Gravity Versus Freedom

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

In Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, we see that lightness/laughter (which Nail connects directly to Venus) is at war with the so-called spirit of gravity, which takes itself too seriously.

And when I saw my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, solemn: he was the spirit of gravity. Through him all things fall. Not by wrath, but by laughter, do we slay. Come, let us slay the spirit of gravity!

A similar cosmic battle exists in existentialist thought (Sartre, in specific) between the freedom we aspire to and sometimes are terrified of, and the facticity that binds us, the things that we can not change. One spiritual force pulls us up, the other pulls us down, presses and oppresses us.

It is in this context that the author of Ontology of Motion discusses the ecstatic, leaping, dancing worshipers of the Goddess. True to Lucretius’ hostility to religion (re-ligio, which literally means “to bind again”), the author (in page 58) compares gravity and religion in Lucretius as a force of as oppression / down-pression. We are reminded of Abraham’s binding of Isaac, but Lucretius instead refers to Iphigenia’s parallel sacrifice. Elsewhere, he refers to “religion’s garrotte-knot“, and then to how he turns “the bright light of his verse” on darkness.

For first I teach of weighty things, and work
man’s heart free of religion’s garrotte-knot;
and, next, I turn the bright light of my verse
on darkness, painting it all with poetry.

Lucretius, in DRN 1.927-34

And so we see, as in Nietzsche, the struggle of lightness versus gravity (or density, to use another term familiar to physics). Let’s not forget that, in common speech, lightness is often associated with laughter, with not taking oneself too seriously, with comedy; and gravity with attaching (perhaps too much?) importance to a matter, as in “grave concern”, “grave illness”.

Curiously, this metaphor of “unknotting from religio” was also used by Jewish musician Matisyahu when he compared his experience of leaving Hassidic, orthodox Judaism with Abraham’s unbinding of Isaac after a ram was found to replace him. The unbinding and the binding, as metaphors for religion’s (sometimes tyrannical) hold on people is established even in traditional religions themselves. In page 60, Nail speaks of the triple oppression that binds people: religion, idealism, and the state–and sees nature (and Venus as her personification, and Epicurean philosophy as her doctrine), as emancipation from these oppressive forces.

Oh, not to see
that nature demands no favor but that pain
be sundered from the flesh, that in the mind
be a sense of joy, unmixed with care and fear!

Lucretius, in DRN 2.16-19

We are reminded of Epicurus’ advice that “we should not force nature, but gently persuade her“, which is essential for understanding Epicurean ethics (and may lead to an ecological sensibility in Epicurus that is not often explored). In essence, we are taught that we should not struggle to take over nature, and (as Nail puts it) that “in nature there’s no credit, debt, or servitude“–unlike in the city state, and ergo in nature there is no need for worship, and there’s also no need to be at war with nature.

“Changing one’s mind is literal and material for Lucretius” – Thomas Nail’s Ontology of Motion, page 149

If we are capable of emancipating ourselves from these tyrannies, then what are the methods? In what way are we set free? In both Epicurus and Lucretius, we see a fully materialist theory of human liberation. Moral development happens when we change the physical structure of our brains through habituation.

“Philosophy for Lucretius, is not reflection, contemplation, or communication, but material transformation.” – Thomas Nail’s Ontology of Motion, page 151

Just as medicine is brought into your body, then becomes you and transforms you, similarly the pharmakos (the words of Epicurean teachings, which are treated as medicine) enter the mind and heal it.

Further Reading:
Review of “De l’inhumanité de la religion”
Synopsis of Epicurus’ “On Nature”, Book 25: On Moral Development

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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