On the Nature of Things (Lucretius)

Lucretius. On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura). trans. Anthony Esolen. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 

Modern atheism has fallen on hard times.  No atheist today can probably play on the level of Lucretius, either in intellect or literary skill (tips fedora).  Lucretius’s power of communication and imagination is sheer genius.  His science is laughably bad, though to be fair he couldn’t have known any better.

Esolen’s translation is a delight.  He is aware of the pacing and rhythm and keeps the English close to the original.  He also provides outlines of each book. 

Book 1.

Nature is matter + the void.  

He holds to the eternality of matter or at least of time: “For infinite time has gone and the lapse of days must have eaten up all things which are of mortal body.”  His point is that nature dissolves everything.  His reasoning for it is atrocious.  If infinite time has indeed gone by, then there must have been an infinite number of days before today, in which case we would never get to today.

He links his doctrine of motion with an ever-present void in all things.  Nature, therefore, is a combination of bodies and void. While he believes matter is dissolved, he doesn’t believe it is annihilated.  It returns to a “first-beginning” of solid singleness.

Side note:  matter comes from materia, which comes from mater, mother.  Of course, etymological arguments are usually worse than useless, but this is fascinating. It sees matter as the unformed potential of all things.  Matter in his ontology functions like a mother, who gives birth.

Book 2

Lucretius summarizes his previous metaphysical musings. His problem is in finding a way that matter can produce movement without some supervening cause (lines 62ff). As atoms travel through the void, they bump into each other and these bumps move into the opposition direction.  That appears to be true, but it doesn’t explain why they started to move.

He defines velocity as the particles’ slowing down in the void as a result of “getting entangled” with air waves.  Again, Lucretius comes very close to anticipating modern science, but he almost always gets it wrong.  Imagine, he almost discovered quantum entanglement!

While Lucretius doesn’t explicitly attack the concept of aether, the idea is there.  He says the sun (or light) is slowed down as it moves by the “atoms.”  The important point is that it doesn’t move in a vacuum (lines 151ff).

In a famous passage Lucretius says there is an infinite number of atoms which exist in a number of finite shapes or molds (525-529).  

Book 3

Book 3 deals with the soul.  The soul is mortal. It is conjoined with physical particles and when the particles die, the soul dies.  Lucretius is not a strict materialist on this point, though, as he emphatically asserts the existence of the mind.  He is what later writers would call a “property dualist.” Mind isn’t the same thing as matter, yet it supervenes and depends on matter.

Unfortunately, Lucretius’s target is Plato’s doctrine of reincarnation.  He ridicules it and rightly so, but as he seemed to be unaware of biblical revelation, he doesn’t deal with stronger arguments for the immateriality of the soul.  That’s a shame, too, because he seemed to anticipate the same criticisms made of Descartes. The “tight conjoining” of body and soul is very close to Hebraic thought.  

By the time we get to books five and six, Lucretius’s argument had come upon hard times.  Whenever a perplexing issue arises, he responds with “the atoms did it.”  That’s the danger in reductionist philosophies. After you have reduced everything, you don’t have much left to talk about.

Conclusion

It’s easy to make fun of Lucretius’s argument.  From a scientific point of view it is complete nonsense.  We have to give him some credit, though.  Unlike some Greek thinkers, Lucretius took nature seriously.  He investigated the particulars of nature rather than forcing science into some deductive grid.

And while Lucretius was an atheist, his atheism was preferable to Mediterranean polytheism. Pagan mythologies often came close to magic sex religions.  Lucretius was wise to choose reason instead.  For example, “Their ignorance of causes makes them yield/All power and rule to those divinities./These rational causes they cannot discern/So they suppose it’s all the will of the gods” (VI: 55ff).

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In the First Circle (Solzhentisyn)

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Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. In the First Circle. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009.

In 1968 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published an edited version of In the First Circle, titled simply First Circle.  He knew the full novel would never pass Soviet censors.  This is the full novel. This book is the triumph of the human spirit and the expose that scientific and state socialism is pure evil. 

The key event is not the phone call to the US attache about the atomic bomb.  Rather, it was when Gleb decides not to join the mathematicians’ “inner ring” in prison.  Truth be told, it really isn’t even that important a decision. However, it is a decision big enough to let him find his humanity.

Each chapter or collection of chapters is about a key character.  In this Solzhenitsyn also describes his historical methodology (i.e., “nodal points”). As Sologdin says, “Think like a mathematician.  Apply the nodal points method….Get an overall view of Lenin’s life, spot the main breaks in gradualness, the sharp changes in direction, and read only what relates to them.  How did he behave at those moments? And there you have the whole man” (181).

One of the key themes in this book is the resistance to reducing everything to material and economic factors. In his intra-novel novella on Stalin, Solzhenitsyn notes Stalin’s problem with language: is language part of “base” or “superstructure?”  In Marxist theology (and it is a theology), the economy is the base. The social phenomena is the superstructure. Language isn’t a mode of production, so it can’t be the base. However, it’s not clear how language functions as a superstructure, since language is more foundational than that. Superstructures change and can be discarded.  Language may adapt, but it never disappears.

Continuing this critique of Marxism, and the Marxist dictum that being (seen as economic forces) determines consciousness, the protagonist Gleb, not yet converted is rebuked: “If that were true, life wouldn’t be worthwhile….why do lovers remain faithful to each other when they are parted?  ‘Being’ demands they be unfaithful! And why do people in exactly the same circumstances, in the same camp even, behave so differently” (333)? The interlocutor goes on to note that we all have an inner essence.

Is Marxism even a science?  Rubin and some other guy have a fun conversation (483). Marxism claims its whole doctrine is derived from the nuclear concept of commodity and stems from the three laws of dialectic.

a) transformation of quality into quantity
b) interpenetration of opposites
c) negation of the negation

A scientific law must give direction and coordinates.  Revolutionary progress does not do this. Key problem: does the Marxist “negation of the negation” always take place in the course of development (489)? How do we know when to expect it?  We don’t. Even the Marxist Rubin admits that you can’t move from “the dialectic themselves to concrete analysis of phenomena.”

Here is the obvious problem with these three laws: there is no evidence they apply in the social realm.  The fact that water changes to steam has nothing to do with the bourgeoisie changing into the proletariat.  Nonetheless, the Marxist lecturer gives a good overview of Marxist metaphysics (and it is a metaphysics). “Matter alone is ultimate” (646-648).

Gleb comes to a different realization.  No ideology can change society. Progress doesn’t mean material progress.  Something else is needed. He comes on the truth almost by accident. He tells his friend Gerasimovich that they need to get the information out.  Ger. counters, “I thought you didn’t believe in radio or progress.”
Gleb: “No. They can jam it.  I’m saying that maybe….a new means will be discovered for the Word to shatter concrete.”
“But that completely contradicts the laws of resistance to materials.”
Gleb: “Not to mention dialectical materialism. So what? Remember ‘In the Beginning was the Word. So the word is more ancient than concrete. The Word is not to be taken lightly” (672).

On Prison Camp Names

“….Ozerlag, Luglag, Steplag, Kamyshlav…:”
“Makes you think there’s some unrecognized poet sitting in the ministry of State Security. He hasn’t got the stamina for whole poems, can’t get it together, so he thinks up poetic names for prison camps” (10).

One of the more moving climaxes of the book is when Gleb Nerzhin realizes that “the People” is an abstraction created by the Party elites.  Only your soul, not Party leadership, not Revolutionary dogma, can admit you to humanity (496).

Another fun development is when Gleb speaks with the half-blind Spiridon.   Gleb wants to see the real people, and not a socialist abstraction. He gets Spiridon, and what a joy Spiridon is. Spiridon’s criteria for morality is fairly simple: “He spoke ill of no one. He never bore false witness. He killed only when at war. He wouldn’t steal a crumb from any person, but he robbed the state whenever opportunity afforded, with a cool conviction that it was right” (505).

Hobbes: Leviathan

Leviathan

In the beginning of his treatise Hobbes stays very close to the “Received Tradition.” He does make some troubling moves, though, and quite subtlely. He rejects the idea of a “Summum Bonum.” His definition of natural law leaves out any reference to the eternal law or the mind of God. He views liberty as a zero-sum game.

Key themes:

Anthropology: Hobbes begins with anthropology, and his politics are logical inferences from it. Hobbes defines a “Body” as that which occupies space. Substance is matter, synonymous with body. The soul is simply the body living. He specifically rejects the idea that the soul is distinct from the body (639). Hobbes has defined man in purely material terms.

Not surprisingly, Hobbes rejects free agency. Liberty and necessity are the same thing: what a man does he freely does. Yet every act of man has a desire, and so a cause. And from that another cause, all the way back to the First Cause. This appears to be Jonathan Edwards’ view as well.

Social Contract: before the institution of the commonwealth, every man had a right to everything and by any means to preserve his own (354). This means that the State can never make an unjust law.
P1: Justice is when two agree to an exchange (if you didn’t agree, you wouldn’t do the exchange).
P2: You agreed to invest the state with authority (social contract).
________________
Therefore, any law the state makes automatically has your agreement.

Zero-Sum ethics: Hobbes holds that what is mine cannot be yours; if the state has liberty, then the subject to that degree cannot. Since there is no summum bonum, there can be no sharing in the ultimate good. This, plain and simple, is the economics of Hell. Hobbes is not a pure capitalist, though. He argues elsewhere against private charity and for state welfare (387).

Religious Persecution

Hobbes argues that religious persecution is impossible, since 1) the state can’t do wrong, and 2) only martyrs can be persecuted. Further (2a) a person can only be a martyr if they have seen the risen Jesus, which rules out everyone after the Apostle John. Therefore, no one today can be a martyr. Keep in mind that thousands of Scottish Covenanters were being butchered on the basis of Hobbes’ argument. This reminds me of a time at RTS when a local Reformed pastor came in the book store and told me that he held to Hobbes’s view of the state. I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want to end up in a FEMA camp.

Critique

My critique will follow Dabney’s (The Sensualistic Philosophy, pp. 15-20). Hobbes has to pay a high price for his materialism. If everything reduces to sensation, then whence come numbers, mind, any correspondence between my mind and the external world, all a priori judgments, logic, and abstract entities?

If everything is sensation, then what unites the sensations? (Hume’s famous line “a bundle of sensations”) Hobbes would have to answer yet another sensation. But what unites that sensation to the previous sensations? Ad infinitum. If Hobbes bites the bullet and rejects the need for a unity, then he needs to give up concepts like identity (and probably the concept of “concept” itself). This is the fatal consequence in rejecting philosophical realism. Hobbes is split between the One and the Many. His power-state collapses everything into the One, yet his nominalism reduces everything to an aggregate of an unconnected Many.

Conclusion

I give the book 1 star for its demonic content and 5 stars for its influence. Indeed, rebutting Hobbes is like casting down demonic strongholds (2 Corinthians 10). It’s fairly easy to read and there is no mistaking its influence (the “Father of Political Science”)