nothing that ain’t: leaky vessels

The great Roman poet Lucretius seems to take the affirmative side in our unending debate in whether reason and logic can solve all our problems. But his verses were charged with agonizing doubts in his superb poem The Nature of Things, i.e., The Nature of the Universe based on the philosophy of Epicurus.

… the phenomena that puzzle minds untrained in logic and science. Sensation, perception, thought, and such psychical events as dreams and visions- he explains them all. But although most of his analysis is scientific, his purpose lies beyond pure science. The real beauty of Epicurianism, he repeats again and again, is that it sets us free from the two great fears: fear of god and fear of death. It does not deny the existence of a divinity. There are gods, superhuman in power, supernal in beauty, but they exist far away from our world, illimitably far. Since they are perfectly happy, they do not busy themselves with interfering in mundane affairs: they do not slash the earth with a trident to cause earthquakes,or hurl thunderbolts that sometimes hit their own temples, or send epidemic diseases among their worshippers. Nor do they answer prayers; nor even hear prayers. We can honor them; we need not fear them. We know of their existence only through visions. They themselves no nothing of our world, and exist far off in outer space.

Jules Bastien-Lepage. Pas Meche, 1882. Read More:

There are the dwellings of the gods, remote, serene,/ which never windblasts shake, or darkling tempests drench/with rain,or cold gray crystal snow and freezing hail besmirch,/ but always in a cloudless firmament poised, /they remain in spacious smiling radiance.

And death? It is this fear, the greatest of all human fears, that is the most central and most urgent theme of Lucretius’s poem. Again and again, with passionate emphasis he explains that death is nothing to be feared because it means-nothingness. It is cessation. Am an fears death he explains, because he illogically thinks of himself as being the dead corpse that is put away in the ground or burned to ashes on the pyre. But this is absurd. When the functions of life cease, sensation and thought come to an end, total and final. The body dissolves into dust and then into primordial atoms- and where is the man? He is where he was a thousand years before his birth.

Of time the eternal, ere we had a birth.
And Nature holds this like a mirror up
Of time-to-be when we are dead and gone.
And what is there so horrible appears?
Now what is there so sad about it all?
Is’t not serener far than any sleep?
And, verily, those tortures said to be
In Acheron, the deep, they all are ours
Here in this life. No Tantalus, benumbed
With baseless terror, as the fables tell,
Fears the huge boulder hanging in the air:
But, rather, in life an empty dread of Gods
Urges mortality, and each one fears
Such fall of fortune as may chance to him. Read More:

Maurice Mac-Nab by Fernand Fau.—The third problem has to do with the history of science, and seems to betray a further weakness in Hitchens’ understanding. I take it that Hitchens approves of Lucretius’ essay as an ancient articulation of the superiority of a reasoned appeal to natural law over a superstitious appeal to acts of the gods. But while Lucretius was right in this particular, this stands as an argument against polytheism and pantheism, but not against Christian monotheism. That is, if Hitchens’ book is meant to be an argument for atheism as over against Christianity, then De Rerum Natura misses the point. More importantly, however, it was Christians–not atheists–who agreed with Lucretius, saw the world as following natural laws, and thus established (in the 16th and 17th centuries) modern science.— Read More: image:

As for hell and its torments- all that is an old wives’ tale. Or rather, it is a projection of this life. Sisyphus, rolling the huge stone forever up the mountain and doomed to see it rolled back, exemplifies insatiate ambition. The Danaides, condemned to draw water in leaky vessels, are those restless spirits who in this life constantly seek for pleasures and are never satisfied. Cerberus, and the Furies, and the demons of punishment- they exist, but they are the torments of fear and remorse that the guilty suffer in this existence, which is for each of us the only one. Therefore, be tranquil. Enjoy your life, which nature has made so pleasant; and do not sit on and on at the table, but make way for others when, for you, the feast is over.

Such is the doctrine of Epicurus, as presented by Lucretius in more than seven thousand lines of superb poetry.

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In the Epicurean system of philosophy he believed that he had found the weapons by which this war of liberation could be most effectually waged. Following Epicurus he sets before himself the aim of finally crushing that fear of the gods and that fear of death resulting from it which he regards as the source of all the human ills. Incidentally he desires also to purify the heart from other violent passions which corrupt it and mar its peace. But the source even of these – the passions of ambition and avarice – he finds in the fear of death; and that fear he resolves into the fear of eternal punishment after death.

The selection of his subject and the order in which it is treated are determined by this motive. Although the title of the poem implies that it is a treatise on the “whole nature of things,” the aim of Lucretius is to treat only those branches of science which are necessary to clear the mind from the fear of the gods and the terrors of a future state. Read More:

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