Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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


Blogger SMJ said...

Unfortunately for Lucretius, his theory of nature was based on an invisible substratum of particles, called atoms, which was too bold an idea for the existing knowledge of his time (around 70 BC). He lacked both the scientific apparatus and the mathematical skills needed to prove or disprove this theory. Yet, this is the fate which awaits many ideas that propose a radically new vision of the world, whether it be Darwin's theory of natural selection, Freud's theory of the unconscious, Varro's theory of germs, or Einstein's theory of general relativity. Often the theory must wait until the proper time for its reception, for example, until instruments needed to verify the facts being proposed have been developed. Germ theory could not be verified (to the general public) until the invention of the microscope. General relativity required observations of a solar eclipse before it was widely accepted. Much of Freud's work, of course, still lacks the kind of "hard science" empirical data that meets modern standards for objective truth.

Lucretius also tried to explain the reflectivity of mirrors, and by analogy, how vision operates, by means of a theory involving invisible particles which he referred to as "flimsy tissues." If instead of "flimsy tissues," you substitute the word "photons" you have a much more convincing argument. However, "photons" are no more visible to our naked eye than are "flimsy tissues." The relevant point here is that Lucretius gave a coherent, material explanation for the phenomenon of reflectivity, instead of resorting to some mystical, quasi-religious tale of gods using supernatural powers to make spiritual bodies visible to human eyes.

Again, to explain the experience of "love," Lucretius resorts to the notion of "Venus honey," because he believes that all experience is grounded in some material cause. His explanation is not very convincing to contemporary ears, but have the poets throughout the ages really done much better? No one can say for sure why people either fall into or out of love, or even tell us exactly what love is. Today, a behaviorist in a laboratory might say that certain pheromones are emitted by one sex and received by the other, stimulating the production of certain endorphins which act upon the brain causing us to behave foolishly.

Maybe the truth is that poetry and science don't mix very well because they react on different hemispheres of the brain. What moves us emotionally is quite a different experience from what proves itself as being true or false. Science is all about knowing how things operate, whereas poetry belongs to the realm of sensation and being alive, which is more a phenomenal response to the world at large. Science will always represent our insatiable quest for knowledge, while poetry remains the voice of the human heart grounded in the timeless fact of our own existence.

10/22/2007 1:14 PM  

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