Happy Twentieth to Epicureans everywhere. This month I will evaluate one curious feature of the doctrine of innumerable worlds: the way in which it seems to have inspired wonder for many generations, and even a storytelling tradition that served as a precursor to science fiction, or as the earliest sample of it. It was initially expounded in detail as a natural by-product of atomist reasonings by Epicurus himself in his Epistle to Herodotus, aka the “Little Epitome”, and in the second century it was mentioned in Diogenes’ Wall. It also helped to inspire the very first work of science fiction in history, Lucian’s True History, which indicates in my mind that speculation about extraterrestrial life–even in the context of comedy–has always been part of the Epicurean cultural tradition.
The doctrine of innumerable worlds was always in the cosmological background, like radiation from the big bang. We reminded each other that there are worlds similar and different to our own in all directions, too numerous to count, an infinity of them, with inhabitants of every kind, and that the laws that govern their coming into existence and living are similar to the ones here (because the same laws of nature apply everywhere), and so therefore they likely live by biological laws similar to the ones on Earth. This pervasive presence of the innumerable worlds in our imagery made its way into Lucretius’ epic poem in a curious manner.
After describing (in a passage on the origins of warfare) an elaborate battle that included humans using animals for warfare, which drove many of the animals mad with rage, Lucretius goes on to say:
We, then, may hold as true in the great All,
In divers worlds on divers plan create,
Somewhere afar more likely than upon
One certain Earth.
Lucretius, Book 5 of De Rerum Natura
The Frank Copley translation, as usual, is more clear: “We’d better contend this happened in the All, the myriad worlds created myriad ways, rather than on some one specific sphere.”
When Lucretius speaks in this manner, it becomes clear that in this poet’s mind, the innumerable worlds serve as a place to theorize about parallel Earths and Earth-like environments, literally, ad infinitum. This is because, to the atomists, no boundary is observable in all directions. Centuries after the first atomists began entertaining these thoughts, as an avid and passionate participant in our wisdom tradition, Lucretius probably participated in many conversations where people discussed how they imagined the innumerable worlds to be, and perhaps even told elaborate stories filled with intricate details about extraterrestrial characters, societies, and mythologies, closing with the thought: “this may have happened in the Great All, somewhere in the infinity of worlds out there”. We certainly know that Lucian and Lucetius engaged their muse in this manner.
Most people typically think that only traditional religions free the imagination in this manner, having us imagine the heavens in marvelous shapes, colors, and sounds. Hinduism claims that the Gods live in the Vaikuntha planets, Mahayana Buddhists talk about infinite number of Buddha-lands in all directions, and the Quran speaks of Allah as Rabbil Al-Ameen, or “Lord of (all) the Worlds”. But naturalist philosophy also paints us the picture of a wondrous cosmos. A naturalist cosmos is richer than that of traditional religions because it is, literally, infinite in possibilities both in time and space. Like Lucretius, we can say we live in that universe where anything is possible, get on his magic carpet and finish our stories with the words: “This may have been somewhere, sometime in the Great All”.