Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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?


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