Mars to Venus: Lucretius’ De rerum natura

So the Epicurean project of tranquility through materialism extends for centuries, and history’s primary instructor in these tenets doesn’t end up being Epicurus himself, since much of his work is lost. Instead, a Roman poet named Titus Lucretius Carus writes a book-length poetic treatise on Epicureanism addressed to a Roman official, Gaius Memmius. It is simultaneously a work of literature, of rhetoric and of instruction.

Lucretius frames the persuasive element of the work around a metaphorical concept of devotion, a shifting of allegiances. He wants to persuade Memmius and certainly the rest of Rome to leave behind all things martial (war, conquest, political ambition) and pursue beauty, love and a thriving, unbothered existence, so Lucretius recommends a change of patron deities, from Mars to Venus. Several times through the poem he reaches back to make use of this metaphor.

When I finished reading the text, it was actually surprising how thorough Epicurus’ explanations were in his letters. Certainly Lucretius expands upon the specifics and provides numerous examples, particularly when discussing natural phenomena, but the core principles are easily extrapolated into different scenarios, particularly since theoretical rigidity is not part of the curriculum. Some things are “undiscoverable.”

“New Atheism” as Epicurean comfort

Before I delve into my notebook to highlight a few passages that stimulated thought or highlighted certain principles, a thought about the recent push for a similar evangelical materialism, usually dubbed New Atheism, but not excluding the derivatives, of which there are many. It seemed to crest in the middle 2000’s after the most recent push to teach Creationism in schools, and as people like Dawkins and Dennett and Wilson acquired more and more attention – the great portion for “incivility” or “controversial” opinions, not for profundities – there was a shift in tactics from some of the New Atheists before the whole thing splintered into political tribes. Dawkins and company, and their adherents seemed to find their inner John Muir, or perhaps, for our purposes, their inner Lucretius. There is beauty in this life, peace and tranquility through disbelief in rapacious deities. If you want awe, just look at reality, the poetry of reality, so to speak: the infinitely large and the infinitesimally small, the epic struggles, the bodily collisions, the idiosyncratic extremes, the sheer ability to behold it all, etc.

Religion is a disease, they said. And reason, rationality and critical thinking are the cure. Not only for a certain peace of mind, but for truth. What happened next? What happens to every seemingly unified ideological front on the internet? It splintered into a thousand fragments, which either dispersed entirely or coalesced into more tightly focused communities. Materialism, it turns out, at least in this case, is not a sufficient cause to rally around.

So perhaps there’s some overlap in effect two millenia distant, consequences of ordering of the mind’s perceptions in certain ways. I don’t think there is an Epicurean goal of peace of mind in the recent secularist impulses, but I do believe it has a similar effect, which is undeniably appealing.

“Live Unknown”: An anti-political stance

In his essay, “Whether ‘Live Unknown’ be a wise precept”, Plutarch calls Epicurus a hypocrite for telling his students to “live unknown” while Epicurus enjoyed centuries of philosophical fame.

He who uttered this precept certainly did not wish to live unknown, for he uttered it to let all the world know he was a superior thinker, and to get to himself unjust glory by exhorting others to shun glory.

…what need was there to utter a precept like this, or to write and hand it down to posterity, if he wished to live unknown to his own generation, who did not wish to live unknown to posterity?

The phrase “live unknown” condenses Epicurus’ warning that associations for the sake of fame are to be avoided, particularly political ambitions. Lucretius compares a life of politics to the punishment of Sisyphus:

Sisyphus too is alive for all to see, bent on winning the insignia of office, its rods and ruthless axes, by the people’s vote, and is embittered by perpetual defeat. To strive for this profitless and never-granted prize, and in striving toil and moil incessantly, this truly is to push a boulder laboriously up a steep hill, only to see it, once the top is reached, rolling and bounding down again to the flat levels of the plain.

If Lucretius is aware of the contradiction between what Epicurus says is the best life and what he lived, he never mentions it. In fact, he writes of Epicurus with the same reverence he attends to the gods themselves, as a healer, as unerring, as the bearer of the whole truth.

It was Athens no less that first gave to life a message of good cheer through the birth of that man, gifted with no ordinary mind, whose unerring lips gave utterance to the whole of truth. Even now, when he is no more, the widespread and long-established fame of his divine discoveries is exalted to the very skies.

He saw that, practically speaking, all that was wanted to meet men’s vital needs was already at their disposal, and, so far as could be managed, their livelihood was assured. He saw some men in the full enjoyment of riches and reputation, dignity and authority, and happy in the fair fame of their children. Yet, for all that, he found aching hearts in every home, racked incessantly by pangs the mind was powerless to assuage, forced to vent themselves in recalcitrant repining. He concluded that the source of this illness was the container itself, which infected with its own malady everything that was collected outside and brought into it, however beneficial. He arrived at this conclusion partly because he perceived that the container was racked and leaky, so that it could never by any possibility be filled: partly because he saw it taint whatever it took in with the taste of its own foulness. Therefore he purged men’s breasts with words of truth. He set bounds to desire and fear. He demonstrated what is the highest good, after which we all strive, and pointed the way by which we can achieve it, keeping straight ahead along a narrow track. He revealed the element of pains inherent in the life of mortals generally, resulting whether casually or determinately from the operations of nature and prowling round in various forms. He showed by what gate it is best to sally out against each one of  these evils. And he made it clear that, more often than not, it was quite needlessly that mankind stirred up stormy waves of disquietude within their breasts.

In Book 5, Lucretius writes most bitterly of the pursuit of political fame as opposed to the tranquil life. How was this received by Memmius and his ilk? Surely this was not an accurate description of the Rome – so like the Greece – they held dear:

Men craved for fame and power so that their fortune might rest on a firm foundation and they might live out a peaceful life in the enjoyment of plenty. An idle dream. In struggling to gain the pinnacle of power they beset their own road with perils. And then from the very peak, as though by a thunderbolt, they are cast down by envy into a foul Tartarean abyss of ignominy. For envy, like the thunderbolt, most often strikes the highest and all that stands out above the common level. Far better to lead a quiet life in subjection than to long for sovereign authority and lordship over kingdoms. So leave them to sweat blood in their wearisome unprofitable struggle along the narrow pathway of ambition. Since their wisdom is taken from the mouths of other people and their objectives chosen by hearsay rather than by the evidence of their own senses, it avails them now, and will avail them, no more than it has ever done.

As much praise as Lucretius gives to Athens for producing his mentor, he doesn’t seem to appreciate its gift of democracy to the world. The following excerpt reads like a subversion of The Oresteia; instead of a purge of savagery by civilized justice, the barbarism persists, channeled through the state in the form of punishment for lawbreaking.

Down in the dust lay the ancient majesty of thrones, the haughty scepters. The illustrious emblem of the sovereign head, dabbled in gore and trampled under the feet of the rabble, mourned its high estate. What once was feared too much is now passionately downtrodden. So the conduct of affairs sank back into the filthy lower depths of mob rule, with each man struggling to win dominance and supremacy for himself. Then some men showed how to appoint state officials, to establish civil rights and duties so that men would want to obey the laws. Mankind, worn out by a life of violence and enfeebled by feuds, was the more ready to submit of its own free will to the bondage of laws and institutions. This distaste for a life of violence came naturally to a society in which every individual was ready to gratify his anger by a harsher vengeance than is now tolerated by equitable laws. Ever since then the enjoyment of life’s prizes has been tempered by the fear of punishment. A man is enmeshed by his own violence and wrongdoing, which commonly recoil upon their author.

John Dos Passos shares a similar sentiment in his novel, Three Soldiers, rejecting the notion that a civilized society is a foil of primal iniquity:

Men were more humane when they were killing each other than when they were talking about it. So was civilization nothing but a vast edifice of sham, and the war, instead of its crumbling, was its fullest and most ultimate expression.

Since this is running a bit long, I’ll stop here for now. I have a few more notes to share, including a jab at Socrates and a mention of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs?

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