Happy Eikas to Epicureans everywhere! Please enjoy the Epicurus episode of the PhilosoPies podcast. The Hellenistic Age Podcast also published an “Epicurus and Epicureanism” episode. The following two essays were published on SoE:
I also published an essay deepening our insights into Principal Doctrines 18-21. At last month’s Eikas meeting, we had an engaging discussion on Philodemus, On Anger, which was facilitated by our friend Marcus (Thank you!). I had previously written about this scroll, but discussing it with others allowed its useful teachings to become much clearer for everyone.
Oh luckless human kind, to grant the gods such powers, and top them off with bitter fury! – Liber Qvintvs, 1194-1195
I’ve had the pleasure of reading Copley’s translation of De Rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) at least twice now. I’m not the first one to notice that DRN is as much about the ethics as it is about the physics, as both are connected in Epicurean philosophy. I’ve also noticed that the Fifth Book of DRN is the most complete extant compendium of ancient Epicurean anthropology that we have.
The main ethical goal of the Liber Qvintvs is to replace the inherited ancient myths about the gods handing down laws, language, writing, weapons, arts, crafts, and other “gifts of civilization” with non-supernatural explanations for all these phenomena based on the study of nature. Ancient people used to believe that Dionysus gave us wine cultivation, Athena gave us the arts and crafts, Hermes gave us language and writing, Urania gave us astronomy, etc. Today, many still believe that the tribal god of the Jews gave us all the languages (via the Babel myth) and that he created all things … but since we see that nothing comes from nothing, there is no need for a Creator of all matter.
That this process of replacing myth with natural theories concerning the “gifts of civilization” is the over-arching theme of Liber Qvintvs is evidenced by how it ends, as if summarizing: “Thus, step by step, time lays each fact before us, and reason lifts it to the coasts of light; for men saw one thing clarify another till civilization reached its highest peak“. Here, Lucretius seems to be saying that we become properly civilized by dismissing supernatural explanations for phenomena and learning, through the study of nature, about the way things work.
Earth the All-Mother is also our common tomb: she gives, but takes away, and grows again. – Liber Qvintvs, 259-260
In Liber Qvintvs, Lucretius beautifully exemplifies how we may use the Epicurean canon in order to investigate questions in the realm of culture and anthropology. The most interesting case study for this is the origin of language (1028-1090). Of course, we can not go back in time and observe how it emerged, so here we are forced to apply the Epicurean method of inferring by analogy about the non-evident based on the evident. Since the last Twentieth message was about how we use the canon, I wish to point out how Lucretius applies this method of inference by analogy to the origin of language. The passage begins by stating what the theory says: that there is no teleology. Instead, nature first randomly produces certain faculties in our bodies, some of which then prove to be advantageous, and then later culture and artifice perfect the use of these faculties. A curious insight is provided here:
All creatures sense their powers and how to use them. – Liber Qvintvs, 1033
This deserves further elaboration elsewhere, as it is profoundly intuitive and insightful, but for now let us focus on the issue of language. Lucretius points to a few signs from nature in his investigation of the origins of language. Citing examples from many species (calves who attack with their yet-to-develop horns, lion’s kittens who play with their claws and fangs in order to hone their skills, tiny birds who flutter their wings), Lucretius argues that we see that human children use gestures to point at what they see, which seems to demonstrate a natural instinct to communicate. He ridicules the idea that one single person in remote antiquity (to the ancients, a God like Hermes or Thoth) could invent all the words of an entire language, since communication requires more than one person who must all understand and use words with an agreed-upon meaning.
Lucretius cites how various species make different noises to effectively communicate at a rudimentary level according to necessity. Hounds bear their teeth as a threat, lick their pups to comfort them, and cry when in pain. A stallion squeals, his nostril gapes, when he is in his prime. Birds make different noises when they fight over food or battle their prey. Having cited these concrete examples, and citing feeling as a guide of sentient beings, Lucretius then infers (by analogy) that
if varied feelings, then, force animals, dumb though they are, to utter varied cries, how much more likely that in those days men could use one and another term for different things.
And in this manner, Lucretius exemplifies how we apply our canonical methods of reasoning by analogy (here, inferring about the non-evident based on that which is evident) in the realm of anthropology. Furthermore, Liber Qvintvs includes a natural explanation of the origin of friendship and compassion for the weak and vulnerable in our communities, insightful thoughts on the origin of government, and in one sci-fi passage it even describes a war that involves great beasts in the innumerable worlds. He describes the origins of religion and the arts, as well as the beginning of the historical era (the writing down of events). The origins of music are described in a beautiful passage about the “people of the forest” (silvestre genus) who are the “children of the Earth” (terrigenarum)–perhaps the first-ever example of Epicurean primitivism.
We find assistance for interpreting the Golden Words passage, where Lucretius praises the words of true philosophy, epitomized by Epicurus’ doctrines, and names them “golden, and most worthy of eternal life“. In a passage on the evolution of metalworking (line 1280), Lucretius compares gold favorably to iron, saying that while iron exacerbated the problem of warfare, men increase daily their search for gold, praise it and grant it honor beyond belief. We must assume that this, too, is the attitude we should have towards the Golden Words of true philosophy. He seems to be saying: look for gold, not iron–which is to say, perhaps, “make love, not war“, or maybe “seek pleasure and prosperity, not conflict” but he says this without ignoring the nuances. Lucretius does not idealize gold, and in fact he warns people about incessant desires for more, about greed as the “dark side” of this choice of wealth over violence / gold over iron. He also recognizes that the tools made from iron are useful in farming and technology.
People in antiquity believed that all these “civilizing gifts” or decrees were handed down by the gods at the dawn of creation. Some cultures, like the Sumerians, had very elaborate and politically interesting myths concerning the Més (the “divine decrees” by which the gods civilized humans), control over which was ludicrously fought over by gods from different cities according to Sumerian myth. In Liber Qvintvs, Lucretius demystifies each Mé, revealing each to be the natural product of culture and nature taking their course. He proved that Athena did not give us olives (or law, or philosophy, or weaving), that Dionysus did not give us wine, that Aristos did not give us cheese-making, etc. It is mortals who have fashioned the Més, and since (like the laws of human society) they are not divine but natural, these techniques, practices, or wisdom-traditions can be perfected or updated over long spans of many generations … and, most importantly, they do not serve gods. They serve mortals.
Overall, although DRN has many inspiring and moving passages, Liber Qvintvs is my favorite of the six books of De rerum natura, a treasure-trove of wisdom, an intellectual feast. If you do not have time to read the entire work, I recommend that you focus only on Liber Qvintvs so as to get a feel for why Lucretius (together with his Hegemon, Epicurus) is such an essential foundational figure in Western thought.