Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, September 28, 2007

LUCRETIUS: On the Nature of the Universe - Book 2

In Book 1 Lucretius tells us he’s going to clue us in on the ultimate realities of heaven and earth. In Book 2 he proceeds to do just that. He wants to explain everything by using strictly physical explanations. Lucretius has the mind of a scientist and the soul of a poet and philosopher. He likes logic and science, but he also says that “this is the greatest joy of all: to possess a quiet sanctuary, stoutly fortified by the teaching of the wise, and to gaze down from that elevation on others wandering aimlessly in search of a way of life.” Lucretius feels that “All life is a struggle in the dark” and he wants to bring more light into the world.

What bothers Lucretius is that so many people wander around aimlessly. They’re afraid and superstitious. They make bad decisions. Many people search for the best way to live and turn to the gods for help, but Lucretius totally rejects the notion that there are gods who can help us. He believes that “it is essential to the very nature of deity that it should enjoy immortal existence in utter tranquility, aloof and detached from our affairs.” His notion of the universe runs directly opposite those who claim that there must be a God because everything holds together so intricately for our benefit. On the contrary, Lucretius says “…the universe was certainly not created for us by divine power: it is so full of imperfections.”

It’s true that the world is full of imperfections as far as humans are concerned. Think of chiggers. However Lucretius does admit that there’s a certain amount of order in the world. He just doesn’t think it’s orderly because of the gods. His theory is that everything that exists is composed of atoms. These atoms are eternal and indestructible bits of matter. But they can’t just randomly clump together to form everything we see around us. Lucretius gives a vivid image of why atoms can’t form at random: “If that were so, you would see monsters coming into being everywhere. Hybrid growths of man and beast would arise. Lofty branches would spread here and there from a living body.” Exactly why these things don’t happen is unclear. But Lucretius is clear that it’s certainly not the result of gods carefully planning things out. Somehow nature has always managed to regulate herself quite well without any outside help. As Lucretius puts it: “Nature is free and uncontrolled by proud masters and runs the universe by herself without the aid of the gods.”

As Lucretius sees the world it’s just in the nature of things to be the way they are. We never see men growing to be fifty feet tall or fully grown men only five inches tall, for example. Lucretius says “…things are bound by a set limit at either extreme, you must acknowledge a corresponding limit to the different forms of matter.” Who imposed those limits? It seems reasonable to many people that there must be some form of intelligence guiding this whole process. Lucretius will not concede this point but instead holds fast to his original theory - “Everything is composed of a mixture of elements” – and this theory must account for everything we can see and hear and smell and taste and touch. Then how, just to take one example, does Lucretius account for something as simple as the color blue? Are there “blue” atoms as well as white ones and red ones, etc? No, says Lucretius: “The primary particles of matter have no color whatsoever… atoms cannot possibly change color. For something must remain changeless, or everything would be absolutely annihilated.” Things are “blue” because the elements are mixed that way. There are only a few letters in the alphabet but an almost infinite number of words can be formed by various combinations of those letters. This kind of world makes sense to Lucretius. What he’s trying to do is make his point of view appealing not only to the scientists among us but also to the poets and philosophers of the world.

-- RDP


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