“Lucretius” by George Santayana (1910)

“Lucretius” by George Santayana (1910)

  • We don’t know much about Lucretius other than what St. Jerome said about him
    • He’d been given a love potion & went nuts. In between the psychotic episodes, he wrote the poem & it was edited by Cicero. At the age of 44, he killed himself
    • George doesn’t trust an inveterate liar like St. Jerome to tell the truth about an atheist
    • Other than that, we only know about Lucretius from the poem
      • The work displays a great intelligence that seems to strike a chord with generation after generation
    • But let’s look at his philosophical origins…
  • Xenophanes proclaimed “All is one” as many others before him probably did
    • This interconnectivity was couple with an attitude he picked up from Heraclitus [also stated in the Book of Ecclesiastes] that things were in constant flux – mutation & recurrence
      • We all come from dust & will return to dust but the dust is fertile & produces life constantly
  • He claims Epicurus as an influence who had claimed Democritus as an influence
  • Democritus focused on matter being of a tiny substance constituting everything around us
    • Materiality was of extension, figure & solidity
      • Everything else was made up by the mind
    • Atoms of matter don’t change form – only changes take place in nature
    • Allowed for real calculation of changes in matter & nature, a source for science to draw inspiration from
    • Mechanism -> motion, Atomism -> structure, Materialism -> Substance
    • Democritus was aristocratic & looked down on fools
      • Philosophers should find out what’s real & find a way to be happy with it. Just don’t look like an idiot in the process
  • Epicurus adopted Democritus’s system
    • He had a deep faith set on moral grounds, necessary to salvation which must be defended at any cost
    • He lived in the physical peak of Athens but the philosophical scene had long gone by then
    • He hated most everything except friends, free will & sought out hedonism (pleasure without risk or excitement)
      • The idea of fate horrified him & Atomism struck a chord with him
    • He took up the materialist point of view
      • Nature doesn’t have wants, good or bad
    • What’s good is just what advances your own cause
  • Lucretius’s poetry was on theways of nature
    • Might come to be that the science is wrong & that might lower our estimation of it but the poetry remains fascinating
    • It evokes emotion from merely describing nature
      • 2 movements a moralist can take from the poetry
        • The creative movement producing things & the destructive movement destroying things
        • Whether or not atoms are real, we know that this is the way nature behaves
    • At the beginning of the poem, he evokes Venus &Mars, symbolizing creation & destruction respectively but states that Venus will win out
    • Venus was a powerful figure in Rome because she was mother of Aeneas, supposed progenitor of the Romans
    • She’s asked to keep us from war through love & friendship
    • Every change is Venus creating & Mars destroying & change will go on forever
    • Venus takes Mars, god of war, into her bosom when he is tired from fright & a new world arises from the scattered atoms of the old
  • Nature can’t take more from us than it’s given
    • It destroys to create & creates to destroy, focusing not on specific things but the rhythm of life & death.
    • Life is incidental as chance throws dice & things happen as a result
    • “The philosopher is at the top of the wave, he is the foam in the rolling tempest; and as the wave must have risen before he bursts into being, all that he lives to witness is the fall of the wave. The decadence of all he lives by is the only prospect before him; his whole philosophy must be a prophecy of death. Of the life that may come after, when the atoms come together again, he can imagine nothing; the life he knows and shares, all that is life to him, is waning and almost spent.”
    • Lucretius is depressed that all the good & happiness in his life will die & turn to dust
      • Since nothing comes from nothing, nothing falls back into nothing
      • Time triumphs over people, nations & worlds
    • Lucretius’s zeal to prove the soul is mortal also allows him to dispel fear of future punishments & liberates minds to calm & enjoyment of life, no longer needing religion to incite us
  • Epicurus was so afraid of being hurt & hurting others & risk that he wished to prove life was short & not subject to great transformations or great achievements
    • If people rage & make a great noise, it’s not because there’s much to win or fear but because they’re mad
    • He didn’t want to be mad but reasonable with sentiments appropriate to a mortal in a mortal world
    • What if we wake up after death & atomic philosophy didn’t apply?
      • Epicurus’s philosophy left open the possibility of the supernatural
  • We are mixed up between Lucretius & Descartes
    • Lucretius taught us that the soul shouldn’t be identified with consciousness but the grounds of consciousness
    • Descartes taught us that the essence of the soul is consciousness
      • Either way doesn’t provide evidence for or against Lucretius’s idea that an afterlife is impossible because death is just the break up of the soul’s atoms but they move on to form something else
    • All feelings, experiences & passions of the soul being broken up into other parts would no longer be of the same self after death
    • But nothing is scientifically proven or disproven
      • If this line of thinking banishes fear of death, we still feel a stress at the idea of permanent extinction
      • Doesn’t make sense to fear what can’t hurt you because you’ll be dead & will have no feelings – a state devoid of experience
    • We still don’t want to die & logical arguments don’t seem to help us get over that fact
      • Radical fear of death has more to do with love of life, which isn’t rational at all. Venus/Nature has instilled in us a desire to grow, feed ourselves, mate, protect offspring, resist injury & death
    • It’s silly to argue against fearing death (self-preservation)
      • Mostly we fear the agony of death, not non-existence
  • In the 3rd book, he talks about the madness of life, deprecating envy, ambition, love & religion
    • To escape all the badness is deliverance
    • Epicureanism was Greek & naturalistic – science, friendship & healthy pleasures
      • To renounce those would to turn one ascetic or on a pursuit of death
  • Ancient culture was rhetorical
    • It was filled with plausible ideas, sounded good in a speech but if we examine them more closely, they’re nonsense
    • One idea was “men can’t life for what they can’t witness”
      • Their children’s future? Their parents’ past?
    • Lucretius isn’t move by hope of observing or having observed. The whole of the universe spread out in movement. He wants mankind to be freed from passion & superstition
  • The soul of nature is immortal & human individuality is transitory. What importance is what happens to other or the future?
    • Nature, being universal mother –> this idea makes Lucretius the poet of nature
      • Not interested in landscaper but matter
      • Landscape poets will try to describe sensations of life, movement & what nature arouses in us
        • Typically called symbolists, trying to render some sensation, they really render associations with these sensations, emotions, half-thoughts & play with them
    • Shelley was a symbolist – nature is his toyshop, where he can weave images in words
    • Wordsworth renders moral inspiration that scenes bring to him, not from processes of nature but from a moment spent in it & accidentally, human matters
  • Lucretius was a poet of universal nature, studying everything in its truth – even moral life
    • Saw human life & human idealism in a natural setting
    • Nature is loved, feared, everything is seen in its causes & total career
    • Strayed from Epicurus by not taking up piety or friendship
    • Epicureans were atheists because they denied providence & government of God but admitted to gods living in quiet spaces. He attributed to them the human form. He’d pray on this basis
  • Greek religion had a background of common superstition but was mostly disinterested & aesthetic
    • The religious Greeks wanted to grow like the gods, invoking their companionship & rehearsing their stories
      • They saw them as something to strive for
        • But mortality belonged to men & immortality to the gods
    • Plato played with these themes but only indirectly
  • Our world turned from the Greek & toward the Hebrew
    • Dante may have drawn inspiration from the Greeks but those days were largely over
  • Lucretius was too literal, positive & insistent to flit between Greek & pagan views, & scientific & rational, like Dante
  • Friendship passed over Lucretius’s poetry but was present in Horace’s, taking at least that part from Epicurus
    • Horace’s tones reeked of friendship & human relations & agreements
  • Lucretius used emotions necessary for life in describing his atoms & void
    • If the suppositions were true, his emotions would be well-founded
    • If the science is correct, then good. If not, then the poem is still important because nature must have habits, laws of evolution, progress, etc.
      • Something must constitute us & surround us
    • If the soul is immortal, we must recognize that it changes in interests & passions
      • Lucretius’s idea that nothing arises from except by the death of something else still remains true

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