In praise of Lucretius

Titus Lucretius Carus (Lucretius) was born about 1 Century BC. His six part poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) is 7400 lines of hexameter in the style of Virgil and Ovid mirroring Homer. His is hardly a household name, but when his work was (re)discovered and (re)published in 1417 by Poggio the Florentine it had major impact on the course of the Renaissance.

His ideas began a shift away from the stark asceticism of Dark Ages Christianity based on an unknowable cosmology of angels and demons toward a more materialistic and mechanistic view of the world, one knowable by observation and experiment and comfortable with pleasure. This made possible:

After the Sack of Rome by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410 C.E., the Roman Empire and its culture had turned away from knowledge, reading and writing. Cities and infrastructure fell into disrepair. There was less international exchange and trade. Regions became more isolated, schools and universities closed, and academic disciplines fell out of favor and some even disappeared (grammarians, rhetoritricians. In place of intellectual pursuits there arose a pre-occupation with invasions by barbarians

(One could draw a parallel with modern American culture, our failing infrastructure, the right wing devaluing of knowledge and science, and a focus on demonizing that which is different. I leave that pursuit to the reader.)

At its core, his poem posits a universe composed of an infinite number of particles (which he called atoms) that were indivisible and moved constantly through space, missing or colliding, combining and separating in a perpetual process of building and breaking. As this self-contained fractal process explained everything there was no God. In fact, there was neither need nor room for a God. The Planner and His Plan were replaceable by random processes, leading to natural selection as the determinant for both the universe and its living beings. Only atoms last forever.  

Such a concept of the universe, of course, is inconsistent with geocentricity, let alone anthropocentricity. It suggest the replacement of fears and superstitions with acceptance of our transience, leaving us free to truly pursue the beauty and pleasure of the world. Moral living, no longer based on adherence to traditional religious precepts, required “living prudently and honorably and justly … living courageously and temperately and magnanimously …  making friends and …  being philanthropic.”

 


 

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