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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.


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