Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

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


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