On Lucretius

If you were to assemble a tea with the great Classical poets and philosophers from the ancient world, you would certainly leave a chair open for Cicero, for Homer, for Virgil, Sophocles, Plato, and Livy. Leaving an entire row empty for the Stoics and the Cynics would be indisputable. However, not many would choose to include Lucretius, that great Epicurean poet of the Roman Republic, on such a guest list, and if so, somewhere near the bottom of the invitation order. His great epic De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things), has no great battles, no gods, or epic heroes or magic. It is devoid of all of the typical elements of a contemporary ‘Great’ work. Instead, it is a sprawling 7000 line tribute to science and philosophy, which manages to lay out a self-contained coherent axiomatic framework many millennia ahead of its time. In this strictly materialist world there are no deities, nothing is created or destroyed, and there are no Platonic Forms outside of the materialist bounds of human perception alone. And yet it is a rational world which is nonetheless fertile and alive. Lucretius unlocks and gives life to the terse prose of Epicurus, covering life and death, pain and pleasure, sex and love, friendship and family. The result is an unparalleled masterpiece which has, in its grounding, a far more relevant set of non-beliefs to the modern sensibility. It provides a groundwork for a dynamic ethical framework, a new metaphysics, and an understanding of knowledge, technology, and politics which can survive and adapt to the stresses of change in the post-industrial world order.

Life and Time

Perhaps the first mystery is how little is known about Titus Lucretius Carus. There is only one contemporary account of his existence found in a letter by Cicero and later chronicles rarely mention the Latin poet. Nothing is known about his life outside of the fact that his only work The Nature of Things was written for a client or friend, Gaius Memmius, to whom it is dedicated. Beyond that, we can only infer details about the life of Lucretius from his work, namely, that he was most likely of upper class Roman stock and that he was extensively educated in Latin, Greek, literature, and philosophy. For all of his presumed wisdom, our only source records a tragic death. Pliny, writing several hundred years later, records that the cause of death was suicide by ingestion of a potion, most likely containing hemlock. Of course, Pliny would have presumably had very little primary evidence on the exact circumstances of Lucretius’s death and very likely may have exaggerated any rumors which were floating about to satisfy certain assumptions which were nailed to Epicureanism. It is worthwhile to note that Epicurean communities were growing in popularity within the Roman Empire around this time and were variously labeled as a threat due to their relative political autonomy.

An Epicurean Knowledge Dialectic

Lucretius himself would have never foreseen the ‘invisible hand’ of knowledge creation in extending the boundaries of the Epicurean philosophy. Despite the Epicureans’ arguably controversial focus on a materialist interpretation of the physical world, the progress of science starting with the Newtonian revolution would I believe vindicate them and overturn the Neo-Platonism which plagued Christianity for centuries. But there’s more than that. Epicurean ethics strictly dichotomizes pleasure and pain within the framework of a strict materialism. Of course, the characterization of Epicureanism both contemporarily and presently as a den of debauchery and bodily hedonism was largely inaccurate as has been documented extensively. To take a simple example, imagine a button that dispenses pure opioids when pressed. The contemporary critic would claim that an Epicurean should press the button as many times as possible, short of death, to maximize ones’ pleasure. The real answer is effectively reduced to basic reasoning. Given the risk of addiction, distress, and tolerance, one would realistically inflict more pain on oneself than pleasure after a certain threshold, thereby making it unpalatable to a true Epicurean. In another case, sleeping with someone’s partner may increase pleasure temporarily, but at the cost of the spouse’s pain, thereby once again ethically negating it. Epicurus was certainly clever enough to appreciate that increase of pleasure and reduction of pain were not equals. In De Rerum Natura, pleasure is always secondary to reduction of pain. Furthermore, Lucretius observes that chronic sources of pleasure are superior to those which are short term. Friendship and companionship occupy one of the highest pillars of virtue in the Epicurean ethnic as in their perfected state, they provide a continual source of pleasure for both parties. Within the Epicurean ethic, there is also an implied re-statement of a proto-categorical imperative. Any two agents interacting ought to, to the best of their ability, reduce the suffering of the other, and increase the pleasure of both. We therefore have the foundation of an Epicurean dialectic of knowledge, in that the course of human development and the creation of knowledge leads invariably to states of reduced suffering and increased pleasure for all agents. In a modern sense, the development of a new vaccine against a contracted illness reduces the suffering of all those affected and under the Epicurean ethical framework would be held in high esteem. Furthermore, advances in understanding of both sensory and interpersonal pleasure would extent its own definition, leading to a potential for a higher quality of living. Notably, the definition of pleasure under such a framework would require a more explicit and mature definition, to reduce obvious abuses which could otherwise be inherent. Pleasure, in the strictly Epicurean sense, embodies not only the sensory-euphoric aspect to pleasure but also the pseudo-libertarian heuristic which maximizes expression of one’s faculties. If freedom is to have any fixed meaning in the Epicurean setting, it is this. Furthermore, a certain type of intellectual pleasure is derived from a fixed system of awareness which prevents complacency. Broadly, the reduction of pain also transgresses the normal criticisms of pleasure as an escape from the injustices of reality. Namely, the pursuit and creation of knowledge, the categorical imperative, and a system of interpersonal mutualism are all within the scope of the ethical system described by Epicurus and elucidated by Lucretius. The Kantian universalism of ethics only operates under this model so far as to decrease the suffering of all parties. Epicureanism neatly fits into this tradition and extends some of its freedoms and protections as such.

Pluralism and Democracy

Epicurus did not envision his philosophy as having a strong political basis. In fact, if there was one defining characteristic which defined it during the time of The Garden, it was an unwillingness to engage in the broad political questions of the time. The Garden itself was almost anarchist in its constitution, with a number of eccentric anti-authoritarian types coming-and-going as they pleased. Most decisions were made through a democratic process, but a strong undercurrent of individual mutualism ran through the place. It is fair to suggest that the original architects of the Epicurean project valued a high level of intellectual and social freedom and autonomy, while accepting freely members of marginalized communities (notably slaves, foreigners, and women).

The question of the boundaries of authority and those involved in the process of making that authority has been a multi-millennial dialectic question. If the period from the European enlightenment to the present is to be any guide, the synthesis has shifted in favor of popular sovereignty with strong protections for individual autonomy. How Epicureanism factors into this problem once more relies on the ethical framework defined by Epicurus and elucidated by Lucretius. This view is best viewed through Hannah Arendt’s 1958 work The Human Condition. Much of the art of authoritarian governance, she observes, has been motivated by an attempt to escape “the haphazardness and moral irresponsibility inherent in a plurality of agents.”Furthermore, she continues that “a hallmark of all such escapes is rule, that is, the notion that men can lawfully and politically live together only when some are entitled to command and others forced to obey.” A plurality of agents, while unpredictable, is generally known to produce social and political systems if greater resilience than those which monopolize power in single individuals. To take another page from the Arendt book, political activity, by this measure, is not merely a means to an end, but an end in it of itself. “One does not engage in political action to promote one’s welfare, but to realize the principles intrinsic to political life, such as freedom, equality, justice, and solidarity.” Epicureans would imply by this measure that the reduction of communal pain is embodied in the same process which instantiates itself in the will to freedom, equality, justice, and solidarity. For a person who is unable to be free or is condemned to a life of bondage and servitude is also in pain and cannot experience the pleasures of life. We therefore can thrive in the democratic environments which themselves are the grounds for such an Epicurean society.

Epicureanism has within its grasp the master task to undo many centuries of Neo-Platonic fear-mongering over the dangers of pleasure and simultaneously to begin the process of rebuilding a dialectic which more adequately suits the present state.


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