Happy Twentieth! – On Nature’s Alphabet

Tomorrow is International Mother Language Day–I’ve written previously on my general interest in languages, and specifically my interest in the international language Esperanto–so I thought I’d share an interesting observation that I made while studying De Rerum Natura.  In it, Lucretius frequently posits that nature has her own alphabet. We may think of it as the table of the elements, or perhaps in the case of life we may think of it as the four letters that, using a unique binary code, make up the DNA strands in all known living beings.

This idea stems, it seems to me, from the atomists’ observation that while there may be an infinite number of atoms, there is a limited number of possible combinations of atoms. It would be nearly impossible to discern laws of nature if the possible combinations of atoms was infinite. The fact that we are able to discern some order tells us that nature sets limits to what is possible and what isn’t. The same happens with language and sense: every language has its rules, and what falls outside those rules is nonsense.

With such being the nature of things, if we break up all things to their minimal constituents, we will eventually come across nature’s alphabet: the basic combinations out of which all things are made, just as paragraphs, sentences, and words all ultimately must be reduced to letters. Here is the analogy made by Lucretius:

Nay, thou beholdest in our verses here
Elements many, common to many worlds,
Albeit thou must confess each verse, each word
From one another differs both in sense
And ring of sound- so much the elements
Can bring about by change of order alone.

The above is from Book I. Later in Book II, he elaborates on this metaphor by comparing the laws of nature with the rules of grammar.

Why, even in these our very verses here
It matters much with what and in what order
Each element is set: the same denote
Sky, and the ocean, lands, and streams, and sun;
The same, the grains, and trees, and living things.

It is entirely natural for a poet like Lucretius to draw analogies between his art and the subject of his writing. What he is NOT saying, and we may draw from his metaphor, is that by studying nature, we can observe how she fashions meaning. And by this we mean real, not Platonic meaning, and certainly not magical meaning like the one that students of the runes and of Kabbalah pretend to draw from the Nordic and Hebrew letters.

Many philosophers are concerned with the absurdity of it all and with how they claim that things do not have inherent meaning, but Lucretius is here inviting us to consider both the craft of poetry as an art that confers and creates meaning, and also–most importantly–the possibility that by studying physics and by learning nature’s own alphabet, we can discern meaning in nature that is relevant, useful, and yet no less poetic and Dionysian.

In Book IV, Lucretius refers to “winged words” when speaking of how atoms-waves travel distances and are perceived in the air as scents, in the ocean as waves, or in other things we find in nature. By this he means tho impress us with how the semantics of nature can be directly perceived by our faculties, and there is no need for translation. Nature’s alphabet is real, and the sense it conveys can be directly apprehended. Nature can literally speak to our senses.

Each body produced by nature is a book. Every ecosystem, an anthology. Every species, a mythology. Every planet, an encyclopaedia.

I find this to be a beautiful way to encourage mortals to resist the temptations of other-worldly promises that so poetically insinuate themselves to us frequently, and to instead keep our feet on the ground and be content with the meaning that we can grasp from the study of nature.

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014), 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and Epicurus of Samos – His Philosophy and Life: All the principal Classical texts Compiled and Introduced by Hiram Crespo (Ukemi Audiobooks, 2020). He's the founder of societyofepicurus.com, and has written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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