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Topic #F53

Lucretius on the historical human sciences


6 February 2002
Scribe: Thomas Narsingh


These minutes were spoken on 8 February; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



                  Wednesday's lecture was on the last half of book five of the book, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius.  Professor Hutchinson's strategy in discussing the text in order to get the right perspective was to examine material shortly before and after the section we were assigned to read.  Following this, his plan was to dive right in the middle.  The first reading he directed the class to consider concerned the moon:


As for the moon, it may be that she owes her brilliance to the impingement of solar rays, and that day by day, as she recedes farther from the sun's disk, she turns her light more fully toward our view, until, when exactly opposite him, she shines with her fullest splendor and, as she soars high above the horizon, sees his setting.  Then she must hide her light little by little behind her, as she glides nearer to the sun's fire, moving through the zone of the zodiac from the opposite side.  this is the view of those who suppose the moon to be a spherical body, whose course is lower than that of the sun.   (Lucretius, v.710)


This was a suggested explanation to account for the behavior of the moon.  The moon has five different phases of which is it currently waning.  Such understanding was fundamental since the time of the hunter-gatherers.  Now, all the celestial bodies are losing its brightness in the sky altogether due to the city lights.


In order to drive his point home, Hutchinson recalled a situation that really occurred.  In LA, there are many with poor education.  After an earthquake occurred, there was a power failure.  People said there were strange things twinkling in the sky (thousands of them).  They thought it was some kind of invasion.  Nine-one-one was called with an insistence that a resistance be put together immediately.  What is intriguing is that Philosophy began in the wonder of this skeptical. 


                  Change is something that is amazing.  We don't understand it.  Our understanding is indirect.  Science attempts to make sense of it.  It is important to note that a main point of Lucretius was that the moon and what it did was not due to the Gods.  It was an object like a bright stone; like any other stone here on earth.  It was common then, and even happens now, for some to attribute things that seemed beyond their understanding to be that of the divine.  Lucretius was attacking this assumption.


Numerous explanations are given to account for the moon and its behavior.  It could be reflecting the sun as the mentioned quote suggests.  It could be as 716 states, shining from its own light of which another body, in intervals, obstructs it.  Or maybe the moon is a fresh creation every day going to full and then back again (as line 732 states). 


The important point to note is that three different explanations are provided as opposed to a specific one.  That was the general and effective structure of Epicurean science.  It was necessary when the subject matter was below perception since that made it outside of a clear grasp of understanding.  That is, the mechanisms were inaccessible.  Hence, it was generally thought that one could not be sure which one was the best explanation.  Multiple explanations drove their view.  They had no evidence that would distinguish which was the best.  This is like the scientific approach and expressed wise caution on part of the Epicureans.  They were simultaneously not beyond evidence and basic principles.


This is the exact condition we find ourselves in respect to physiology (for example).  The body in its entirety is not understood by many that well.  There are nerves and cartilage; it gets very complex.  Most is in fact inferred from the study of other people's bodies whether they are dead of alive.  There is no direct knowledge; we don't cut ourselves open and look inside.  We take it on faith from those who have studied.  This is the same problem that the Epicureans faced in their issues.  Other sciences work the same way.  Their explanations are generally based on principles of material like biochemical, physiochemical etc..  There are multiple explanations while there is one class of phenomena.


On line 780 the topic is our world and how it developed living creatures.  It discusses the prehistory of all life:


First of all the earth produced the various sorts of grasses and invented the hills and all the plains with lustrous verdure, so that the flowery meadows gleamed with green; and then the different kinds of trees were started on a great race of unbridled growth through the air.  As feathers, hair, and bristles are the first growths on the limbs of four-footed creatures and the bodies of birds strong of wing, so at that time the newborn earth threw up grasses and saplings first, and then created animals-many species variously produced in many ways.  (v.785)


From reading this the question is how did these creatures come.  A natural selection point of view was held to account for the different creatures that walked the earth and the ones that no longer did:


Nothing remains constant: everything is in flux; everything is altered by nature and compelled to change.  As one thing decays and declines and droops with age, another arises and emerges from obscurity.  In this way, then, time alters the nature of the entire world, and the earth passes on from one stage to another, so that what she once bore she can bear no longer, while she can bear what she did not bear before. (v. 830)


The previous quote exemplifies the changing earth. 


At that time, too, many species of animals must have perished and failed to propagate and perpetuate their race.  For every species that you see breathing the breath of life has been protected and preserved from the beginning of its existence either by cunning or by courage or by speed.  (v. 855)


This outlook is considered to be largely true.  For example, there were once North American camels that flourished in 11000BC.  Eventually, the first people passed over the formerly extant land bridge from Siberia to Alaska.  Then, within 1000 years, at least 40 species were wiped out as they migrated their way all the way down to South America.  This is well known in prehistory.  Mammals with meat and no defense got hit the hardest.  It is remarkable that the Epicureans were so accurate so long ago in their writings on natural selection and the probability of mass extinctions. 


It was at this point that a fellow student rightly asked:  "How were the Epicureans able to come to such accurate conclusions on such matters?"   In reply, Professor Hutchinson said that Anaximander for instance mentioned fossil records and its connection to extinction.  Hence, such thinking existed before the Epicureans.  Furthermore, it was typical of them to extrapolate from the given evidence to a reasonable conclusion.  For instance, in this case, they saw certain bones and believed that since there were once those, there must have been more.  Their predictions were amazingly accurate.


Further into the reading, Lucretius stated that when mankind originated, they were essentially animal like life form.  This is a description of the primate.  What Lucretius wrote coincides with what is believed to be the case today. 


The human beings who lived on earth in those early days were far tougher than we are, as one would expect, seeing that they were children.  (v. 927)


As yet they had no knowledge of how to utilize fire or clothe their bodies in skins stripped from wild beasts.  They lived in woods and mountain caves and forests and, when shaggy limbs among the thickets.  (v. 955)


This all seems to be true, except for the part about being solitary, for humankind has evolved from a form of primate that was naturally social, not solitary.


                  Another part of his writings concerns that of language:


As for the various sounds of speech, it was nature that prompted human beings to utter them, and it was utility that coined the names of things.  (v. 1028)


In this quote, Lucretius is stating that language develops spontaneously (there is no origin).


Therefore the hypothesis that in those early times someone assigned names to things and that people learned their first words from him, is preposterous.  (v. 1041)


We can imagine an animal communicating in a complex vocal system.  With this in mind, it is easy to imagine a common respect to the same needs with human beings.  It has never been the case that language had come after the development of other things. 


It is currently a widely shared hypothesis among prehistorians that language was the fundamental change that caused the differentiation of humans from apes.  As far as can be reached, language is always present.  It is the factor that allows for cooperation.  Also language permitted the differentiation of human beings from primates.  There is no evidence that it was ever a later development among mute humans.  Also, the evidence suggests that all language users emerged at once from the same place.  This is opposed to a parallel development in different places. 


On the topic of sex:


Venus [sexual desire] united the bodies of lovers in the woods.  The woman either yielded from mutual desire, or was mastered by the man's impetuous might and inordinate lust, or sold her favors for acorns or berries or choice pears.  (v. 963)


This is a famous quote.  Within it is concealed an Epicurean point.  It identifies three ways in which a man can have the opportunity to have sex with a woman.  He can either overcomes her, bribe her, or persuade her to yield to him through mutual desire.  The three alternatives point to what kind of man a person is. 


Originally, when people died during the primitive period, Lucretius thought there were no funeral rights and that they died alone, many times in  agony by being killed by a beast:

Then, it more often happened that individuals were caught by wild beasts and provided them with living food for their teeth to tear, and filled the woods and mountains and forests with their shrieks as they saw their living flesh being buried in a living tomb.  Others, who had escaped with their bodies part devoured, afterward pressed the palms of their quivering hands over hideous sores and called on Orcus with dreadful cries until they were robbed of life by agonizing pains, destitute of help and ignorant of what treatment their wounds wanted. (v. 990)


This picture is contrasted with the state of affairs for people of Lucretius’s time:


But never in those times did a single day consign to but never did single day consign to destruction many thousands of men marching beneath military standards; never did the boisterous billows of the ocean dash ships and sailors upon the rocks  Then, although the waves often rose and raged, they did so idly, vainly, and ineffectually, and lightly laid aside their empty threats.  the seductive serenity of the sea was unable to ensnare anyone with the treacherous laughter of its waves: the presumptuous art of navigation was as yet undiscovered.  Moreover, whereas in those times it was lack of food that consigned people's languid limbs to death, nowadays it is surfeit to which they succumb; and whereas in those ties they often served poison to themselves unwittingly, nowadays they make away with themselves more expertly.  (v.998)


It seems like nothing has changed.  They had their tough situations and yet his contemporaries had theirs.  Progress did not necessarily happen, nor did thing necessarily get worse.  What occurs simply depends upon what happened previously.  There seems to be pros and cons with each. 


Lucretius's prehistory is the most influential one ever written; it is impossible to exaggerate its influence.  The breadth requirement is sociology, Anthropology, Political science, economics and more.  These are all modern studies.  There is no ancient of any of them.  They all go back as the science of human experience.  In the eighteenth century they split off.  This was due to Rousseau’s writings, especially the “Second Discourse”, called the Origin of Inequality Among Human Beings.  This was very influential.  It caused the development of historical Anthropology, Political science, Sociology and others.  It also deepened human prehistory (that is, Geology). 


Rousseau can be thought of as the founder of these “historical human sciences”.  Yet, he did not just pull these ideas out of a hat.  He acquired his information from traditional sources.  In fact, his main source was from Gassendi who had paraphrased Lucretius’s work on the prehistory of man.  So there is the attachment to Lucretius.


Obvously, what Lucretius did was very impressive.  He was extremely lucky with his guesswork.  Even though the things he spoke of are very much more complex, on a broad scale, it looks like the true story of development.