De Rerum Natura

Lucretius must be doing something right because as I read his only known work, the “epic poem” De Rerum Natura, I was pretty forcefully thrust into pondering everything about the universe (even if only pointed in a certain direction due to the author’s obvious error) – that feeling when you haven’t thought thoroughly about something mind-boggling, and when it hits you, your stomach drops and you almost feel a panic coming on. Despite the absurdity of some of the things going on in this poem, it provides a wealth of puzzles for an inquisitive (or simply bored) mind. However, I am somewhat disturbed by the particular translation I was reading – the Penguin Classics translation by AE Stallings, in which she has translated the poem on a “heptameter as roomy enough […] to embrace the Latin dactylic hexameter in an almost line-by-line translation.” Her choice of verse is less puzzling to me (being no expert in the matter) than her decision to make the translation rhyme. It seems almost certainly (and problematically) to be more infused and directed by the author’s translation than other works – how much of it must be her own creation! – and indeed to she admits to using “modern terminology” to express the full force of what Lucretius was writing; at least, that is her excuse – the use of such language certainly makes her rhyming endeavor more feasible.

In any case, to the content (or what I could ascertain of it from such a medium)! From a modern perspective, Lucretius is crazy. But from a scientific perspective, in some ways, he was very much ahead of his time. I’m going to return to a problem I had while reading the Epicurean excepts, namely, the issue of an infinite void and an infinite number of atoms. Lucretius (and Epicurus) claim that atoms tend downward (as do all things without an opposing force). However, in a void, all things fall at the same speed, regardless of mass or weight. So the atomic “swerve” becomes necessary, but I’ll get to that in a moment. My problem is (and please explain to me if you have an answer) how it is possible that things “tend downward” in an infinite space? In what way can we determine ‘downward’ if ‘what is’ expands infinitely in all directions? If the earth is flat (as Lucretius seems to think) is it somehow the center of the universe? How can infinity have a center? Moreover, if there is an infinite void filled with an infinite number of atoms, how can there be any actual movement? Presuming there are no boundaries (otherwise it would not be infinite), how is one to determine movement? In the atoms’ relation to each other? But how can the atoms relation to each other change in any nontrivial way if there are an infinite number of them spread out in an infinity?

Lucretius’ (and Epicurus’) partial response to this problem is an unexplained “swerve” that atoms make, a swerve that is the cause of problems even beyond its own inexplicable origin: “Another basic principle you need to have a sound; Understanding of: when bodies fall through empty space; Straight down, under their own weight, at a random time and place; They swerve a little. Just enough of a swerve for you to call; It a change of course. Unless inclined to swerve, all things would fall; Right through the deep abyss like drops of rain. There would be no; Collisions, and no atom would meet atom with a blow; And Nature thus could not have fashioned anything, full stop” (116-123). This swerve is important because the collision of atoms is – purportedly – the cause of free will and variety in the world, the cause of all things, in fact, except (presumably) of atoms themselves. Everything in the world is the result of a random swerve of an atom? It’s a truly illogical cause, and, moreover, the worst kind of cause: an inexplicable one.

In any case, Lucretius goes on to explain that variety in Nature comes because of the collisions of atoms in different shapes. Atoms have many different shapes, but not infinitely many (or, he argues, they would also be huge and we could see them). The variety in animals and sea shells and whatnot are explained by atomic collisions. Even if I allow this, there is not explanation for the variety on an atomic level. Saying that variety occurs because of collisions between atoms of certain shapes doesn’t explain why we have a variety of atomic shapes in the first place (or why they randomly collide).

Moreover, the swerve of atoms being an explanation for free will seems more an argument against this! In what way does my thinking or anything ‘will-related’ influence this inexplicable swerve and the subsequent collisions of atoms? In this case, there is no free will at all! Perhaps this was the implicit point, one that couldn’t be made explicit for fear of losing the ancient reader. Regardless, it is somewhat senseless and indefensible (the argument, if not the conclusion).

You might be wondering, as was I, why (if variety in Nature is produced by presumably random atom collisions) there is any stability in the world, such as the fact that oil will never mix with water and neither do things spontaneously combust. Lucretius doesn’t have an answer that I could find, outside of the fact that some things just don’t happen. In the same vein, we might wonder why we have things like horses and dogs and people, but not chimeras and centaurs and other unimaginable beasts. For this we have another unsatisfying explanation: atoms can only be joined in certain ways! So there are, I suppose, some atomic laws or principles which are followed, though we are never told exactly what they are, or why they are, or anything except that, well, they are.

This, of course(!), brings me to Spinoza and how I understand his concept of unactualized possibles (such as chimeras, mermaids, unicorns, etc – you should read my thesis!). I don’t have the Ethics with me, but I would point you to Part Two, the demonstration of proposition 8. His explanation (perhaps for some no better than Lucretius’) is described through a Euclidean geometrical proof. Say we have a circle, and in this circle an infinite number of lines can exist, as can an infinite number of rectangles formed by these lines. In the circle (here a metaphor for the first cause, or the self-caused cause, causa sui, i.e. God sive Nature) certain lines do actually exist and therefore so do certain rectangles; the others (which don’t actually) exist, exist only insofar as the circle exists, in the possibility that they could exist. From the first cause emanated a certain number of following causes, and this is why we have horses and not unicorns – because this is how things followed from the first cause. That’s not to say that unicorns can’t or won’t or haven’t (or even don’t, despite our knowledge) exist – the possibility of unicorns isn’t excluded (as it is for Lucretius, because things can’t join in this way), but the chain of causes in the world preclude them from currently existing (to our knowledge). This certainly seems more digestible – that things like unicorns don’t exist because the chain of causes that resulted in the world as it is now precludes them, rather than some strange atomic principle that doesn’t allow for such combinations as would create things like unicorns. That’s enough for my obligatory Spinozistic diversion.

Perhaps one of the most absurd points of Lucretius’ thought is his philosophy of the senses. For indeed, the senses can never be wrong – and in some ways I think this isn’t totally crazy, as long as we get our definitions and reasoning clear and straight. For example: “But I do not allow the eyes are ticked in this at all; Their task is only to discern where light and shadows fall; Whether the light’s the same or not, or the shadow that was here; Is one and the same with the shadow that’s now passing over there; (Or whether this effect occurs as I just now defined); Nothing can determine save the reason of the mind; Eyes can’t grasp the true nature of things. So do not claim; The fault’s with them, when really it’s the mind to blame” (379-386). This doesn’t seem so problematic as it might when we first hear that ‘the senses can never be wrong.’ If what we mean is that the senses can be wrong because they perceive what they perceive and in some kind of extreme relativism, they cannot be wrong (for indeed the world is black and white for a dog) and it is only the mind that can be mistaken, then there is some (valid or not) argument that can be made for this.

However, this is not the end, and as we move forward the problems become quite apparent. Lucretius will hold that the sun is the actual size that we see it (never mind the difference when we alter our perspective). “The magnitude of the sun appears so truly to our eyes; That this must be, with no exaggeration, actual size; […] Another matter that should not bewilder you at all; Is how the sun can give off so much light if it’s so small; Such it can make the sea, and all the lands, and skies replete; Soaking them with light and inundating them with heat.; It’s possible that from this spot wells up the artesian spring; Of light for the whole world, gushing forth and scattering” (572-598). One of the useful points about this (besides it being totally absurd), is that it reveals that there are several places where Lucretius (and the Epicureans), despite their professed devotion to reason, are sometimes lacking just that. Like the inexplicable swerve of the atoms, the size of the sun and the infallibility of the senses should have caused more pause for them. Just from our experience, we know that things look smaller when they are far away. Simply using basic calculations we can determine the sun is incredibly huge (and incredibly far away). This kind of obvious and troubling mistake leaves me feeling unsettled – either I’ve read something wrong or misunderstood the theory, or there was a huge lacuna in the application of reason to certain aspects of this philosophy.

One particular aspect of Lucretius’ philosophy I find appealing is his critique of religion and superstition. “More often, on the contrary, it is Religion breeds; Wickedness and that has given rise to wrongful deed; As when the leaders of the Greeks, those peerless peers, defiled; The Virgin’s altar with the blood of Agamemnon’s child; … All this for fair and favorable winds to sail the fleet along! -; So potent was Religion in persuading to do wrong” (83-101). For Lucretius, like for Epicurus, the point of studying physics and astronomy and psychology is so that we can remove superstition. When we understand how the world works (through reason), we stop attributing things like thunder and lightening and other events to the gods, and learn to take responsibility for ourselves. It should also, ideally, free us from the fear of death. If we aren’t concerned about eternal life, we can live well and do good in this life, and be completely indifferent to death itself – once we are dead, nothing can matter to us anymore, and from this knowledge we have a kind of freedom. I can’t say this argument persuaded me all that much – though I’m all for abolishing superstition and needless religion, I still get a shiver every time I’m riding a boda boda past a speeding, swerving, matatu.

As for Lucretius, if I am to read him again, I would want to brush up my Latin and read him that way – though I think this translation had the opportunity to be especially bad, I don’t know that any English version could do real justice to this form of physico-poem. And so it’s on to Aristotle!


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