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Topic #F50

Epicurus and Lucretius: basic materialist principles

30 January 2002
Scribe: Jennie Lin


These minutes were spoken on 1 February; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



We began our lecture by revisiting some topics from Monday’s class as Professor Hutchinson added two postscripts after the reading of the minutes.  The first postscript concerned the adamant rejection of jurisdiction by the Epicureans, which is said to have led to an Epicurean community’s forced death march over a cliff.  The second postscript ties into the first, because it concerns the common complaint about the Epicurean view of a good life; that since living a pleasant life was good, one should naturally want to live a longer life.  Since the Epicureans believed that a short good life could not be better just by adding more pleasure, they showed their conviction in their own beliefs when they walked off the cliff, unaggressively accepting the city’s punishment for their refusal to submit to its jurisdiction. 


The professor followed this with an anecdote about playing hockey with his son, in which his son threw his hockey stick as one would a javelin, with the unfortunate result of the stick hitting our hapless professor’s shin.  The professor, while lost in the pain, kept repeating an Epicurean litany: “If it hurts this bad, it’s not going to last long.”  This makes the point that when you work through the panic when in pain, you get through it much more easily; something that can be applied to many problems in life.


Next, we turned to reading Lucretius’ “sacred scripture,” starting at line 62 of Book I:


When all could see that human life lay groveling ignominiously in the dust, crushed beneath the grinding weight of superstition, which from the celestial regions displayed its face, lowering over mortals with hideous scowl, the first who dared to life mortal eyes to challenge it, the first who ventured to confront it boldly, was a Greek.  This man neither the reputation of the gods nor thunderbolts nor heaven’s menacing rumbles daunt; rather all the more they roused the ardor of his courage and made him long to be the first to burst the bolts and bars of nature’s gates.  And the blazing battlements of the world, in thought and understanding journeying all through the measureless universe; and from this expedition hi returns to us in triumph with his spoils – knowledge of what can be restricted and its deeply implanted boundary stone.  So now the situation is reversed: superstition is flung down and trampled underfoot; we are raised to heaven by victory. (1.62-79)


In the beginning of Book I, we can see a universe similar to the one created by Empedocles, where there are analogies made to Mars and Venus, the god of War and the goddess of Love.  These are representative of love and strife, as they are in Empedocles’ poem.  Mars and Venus are important themes to Lucretius’ poem, and Lucretius points out that in life, all strife, struggle and warfare, as well as the passionate love letters and confessions, are pointless and needless.  We’re shown through this vision of “intellectual triumph” that the knowledge is from distant realms, of things very large and very small; this knowledge reveals that the laws of all things small also govern the very large.  This presents us with a unity of the physical world that is not evident in other theories like that of Aristotle, which postulates different realms above and below the moon.  Epicurus rejected all such theories, maintaining that everything – the cosmoses (or cosmoi), the universe – was all one system.  This system had zones in which cosmoses are formed and each successive smaller part also had all the same laws and rules apply.  The professor went on to read the same passage from the first English translation of Lucretius’ work that was done by Lucy Hutchinson.  This different translation has a different cadence and rhythm from our translation, but succesfully transmits a work of the same elevated quality.


                  Professor Hutchinson soon went on to make comments on the Epicurus’ literary style as a contrast to Lucretius’ poetic one.  Although in the Letter to Herodotus we find the same doctrines and arguments we found in Lucretius’ work, as far as the professor is concerned, Epicurus has the ugliest writing style of any Greek philosopher he’s aware of.  Since Epicurus looked upon high culture and anything to do with formal education with contempt, it would seem that he wrote as badly as he could, having no interest in rhetoric or poetry.  Structurally, we find that Epicurus uses one or two arguments to reach his conclusion, whereas Lucretius uses five or six.  We know that these additions are legitimate, and not made up, because evidence strongly suggests that he used intermediate summaries and works of different scales.  In fact, Lucretius had probably handled the very books now unearthed and currently archived in Naples, which were found in a villa that is thought to be a place where he had stayed, the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum.


                  The main theses made by Epicurus and Lucretius of the proofs of this vision of atoms making up larger structures were not popular in Europe until the French philosopher and scientist Pierre Gassendi reintroduced it to the scientific community.  Another scholar who took up this thesis of the atoms was Robert Boyle, who, hypothesizing that the theory was true, proved his theory about pressure, temperature and gases, which led to his famous Boyle’s Law.  When finally it re-entered the modern world, the atomic theory spread rapidly and lasted until about a hundred years ago.  Since then, we have taken atoms to be made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and these are the fundamental basics behind the periodic table of elements and chemistry.  However, the ‘atom’ has turned out to be a contradiction in terms since we’re able to further divide it into sub-atomic particles.  Nevertheless, on a certain level, the basic theory of indestructibility is correct; in the twentieth century certain levels of organization were found to consist of quanta of mass and energy; quantum being an amount that cannot be further broken down.  All this progress about the atoms arose from what was a “wacky” idea in ancient times that has turned out to be more or less true.


                  The next part of the lecture has to do with the second proem to Lucretius’ first book, and we read:


This terrifying darkness that enshrouds the mind must be dispelled not by the sun’s rays and the dazzling darts of day, but by study of the superficial aspect and underlying principle of nature.

The first stage of this study will have this rule as its basis: nothing ever springs miraculously out of nothing.  The fact is that all mortals are in the grip of fear, because they observe many things happening on earth and in the sky and, being at complete loss for an explanation of their cause, suppose that a supernatural power is responsible for them.  Therefore, as soon as we seen that nothing can be created out of nothing, we shall have a clearer view of the object of our search, namely the explanation of the source of all created things and of the way in which all things happen independently of the gods.

If things could be created out of nothings, any kind of thing could be produced from any source; nothing would need a seed.  In the first place, human beings could spring from the sea, squamous fish from the ground, and birds could be hatched from the sky; cattle and other farm animals and every kind of wild beast would bear young of unpredictable species, and would make their home in cultivated and barren parts without discrimination.  Moreover, the same fruits would not invariably grow on the same trees, but would change; any tree could bear any fruit.  Seeing that there would be no elements with the capacity to generate each kind thing, how could creatures constantly have a fixed mother? (1.147-169)


This passage makes a transition from a general invocation in favour of science while preaching against superstition, to an assertion that the belief that something can come into being from nothing is one that arises only from superstition.  Illustrations of the thesis and for the proof are poetical, and taken by analogy from things that occur in our natural environment.  There would seem to be too much poetry in these assertions, but the professor notes that this is the way Epicurus also argues.  If there were a possibility of something coming from nothing, then you must realize that what comes into being is not determined by what came before it; it is not determined by what it came from.  Therefore, the contrary belief would generate a false consequence, that things come into being unpredictably of things; but surely all apples will have come from apple trees.


                  The professor then began to contrast Epicurus and Democritus.  Although both believed in the existence of infinite number of atoms in the universe, while Democritus believed the number of shapes to be infinite as well, Epicurus stated that since there’s a limit to how big or small an atom can get, there are only a finite number of shapes, even though they may be numerous.  A student asks whether the concepts of shape are tied to size, meaning, is a different size also a different shape.  The professor replies that as long as when two atoms are brought together and we can perceptively tell the two apart, they are of different types. 


Our attention was then drawn to a consequence of the atomist theory.  The professor confessed to a feeling of alienation when he learned, as a teenager, that the evident structure that is perceived is nothing like the latent structure of the object being observed.  Epicurus states that it’s true that the structure of things is different from how they look; however, our perceptions are true.   This seems to be a contradiction.  Democritus’ conclusion from his theory about atoms was that our perceptions are false.  Epicurus thought, as we do now, that things such as colour are evident only through and in the system that perceives them.  Colours are bits that fly off from the object and experience transformations, and we see them when they go through our system of perception.  What we see coming off of those objects as colour has nothing to do with the object itself. 


It is relevant to say that Epicurus wanted us to feel this alienation from the world around us; we shouldn’t trust what appears in front of us.  This is because according to Epicurus, none of this matters at the end of the day because we’re all in a cosmic compost heap that will be recycled.  The slogan for this can be taken from a T-shirt observed on College Street by the professor:  Rule number one: Don’t sweat the big stuff and Rule number two: It’s all small stuff.  This is a fundamental epicurean view.  At the end of the day, all that is real is how you feel; your feelings about how your basic needs are being met, and your feelings about connections made with others.


                  We then moved on to a last reference to Lucretius’ Book I:


Again, when people assert that the rape of Tyndareus’ daughter and the subjugation of the people of Troy in war are facts, beware of possibly being trapped by them into an acknowledgment that these events have an independent existence, simply because these generations of human beings, oh whom they were accidents, have been swept away beyond recall by ages past.  For it could be said that any event is an accident either of the whole earth of the actual regions in which it occurred.  Moreover, if there had been no material substance, and no place an space in which all things happen, the beauty of Tyndareus’ daughter would never have fanned into flame the fire of passion smoldering deep in Phrygian Alexander’s heart, so kindling the blazing strife of savage war; nor would the wooden horse, unknown to the Trojans, have discharged from its pregnant womb under cover of night the Greeks who filled Pergama with flames.  From this you may clearly see that all events without exception have, unlike matter, no independent existence, and cannot be said to exist in the same sense as void; rather you may with justification term them accidents of matter, or of space in which all things happen. (1.465-482)


With this passage, we can see evidence of that Epicurus believed only in the existence of atoms and void.  There are no humans, there are no colours.  There are only two ontological categories which Epicurus believed existed.