Lucretius, “Of Natural Things”- also Atoms & Atheists
It seems at times we can overstate the religious thinking of the Greeks and tip the balance too heavily towards polytheism. Arnold Toynbee, for instance writes that, “In popular pre-Christian Greek religion, divinity was inherent in all natural phenomena, including those man had tamed and domesticated. Divinity was present in springs and rivers and the sea; in trees both the wild oak and the cultivated olive tree; in corn and vines; in mountains; in earthquakes and lightning and thunder. The godhead was diffused throughout the phenomena.” True enough, but some writers suggest a kind of historical evolution, from a sort of universal animism or polytheism, replaced in the West by the Abrahamic monotheisms, and finally, for the first time with the Enlightenment, materialism and atheism rear their heads. Before Spinoza, all was Divinity by one name or another.
But, of course, at most times and places there’s been a wide variety of spiritual beliefs coexisting (peacefully or not); also, not all of the “enemies of the faith” were pagans and polytheists- there has been a materialist interpretation of the world since the pre-Socratics, at least, and they might just have had the benefit of being written down. Democritus, for one, had a basically materialist view of the universe and soul. Epicurus, as well, was once recognized as materialist, if not atheist, although he has benefited from a serious image makeover. John Calvin, for example, once described the epicureans as “monsters” who “burn against the Gospel and dedicate themselves to its destruction”. Now they’re people who eat well.
Lucretius was an epicurean, or at least, he thought that Epicurus was the greatest philosopher who ever lived. We know very little about Lucretius- only that he lived in the first century BC and wrote this uncompleted book in order to cure his patron Gaius Memmius’s fear of death; there’s no word about if it worked. Saint Jerome claimed that Lucretius went mad from a love potion; however, given his status as a materialist, this is likely propaganda. His text, De Rerum natura, is important for epicurean philosophy; after its rediscovery in 1417, it also played a significant role in promoting atomism. And the epicurean argument, I would posit, is in some ways more radical than mainstream atheism. Admittedly, we don’t have much of what Epicurus himself wrote. However, we do have writings from his followers and, to my mind, they pose a greater challenge to atheists than they do to religious people.
Epicurus tried to explain “stuff” in the most physical sense. The pre-Socratics, of course, were obsessed with what the physical world is made of, and many of their suggestions were somewhat amazing. But there were quite a few thinkers who basically got it right, and Epicurus agrees with Democritus that physical things are composed of voids and invisibly small particles, which he calls either ‘primordial germs’ or ‘seeds’, but which many simply translate as atoms. The primordial bodies are solid and indestructible. Nothing is born from nothing or dissolves into nothing- everything is composed of atoms in infinite different combinations. Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius therefore reject the essential “fire” of Heraclitus, Empedocles’ four elements (fire, water, air, and earth), and Anaxagoras’s idea of an infinite array of primary elements without void.
Lucretius draws out the implications of this atomism for religious belief- his real target of the book. According to him, natural phenomena are easily explained by material forces- the coming together and separating of atoms, for one. The soul is part of the body and ends with death, and the ‘mind’ is also nothing something separate from the body (one of the stranger implications of Platonism); neither existed before the body. His intention is to assuage Memmius’s fears of death, and als show that volcanoes, hurricanes, and the like are basically random phenomena and not the works of an angry god. Finally, given that there are no gods and nature only wants us to seek pleasure, particularly sexual, and avoid pain, Lucretius councils to us to do exactly this- instead of worrying about death, amassing wealth, or obsessing over love relationships we should party on. Life can be easier and more enjoyable than it is for most people. His chapter on sex is like something out of a pulp novel.
There is something about most arguments for atheism that has always struck me as strange (in a way I’m not sure I can articulate fully): namely that they tend to try to undermine religious belief by offering alternative explanations for the external world; when what’s important for believers seems, to me, to be what happens internally. Lucretius does the same, explaining in great detail how the universe and planets were formed, how life came into being and how the whole business holds together; and then explaining the creation of religion as the ways people explain the natural phenomena that could be better accounted for in scientific or materialist ways. But it seems unlikely to me that it makes much difference to people of faith that we don’t need God to explain how the stars shine. Even if we have purely materialist explanations of all natural phenomena, it seems more likely that believers are using religious terms to explain internal states and experiences that they cannot otherwise name than calling on God to explain the rising and setting of the sun. And arguments that seek to disprove “religion” by “science” seem to miss the point of belief.
On the other hand, it seems equally pointless to try to “disprove” Lucretius by picking apart his ‘scientific’ theories. That he believes, for instance, that thunder is the result of clouds breaking apart by the force of the wind does little to change his overall argument about where we should place the emphases in our lives. His explanations of natural events as essentially random phenomena are intended to alleviate his patron’s fear of angry gods. Ultimately, though, he’s arguing for individual freedom- living life in accordance with one’s desires instead of one’s fears.
Here’s why I think this poses a problem for most atheists- if we don’t believe in Gods and metaphysics, our adherence to moral rules seems a bit neurotic. Most of us, atheists or believers, don’t follow Lucretius’s advice to have sex with whoever we can, for example, because we think it’s the “wrong” thing to do. But, denial of bodily pleasure, no matter how much sense it might make in practice, doesn’t really seem to have a lot of justification in atheism. Ethics, of course, don’t generally rely on God in the same way as morality; but it’s hard not to wonder if most of the things we all do in order to live upstanding lives, in the absence of belief, don’t amount to the neurotic vestiges of faith. Libertinage is one of those words that, to rip off Ellin Mackay’s great line, “has a place in the elderly mind” among “other vague words that have a sinister significance and no precise definition.” But many of the actual libertines made exactly this argument: if you think there’s no God, why should you restrain from drinking, screwing, and violating social norms? More heretical, do atheists have an obligation to libertinage, in order to be logically coherent? Are non-believers who insist on “doing the right thing”, in some sense, lying to themselves?
I know I’m verging on Aleiester Crowley territory here, and I’m not meaning to. I live an upstanding and proper life, although I’ve yet to hear back from any Divinities. But I’ve never been able to decide if that’s not intellectually dishonest of me. A Catholic friend used to say, if he was an atheist, he’d be doing all sorts of sinful things. Lucretius seems to agree- at least in terms of sex. But, of course, the vast majority if atheists don’t behave that way. They behave like good Christians, in spite of their disbeliefs.