Lucretius: Sage of the Void
By Gabriel Blanchard
Though rare in its pure form, Epicurean pessimism helped build our collective mind.
Titus Lucretius Carus was a poet and Epicurean thinker of the last decades of the Roman Republic, who reportedly died the same day that Virgil came of age. He is known to this day for his didactic poem De Rerum Natura, “On the Nature of Things.” Although this philosophy was never held by more than a small fraction of the Roman people, the immense beauty of verse made his work a major influence on the poets that succeeded him in the early empire—Virgil, Propertius, Ovid—and remained popular for centuries. Though only fragments of the poem were generally known during the Middle Ages, the full text of Lucretius was rediscovered by chance in 1417, and went on to influence many eminent scholars, such as Michel de Montaigne, Ben Jonson, Thomas Jefferson, and George Santayana.
Epicureanism was a philosophical school that had been founded a couple of centuries before in Greece. Today we tend to associate the word with self-indulgence, especially gluttony, but the truth is rather different. Epicurus was an early advocate of materialism and atomic theory and, while not an atheist precisely, believed the gods took no interest in humanity, for good or ill. He did consider pleasure to be synonymous with happiness, but defined pleasure primarily in terms of avoiding pain, both physical and mental. Epicurus therefore advocated moderation, withdrawal from public affairs, and detachment—a kind of humane pessimism, a little bit like Buddhism (though lacking its emphasis on compassion).
Lucretius helped introduce Epicurean thought to a Latin-speaking audience, and modified it slightly in the process: where Epicurus had claimed, rather arbitrarily, that atoms could deviate and thus allow the existence of free will, Lucretius showed greater consistency by espousing fatalism. It never made many converts, but the school remained a significant presence in Rome through the rest of antiquity, and De Rerum Natura elicited a number of responses (not all of them negative) from the Church Fathers.
After Lucretius was rediscovered in the early Renaissance, major elements in his philosophy began to be revived. His doctrine of atoms and their movement laid the foundation of modern atomic theory, accurately describing Brownian motion almost two thousand years in advance of its discovery. His determinism, empiricism, and derisive view of religion may also have contributed to Enlightenment thought, embodied in skeptics like Hume and deists like Jefferson.
The bulk of our author bank is either Judaeo-Christian or, at least, philosophically and ethically harmonious with that tradition; it may accordingly seem strange to include dissonant voices like that of Lucretius. But in truth, the critics and dissenters of any society are as much a part of that society as the mainstream, and cannot be understood apart from it. Nor, perhaps, can the mainstream be fully understood—and certainly not corrected, if and when it errs—without such voices. Whether an important dissenter is a prophet or a madman, or perhaps both, he is still be important.