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Topic #F52

Epicurus and Lucretius on love and death

4 February 2002

Scribe: Ruth Lancashire


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes



                  What possibly could be a better lecture than one on Woody Allen?  Woody Allen often writes his films about two ideas that, as humans, overwhelm our minds, one of which we attempt to achieve, and the other attempt to ward off.  Woody Allen goes where not many other men have dared to go before, he writes about love and death, as did the philosopher Lucretius, who attacks love and makes us think clearly about death. 


                  Being only a one hour lecture, we were forced to skip over most of the mortality of the soul portion of readings, but not without a brief discussion, of course.  Lucretius goes against the grain of most of the philosophers we have already studied.   He states that the soul is mortal, not immortal; it dies when the body dies.  He uses at least twenty-eight separate arguments to support his case.  Nowadays we recognize many ways in which certain biochemical and hormonal changes in the physiological aspect affect the mind as well as the rest of the body.  In modern times there is no longer really a debate.  The mind does not exist of separate matter; it is part of the body.  It lives with birth, and dies in death.


                  After a brief look at the Lucretius’ view on the mortality of the soul, we quickly moved on to book four.  This section is a controversial one about love and sexual desire.  It begins with the discussion of mind issues, such as, dreaming, wondering and imagining.  Lucretius attempts to give an explanation for sleeping and dreaming.  He, yet again, goes against the views of his fellow philosophers and states that dreams are nothing but images in our head.  They are not prophetic, and are not a form of communication between the Gods and the individual.  A student then stated that this should be fairly obvious to people.  If one spends his day pushing a button, then most likely, he said, he’s going to dream about it because his mind has been occupied with it all day.  Professor Hutchinson agreed quickly with the student’s comment stating that dreams do have a lot to do with experience, but then asked how we can explain dreams about the future.  He also pointed out to the class that only one other philosopher, up until Lucretius, had taken this standpoint about dreams, the other being Aristotle, who did it in a less obvious way.  Epicureans, Hutchinson stated, believe that dreams are just night time perception.


                  With a clever and sudden transition at 4.103, Lucretius shifts our focus from dreams to sexual desire; Lucretius’ transition topic is wet dreams, and readers suddenly find themselves reading about sex.  Lucretius views sexual desire as an injury; the mind is wounded with the invasion of love.  Hutchinson points out that Lucretius often juxtaposes the depiction of pleasure with an immediate cold shower of a depiction of regret, frustration, and absurdity.


                  In 1142 a connection to Plato’s Republic (474d+) was pointed out by Hutchinson to the class.  Lucretius describes the desire of women.  In The Republic Plato discusses the idea of creating special names for our loved ones.


                  Found in 1090, is the attempt to heighten the metaphor between sexual desire and injury.  The reading states that once you’ve had it [sex], you always want more.  Lucretius compares sex  to dreaming of food.  The images are there, but when you wake up you are still hungry, your craving has not been satisfied. He states that sexual desire can never be satisfied.  If one is hungry, one can eat and become satisfied with being full, but one does not take anything away from sex or become connected to their lover, there is no point because there is always desire. 


                  Food, drink, and sex are great temptations, all being natural and pleasurable.  But with eating, we often do not find the pleasure in it because we have grown accustomed to it.  Professor Hutchinson then re-counted a story about a friend of his who was unable to digest food for a long period of time.  After he was able to start again, he found great pleasure in digestion, a pleasure that most of us do not notice.   


                  Clearly sex is a less urgent need, but it is natural.  One becomes satisfied when one eats, but does not become satisfied when one makes love.  Hutchinson pointed out that this suggests a deep confusion in the act of sex; it is natural and pleasurable, but one shouldn’t have it.  But what Lucretius is saying is that the real problem is letting yourself fall in love.  The cold shower is turned on full at 1172 where Lucretius states that every woman is the same, one like the other.  He tells his reader that he (the one who has fallen in love) was able to live without her before, so why can he not now?  He speaks very cynically about love.


                  Epicureans suggest that love, sex, and friendship must remain separate.  One must cultivate as many friendships as possible, and indulge in risk free sexual desire since it is not a necessary desire or need.  As professor Hutchinson pointed out “no guy ever died from not getting laid.”  The decision to have sex should weigh the downside risk, not the imagined upside potential.  It was determined who the individual could have sex with, for example, the daughters of prominent men were off- limits.  To the Epicureans, sex is fine as long as the other person is consenting, BUT make sure you don’t fall in love.  The professor then re-counted a college meeting at which he was in attendance.  He asked the participants if they had to live without either love, sex, or friendship, which would it be?  Hutchinson stated that the least number of people were willing to give up love.  A question then comes into play, where does family come in?  For the Epicureans, marriage was to be avoided at all costs.  One should only marry if they are mature enough to handle the challenge.  Sex should be separated from the family.


                  The lecture then moved on to something, as mortals, we cannot avoid, death.  A topic, Hutchinson points out, that Mr. Allen is successful at in creating in his films, the sense of anxiety one feels about the subject.  Then again, Lucretius is also successful at this.  The idea of death for the Epicureans was not a reward and punishment system, which was the basis of most other religions and beliefs during his time.    Their idea was a very politically subversive one.  David Hume, who died in 1776, was an Epicurean, and at that time in the UK held an illegal opinion about death.  He was a known Epicurean, and on his last days was completely cheerful and content, even in the site of death.  His friend Boswell had visited him days before he died and Hume joked about death.  After his death Boswell was unable to sleep for months, until he dreamed that Hume had changed his mind and been let in to St. Peter’s gate.  Two hundred and twenty five years have passed since that time, and as professor Hutchinson showed us, viewpoints have changed as well.  In funerals we do not mourn the deadly sensations the individual must have felt, but we mourn the pain and grief for that of his close relatives. 


                  Hutchinson, again, related the topic to a personal story.  His good friend Don Fowler passed away three years ago, leaving a half grown up daughter, and a widowed wife.  He was a known Epicurean, in fact that is how he and his wife had met, through the love of philosophy.  He wrote a note which was posted in the memorial program.  He stated that he had been a fortunate man and had died happy.  Then, in defiance of the grim reaper had the memorial sing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”  Hutchinson had proved the changing ways of the world.  Fowlers’ attitude is not a normal one, but it is one that is understood and accepted, when just 225 years ago it was outlawed.