Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Lucretius (c 95 - 55 B.C.)

By Richard E. Noble

Everywhere you look through the annals of Philosophic history you will find a little bit about Lucretius - the only problem is that it is usually the same “little bit”.
Lucretius’ full name was Titus Lucretius Carus. He wrote a famous philosophical, didactic poem entitled De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). This poem consisted of 7,400 hexameter lines and was divided into six books. According to St. Jerome this poem was composed during the lucid intervals of a madness which was caused by the ingestion of a philtre (love potion) the end result of which was that Lucretius killed himself.
The peom taught, among other things, that there was no need to fear death - obviously Lucretius took this notion to heart. He was just a young man at the time - in his mid forties (44?). And that seems to be it as far as the documented evidence about Lucretius goes.
But even the “documented” is not taken as absolute. It is hard to believe for many dedicated to the study of philosophy, reading what Lucretius says in book 4 about women and physical love, that he would be drinking a “love” potion. Nor are many students capable of accepting that this great philosophic poem was the ranting of the insane or the writing of a man in delirium. Some suggest that the whole story is a slander to defame Lucretius for his irreligiosity.
As far as the uncorroborated evidence goes, he seems to have been from a good Roman family and fairly well educated. He may have been a friend of Gaius Memmius - a Roman statesman. It is rumored that he kept to himself, maybe even living as somewhat of a recluse.
His famous poem is meant to be a interpretation of the ideas and philosophy of the famous Greek materialistic (atomist) philosopher Epicurus. But since not all that much is known about Epicurus, Lucretius gets high marks for his interpretive rethinking of the great Greek materialist.
Interesting to note, Epicurus didn’t like poets or poetry. In fact Epicurus felt that “a wise man would not write poetry” - and certainly not while drinking a “philtre”. A martini or a Manhattan probably would have sufficed and possibly the ill effects and the end result could have been avoided. Even two or three martinis might have left Lucretius with a slight hangover - but at least he would have been … leftover.
Lucretius may also have been a Consciencious Objector. He was not partial to militarism or the Roman idea of duty to the State (the Roman Draft). This was not a popular idea or position in the Roman Empire. Actually it wasn’t all that popular among the Greeks either. The Romans were big on Law but nevertheless they did not have a chapter of the ACLU in the whole Empire. So maybe killing himself wasn’t all that tragic - he could have ended up nailed to a cross along the Appian Way dying of thirst and starvation.
Lucretius is in some quarters snidely criticized as possibly being a Pantheist. A Pantheist is described by critics to be a sort of lunatic who prays at the foot of a Walnut or Spruce tree out in the woods rather than ascribing to the ego-maniacal, anthropological concept that the universe was actually created by a super-human type entity who is more often than not described as a cross between Charles Atlas and Superman.
In his poem Lucretius states that in the beginning there were atoms and vacuous space and all that is, results somehow from the interaction, random and wayward motion of these two quantities. If we interpret “motion” to be energy, we find ourselves not so far from what is accepted as the scientific cosmology of today - in fact it may be even closer to the cosmology of tomorrow. We will just have to wait and see.
When Lucrecius leaves the area of cosmology and gets into sensation and perception we vacate the area of precocious futuristic genius and enter the realm of the pre-scientific Platonic and Aristotelian misdirection. But when we emerge once again in the Ethics we find ourselves once again in the never-never land of genius, insight, and thoughtful contemplation. One could spend a great deal of time, indeed, pondering over the ethical passages in Lucretius’ poem.

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