Last year as I was reading Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, I was struck by how much that book foreshadowed the tremendous cultural force that modern science exerts on our understanding of nature:
“As you read the Voyage, and become absorbed its imagery its grand scope, it is easy to miss what is absent. Darwin, in all of his arguments, inferences, hypotheses, and narratives of natural history, quietly refuses to ever invoke God as an explanation. The geographical distribution of animals, the causes of extinctions, the composition of the rock on mountain ranges, the layout of the vast plains of the South American Pampas, are all explained exclusively in terms of natural processes…Darwin and his fellow scientists infer majestic stories of our origin and that of the world around us, stories that have now largely supplanted the competing stories of other major belief systems in our society.”
2,000 years ago, Lucretius was working at a similar project, except that his refusal to invoke divinity as an explanation was anything but quiet. In book V of The Nature of Things, “Cosmos and Civilization”, Lucretius presents a materialist creation story, which he specifically contrasts with a belief in creation by will of the gods:
I shall explain as well how Nature, at the rudder, steers The movements of the moon, the course on which the sun careers, Lest we perhaps suppose between earth and sky they go Traversing their yearly pilgrimage because they will it so… For even those who are well versed in how gods live without Care and strife, if they start wondering how things come about, Especially those events that they see happening overhead In heaven's regions, backslide into superstitious dread. - Book V, lines 76-79, 82-85
Lucretius proceeds to give thoroughly materialist explanations of a series of births: the birth of the earth, the sun, and the moon and the birth of human society out of brutish groups of hunter-gatherers. He also describes the birth of new species in the early age of the earth, which is announced in one of the most memorable lines of Stallings’ translation: “In the beginning, there were many freaks”.
In his account of how various living species come about, Lucretius needs an explanation that does two things: 1) account for the adaptation of organisms to their environment, without invoking the intentions of the gods, and 2) make sense of the robustness of heredity – goats don’t give birth to sheep, etc. His solution is a kind of natural selection of fixed species. In its early days, earth spontaneously produced new life forms, mostly freaks that were unable to survive or reproduce. But eventually, well-adapted species cropped up and populated the earth. So why aren’t new species spontaneously generated now? Because earth is now beyond child-bearing age – spontaneous creation of species of a feature of a much younger earth. Just like living organisms, the earth was born, it ages, and it will die.
Lucretius’ goal is not to just give a technical account, but use the force of poetry to invoke a sense of awe for this vision of the world, a sense that is usually reserved for the actions of the gods. (To invoke Darwin, “there is grandeur in this view of life.”) A big message of the poem is that we should not be living lives of fear, and yet Lucretius understands very well that “The mind staggers with doubt when we’re faced with the utter dearth/Of answers to our questions.”
Moreover, men observed the orderly movements of the heavens, And beheld the cycling of the year with its returning seasons, But could not fathom how these came about, and lacking reasons, Found an escape by handing these things over to the gods, And supposed that all things came about by supernatural nods, And established the seat of the gods up in the quarters of the sky, For it’s through the heavens we see night and moon go wheeling by; There, moon, and day and night, and sombre zodiac all turn, And torches wandering by night, and gliding stars that burn, And there, the clouds, the sun, the rain, snow, hail storms lightning bolts, Thunder loud-grumbling its threats and sudden shuddering jolts. O foolish race of mortals, that gave god such jobs to do, Then went and made them fierce with anger into the bargain too! What groans you purchased for yourselves, what grievous injury, For us, what tears you fashioned for the children yet to be! It is not piety to cover up your head for show, To bow and scrape before a stone, or stop by as you go At every altar, flinging yourself upon the ground face down Lifting your palms at the god’s shrines, nor piety to drown Altars in the blood of brutes, nor to chain prayer to prayer; Rather, to look on all things with a mind that’s free from care. For when we lift our gaze to the vast precincts of the skies And see the aether spangled with sparkling stars, a wild surmise About the pathways of the sun and moon enters the mind, And in the heart already gravely charged with fears, we find Something begins to rear its head: a new Unease awakes - Whether that unbounded power of the gods that makes The brighter stars run their various courses govern us on earth. The mind staggers with doubt when we’re face with the utter dearth Of answers to our questions: did this world once have a birth? And is there a fixed span of time the world’s walls can remain Before they give way from the unceasing motion and its strain? Or have those walls been granted by some supernatural force The strength to last, and slip along forever on Time’s course, Shrugging off immeasurable Age, its crippling might? Moreover, whose mind does not cringe with superstitious fright, And whose flesh does not creep with awe, when the burnt earth shakes Struck by hair-raising bolts of lightning, and the vast sky quakes With rumbling thunder? Do not nations tremble, peoples quiver? Do not proud kings, struck by dread of the gods, curl up and shiver, Terrified, lest for some despicable crime or cruel command The heavy day of reckoning is finally at hand?… Is it surprising mortal men are suddenly made humble, And are ready to believe in awesome might and wondrous force Of gods, the powers at the rudder of the universe? - Book V, lines 1183-1225,1238-1240
All quotations are from the translation by A.E. Stallings in the Penguin edition (2007)
Image: Still Life with Peaches, from the Herculaneum. For more on this mural, check out The Independent‘s Great Works of Art series.