Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Some Thoughts on Lucretius and Christianity

Maybe I've had it wrong all these years. Maybe the whole point of being alive has nothing to do with happiness. Because the idea of happiness does not coexist very well with the reality of pain and suffering, and the prospect of our eventual death. Not to mention the very troubling presence of evil in the world. It is hard to reconcile the existence of both evil and happiness in the same universe. It's like matter and anti-matter. When they come into contact with one another, the result is their mutual destruction. So, for the sake of happiness, evil must be kept at a safe distance. The further away, the better.

Now, here is the central problem, as I see it, with the whole Christian doctrine. If God created the world, then he is responsible for everything that exists. If we assume that God is perfect and incapable of error, then his own perfection should manifest itself in his creation. It is inconceivable that God could accidentally screw things up. So, the world is as it should be. Or, as the German philosopher Leibniz said, we live in "the best of all possible worlds."

By "world," of course, we mean the world of physical nature, not the man created world of human society. After God created the world, and all the beasts of nature, he created man and put him in charge of managing his creation. Presumably, man himself, made in God's image, was endowed with the same perfection as the rest of creation. So far, so good. We have a perfect world and we have a perfect creature, named Adam, that is made in God's own image.

Yet, God felt that Adam needed a companion. All the other living creatures had a mate, but man had no one. This is the first suggestion that God's original plan was in need of improvement. If Adam was perfect, then no other human companion should be needed. But evidently, God changed his mind, so he created a companion for Adam, and she was called Eve.

Now, we have two human beings living in a perfect world which God has created. The real question we must ask ourselves is why God bothered to make any humans at all. Is it possible that God was lonely? If so, that would be an imperfection in his divine nature. Lucretius tells us that the gods do not concern themselves with mere humanity, for to do so would disturb their perfect serenity. Anyone acquainted with human history can see the wisdom in that observation. Therefore, we cannot assume that God created humanity out of loneliness.

Here we come to the first of many unanswerable questions regarding the purpose of creation. Why did God create anything at all? Why go to all the trouble? If you are God, you are completely self-sufficient, omnipotent, immortal, and lacking in nothing. To create something beside yourself seems somehow redundant.

Nevertheless, the God of Genesis, for reasons of his own, created a world and populated it with many lesser creatures. Ok. Here, we must assume that God had no malicious intent in creating the world and placing man in it. For if he did, we would have to conclude that the evil manifest in the world came from God himself, and this makes no sense at all. Evil, which is a corruption of the Good, cannot come from a perfect being. So, however evil enters into the world (and into the hearts of men), it could not have come from God.

Enter Satan. The answer provided by Genesis tells us that Satan, Mr. Evil incarnate himself, sneaked into the Garden of Eden and beguiled Eve into disobeying God. Thus, evil brought about man's fall and caused his eviction from paradise. But this raises a different question. From what does Satan arise? Even if Satan is evil incarnate, how does he come to be? Thanks to another blind poet, Milton, we learn that Satan (Lucifer) was one of God's angels. Evidently, Lucifer rebelled against God's authority out of pride and envy. But how does pride or envy come to infect the hearts of the heavenly host? If Lucifer was one of God's favorite angels, how is it possible that Lucifer came to reject God, and attempt a coup d'etat to seize the throne of heaven? How can goodness ever degenerate into evil? We don't know. This entire story is nothing but man's attempt to explain how the world came to be as it is. Lucretius offers his own explanation which is no more or less plausible than the biblical one.

Christians believe that man himself is the architect of his own distress. But how can this be? God created Lucifer; Lucifer rebelled; Lucifer changes his name to Satan and corrupts man, causing Adam and Eve to be expelled from Paradise. Then, everything goes steadily downhill from there. Death, pain and suffering, along with all the other evils that plague mankind, are unleashed upon the world, usually with Satan's bad influence playing a major part. Anyone can see that the world today is not only far short of perfection, but in many ways is teetering on the brink of destruction. Many Christians dwell on the second coming of Christ which is supposed to usher in the Apocalypse.

So, where does happiness fit in with this scheme of a fallen mankind living in a corrupt world? This is where Lucretius offers a different answer, founded upon the simple idea of accepting the world as you find it (flawed, corrupt, temporary), and making the best of a bad situation. For Lucretius, serenity comes with the realization that you cannot control most of what happens in the world. Since life is short, you should strive to be happy (and avoid unhappiness) whenever possible.

Aristotle taught that the pursuit of virtue was the only recipe for a good life. And the highest virtue is the pursuit of moderation in all things. The Romans borrowed some of what Aristotle taught, and added a few notions of their own, such as duty and service to Rome. But the idea that happiness is the greatest good is a relatively modern formulation, and quite possible a corruption of the original state of mind that Adam and Eve enjoyed, living in the presence of God. Since evil is so much a part of our world today, along with generous helpings of pain and suffering, it seems ludicrous to advocate happiness as our highest calling. Wouldn't a dedication to the principles of virtue (in other words, the perfection of our own nature) be a more appropriate goal? Humility, as Christians understand it, was not actually a Greek virtue, but having a proper understanding of one's station in life was acknowledged to be the mark of a civilized person. Men should not challenge the power of gods (or kings) for to do so is to court disaster. The Christian formulation is to democratize humanity by saying that we are all sinners, and should prostrate ourselves before Christ.

Whether we are sinners or not, we often fall short of what we are capable, both in a moral and philosophical sense. Many of us are self-obsessed and go through life with no sense of a higher purpose than our own fleeting pleasure. Is this God's fault or is this just the way things are? Who knows? But even if it is God's doing, what then? Would that mean that we are entitled to ignore God because we disapprove of him? The Greeks would say that is a foolish conclusion to draw. On the other hand, if you believe as Lucretius (and Nietzsche) did that God is simply a kind of wish-fulfillment on the part of weak minded humans, too lazy or frightened to solve their own problems, then you can skip the creation story.

Once you eliminate God from the picture, you are left with atoms in the void. Not much comfort. So much for destiny and the meaning of life. But if you agree with the existentialists that man creates his own meaning, then great. You have nothing to worry about. No heaven, no hell, no eternal damnation for one's sins. But also, no chance of living beyond your allotted time on earth, which for most of us is about 75 years, or less, depending on your state of health and your family history.

If that prospect doesn't bother you, as it apparently didn't Lucretius, then you're all set. No more struggling to figure out what your purpose in life is or whether or not you should get up on Sunday and go to church. In fact, you can pretty much do whatever your heart desires, within the limits of law and personal finance. No God means no moral authority to deal with. You become the arbiter of your own moral law. Unless, you happen to agree with Emmanuel Kant, who said there is a universal moral law that we all must obey, based on the principles of logic and reason. But who said that we have to be logical or reasonable? Most of humanity pays no more attention to logic and reason than it does to the invisible microbes inhabiting our colon.

So, we are on our own, floating around on our own planet in our own little part of the galaxy. Maybe there are other creatures like us on other worlds, and maybe there aren't. What difference does it make? Should we care one way or the other? Let's just party on and see what happens. Too much philosophy gives one a headache. What good is knowledge and wisdom anyway? Will it make you happy? And if the answer is no, then why bother? In fact, you could ask the larger question of why bother with anything? Why even get up in the morning? Why bother to bathe or dress or feed the cat or leave the house and go to work? Was it Heidegger who said that it is more logical for the world NOT to exist than for anything to be here at all? Lucretius said that everything is temporary. People, plants, animals, even the entire galaxy will eventually wear down and collapse into nothing. Only individual atoms endure forever. This proposition is supported by the latest theories in cosmology. The universe is accelerating and moving away from itself in every direction. Eventually, given enough time, every sun will burn out, exhausting its nuclear fuel. The planetary sky will turn dark, as the galaxies recede from one another. Even the cosmic bonds which hold atoms together will weaken and the molecular structure which holds matter together will vanish. But no need to worry. By then we humans will have long since departed from the evolutionary stage. There won't be anything left to even mark our brief existence on the planet. And maybe that's as it should be. If the universe is just a vast collection of random atoms, what difference will it make that humanity ever existed?

LUCRETIUS: On the Nature of the Universe (Book 5)

One of the perennial themes in world literature is to speculate about what things must have been like in the childhood of the world. Some writers think the world was better. Much better. Some writers think the world was worse. Much worse. Lucretius isn’t interested in defending either the old days or the new ways. He just wants to tell it like it is. But that isn’t as easy as it sounds. Book 5 is his attempt to explain the origin of the world and its final conclusion. It also tries to explain mankind’s place in the cosmos.

Before Lucretius lays out the principles of how the world began and will end he first reminds us why he’s writing this whole book in the first place. He’s firmly convinced that “life could not be well lived till our breasts were swept clean.” Before we can live fully human lives he believes we must first learn to accept the basic principles that guide not only our lives, but the whole universe as well. Every one of us was born. Every one of us will die. There are no exceptions. This rule also applies to the world we inhabit. The earth was born. The earth will die. This is the way Lucretius puts it: “sky and earth too had their birthday and will have their day of doom.” For the masses of people this is not a pleasant prospect. But it’s an inescapable conclusion that all things composed of atoms will one day disintegrate. For the earth that means that “sea, lands, and sky…The whole substance and structure of the world, upheld through many years, will crash.” Doomsday will arrive on schedule. Hopefully this will take place in the far distant future.

In the meantime we’re left to fend for ourselves here on our home planet. We have to find our own answers to questions such as: where did we come from? According to Lucretius the gods won’t help us so we have to figure things out for ourselves. He wants us to calmly consider the facts and reason this thing out together. He doesn’t think the gods created us and he also points out it’s obvious that “animals cannot have fallen from the sky, and those that live on land cannot have emerged from briny gulfs.” Here he seems to contradict Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwinians don’t believe animals fell from the sky full-formed but they do believe they “emerged from briny gulfs” – that all animal life originated in the seas. On the other hand, Lucretius also says that “everything is transformed by nature and forced into new paths…so the nature of the world as a whole is altered by age.” This has a definite Darwinian tone to it. Furthermore, says Lucretius, “many species must have died out altogether…Every species that you now see drawing the breath of life has been protected and preserved from the beginning of the world by cunning or by courage or by speed.” This could have been a page right out of Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest.

But Lucretius wasn’t writing for a modern audience. His audience was pre-Darwinian, pre-Newtonian, pre- almost everything we now know about science. Any reasonably well-informed school child could have told Lucretius that his theories in astronomy and biology were way off the mark. It’s true that he didn’t know all that we know today about science. But that misses the whole point of why modern folks should still read Lucretius. He may have been wrong about some of the details on some of his theories. However, some of the questions he raises are as valid today as they were then. Did God create the world or did it just happen by chance? Do ghosts exist? What happens to us after we die? Can we trust our senses? Where does man fit into the grand scheme of things? How is the best way to
live? Should I get married? These are questions that science, even modern science, is ill-equipped to deal with. It takes a bit of a poet and philosopher to tackle these topics. Lucretius fits the bill nicely.

-- RDP

Monday, October 22, 2007

LUCRETIUS: On the Nature of the Universe (Book 4)

Throughout the first three books of On the Nature of the Universe Lucretius walks a thin line between philosophy, science and poetry. In Book 4 he sets out to prove once again that the universe is composed only of physical bits of matter called atoms and that gods did not create the cosmos nor do they intervene in human affairs. But in spite of this belief he occasionally slips in a little prayer or hymn to the gods anyway. Maybe Lucretius is just opposed to gods who are mean-spirited deities. Maybe he just wants to set our minds at ease concerning eternal punishment after death. Whatever it is, in the fourth book Lucretius clearly steps away from his normal scientific perspective.

He starts out by giving scientific answers to some very common questions or problems. For example, how come we see perfect reflections of things instantly in mirrors? Lucretius explains why, though not very convincingly. He says “No matter how suddenly or at what time you set any object in front of a mirror, an image appears. From this you may infer that the surfaces of objects emit a ceaseless stream of flimsy tissues and filmy things.” You may infer all you want, but it would still be wrong. Lucretius needs to defend his theory that everything that exists is composed of atoms. All his explanations have to somehow rest on this hypothesis. Therefore, he says, material objects are constantly giving off “flimsy tissues” and these tissues are being emitted in every direction. That’s why mirrors pick up those images instantly, no matter where you’re standing. Clever, but not very convincing. And flat out wrong too.

However, even though it may not be convincing, it’s still logical. Things could be that way. There really might be flimsy tissues floating around out there. But the important point is his attempt to give an objective analysis of the way things are without resorting to the gods. It’s when he delves into human concerns that Lucretius begins to lose his objectivity. A good example is his attempt to explain what love is: “This is the origin of the thing called love – that drop of Venus’ honey that first drips into our heart, to be followed by icy heartache.” It seems odd to me that someone trying to have a scientific outlook would refer to love as a “drop of Venus’ honey”. It also seems out of place for a scientist to warn readers that the initial drop of honey would be followed by icy heartache. Is this a scientific fact? Is it even necessarily true? Lucretius is a poet and philosopher as well as a scientist. He wants to cover all his bases.

There’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s nothing wrong with Lucretius wanting to help us live better lives. Many scientists want the same thing. It’s just odd the way he mixes up the poetic and the scientific. We’re not used to that in the modern world. We like our poetry on one side and our science on the other. They dwell in different spheres. Why is this so? Does it have to be that way? Should it be that way? I don’t know. These questions (or problems) didn’t seem to bother Lucretius at all.

It seems to me that human beings are capable of enjoying both poetry and science and have, in fact, used both in order to better understand nature. Whether one is superior to the other is a matter of personal preference. We have minds capable of appreciating both poetry and science but most people generally tend to prefer one or the other. And the two sides mistrust one another. Those with poetic souls don’t think those with scientific souls can really understand what love is. Those with scientific souls (like Lucretius) tell us we should “Rest assured that this pleasure (love) is enjoyed in a purer form by the sane than by the lovesick.” They see love as a form of mild insanity. The poetic souls see it as the best and loveliest thing in the world. Think of Dante and Beatrice. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who knows?

-- RDP

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Lucretius: On the Nature of the Universe Book - 3

The fear of death must have been one of the main reasons Lucretius decided to write On the Nature of the Universe. It wasn’t his own death that worried him. What concerned Lucretius was the ghastly fear of death that he saw in the general population throughout mankind. Most people were not only afraid of dying, they were also afraid that after they died they would go to hell (or the ancient equivalent). Lucretius knew it would be pointless to tell them that everything would be ok. Everything would not be ok. Every last one of them would, in fact, die some day. Lucretius tells the reader that this “dread and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by the sunbeams, the shining shafts of day, but only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature.” Book 3 sets out to explain the outward form and inner workings of nature so our minds can be put at ease concerning our eventual destiny.

For Lucretius, the way to feel at ease with our situation is to first grasp the essentials of what we’re made of. As he explained in Book 2, everything in the universe is composed of a material substance-- atoms. Our minds and spirits are no different. Lucretius states clearly that “mind and spirit are both composed of matter.” In fact, he believes that they’re inseparable from one another: “mind and spirit are interconnected and compose between them a single substance.”

“Mind” is the intellectual or reasoning part of our bodies. “Spirit,” for Lucretius, means the essential force that gives us life and lets us breathe and move about. He says... “This basic substance lurks at our very core. There is nothing in our bodies more fundamental than this, the most vital element of the whole vital spirit.” Without spirit (life) there can be no mind (reasoning power); without mind there can be no spirit.

Once again, mind and spirit are material substances according to Lucretius. Because they’re both composed of atoms he believes that “mind and body are born together, grow up together and together grow old.” Then what happens? What does that mean for average people? Since they’re both material substances and are connected that means when one goes, they both go. One can’t survive without the other. Our minds and spirits will cease to exist, as we know them. But that’s ok with Lucretius. He thinks we should take comfort in that fact. Why? Because you will no longer be subjected to the trials and tribulations of this world. Once you’re dead and buried, Lucretius points out that “You are at peace now in the sleep of death, and so you will stay till the end of time. Pain and sorrow will never touch you again.”

This is a comforting message for people who think they’re going to hell after they die. But it’s cold comfort for those folks who were hoping for something a little more fulfilling than that. What about those mansions in the sky and streets paved of gold? Lucretius thinks that’s just wishful thinking. We need to face the facts. Our bodies aren’t immortal and therefore neither are our minds. “If our mind were indeed immortal, it would not complain of extinction in the hour of death, but would rather feel that it was escaping from confinement and sloughing off its garment like a snake.” Our bodies aren’t immortal and therefore neither are our spirits. That’s because “if the spirit is by nature immortal and can remain sentient when divorced from our body, we must credit it, I presume, with the possession of five senses…But eyes or nostrils or hand or tongue or ears cannot be attached to a disembodied spirit. Such a spirit cannot therefore be sentient or so much as exist.” This isn’t the message we wanted to hear. But Lucretius points out that we’re all in the same boat. He says “Even good king Ancus looked his last on the daylight – a better man than you, my presumptuous friend, by a long reckoning. Someday we’ll all join good king Ancus, wherever he is now.