The Gods, Atomism, and Ancient Greece: A Humanist’s View

The didactic poem On the Nature of Things by the Latin poet Titus Lucretius Carus (99 – 55 BC), the longest, most detailed exposition of the ancient doctrine of Epicureanism and one of the most widely read and influential texts of the first two centuries AD, went out of circulation in the Middle Ages only see a revival of currency in the Seventeenth Century; that currency continued through the early Twentieth Century, but in the early Twenty First Century, the poem has receded somewhat back into unfamiliarity.  Among those who read and admired On the Nature of Things were Sir Francis Bacon, Edward Gibbon, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Percy Shelly, Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Tennyson, Karl Marx, Walter Pater, and more recently the late Hans Blumenberg and the late Jacques Derrida.  On the Nature of Things influenced the formation of modern chemistry and physics in the Eighteenth Century and modern anthropology and political science.  Pater’s novel Marius the Epicurean (1885) advances the theory – to explain the abrupt disappearance of organized Latinate Epicureanism sometime between the end of the Second and the beginning of the Third Century BC – that, so close to Christian ethics were Epicurean ethics, the Epicureans could and did become early adopters of Christianity, rapidly converting themselves out of existence while at the same time bringing their respect for real knowledge of the workings of nature to the new religion.  Marx’s evaluation of Epicureanism in Lucretius’s version of the doctrine differed not so much from Pater’s: Marx saw in the rigorous atomism of Lucretius’s poem both a profound critique of superstition and an anticipation of his own dialectic of materialism.

Marx would undoubtedly have rejected Pater’s judgment of Epicureanism, but Pater would have seen, in contrast, no insuperable contradiction between his assessment and that of Marx.  The concern at present, however, is not with the array of interpretations, whether clashing or consonant, of On the Nature of Things, but rather with the poem itself.

Before Virgil’s Aeneid, there is no greater monument to Latin verse than On the Nature of Things.  And yet, how different a poem from Virgil’s Aeneid Lucretius’s De rerum is!  Virgil casts the Aeneid in epic verse in belated imitation of Homer, reversing the order of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to tell the story of Rome’s foundation in the wanderings of Prince Aeneas after the fall of Troy and his eventual establishment of a New Troy in the Valley of the Tiber.  Lucretius casts On the Nature of Things as a versified exposition in six books of the Epicurean variant of Greek atomism and of its application to the understanding of everything from physics and psychology to cosmology and political science.  Virgil’s is a book of narrative; Lucretius’s a book of instruction.  Oddly, there are some similarities, not least that like the Aeneid, On the Nature of Things remained incomplete at its author’s death; and equally importantly that like the Aeneid, On the Nature of Things expresses its author’s skepticism about the notion of empire although where in Virgil’s poem the critique is implied only, in Lucretius’s poem it is explicit.  Thus On the Nature of Things makes an unexpected complementary pair with the Aeneid.  A reader should ideally read the two poems in parallel, not least because Virgil was himself very likely an Epicurean by persuasion and knowledgeable about On the Nature of Things, as was his younger contemporary Ovid.

In what follows, I should like to give some background to Lucretius’s poem, and then comment on aspects of the poem itself, including its portrait of the scientific thinker as a liberator of humanity, its theory of social evolution, and details of its political critique.

I. The Epicurean Background.  Epicureanism developed out of the original atomism of Leucippus (Fifth Century BC) and Democritus (460 – 370 BC), both of Abdera.  Epicurus himself (341 – 270 BC) was a product of the disruption of the Classical World in the aftermath of the campaigns of Alexander the Great during the early strife among Alexander’s successors.  For example, Epicurus’ family suffered from forced deportation from its home on the island of Samos, when Perdiccas, Alexander’s regent after his death, decided that the Athenian colony there constituted a potential fifth column awaiting orders from his rivals Antipater, Craterus, and Ptolemy.  Epicurus studied first under the Platonist philosopher Pamphilus but switched his allegiance to the Democritean philosopher Nausiphanes.  Materialism trumped idealism, but perhaps not completely.  In any case, having subscribed to atomism, Epicurus began to develop it not only as physics and cosmology but also as ethics, political science, and, quite significantly, theology.  Lucretius would later become the inheritor of this tendency towards “encyclopedism,” which already makes itself evident in the extant fragments of Democritus.  Modern textual scholars possess a considerable body of documents likely to be actual writings of Epicurus, as well as a mass of later Greek writings of what became the Epicurean School, the famous “Garden” in Athens.  One document attributed plausibly to Epicurus, a letter by him to his friend and philosophical recruit Herodotus, succinctly exposits the fundamental theses of the doctrine that would come to bear its author’s name.  In the first place –

Nothing comes into existence from non-existence.   For if that were possible, anything could be created out of anything, without requiring seeds.  And if things which disappear became non-existent, everything in the universe would have surely vanished by now.  But the universe has always been as it is now, and always will be, since there is nothing it can change into.  Nor is there anything outside the universe which could infiltrate it and produce change.

In the second place –

The universe is made up of bodies and void.  That bodies exist is obvious to anyone’s senses.  We may also make inferences about things hidden from our senses, as I have noted above, only from signs that our senses can detect, and this is how we infer the void.  For if the void, which we also call place, room, and intangible substance, did not exist, bodies would have no place to be or anywhere to move through – but they are clearly seen to be moving.  Beyond these constituents [body and void] nothing else is conceivable by any means.  Both are regarded as whole substances – not attributes of them.

Farther along Epicurus articulates a number of tertiary propositions – that “the universe is infinite,” that “the atoms have an unimaginable variety of shapes,” and that “the atoms are in constant motion throughout eternity.”  Farther along still Epicurus argues that the soul is atomic and that ideas have a physical origin mediated slightly by the passage from the phenomenal to the psychic domains, which are also atomic.  All of these ontological assertions operate with an ulterior purpose in Epicurus’ discourse – the liberation of the mind from the shackles of false doctrine and error.  In his Letter to Menoeceus Epicurus writes that the goal of knowledge is peace of mind.  True knowledge produces peace of mind by disarming superstition and dispelling fear of the gods.  To Menoeceus thus –

A god is an immortal and happy being.  This is well-known, but do not believe anything about divine nature other than what is congenial for an eternally happy existence.  The gods do exist because we have preconceived notions of them, but they are not like how most people describe them.  Most people embellish their notions of the gods with false beliefs.  They credit the gods for delivering rewards and punishments because they commend those who share their own ways and condemn those who do not.  Rejecting the popular myths does not make one impious; preaching them is what demonstrates impiety.

As remarked, when Epicurus transferred his philosophical allegiance from Platonism to Atomism, he did not entirely renounce Platonism.  The concluding sentence of the just quoted passage from the Letter to Menoeceus provides an example.  Plato, giving voice in his dialogues to his teacher Socrates, argued the same: In the received idea of the gods the naïve mind embraces a falsehood; the gods are not as myths would represent them, but they are remote and mysterious.  Yet in his cosmology, Epicurus differs greatly from Plato.  The cosmos of Plato’s Timaeus is a finite construction adding up to one world, the familiar world of the firm earth, the seas, the sky, and the celestial objects.  The cosmos of Epicurus’ extant writings violates the Platonic assumption of finitude.  Epicurus writes, “The number of world-systems is infinite.”  The explanation is that “the atoms, being infinitely many… travel any distance, and those which are able to form a world are not exhausted by the formation of one world or by any finite number of them – both ones like ours or other kinds.”  The Platonic cosmos has a rational cause in the Demiurge.  The Epicurean cosmos has no cause other than itself, but in the eternal and infinite torrent of the atoms there occurs now and then a random swerve (clinamen) that generates cascading collisions and aggregations.  To swerve now and then unpredictably belongs to the tendency of the atom.  The collision of atoms also tears down what has been built up.  The cosmos is thus self-ordering and self-refurbishing; it is implacable in its insistence on the rule of mortality.

How does atomism produce ethics?  The answer would be that it does so by replacing irrational commandments based ultimately on groundless fear with rational deductions conducive to whatever possible happiness the universe affords for human beings.  In the Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus produces something like a syllogism: “All things good and bad are experienced through sensation, but sensation ceases at death.  So death is nothing to us, and to know this makes a mortal life happy.”  Freed from the fear of death itself and therefore from the fear of punishment in an afterlife, the subject becomes a free agent.  How is it then that he does not become a lawless monster?  The question becomes especially acute because a central principle of Epicurean doctrine states that “pleasure… is the beginning and end of the happy life.”  While it is the case, as Epicurus writes in the Letter to Menoeceus, that “we are endowed by nature to recognize pleasure as the greatest good”; nevertheless, “not every pleasure is worth choosing.”  Epicurus also insists that “those who least yearn for luxury enjoy it most,” from which arises the virtue of curbing desire.  It is also the case, according to Epicurus, that “natural desires are easily fulfilled,” but “vain desires are insatiable.”  There is a hierarchy, furthermore, of pleasures, with wisdom and friendship standing on the highest level.  In this manner, Epicurus can endorse and re-appropriate  the normative virtues.  His is a version of Plato’s “hedonic calculus.”

Epicureanism became a school, propagating itself by the establishment of private clubs, each furnishing its members in a given polis with a secluded garden in which to study, hold concourse, and meditate.  The school migrated from Greece proper to Magna Graecia and from the Italian poleis to the emergent Latin civilization centered on Rome.  By the First Century BC already Epicureanism seems to have rivaled Stoicism as the philosophy-of-choice of the Roman elites.  It remained popular also in the East, where it left many tangible remains.  The most impressive of these is the garden donated to the local Epicureans by Diogenes, a wealthy citizen of Oenoanda, in Greek Lycia.  Diogenes had the tenets of Epicureanism chiseled into the inner face of the wall surrounding the garden, almost the entirety of which has survived.  In the West, the evidence for Epicureanism is more literary than epigraphic.  Lucretius is the main exhibit, but it is worth mentioning Virgil and Ovid once again.  Later, in the mid-First Century, there is Petronius; his Satyricon, a Neronian picaresque, is thoroughly informed by Epicureanism.  Still later, Plutarch, himself a Platonist, almost always includes an Epicurean character in his dialogues.  His Platonist spokesmen often defer to their Epicurean interlocutors.

II. Epicurus as Saint.  Posterity knows only a little about Lucretius and much of what it knows it gleans from autobiographical references in his poem.  The poem itself is paradoxical.  Alleging to explicate, for the sake of a potential recruit, the scientific truths discovered by Epicurus, the truths that will redeem life for the one who accepts them, On the Nature of Things couches itself in the language of insistent evangelism, making of its intellectual hero, as George Santayana noted in his study of Lucretius in Three Philosophical Poets, a secular saint.  The poem attests a powerful experience on the part of its author, which can only be described as spiritual conversion, which he then wishes to foster in another.  Already in the generation just after Epicurus, his followers acquired the habit of referring to him under the honorific of soter or “savior,” an etiquette that imitated in turn a propaganda device of Alexander’s successors, the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasts.  Lucretius, whose time and place knew the afflictions of political breakdown, picks up this thus slightly tainted habit.

A good sense of the fervency of On the Nature of Things may be gathered from the poem’s prologue, which, after a novel invocation of the goddess Venus, introduces Epicurus, without ever naming him, and casts him in the role of a Promethean savior of humanity:

Whilst human kind
Throughout the lands lay miserably crushed
Before all eyes beneath Religion—who
Would show her head along the region skies,
Glowering on mortals with her hideous face—
A Greek it was who first opposing dared
Raise mortal eyes that terror to withstand,
Whom nor the fame of Gods nor lightning’s stroke
Nor threatening thunder of the ominous sky
Abashed; but rather chafed to angry zest
His dauntless heart to be the first to rend
The crossbars at the gates of Nature old.
And thus his will and hardy wisdom won;
And forward thus he fared afar, beyond
The flaming ramparts of the world, until
He wandered the unmeasurable All.
Whence he to us, a conqueror, reports
What things can rise to being, what cannot,
And by what law to each its scope prescribed,
Its boundary stone that clings so deep in Time.
Wherefore Religion now is under foot,
And us his victory now exalts to heaven.

Before Epicurus revealed the truth, humanity lived in degrading abjection, the cause of which, “Religion,” Lucretius will swiftly make synonymous with a word that he might well have coined, superstition.  Lucretius’s “Religion” foreshadows one of William Blake’s personifications, an ugly “Nobodaddy,” the grimacing notion of which, false but effective, humbles and incapacitates the one who subscribes to it.  The discussion will come to the question why “Religion” has necessarily in Lucretius’s phrase a “hideous face.”  It is sufficient here merely to call attention to the figure.  For Lucretius, the intellectual audacity of Epicurus resembles the deeds of the mythic monster-slayers, but on a non-mythic level.  The faculty of Epicurus to stare down the baleful mask of “Religion” enables him to see natural phenomena clairvoyantly, without any mediating concept.  Epicureanism, in Lucretius’s sketch of its origins, corresponds to the tenet of Heraclitus that under the Logos the conscientious person inherits the duty of to describe each thing according to its nature and explaining how it is ordered (Diels, Fragment 2).  Epicureanism continues the critique of received belief, sometimes implicit but often explicit, that accompanies Ionian discourse from its beginnings and which, as we have noted, readers will readily discover in Plato.


In his zeal not to suffer intimidation before natural phenomena but to wrest from them their deepest secrets, Epicurus, in Lucretius’s allegory, transcends the merely heroic to assume Titanic lineaments; he resembles Prometheus, the friend of humanity in Hesiod’s story in the Works and Days, who stole fire from Zeus to benefit his protégées.  The Epicurus of On the Nature of Things is also an explorer, breaching “the flaming ramparts of the world” and searching for truth until, now a conqueror, he returns with his luminous word (verbum) that “us… now exalts to heaven.”  Epicurus saw the boundary stones of existence, those laws of nature that make the universe comprehensible.  To gain possession of such knowledge is to put “Religion,” which is nothing less than superstition, “under foot.”  Than Lucretius in celebrating Epicurus, Brecht in lauding Galileo could not praise his hero more; indeed, via Marx, Lucretius probably furnishes Brecht with a model.

Consider the rhetorical strategy of On the Nature of Things: Lucretius addresses his poem to a skeptical second person, one Memmius, whom readers suppose to be a young man of intelligence, education, and character.  The same young man, however, clings to outmoded ideas and experiences the usual hobbling fear of divine wrath.  Lucretius proposes to liberate him by persuasion.  Lucretius counsels Memmius thusly, “for thee I prove the supreme law of Gods and sky, and the primordial germs of things unfold, whence Nature all creates, and multiplies and fosters all, and hither she resolves each in the end when each is overthrown.”  In offering the doctrine of the atoms, those “germs” of everything that is, Lucretius duplicates the original gesture of Epicurus himself.  This obligation to propagate the teaching rests at the very heart of Lucretius’s poetic activity.  The formal anticipation of Pauline Christianity is striking: Epicureanism is evangelical; its task is the salvation of humanity from its delusions concerning what Paul would later call “powers.”

A sentence two paragraphs back asserted that Lucretius had a specific reason for characterizing “Religion” under the figure of a leering horrible mask.  Lucretius fully explicates himself in the following passage, which also contains the nub, which he will coax into full discourse in Book V, of both his political science and his anthropology, including his theory of the sacred.

I fear perhaps thou deemest that we fare
An impious road to realms of thought profane;
But ‘tis that same religion oftener far
Hath bred the foul impieties of men:
As once at Aulis, the elected chiefs,
Foremost of heroes, Danaan counsellors,
Defiled Diana’s altar, virgin queen,
With Agamemnon’s daughter, foully slain.
She felt the chaplet round her maiden locks
And fillets, fluttering down on either cheek,
And at the altar marked her grieving sire,
The priests beside him who concealed the knife,
And all the folk in tears at sight of her.
With a dumb terror and a sinking knee
She dropped; nor might avail her now that first
’Twas she who gave the king a father’s name.
They raised her up, they bore the trembling girl
On to the altar – hither led not now
With solemn rites and hymeneal choir,
But sinless woman, sinfully foredone,
A parent felled her on her bridal day,
Making his child a sacrificial beast
To give the ships auspicious winds for Troy:
Such are the crimes to which Religion leads.

Lucretius makes allusion to an episode in the Homeric saga, both to Homer’s Iliad and to the larger treatment of the same mythic episode by Euripides in the Iphigenia at Aulis, following Homer.  Lucretius has discerned in the Trojan cycle one of its central but rather bashful themes, that namely of sacrifice.  Agamemnon, the Achaean king-of-kings who leads the expedition to Troy is the son of Atreus, who once in rivalry over the throne of Mycenae with his brother Thyestes, killed the sons of Thyestes and fed them to his duped sibling.  The name Thyestes, from the verb thuein, means “to sacrifice.”  Agamemnon’s daughter – Lucretius’s “sinless woman, sinfully foredone” – is Euripides’s Iphigenia and Homer’s Iphianassa.  Agamemnon in a frenzy of impatience over the stranding of the fleet at Aulis killed a heifer sacred to Artemis (or in another version a pregnant hare); the priest Calchas told him that the gods would not raise the wind until he had satisfied Artemis by offering the life his own daughter at the altar.

In the speculation of Lucretius, human sacrifice figures as the deluded and terrible basis of religion-as-superstition.  No person deserves pity as much from the viewpoint of Epicureanism as the victim of sacrifice, every one of whom may rightly be deemed as “foully slain.”  Agamemnon’s deed, making of his daughter a “sacrificial beast,” qualifies itself as paradigmatically sacrificial, but also simply as a “crime”; that is, as a malus or “evil.”  The “sinking knee” of Iphigenia in the fell moment links her to the more general and more abstract abjection of the earlier passage.  In Lucretius’s description, Epicurus becomes the advocate of victims – all victims whether past, present, or future.  The Roman Republic in the First Century BC knew no institutionalized human sacrifice, but animal sacrifice continued, and gladiation attracted an inveterate clientele in every Roman municipality; also, the exhibition and execution of prisoners of war belonged to the regular military ceremonies in the capitol, familiar to every citizen.  When Lucretius emphasizes the anti-sacrificial element in Epicureanism, it is not a mere antiquarian side-issue.  The concern of Lucretius with ritual murder indeed runs in parallel with that of Hebrew prophecy regarding the same and anticipates a similar and quite central concern in the Gospel narrative.

Again at the end of On the Nature of Things Book I, after expositing the basic tenets of the physics of Epicureanism, Lucretius invokes the image of the philosopher-savior:

O thou who first uplifted in such dark
So clear a torch aloft, who first shed light
Upon the profitable ends of man,
O thee I follow, glory of the Greeks,
And set my footsteps squarely planted now
Even in the impress and the marks of thine –
Less like one eager to dispute the palm,
More as one craving out of very love
That I may copy thee…
O, here in these affairs
Some new divine delight and trembling awe
Takes hold through me, that thus by power of thine
Nature, so plain and manifest at last,
Hath been on every side laid bare to man!

The invocation serves as homage and as a call for imitation of the master, that “glory of the Greeks,” as Lucretius names him.  Lucretius now redoubles the Promethean implication in his word-portrait, since the act of Epicurus is to have “uplifted… a torch” so as to reveal “the profitable ends of man.”  To follow in the footsteps of Epicurus is to experience the authentic “divine delight and trembling awe.”  These emotions stem not from fear of punishment in the afterlife or dread of the arbitrary will of the gods or the whimsy of chance, but from participation in truth, which means the laying-bare of nature so that men might see at last the real causality in events and so cease to nurture magical delusions about reality.

To find similar language in antiquity, one would have to turn to the mystery liturgies of Orpheus, Dionysus, the Great Mother, and Mithras.  Devotees of those beings also endowed them with the power of personal salvation and even with the competency to extricate men from afflicting mental confusion and falsehood.  The Epicurus of On the Nature of Things differs from the mystery deities, however, in not being a deity; or rather in being a mere mortal, a man although an extraordinary one.  The closest parallel would perhaps be with the Buddha.  A few brave scholars have indeed suggested that Greek atomist philosophy exercised some influence on the formation of Mahayana Buddhism during the centuries of the Greek Kingdoms in Bactria and India.


III. The Origins of Language and Gregariousness.  The earliest adumbrations of evolutionary theory belong with the first phase of Greek philosophy in Sixth-Century BC Ionia.  Anaximander, as quoted by a Latin writer of the Third Century AD, believed that land animals including human beings stemmed from a common ancestor, a fishlike creature whose progeny adapted by stages to a terrestrial existence.  Democritus, broaching the topic of social evolution, proposed the startlingly Rousseauvian idea that the earliest human beings anciently roamed free in the landscape, as isolated savages, and that they only grudgingly learned the principle of gregariousness.  In the extant fragments of Epicurus, no discursive survey of these topics occurs, but the treatment of them in On the Nature of Things more than makes up for the lacuna in Epicurus.  Nevertheless, the setting forth of the probable story of humanity’s social formation requires first the setting forth of the pre-human story of earthly life.  Epicurus, according to Lucretius, possessed a mind sufficiently keen to open up hidden ages of terrestrial process and to perceive the origin and development of unfamiliar into familiar forms.  Such mental acuity so transcends most men’s powers that, at the beginning of Book V, Lucretius must ratchet up his earlier estimation of the master: “For if must needs be named for him the name demanded by the now known majesty of these high matters, then a god was he – hear me, illustrious Memmius – a god; who first and chief found out that plan of life which now is called philosophy, and who by cunning craft, out of such mighty waves, out of such mighty darkness, moored life in havens so serene, in light so clear.”

Because in accord with the behavior of the atoms in the eternal universe everything phenomenal is always coming to be and passing away then everything phenomenal also has something like a mortal character – and even the earth would be a type of organism and show the phases of an typical organismic sequence.  Thus, as Lucretius supposes, the young earth brought forth spontaneously the vegetable and animal species, “but, lo, because her bearing years must end, she ceased, like to a woman worn by eld.”  Once the age of spontaneous generation comes to its end, the familiar cycle of procreation picks up after it.  Lucretius puts forward a hint of the fitment hypothesis so important in modern evolutionary theory.  In untrammeled fecundity the young earth bare not only the stable species but also monstrosities; in respect of these, however, as Lucretius writes, “Nature banned with horror their increase, and powerless [they] were to reach unto the coveted lower of fair maturity, or to find aliment, or to intertwine in works of Venus.”

As for humanity, it too had an original, spontaneously generated form.  Lucretius departs not too far from the old Hesiodic idea, as expressed in that poet’s Works and Days, of phases of humanity, in the earliest of which men were gigantic, savage, and without institutions – even without language.  Lucretius writes: “But mortal man was then far hardier in the old champaign, as well he should be, since a hardier earth had [begotten] him; builded too was he of bigger and more solid bones within, and knit with stalwart sinews through the flesh, nor easily seized by either heat or cold, or alien food or any ail or irk.”  Lucretius then adds how “whilst so many lustrums of the sun rolled on across the sky, men led a life after the roving habit of wild beasts.”   Homer too in his description of the Cyclopes in The Odyssey makes his primitives out to be cultureless troglodytes who have no assemblies, laws, or families and who know nothing of the all-important rules of hospitality.

According to Lucretius, the primitive human beings existed at a bestial, unselfconscious level, buffeted by the weather, pressed hard by scarcity, and incapable of any concerted action, so trapped were they in their instincts –

As yet they knew not to enkindle fire
Against the cold, nor hairy pelts to use
And clothe their bodies with the spoils of beasts…

Nor could they then regard
The general good, nor did they know to use
In common any customs, any laws…
And Venus in the forests then would link
The lovers’ bodies; for the woman yielded
Either from mutual flame, or from the man’s
Impetuous fury and insatiate lust,
Or from a bribe – as acorn-nuts, choice pears,
Or the wild berries of the arbute-tree.
And trusting wondrous strength of hands and legs,
They’d chase the forest-wanderers, the beasts;
And many they’d conquer, but some few they fled,
A-skulk into their hiding-places.

While Lucretius’s description, as previously noted, looks forward to Rousseau’s Noble Savage, which is likely to have sprung from it, the scenario in On the Nature of Things lacks any flavor of Rousseau’s sentimentalized savagery.  Indeed, what Rousseau would later celebrate as amour propre, Lucretius marks off in advance as pure deficiency.  The primitives of Epicurean atomism are creatures of impetuosity, “fury,” and “insatiate lust.”  Being an apostle of Epicurus, Lucretius is also an apostle of civilized living.  Pleasure might be the chief desideratum of life, its goal and reason, but Lucretius always means sane pleasure – pleasure at the behest of the rational faculty, which knows how to square itself with the boundaries not only of Nature, as writ large, but with those of its own nature.  The primitive existence is a skulking, undignified existence; it is libidinous, suborning, and unselfconscious.

It is a perennial problem with theories of ethogenenesis how to get from the state of no culture or no language or no self-consciousness whatsoever to the degree-zero of culture or language or self-consciousness because the gap between one state and the other is infinite.  What, for example, is half an institution or half a linguistic sign or one-half of self-consciousness?  Each of these things is an entity, which either exists or does not exist, defying logically any division or graduation.  In these things graduation follows existence.  Contemporary evolutionary thinking, which is unthinkable without its adumbrations in Democritean and Epicurean thinking, right down to the rejection of teleology, cannot conceive of events, but only of processes; actual modern thinkers like René Girard and Eric L. Gans who examine culture, language, and self-consciousness from an evenemential perspective make no impression on contemporary thought.  Lucretius in this way is mostly quite contemporary: He more or less avoids the infinite gap between “off” and “on” by ignoring it and assuming a process.  Consider how Lucretius derives language from its prior non-existence. –

But nature ‘twas
Urged men to utter various sounds of tongue
And need and use did mould the names of things,
About in same wise as the lack-speech years
Compel young children unto gesturings,
Making them point with finger here and there
At what’s before them…

And what,
At last, in this affair so wondrous is,
That the human race (in whom a voice and tongue
Were now in vigour) should by divers words
Denote its objects, as each divers sense
Might prompt? – since even the speechless herds, aye, since
The very generations of wild beasts
Are wont dissimilar and divers sounds
To rouse from in them, when there’s fear or pain,
And when they burst with joys.

By itself it is not much of a theory.  It is the equivalent of saying, in response to the question how then did language arise, that nature did it; but to say nature did it is simply to utter a second statement synonymous with the vague one implied in the question, that language somehow arose.  It is perhaps slightly more subtle than that.  The careful reader might infer, based on what Lucretius writes, that gradually the natural sounds that the human vocal apparatus emits came to be associated in a conventional way with things, events, tactile sensation, flavor, and emotion, but that only replaces the topic in abyss of infinitesimal subdivisions where it is already stalled.  More promising, in connection with ideas elsewhere in the poem, is Lucretius’s plausible guess that early language functioned ostensively, its main or sole use being to point out objects of interest.  Language began as a pointing-response to things that emerged in the environment and attracted attention; language was necessarily a communal activity developed by interlocutors as a medium for sharing awareness and knowledge.  According to Lucretius, “To think that in those days some man apportioned round to things their names, and that from him men learned their first nomenclature, is foolery.”

Concerning words, Lucretius poses rhetorically, “Whence was implanted in the teacher… fore-knowledge of their use, and whence was given to him alone the primordial faculty to know and see in mind what ’twas he willed?”  Whereas the statement to which the implied question responds qualifies as plausible; yet Lucretius, regarding it as implausible, has no fully articulated positive substitute for the implausibility that that he would abolish.

Consider, however, the continuation of the thought: If such a busybody had existed and had pestered people to adopt his innovations by a “perpetual vain dingdong in their ears” (as the translation quaintly puts it), “ne’er would they allow, nor ne’er anywise endure” such impositions.  Here it is necessary to recall that although an atomist, Epicurus, whose doctrine Lucretius articulates, began as a Platonist and that Platonist themes migrate from the Epicurean archive into the Lucretian text.  When Socrates philosophized he encountered resistance and ended up the victim of the Athenian plethos; Epicurus too, in advocating a novel doctrine, fell afoul of popular disdain and administrative hostility.  The fate of the unshackled prisoner in Plato’s Parable of the Cave also bears on the case.  When he tries to explain to his former companions how their notion of reality is deluded, they are minded in their ire to rise and kill him.  Each one becomes an object of emergent interest – or more accurately, annoyance – whose presence solicits an ostensive designation as a prelude to concerted homicidal action.  The busybody haunts the discussion of language-origin in On the Nature of Things.  His specter hovers around Lucretius’s convictions that sacrifice furnishes the matrix of religion and that resentment pricks into being commonwealths and laws.

The discussion of language-origin in On the Nature of Things might be a response to the discussion of the same topic in Plato’s Cratylus.  Lucretius could well be criticizing the Socratic theory that words are primordial poetry crafted by individual artists and then accepted into currency; but he could also be criticizing the conclusion of that dialogue, where Cratylus argues that the topic itself is illegitimate and that no meaningful knowledge can come from the pursuit of it.  At least Lucretius has a theory of language-origin.

IV. The Origins of Society and Religion.  According to Lucretius, manipulation of fire accelerated social development when men learned first to preserve the flame after lightning strikes and then to make it on demand in imitation of spontaneous combustion in the wind-whipped branches.  Lucretius’s purely naturalistic narrative of the complexification of society excludes any role for a superhuman fire-giver such as Prometheus.  Lucretius has substituted clarity of mind or science for fire and has given the Promethean role to Epicurus, a mortal man no matter how high he might rank on the ladder of intellectual achievement.  When once nevertheless nature has clued in the few observant then “more and more each day would men more strong in sense, more wise in heart, teach [other men] to change their earlier mode and life by fire and new devices.”  Now the reader who catches Lucretius in an inconsistency should neither pride himself excessively nor conceal his finding.  What strikes Lucretius as absurd with respect to language-origin, that a singular teacher should have taught his innovation to others directly and that they should have adopted it, each in his own milieu, strikes him as perfectly reasonable in respect to the establishment of basic instrumentality.  For in Lucretius’s scenario individual instructors must have persuaded the many to alter their habits of existence, to accept the gift of fire, everyone in his own domain.

The inconsistency of the two arguments aside, fire plausibly stimulates other instrumental developments, especially metallurgy and through it agriculture and later on warfare.  The civilizational project has begun to move.  Lucretius writes how –

Kings began
Cities to found and citadels to set,
As strongholds and asylums for themselves,
And flocks and fields to portion for each man
After the beauty, strength, and sense of each—
For beauty then imported much, and strength
Had its own rights supreme. Thereafter, wealth
Discovered was, and gold was brought to light,
Which soon of honour stripped both strong and fair;
For men, however beautiful in form
Or valorous, will follow in the main
The rich man’s party.

Lucretius understood that the “Big Man” constitutes a necessary phase in social self-articulation and that kingship more or less institutionalizes the “Big Man’s” improvisations.  The relation of the citadel to cultivation finds its empirical referents in the earliest civilizations known to today’s archeology, such as those of the Tigris and Euphrates.  An agricultural surplus, while being a boon to the community, nevertheless offers an allurement to predatory foreigners – the silo soon acquires wall or moat and the familiar castle-keep bulks itself into view.  One of the main functions of kingship, the distribution of wealth to the loyal following, finds in bulk gold and later in coinage its effective instrument whereupon power becomes less a matter of personal charisma (“beauty, strength, and sense”) and more a matter of abstract resource.  A king portions, as he does in Homer’s Odyssey or in the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf.  Lucretius shows himself in these lines a proto-Romantic, anticipating the denunciation of the market in Rousseau and the Lake Poets.  (See Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us.”)  Yet Lucretius avoids utopianism.  It is in human nature, almost ineradicably, to lust after “abounding riches” and “power.”

Most antique discourse sets the Golden Age in the remote past.  In Hesiod’s metallurgical sequence of the five races in the Works and Days, for example, the easeful Gold Age comes first; the later, less happy, but more developed, ages supersede it.  Lucretius departs from the antique standard in finding the ideal era in an intermediate age between the beginning of organized life and the present day, but he retains features of early Greek anthropology, such as the Hesiodic.  In the Works and Days, Hesiod invoked the quasi-mythic notion of the two strifes (erites) to explain the opposing traits of productivity and perversity: The “good strife” impels men to thrive against lean days, and to compete, not against other men, but rather against the ideals of prudence and thrift; the “bad strife” impels men to remark, envy, and violently misappropriate the hard-earned security of others.

The appearance of kingship acts in the ethical microcosm as does the swerve of the atom in the physical macrocosm: It interrupts bland continuity and sets in train interminable episodes of cause and effect.  Where Hesiod invokes Eris (“strife”) Lucretius invokes invidia (“envy”).  A king, whatever else he does, makes himself conspicuous, a cynosure of fascination, and attracts imitative and appropriative notice.  Since forever, Lucretius affirms, “men [have] wished glory for themselves and power” on the supposition that secure in wealth, “they themselves, the opulent, might pass a quiet life.”  The glory-hunters act “in vain” because in the Epicurean universe as in the archaic universe of Homeric poetry hubris solicits nemesis.  Men reach “the heights of honor,” as Lucretius writes, only to invite “envy like the thunderbolt [to] smite.”  This envy is hardly a form of consciousness at all, for men who “follow ambition” invariably take their cues, as Lucretius says, “from other’s lips”; and they covet only that of which “they’ve heard.”  The vainglorious act takes its cause in imitation, not in “thought.”  Imitating the king indeed finds its most acute expression in appropriating kingship from the one who currently holds it.  “And therefore,” as Lucretius puts it, “kings were slain.”  One might think of Agamemnon, whose story the poem has earlier invoked.  The result of thoughtless improvised succession is, naturally, a descent into social crisis of “brawling mobs.”

The reaction against the chaos of endless “vengeance” produces what for Lucretius counts as the best age.  “Ailing from feuds,” men responded in the formulation of “laws and the strictest codes.”  It seems indeed in Lucretius’s scheme that the initial codification was the equivalent of the appearance or invention of conscience.  The form of civilization called a republic appears, such as the Roman Republic.  Even so, republican serenity proved unstable, susceptible in more than one way to “envy so malign.”  The state might succumb to its own envy of another state and seek to conquer it for its wealth; or it might succumb to such envy in another state and be conquered.  Or it might be undone by an eruption of libido internally.  Men should disdain “the purple vestment,” writes Lucretius, the kingly robe that signifies that ambition to dominate others, which end badly always for everyone.

Religion has one origin, according to Lucretius, in visions of the gods.  Lucretius, following Epicurus, does not advocate atheism, but he acknowledges the existence of the gods.  It is only that for him the gods are not as others have described them; they are, rather, perfect beings who consist, and who live in a region of, the rarest kinds of atoms, taking pleasure rationally from their lives and, most importantly, refraining from interaction with human beings.  Occasionally in the dream-state men glimpse the gods.  Rational men refrain from endowing the gods with vulgar attributes, but primitives and the credulous, projecting their baseness, can only understand superiority as mastery and as the mirror-image of their own appetites.

Religion has its other origin, according to Lucretius, in the misattribution of irate agency to nature: “Lo, what man is there whose mind with dread of gods cringes not close, whose limbs with terror-spell crouch not together, when the parched earth quakes with the horrible thunderbolt amain, and across the mighty sky the rumblings run?”  As in the case of language-origin, Lucretius’s discussion of the roots of religion runs to disappointment.  One’s disappointment stems from Lucretius’s failure in On the Nature of Things to coordinate his insight about the essential gesture of religion, sacrifice, with his general tenet that religion is an error of misattribution.  Lucretius stands close, very close, to doing just that but he manages somehow never to put the pieces of his total vision in their plausible order.  How so?

There is the image par excellence of religion (Book I), of Iphigenia led to her slaughter to appease the gods; there is image of the robe of office in Book V, which “aroused in [primitive] days envy so malign that the first wearer went to woeful death by ambuscades” and which ends its career “rent in rags.”  There is the image, also, the plausibility of which Lucretius denies, of the pestiferous originator of language, who would inevitably have aroused the ire of those whom he pestered, becoming a victim; and there is the insight that regicide was anciently all but a custom.  There is even the tantalizing element in Lucretius’s report concerning Iphigenia that in the fell moment she “gave the king a father’s name”; that is, she performed the primordial act of naming something, a deed that links her to the nomothete whose reality Lucretius elsewhere so strongly doubts.

The implications of Lucretius’s discourse on religion seem to have appealed to an Epicurean poet of the generation after Lucretius, Ovid, who in effect completes the speculation in On the Nature of Things regarding the etiology of the gods.  In Metamorphoses Book XIV, Romulus, whose death Ovid’s contemporary Livy ascribed to a lynching, ascends through his demise to godhood, becoming Quirinus; once the king’s body has “dissolved in the clear atmosphere” (an atomistic metaphor) Romulus acquires “beauty of form” and enjoys elevation  to a rank of worthiness among “the sacred high seats of the gods.”  Even more blatantly, in Metamorphoses Book XV, the murdered Caesar attains godhood.  Jove informs Venus, “This descendant of yours you suffer over, Cytherean, has fulfilled his time, and the years he owes to earth are done.”  Furthermore, “You, and Augustus, his ‘son,’ will ensure that he ascends to heaven as a god, and is worshipped in the temples.”  For Ovid, godhood is indeed a misattribution, just as it is for Lucretius, but it is not the error of imputing agency to natural phenomena; it is the error of mistaking the social, cultural and political effects of collective murder for a supernatural agency, whose efficaciousness the murderers reflexively endow on their victim.

Epilogue.  Despite what Santayana wrote, in Three Philosophical Poets, that Epicureanism is more a therapeutic doctrine than a genuine philosophy and that Lucretius’s design is more evangelical than scientific, no sensitive and informed reader can regard On the Nature of Things as other than one of the boldest gestures of the Pagan intellect.  And yet in temperament and outlook Santayana is closer to Lucretius than to any other ancient philosopher, so that his skepticism might be read as gentle irony.  If, as thinkers like Girard and Eric Voegelin have argued, the rise of science needed the prior de-divinization of the animistic universe – then Lucretius’s poem constitutes the impressive limit of progress in that direction in antiquity.  In the Eighteenth Century, On the Nature of Things was a spur to the development of modern science.  For the Twenty-First Century, the most estimable strands of Lucretius’s encyclopedic speculation might well be those that bear on the theory of language and culture, including ethics.  In taking leave of our topic, we should recall that although Saint Augustine was no atomist, he admired science, seeing in it no contradiction with Scripture, and he shared with his Latin precursor of five hundred years earlier a thorough disdain for what he called, borrowing Lucretius’s coinage, superstititon.

bertonneauThomas F. Bertonneau earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Califonia at Los Angeles in 1990. He has taught at a variety of institutions, and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on literature, art, music, religion, anthropology, film, and politics. He is a frequent contributor to Anthropoetics, the ISI quarterlies, and others.

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