Lucretius the Epicurean

If you have been following Mike’s Sunday Science Poem series, you know that we are fans of Lucretius. Lucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher in the first century BC. He is famous for his only extant work De Rerum NaturaThe Nature of Things, covering many topics near and dear to the hearts of modern scientists.

I am also a fan of the podcast History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps by Peter Adamson at King’s College London and LMU Munchen. Lucretius was an Epicurean, which is one of the many schools of philosophy covered. It may not be a replacement for studying philosophy in school, but listening to episodes 55-59 (including an episode on Lucretius himself) will help you understand the philosophical paradigm Lucretius was using when he wrote his great poem, especially when you are reading Mike’s series of posts on Lucretius:

Sunday Poem

Sunday Science Poem: The Epicurean Theory of Vision, and Bedwetting in Ancient Rome

Sunday Science Poem: Why You Should Read Lucretius

Lucretius Did Not Believe in Non-Overlapping Magisteria

Lucretius and The Fear of Death

There is Grandeur in Lucretius’ View of Life

Lucretius: Lightning is Not a Means of Divine Communication


Lucretius: Lightning is not a means of divine communication

ThetriumphofdeathThe Nature of Things is an unfinished poem, but the sudden ending gives the finale an ironic twist: although a major purpose of the poem is to alleviate our fear of death, it ends in a fearsome, apocalyptic description of the plague that ravaged Athens during the Peloponnesian war.

Before that, Lucretius devotes much of the final book of his poem to a natural explanation for that perennial favorite signifier of the divine mood: the weather. Having spent the last few years in the U.S. Midwest, I’ve developed a fresh, first-hand appreciation for the destructive power of storms. (Given recent meteorological trends, it’s hard not to gain a first-hand appreciation of such destruction no matter where you live.) Before, radar images, and other tools that give us some predictive power, the violent and capricious nature of bad weather was perhaps easiest to understand as a means of communication between gods and humans.

Lucretius says that ascribing weather to gods is nonsense: Continue reading “Lucretius: Lightning is not a means of divine communication”

There is grandeur in Lucretius’ view of life

stilllifewithpeachesLast 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: Continue reading “There is grandeur in Lucretius’ view of life”

Sunday Science Poem: The Epicurean theory of vision, plus bedwetting in ancient Rome

640px-Ercolano03For those of you looking for a break from the pre-game show, here’s this week’s reading of The Nature of Things.

Discard, for the moment, everything you know about vision – about light sources that emit photons of various frequencies, about photons that pass through or reflect from materials before impinging on the photoreceptor cells in your retina, stimulating your optic nerve, and generating an image in your brain. As we set aside our modern knowledge and begin from scratch to think about the surprisingly knotty problem of how visual images are faithfully transmitted and perceived across the distance between an object and our eyes, it’s not hard to understand why Lucretius’ Epicurean theory of vision is so convoluted and not very explanatory.

Lucretius didn’t know anything about scattered and reflected photons, but he deeply believed that the world could be explained by the action of particles. So his theory of vision in Book IV of The Nature of Things is based on objects emitting particles:

Let me begin
by saying there are images of things - a sort of skin
shed from the surfaces of objects, from the outer layer -
films that drift about this way and that upon the air…”
- Book IV, lines 29-32

Continue reading “Sunday Science Poem: The Epicurean theory of vision, plus bedwetting in ancient Rome”

Lucretius did not believe in non-overlapping magisteria

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. Continue reading “Lucretius did not believe in non-overlapping magisteria”