Thursday, June 17, 2010

Benign or malignant?

I am currently somewhat curious (in my usual desultory fashion) about Epicureanism, as I am reading this amazing translation of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, which I have borrowed from a friend.

It seems to me, based on the inexpert poking around that I have been doing, that an important tenet of Epicureanism was (or is) the affirmation that nature is benign; that we have nothing to fear from nature.

I wondered in passing tonight, however, if this is a belief that is available to us today. I'm not sure it is plausible in this age to think that nature has a calm regularity. Rather, for us the relation between humans and nature is a nightmarish one, because humans are fucking things up, throwing everything into imbalance. We do not think of ourselves as being in accord with the cycles of the world, but are instead a big, stinking spanner thrown into the works, throwing the whole humans-and-nature machine out of kilter.

I stress that I am not endorsing this latter view (nor, much as I would like to, the Epicurean account of the order of things), just pointing out its greater plausibility.


  1. Not sure whether this helps at all, but my own sense of Lucretius's views on nature, is that he sees nature as both benign and malignant (wsee the description of the plague at the end of the book for the latter), but as something which, in either of these modes, never produces evils to compare to those that human beings unleash on each other out of our ignorance of the 'true causes of things' (i.e. of what nature is truly like).

    For an Epicurean, at least as I understand it, all the greatest dangers stem from what a later epoch would call "fanaticism" (it won't surprise you, I think, to hear that there was an Epicurean revival in the 17th century on the cusp of what we call the 'Enlightenment'.)

    The major Lucreatian idea, I think (which is instantly familiar to any of us 'moderns', despite the fact that we tend to thik that it's a much later idea, that emerges -after- the rise of modern science instead of being a kind of philosophical condition of th latter) is that the worst evils come from not understanding nature, and thus a) reducing human beings to fearful, pathetic creatures cowering in the dark because they (in their ignorance) are led to posit gods and monsters who demand constant (blood) sacrifices to reduce the annual quota of plagues, smitings and so on...

    I think you can find that most atheism in its evangelical (religion is bad) mode, as opposed to its boring (god isn't really real) mode has an 'Epicruean' aspect, despite Epicurus and Lucretius's very unmilitant preference for a quiet life (lathE bias -- live in secret)...

    After all, as I've said elsewhere, if it were just a matter of making the argument that God 'wasn't real', why would Dawkins/Hitchens et al have best-sellers on their hand in the largely secular Australia in the noughties? No, it's the "being an atheist (like you always have been) makes you a cruader against the Kingdom of darkness (Hobbes)" that gives 'belated' atheism its weird, 'late-guest-at-the-long-finished-party' contemporary allure....
    (continued in next comment...)

  2. Lucretius, then, is among all the other things that he is (which, incidentally I'm looking forward to hearing you write about) not only the alpha and omega of atheism, but also in many ways the obligatory passage point for atheists of "pre-modern" times: after all, anti-religious sentiments in the 12th century couldn't refer to Darwin or Copernicus, there was no modish recourse to the 'er, I believe in science 'cos, planes, penicilin, televisions all work.'

    Epicurus (or at least Lucretius) was one of the first people, as far as I know to give anyone a reason to think that belief in the gods might be -pernicious- even if it were necessary. (at least in the form of a 'first cause')

    Putting 'atheism' aside, for a moment (Dawkins et al are, I'm afraid old bugberas of mine, and I'm aware that I'm already perilously close to rudely spamming your comment box), but the interesting problem with maintaining an Epicurean attitude to nature in the modern world, brings up your very interesting question of how we think of nature today in comparison to Lucretius...:

    This question, I think, inevitably brings up, the messy 'dialectic of Enlightenment ' problem, the thought that for a modern modern Epicurean the biggest problem is going to be not so much the old one (how do we throw off superstition and replace it with understanding/serenity?), but the way the old problem is now coloured, and, in a way, soured by the fact that all the good, Epicurean goals, now need to be looked at in the light of of the greatest Epicrurean project in history having somehow floundered in the midst of its previously udnreamed of VICTORY. 'fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant &c. &c."

    What's going on here? I mean, didn't the Enlightenment succeed in gaining the respect for the new -- at the time crazily out there empirical method? -- that allowed us to land on the moon and have..twitterfeeds... didn't humanity succeed in leaving behind all the superstitious flotsam and jetsam of past epochs? So what happened? Why have we modern human, so dramatically failed to obtian the serene mancipation from irrational fears and concomitant decline decline in crappy behaviour towards each other that was supposed to be one (important half) of the enterprise, given that we've succeeded so brilliantly with the other half ot the project (the 'mastering nature and relieving man's estate' bit (Francis Bacon.)...

    Somehow, we've instead found ways to give birth to new gods and monsters in the very sepulchres of the old: thus almost everyone thinker over the last couple centuries has asked about this? Is it b/c the Enlightenment got somehow derailed (by reactionary force or another) or did we somehow misunderstand reason such that we managed to turn victory into a defeat by throwing out some kind of baby with the old 'episteme's' occult-propert filled bathwater?

    (Enter, at this point various philosophers to give competing glosses on these two basic possibilities in various ways that are, doubtless, tediously familiar to you...)

    Anyway...Sorry for that, but I just thought that I should stop by and say hello when I saw your tweet. Then...had to scribnble.

    P.S. Second excuse was that I was already reminded of you by the fact that I'm currently, for no good reason, reading "The Order of Things" again which I'm finding finding so heart-wrenchingly genius-in-all-ways, that I'm afraid sliced bread from this day forward is just going to be a slightly more convenient form of a too-familiar staple...

    Best in all things,