone to hollow and yield. The curving iron of the ploughshare fritters in the field by imperceptible degrees. The cobbles of the street we see are polished smoothly by now from throngs of passing feet.”
“Thus you should not construe that heavenly bodies are immune from ruin and decay. Haven’t you seen that even rocks are conquered by time’s sway, that lofty towers are brought low, and stone crumbles away, that the Gods’ shrines and statues weaken with wear and tear and crack, nor can their holy power push the deadline of fate back or struggle against the covenants of nature?”
“Nothing turns to nothing. All things decompose back to the elemental particles from which they rose.”
The last one here is my favourite line in the poem for entropy, in its brevity it easily rolls of the tongue a fine addition to my memory of philosophical quotes.
On Mortality And The Soul
One way to know if what you are reading is materialistic/naturalistic philosophy is to spot the claim that man is not more than the sum of his parts. That the mind is what the brain does and thus physical. If you see these claims then you can be certain that you are dealing with materialist arguments.
It’s so with Lucretius that the mind or soul is physical, with difference is that they are special atoms, ‘spirit atoms’ you could say which inhabit the body and not the brain as a modern materialist might argue.
‘the nature of the mind and of the spirit is a physical one’
And with this statement Lucretius goes on to ague his point on the physicality of mind in Book 3: Mortality and the soul, I put forward summaries on what I think are his strongest arguments:
- Since actions, like propelling the limbs, can only be caused by the means of touch and what touches must be material itself, the mind and body are of the same physical nature.
- The mind and body are born together and mature together, for example, the frame of a child is weak and wobbly and the intellect of mind is soft, pliable and innocent.
- Physical pain can throw the mind off balance leading it astray from a previous state of mind to delirious cacophony, feverishly attempting to mitigate the pain for corporeal health.
- ‘If the mind can sicken and be affected by a drug [such as ingestion of alcohol, which is mentioned in the book] then that’s proof of its mortality.’
Lucretius not only argues but asks doubtful questions. Doubtful questions about the continuity of the soul/mind throughout the work (click here for a mildly amusing meme). He doubts how can something like the soul enter at birth and then leave the body at death? He says that a man does not feel the spirit making its way through the throat then out escaping from the jaws while he is dying; instead he feels his body fail at the location of the injury.
From this quote, he doubts (surprisingly), what it appears to be reincarnation
“If the nature of the soul’s immortal, and it creeps into the body as we’re born, why is it no one keeps a memory of time before, why can’t we bring to mind the deeds that we have done before, why do they leave no trace behind?”…”For if the mind has undergone a transformation vast enough to cancel out all the remembrance of things past that is a state approaching little short of death, I’d say.”
Death Is Nothing To Us
This view is a core principle in Epicureanism. When the covering of the body is unravelled and the last breath expelled so does the consciousness of minds thus death is nothing to us because ‘that in true death, no part of him will stay alive to mourn’ our liver, heart or legs etc no mourning there! None of that does any mourning or suffers pain, for pain is communicated to the cortex, to consciousness by nociceptors in the skin and viscera.
When you’re slumbering dreamlessly there is no idea of the self, no desires, no worries, no excitement etc. In this state, our sleep could last forever as far as we’re concerned void of any of our protest of never waking up again for our awareness of the passing of time is negated and no longer exists in this state and if sleep is similar to death then the only difference is death makes only the combinations of the atoms scatter just like that state of things before the living being’s life.
Here we have a series of themes throughout Lucretius’ work attacking not just religion but all forms of supernaturalism.
Religion has its own brand of wickedness
Lucretius counter-signalled the claim that impiety is amoral by arguing that religion has its own brand of wickedness. In the first book, matter and void, he condemned the killing of Iphigenia as a sacrifice for favourable winds so that Agamemnon’s fleet can sail unharmed:
“By the hands of men up to the altar, not that she be married
With solemn ceremony, to the accompanying strain
Of loud-sung bridal hymns, but as a maiden, pure of stain,
To be impurely slaughtered, at the age when she should wed,
Sorrowful sacrifice slain at her father’s hand instead.”
Which led to the statement by Lucretius:
“So potent was religion in persuading to do wrong.”
Which went on to become a famous quote by Lucretius usually criticizing theology from a moral angle.
‘The universe was not created for our sake’
From preaching of the theologians that the Gods created the universe for the purpose of man to benefit from and in return man would worship and praise the Gods sublime was rejected as claptrap by Lucretius as he cynically states here:
“For what could such immortal, blessed powers Stand to gain from any lavish gratitude of ours That they should lift a finger for us? Or what new thing transpire That could tempt being so serene before to now desire To change the life they had already? For if truth be told, Who revels in newfangledness is fed up with the old”
In other words, What did the Gods get to gain from creating mankind? Also if the Gods were already blissfully happy and tranquil, where then did they get the desire and knowledge to create mankind in the first place?
Proof of the universe not created for mankind’s benefit? Lucretius says just take a look around all the land, under the sky and see of all the mountains and trees that cover all, with dens of savage beasts that do not willingly offer themselves as supper to human beings but fight back and even hunt them! It can then be accurately said, that nature also feeds those wild beasts and not just man alone!
Moreover, look he said, on the lack of arable land that dots the surface of terra and even if there are natural arable land it is susceptible of being choked by thorns and weeds if left in a state of nature. So human beings must fight back in the form of toil and sweat with the plough to cut open the earth and turn those fertile lumps of soil so that it can be impregnated with seeds and that a crop may be procured come harvesting time. However, in spite of all this toiling labour there’s no guarantee that the cost of our sweating brow will bear food for us because ‘either the sun will scorch them, sending too much heat below, or sudden cloudbursts and the icy hoarfrost lay them low, or they are hammered by a storm when violent whirlwinds blow.’
The Earth, a dried up sterile mother
“The earth as ‘Mother Earth’, she is deserving of the name, since it was she made man and at fixed times, made every other tribe of beast that roisters across the mountainsides, together with the winged creatures of the air in every form and feather. But since there must be an end to bearing, so too with the Earth – like a woman wasted with long years, she left off giving birth. For time changes the nature of the whole world, and one must be succeeded by the next; there is not thing that stays the same. Everything flows. Nature makes everything alter, for as one thing grows feeble with old age and starts to falter, another strengthens, emerging from obscurity. So age, therefore, changes the nature of the whole world, and one stage of the Earth gives way to another; she cannot bear any more what once she could, but now brings forth what she could not before.”
Lucretius in this passage mentions ‘everything flows’ echoing the philosophy of Heraclitus who also viewed the world in a constant state of flux never stagnant and ‘one stage of the Earth gives way to another’ rings ever true of the many geological periods that this planet has traversed, for examples ice ages.
This particular passage also prompted a reply, over a thousand years later, by none other than our friend Julien Offray de La Mettrie. The philosopher physician chimes in:
“But the earth is no longer the cradle of humanity! We no longer see it producing men! Do not reproach it for its present sterility. It has produced its brood in that respect. An old hen no longer lays and an old woman no longer has children; this is more or less Lucretius’ reply to that objection.”
And I say to that, hundreds of years later, that we still do not see the Earth birthing men and beasts from its womb of soil. What a ridiculous idea creationism is and its brood spontaneous generation!
A poet’s caution
Lucretius never minded calling the earth ‘Mother of the Gods’ (Gaia), he was a poet after all, as long as we understand that the superstitious element is wrong for according to him ‘The earth is not a sentient being’ so logically it does not birth plants, like a mother, but instead it just so happens that the earth contains an ample supply of many different elements (atoms) or seeds from which things like plants arise.
Relations With Other Philosophical Schools
Besides religion, Lucretius attacks Heraclitus for suggesting that fire is the fundamental basic element from which all is made. “To claim that everything is fire, as that man claims, and that the only real thing in the universe is flames, is to be off your head.”
Stoics say that a fire with its embers rising upwards is living in accordance with its nature but the Epicureans say that fire does not cause itself to hurl up on its own rather ‘flames rise because they are squeezed up by draughts of air’
Although rivals, it seems that the Epicureans found solidarity with the Stoics in regards to status/wealth, for the path to the pinnacle of office is strewn with perils. Like lightning, envy loves to singe the summits best:
“At the apex of their climb, often envy would blast them like a thunderbolt, to fell them with disdain and hurl them in the pit of hateful Hell.”
“The greatest wealth is to live content with little, for there is never want where the mind is satisfied.”
“It matters not what luxury you possess, a fever does not cease to burn any faster when wrapped up in royal-purple sheets or in a peasant’s cloak.”
“The way to be the wealthiest of men is to eschew high living, and be contended in the mind – for there has never been a poverty of modest means”
For its time, The Nature of Things was an attempt to explain the world in a radically different way in keeping with Epicurean philosophy in stark contrast to that of the dominant narrative of religion. Epicureanism provided its own alternative narrative spearheaded by Lucretius. In Greco-Roman antiquity a pantheon of gods was responsible for natural phenomena. For example, Poseidon/Neptune was the god of the sea and all its behaviour (favourable winds) was due to him. Then this materialist philosophy comes around and says that the sea moves about because it’s a mass of atoms hitting upon one another not reliant on a divine force to move it about!
The Greco-Roman creation myths tell of the titan Prometheus gifting mankind with fire bundled with the benefits of this knowledge. In contrast, this philosophy stated, that lightning from the sky sparking a piece of wood aflame was the source of man’s discovery of fire or mankind accidentally learned how to create fire from the rubbing together of branches by friction. Fire again, it was thought, enabled the discovery of metals because after a huge forest fire burning the earth and roots to crisp revealed the metals underneath catching the eyes of witnesses by its gleaming melted figure thus it was discovered that metals could be moulded by the application of heat and the resulting utilisation of metals to craft weapons and tools. With these tools the march of civilisation really accelerated, bronze ploughs made farming work more efficient, metal axes felled trees and the iron sword felled enemies.
It was not Apollo, the god of music, that taught music to mankind but the inspirations of nature, as Lucretius here explains:
“Men whistled to imitate the warbling notes of birds a long time before they could lift their voices in melodious song pleasing to the ears. And zephyrs [gentle breezes] were the first to show, by whispering through hollow reeds, the rustics how to blow into the hollow stalks of hemlock. From this, by degrees, folk taught themselves to play the melancholy melodies which pour forth when they press the stops of flutes a music is made”
Without nature giving mankind inspiration towards music and song how could bards and poets make a living to pay the rent?
After reading this work, it seems to me that Epicureanism had its own ‘creation’ story of the world, that is from the building blocks of atoms, to man discovering new technologies by opportune acts of nature which this passage above is only the most briefest glimpse into that world. A world, lost forever from the ravages of time with most of the Epicurean works having been perished and those that do survive as fragments are most special.
The Nature of Things, however is not just special but super special. it’s all intact spanning six books and can be boasted as the rather few works of early materialist philosophy that survives and to have been well-preserved over the ages with only very few omissions. Unlike the works of Epicurus himself which are now, over the ages, only to be found in fragments here and there and several letters to his friends and students. We now have a coherent work covering all that was ever known of Epicureanism, at least in its fundamentals. Particularly those that relish Hellenistic philosophy, this is recommended primary source material for any aspiring modern philosopher!
Sources & Citations
Lucretius, The Nature of Things, Penguin Classics, 2015 edition
Epicurus, The Essential Epicurus, Prometheus Books, 1993