What does science have to do with how we should live? Not much, is often the official answer in our pluralist and technocratic society. We depend on science to be one of two non-overlapping magisteria, for the purpose of social harmony in a religiously diverse society that takes science as a dominating authority, at least in principle – even creationism or climate change denial needs to be couched in technological jargon for it to even pretend to be acceptable in discussion.
This attitude is the opposite of what we find in the Epicurean Lucretius, who wrote the world’s greatest science poem in the express belief that you can’t live life properly if you don’t understand the true nature of the universe. This idea is the key to making sense of what first struck me as an odd juxtaposition in two big features of Epicurean thought: the belief that life’s major goal is to maximize happiness, and the belief that the world emerges from the behavior of atoms. How are these two beliefs connected? The answer is death.
The fear of death is a major inhibitor of happiness, particularly the prospect of a punitive afterlife. Lucretius tells us that a world that seems capricious and incomprehensible, reflecting the whims of gods who must somehow be appeased, is a major source of anxiety that can be overcome by understanding how nature really is. Epicurus showed us how to defeat that anxiety:
When human life lay on the ground obscenely, in full view, Prostrate, crushed beneath the weight of Superstition, who Stretched down her head from heaven’s realms and with her ghastly gaze Loomed over mortal men, the first among them who dared raise His human eyes to her was Greek, the first man to withstand her. Neither the myths of gods, nor lightning bolts, nor threatening thunder Of heaven hindered him but, rather, all the more they fired His mind’s courage, so that he was the first man who desired To break the close-barred gates of Nature down. The vital force Of his intelligence prevailed, and he advanced his course Far past the blazing bulwarks of the world, and roamed the whole Immeasurable Cosmos in his mind and in his soul. In triumph he returns to us, and brings us back this prize: To know what things can come about, and what cannot arise, And what law limits the power of each, with deep-set boundary stone. Therefore it is the turn of Superstition to lie prone, Trod underfoot, while by his victory we reach the heavens. - A.E. Stallings translation (Penguin 2007), lines 62-79
This passage expresses one of the primary motivating ideas of this poem, and so you should keep it in mind as you read through the long passages detailing Epicurean atomic theory in Books I and II. The relationship between death and the nature of the universe is more fully developed in Book III, part of next week’s reading.
This week, I want to focus on the feature that struck me most in the first part of the poem: Lucretius’ striking knack, common to many great scientists, for asking deep questions about seemingly simple phenomena. The intellectual debates between the Epicureans and the Stoics that Lucretius discusses could easily have become a drag in this poem, but with Lucretius’s energetic imagination and eye for detail, that rarely happens.
Lucretius’ observations remind me of Darwin’s ability to raise simple questions about things we tend to take for granted. The ability to make penetrating observations is possibly related to the fact that both Darwin and Lucretius believed passionately that nature was comprehensible. Here’s Darwin in The Voyage of the Beagle:
I found the most ready way of explaining my employment was to ask them how it was that they themselves were not curious concerning earthquakes and volcanos?–why some springs were hot and others cold?–why there were mountains in Chile, and not a hill in La Plata? These bare questions at once satisfied and silenced the greater number; some, however (like a few in England who are a century behindhand), thought that all such inquiries were useless and impious; and that it was quite sufficient that God had thus made the mountains.
Lucretius asks similar questions: Why aren’t our reactions instantaneous, and what does that say about the relationship between thought and our physical bodies? What is the difference between the fire of lightning and the fire of a torch? Why does light pass through an ivory lampshade but not water, while water can seep through walls but light can’t?
It’s simple enough by reasoning of the mind for us to show Why the fire of lightning penetrates more with its flow Than fire that rises from the torches here on earth below: For you could say of lightning’s heavenly fire that it is more Delicate and made of finer particles; therefore, It passes through the openings that our earthly fire - brought To birth and fashioned out of torches made of wood - cannot. And then consider a lantern made of horn: it lets the light Pass through, while it repels the water on a stormy night. And how can this be possible unless it’s also plain That light is of a finer substance than the stuff of rain? - lines 381-390
The poem is packed with vivid details like this, giving us brief glimpses of day to day Roman life, and reinforcing what should be obvious: people have always been pretty damn smart, and even 1600+ years before what we now call the scientific revolution, people were thinking and making observations with a painstaking degree of care that would be right at home in a modern science lab.
Image credit: Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674), Vanitas via Wikimedia Commons