Thursday, September 9, 2010

On the Nature of Things, Lucretius

On my recent road trip I took along some reading and didn't get done nearly enough of it. Someone needs to invent a reader that slides along book pages, scanning them and reading them out loud. That would obviate the work the good folks of Librivox are doing I know, but it would make long drives more productive.

One thing I did read was De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things, sometimes translated On the Nature of the Universe), the materialist masterpiece of antiquity which survived the Dark Ages in a single copy. In truth I scanned much of it; it's essentially an encyclopedia of Lucretius's theories about the natural world, most of which are of course wrong and seem today quaint and colored by the biases of his time, and I'm not so interested in understanding or remember those concepts. It was also translated in prose rather than verse, for which I was grateful. When I was done I donated it to a local high school library.

So what do I think is valuable about this work?

1) The reader cannot help but be impressed at the modern way of thinking that some demonstrated in Western Antiquity. Lucretius was a latter-day student of a tradition of materialism that stretched back to Democritus. It's not some artificial trapping only of the Enlightenment. Read Herodotus or Caesar's Civil War and you'll be similarly impressed by the argumentation and recognition of possible fallibility of one's own hypotheses, as well as humility in the limits of cognition. Classical thinkers were usually wrong, but they made guesses (in this case, even about cognition and epilepsy) and in the broadest sense, they were doing it right. Our current models are no doubt wrong as well in ways that we don't yet understand or can't test.

2) The following reflection relates to why scientists are so over-represented among atheists, relative to the general population. The questions that Lucretius investigates have to do with geology, history, astronomy, biology - topics that don't touch directly on human interaction or yield profit in the pursuits of daily life. What is it about the materialist worldview that correlates with an interest in these kinds of topics? Is there a causal relationship in either direction? It's almost as if humans reach a materialist understanding of the world only after becoming disinterested (to some degree) in and disentangled from the social reality of our conspecifics. This question is key to making sure rationalism and a naturalistic worldview continues to expand to people of all walks of life.

3) The finitude of life is its own reward, which is a gift that's difficult to explain to afterlife-believing theists, and which is admittedly easier to appreciate when you're a healthy 36 year old (but why make a fuss when mortality is obligatory? See how philosophical Lucretius makes you?) Consequently I particularly enjoyed this passage: "...because you ever yearn for what is not present, and despise what is, life has slipped from your grasp unfinished and unsatisfying, and or ever you thought, death has taken his stand at your pillow, before you can take your departure sated and filled with good things. Now however resign all things unsuited to your age, and with a good grace up and greatly go: you must." Page 116 here; forgive my edits to to remove the very self-conscious archaic English pronouns and verb endings.

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