Sunday, 5 June 2011

Unwelcome ideas - part VII

Titus Lucretius Carus (99 – 55 BC) was a Roman poet only really known to us via his long didactic poem On The Nature Of Things. We know very little about Lucretius himself beyond his poem. He was an avid disciple of Epicurus whose peaceful writings and rational philosophy he saw as a stark contrast to the bloody, uncertain and violent times in which he lived. It is even possible that he committed suicide as some passages in his poem suggest that he saw this as the only rational way to escape intolerable social and political decline. Yet two thousand years later, Lucretius’ poem is by far the most complete and comprehensive exposition of Epicurus’ philosophy available to us. It is still worth reading both as early philosophy and a fine example of ancient scientific thinking vastly superior to Aristotle’s disastrously inept ventures into physics and cosmology.

This post is concerned with only one aspect of Lucretius’ poem, its attack on the mediating role of priests, a stance borrowed directly from Epicurus. To gain some idea of why this attack was so unwelcome to established Roman ideas, we first have to understand how powerful it is.

Lucretius (or Epicurus) is saying that in our terms the gods represent the First Cause and all human life must be lived in and encompassed by secondary causes. In this sense, neither the priesthood nor anyone else is in a position to mediate between us and our gods.

Aye, you yourself some day, perhaps o’ercome
By priest’s alarming words, will fall away.
For even now how many dreams they paint
Such as the settled reasoning of your life
Might well o’erturn, and all your future fate
With terror darken. Not without due cause.
For if men knew there was a certain end
Of all their woes, it would be in their power
Priest’s threats and terrors boldly to defy:
But now there is no power to say them nay
Since after death eternal punishment
Must be the dreaded doom.

Lucretius’ antidote to these priestly terrors is to understand the natural world in terms of logic, atomic theory and observation.

Seeking the words by which, and in what verse
I may at length shed round your mind a light
Which will display to you the hidden things,
This terror then, these shadows on the mind
‘Tis not the radiant sun, nor day’s bright beams
Can them expel, but nature’s face and plan.

In other words, to know our place in the scheme of things, we must study and understand the natural world and thus rise above the spurious claims of priestly mediation. For nobody could conceivably mediate with the First Cause. The natural world is our only world and understanding it is our antidote to philosophical anxiety and our route to a personal philosophy.


James Higham said...

In other words, to know our place in the scheme of things, we must study and understand the natural and metaphysical world - not just one or the other and thus rise above the spurious claims of priestly or false scientific mediation.

A K Haart said...

Yes - you can't understand the natural world only - you need metaphysics to direct your approach. That bit can't be scientific.