Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Lucretius: Book 6

Lucretius ends his work with the same goal he had when he started Book 1: “I will set out to discourse to you the ultimate realities of heaven and the gods.” And so he does. The ultimate reality to Lucretius is one which has been darkened by the veil of irrational superstition. What he wants to do is shed light into the darkened corners of men’s souls. He states once again in Book 6 – word for word – an exact duplication of a statement he made earlier in Book 3: “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.”

Throughout the entire book Lucretius has been trying to explain the nature of the universe as a materialistic composition of atoms, more atoms, and nothing but atoms. Under this theory there’s no room for gods to be meddling in human affairs. Why should they? If the gods exist at all they are surely at peace. It’s human beings that do all the fretting and worrying. They try to be optimistic about the future and hope for the best, but somehow “…the poor creatures are plunged back into their old superstitions and saddle themselves with cruel masters whom they believe to be all-powerful. All this because they do not know what can be and what cannot…”

By using our minds we can learn about the things that can be and those that cannot be. We certainly have many things to fear in nature – being struck by lightning, drowning in a flood, catching some deadly virus – but there are many things Lucretius believes we’re needlessly afraid of – ghosts, hell, the wrath of the gods. And he seeks to dispel these fears by giving rational explanations for some of nature’s most frightening phenomena - thunder, lightning, the formation of storm clouds, rain, earthquakes, why the sea doesn’t get bigger and flood the world, how volcanoes work, and why diseases come about. The gods don’t cause these things to happen as punishments for our sins – they happen because atoms react in certain ways. To his credit, Lucretius does a remarkable job of taking a simple atomic theory and using it to ease our minds about some of our most worrisome threats.

Still, there’s a certain amount of uneasiness left over when the reader finishes the last page of “On the Nature of the Universe.” There are many, many metaphysical problems that are more worrisome than natural disasters or plagues. Lucretius is not helpful at all in alleviating these problems or answering the nagging questions of the soul. He tries. But even after all the careful explaining away of the nature of things many readers will still feel a simple but compelling question tugging at their souls – all this stuff about atoms is well and good, but what about me? What about this one unique creation in the universe that just happens to be the person that I am? Lucretius responds: “You must remember that the universe is fathomless and reflect how minute a part of the whole is one world – an infinitesimal fraction, less in proportion than one man compared to the whole earth. If you look squarely at this fact and keep it clearly before your eyes, many things will cease to strike you as miraculous.”

I am trying to look squarely at this fact and keep it clearly before my eyes. But it still seems miraculous to me that things exist at all. Why do atoms go through all this bother? According to Lucretius they have no choice. They’re atoms. They do what atoms do. They clump together to form things like earthworms and ice crystals and galaxies. Then they un-clump and eventually form something else. Sometimes they even re-clump together to form beings that can read and write and think about what it means to share a universe with earthworms and ice crystals and galaxies. They can ask questions like: what is the meaning of all this? Or, to put it another way, what is the nature of the universe?

--- RDP


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