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Topic #F50

Epicurus and Lucretius: basic materialist principles


30 January 2002

Scribe: Elaine Barber


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



Wednesday’s lecture began with Prof. Hutchinson mentioning two post-scripts from Monday’s lecture on Epicurus and Lucretius. First, he noted that Epicurus did not like politics and kept himself, and his followers, away from the political and public life as much as possible.  People outside of the Epicurean communities sometimes had hostile feelings towards the Epicureans. There were several incidences where the Epicurean communities were driven out of regions. On one occasion the Epicureans were reportedly driven over the edge of a cliff for not submitting to the local authority.


The second post-script that the professor added was about distinguishing the different elements or strands that make up an experience in order to understand the feelings one has. To illustrate this point Prof. Hutchinson used an example of when he was playing hockey with his son. In a fit of rage Prof. Hutchinson’s son threw his hockey stick like a javelin which hit Prof. Hutchinson in the chin, causing him to experience extreme pain. The professor was able to cope with the pain because he realized that it would soon go away and avoided panicking because he could analyze what was making him panic such as the actual feeling of pain, the inconvenience of being injured, etc. This helped him deal with the pain and avoid panic.


Next, the professor began to discuss the main theme of the lecture – the principles of Epicurean philosophy. To begin this section, Prof. Hutchinson read a selection from two different translations of Epicurean philosophy. Both selections were about the same Epicurean principle and were written by Lucretius. The first passage was from a recent translation of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, translated by Martin Ferguson Smith, and can be found in book I, 62-79. In many ways, noted the professor, this work by Epicurus models the poem that was written by the philosopher Empedocles. The piece reveals two Epicurean principles. First, the analogy of Mars and Venus indicates Epicurus’s belief that love and strife are needless and useless. Mars is supposed to represent strife while Venus represents love. Secondly, the poem shows Epicurus’s belief that the universe is not divided into a higher realm, where the moon and stars are, and a lower realm, where the physical world is. Rather, Epicurus believed that the universe was all one system. There may be different cosmoses in different areas but the same rules apply in all of them.


The professor then read from a second translation of the Epicurean poem so as to give the students an idea of the quality of translation. This second translation is much older (mid 17-th century) and was the first translation of the poem into English, by a woman by the name of (co-incidentally) Lucy Hutchinson.           


Next, Prof. Hutchinson spent some time commenting on the literary styles of Lucretius verses Epicurus. Both Lucretius and Epicurus make the same arguments, which is exemplified in the “Letter to Herodotus”, yet the arguments written by Lucretius are much easier and nicer to read then Epicurus’s. This is because Epicurus rejected any formal education or traditional literary style. In fact, Epicurus encouraged his followers to stay away from any formal education. He also disliked poetry and looked down on any forms of high culture.  Prof. Hutchinson drew the students’ attention to the fact that there are only one or two arguments used by Epicurus where as there are six to eight in Lucretius’s work. This is because, for Lucretius, there are intermediate summaries used (i.e. a main, large volume, a shorter summary and a letter).


The lecture then turned to focus on the major thesis in both Lucretius and Epicurus’s works - the proofs of atoms and how all objects and what we perceive are really atoms joined together. Epicurus and Lucretius believed that atoms were what made up everything that humans are able to perceive and that, furthermore, atoms are indestructible. Although both Epicurus and Lucretius wrote on the proofs for atoms it was Lucretius’s work that became the most well known and had the most effect on modern science. This is largely because a French scholar named Gassendi took a strong liking to Lucretius’s work and re-introduced Lucretius’s atomic theory to the scientific circles throughout Europe. This theory became the important basis for the theory and law created by the English scientist, Boyle. Although there was no way to prove Boyle’s theory on atoms, his hypothesis spread through Europe and was held as the popular opinion of many scientists until it was proven that atoms can, in fact, be broken down in to neutrons, protons, etc. However, in the 20th century the discovery of quanta of energy and mass proved that part of Lucretius’s theory was correct because atoms cannot be divided continuously. Thus there is an odd combination of theorems because the archaic is mixed with the modern.


Other passages and principles from Lucretius and Epicurus were then read and discussed. Prof. Hutchinson read a passage from Lucretius (book I, 147-169) which shows the assertion that Lucretius’s believed coming from nothing is miraculous. Epicurus also discusses this point and agrees with Lucretius. If there is a possibility that things can come from nothing then what comes into being is not always necessarily determined by what they come from. The arguments made by Epicurus can be contrasted with the arguments made by a previously studied philosopher, Democritus. Epicurus argues that there is not an unlimited number of atomic shapes. There may be a large number of them but they are not infinite. This is because there must be a limit to how small an atomic shape can be. Therefore, argues Epicurus, there must be a limit on the number of atomic shapes but there may not be a limit as to the number of atoms.


A student then asked the question “is the concept of shape bounded by concept of size”? The professor answered this question by saying that if you put two atoms together it is not congruent, i.e. they will be dimensionally different. Therefore, no, shape is not bounded to concept of size.


Prof. Hutchinson then began to discuss ontology and the idea that things around us don’t seem to be real but are really just the other things (i.e. atoms) in it. The professor shared his own experience of how, when he first began, as a teenager,  to grasp that latent structures are different from visible structures, he developed a feeling of alienation. It became apparent to him that he was not seeing anything of the real world or perceiving things as they what really are. Epicurus would agree with this conclusion because he believed that all perceptions are true. But this seems odd and contradictory since if reality is different then what we perceive then our perception is false.


Prof. Hutchinson explained how Epicurus believed that the explanation for colour or perception has to do with causal patterns and transformations that happen in different ways. He believed that there was no such thing as colour being transferred but colour is a product of experience by a human being. Therefore, colour is co-dependent on the person experiencing it as well as on the system of the experience itself. Prof. Hutchinson then mentioned the different theories of colour that were put forward by Plato and Aristotle. However, both theories by Plato and Aristotle are incorrect when compared to Epicurus’s theory. Aristotle’s theory emphasized a rejection of the outside world and wanted us to recognize that all we are is a network of atoms and part of a kind of “cosmic compost”. Epicurus, on the other hand, wanted us to feel alienated and to not trust our experiences but did not want this to become our main focus or concern. What should be important to us, believed Epicurus, is how we feel which is determined by whether our needs are being met and the confidence that they will be met.


The lecture came to a close with a discussion on Epicurus’s ideas on atoms and voids. Prof. Hutchinson commented that Epicurus tried to show that time is not in fact real because all that exists is atoms and space which is demonstrated in book I, passage 465-482 in Lucretius’s book On the Nature of Things.