The Tao of Lucretius

The following is part of my book review of Thomas Nail’s Ontology of Motion.

The author also claims that space is the by-product of quantum fields, but doesn’t link the idea to Lucretius. In page 90, he says “bodies and void are two sides of the kinetic process” (of the process of motion), in other words that motion is twofold (an interplay between particles and void). This reminded me of the two primal forces in Taoism (yin, yang) and how, in my Epicurean Contemplations on Tao, I likened their yielding and assertive properties to atoms and void.

Since nature is shown to be twofold,
consisting, in fact, of two far different things,
matter, and space in which events occur,
each must be single, absolute, and pure.
For where there’s empty space (what we call “void”)
there, matter is not; further where matter is,
there, in no possible way, can there be void.
– Lucretius, I.503-509

Because space yields, it is (paradoxically) active, and can have the effects of emptying, cleaning out, purifying. Hence, we see in Epicurean philosophy the beginnings of Taoist contemplations on what Tao Te Ching calls “the valley“, or of the utility of emptiness in Buddhism–where emptiness frequently is said to give identity to things.

In Taoism, there is the idea of , which is often translated as “virtue”, but is really efficiency that comes from operating in alignment with nature rather than against it–as Epicurus said: “we should not force nature, but gently persuade it” (Vatican Saying 21), while referring to the ethics. This principle that we should cooperate with, rather than try to conquer, nature, is present in both traditions. In Epicurus, the pleasure/aversion faculty helps us to flow with our own nature rather than against it.

Therefore, that which exists is used to create benefit
That which is empty is used to create functionality

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1

The stability of a wheel and the utility of a fan are examples of when spiral movement (and the emptiness at its center) are harnessed artfully. This is what’s known as in Taoism. According to Taoist doctrine, is maximized when we flow with nature rather than against it. Again, this is true in physics as well as in ethics. Nail mentions how the soul must be emptied, cleaned out, purified–again, using the imagery of the void to accentuate the utility of the void.

Further Reading:

The Taoist Hedonism of Yang Chu

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, 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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