Reason and pleasure: The Epicurean way of good living

Titus Lucretius Carus was a Roman poet and philosopher of the Epicurean school who wrote the dialectic On the Nature of Things in the first century BCE. In some ways, Lucretius is to Epicurus as Mencius was to Confucius, giving us a wider body of written works than what survived from those earlier thinkers, and developing the philosophies further.

On the Nature of Things was written as a poem, though prose translations are available for ease of understanding. Its six books build on each other in progression, discussing such wide-ranging concerns as Atomism, the mind and soul, sensations and thought, the development of the world and its phenomena, and celestial and terrestrial phenomena.

As with Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, there is too much in this dense work to unpack in a short blog, so consider this an extremely brief introduction to Lucretius’ Epicurean principles, including his propensity for the scientific over the mystical. Just at children are afraid of the dark, Lucretius writes, human minds are enshrouded in darkness. Learning about the nature of things can strip away those false fears and empower one to live a full life.

A game of chance

Lucretius argues that everything happens by chance, that there is no divine design to the universe. Belief in the gods is folly, having led to atrocities such the mythical Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia as a war offering. Fear of judgment of invisible overlords, whether in this life or thereafter, creates unfounded anxiety. Lucretius argues that the death of the body is the end of life and all that goes with it; there is no afterlife, so there so there can be no suffering after death.

This is not to argue against the existence of gods necessarily, but against an anthropocentric worldview: the gods simply can’t be bothered with human affairs. Thinking that they designed the world for the benefit of humans is a deviation “from the path of sound judgment,” because humans have simply evolved according to the laws of nature.

Yes, evolution. “Nothing ever springs miraculously out of nothing,” nor equally is anything destroyed. Life is a process of creation and destruction, one thing renewing another in a constant cycle. Superstition merely justifies a failure to understand the order at work.

It seems humans today cling to superstitions such as unfettered capitalism and perpetual economic growth. These fallacies, and their failure to heed the wisdom of nature, has created dire consequences for us today including the climate crisis, pandemics, and staggering amounts of pollution.

We would be wise to work in concert with nature, just as we are wise to remember that our lives are but a glimmer in the infinite cosmos.

Atoms: much older than you think

Our lives are but a blip in the history of time and space, adapted to our circumstances through evolution, or as Lucretius posits, through atomic trial and error.

The theory of Atomism, first developed by the Greek philosopher Democritus in the 6th century BCE, proposes that the universe was formed by the mixing of elemental particles. Lucretius writes that primary elements are the basis of everything and cannot be extinguished. Infinite in number, and comprised of a limited number of shapes, these particles combine with one another to comprise all other objects.

Primary and compound elements are the two kinds of bodies that make up everything. So far, so modern.

Everything, then, is comprised of atoms and void, the void giving room for movement like silence in music gives a melody space. The atoms’ shape and the density of their arrangement affect the perceived smoothness, viscosity, density, and other tactile factors of the resulting object. Lucretius likens this to the letters of the alphabet: a finite set of symbols which, set in different combinations, create different words and meaning.  

The storied swerve

But how do atoms attract? Lucretius reasons that atoms are pulled downward, in a motion akin to gravity. As they fall, they swerve almost imperceptibly and bump into each other, not unlike dust dancing in a shaft of light. Life, in other words, is comprised of spontaneous unplanned motion, of chance. Acclaimed academics such as Stephen Greenblatt have written extensively about the swerve and its life-influencing effects.

We know today that atoms can be split, and that their shape is constant. Still, Lucretius’ idea about the influence of the atoms’ shape perhaps presages DNA, where proteins inform molecules of their functions.

DNA groups life into families of flora and fauna, divided further into genus and species. Lucretius notices that these Atomic arrangements allow animals to recognize their kind, such as the ewe who seeks and mourns her lamb who was taken for slaughter.

The stuff of life

Humans are uniquely availed of reason, and are comprised of an interconnected and material mind and spirit. Reason, that is, the mind or intelligence, is the supreme ruler of body and is fixed in the breast. That the heart is the seat of the thinking mind seems to allow it to draw on the brain’s intellect as much as the gut’s intuition.

The body is animated by an unnamed element, which is the soul of the whole soul, and “the supreme ruler of the whole body.” The Soul exists throughout the body, and moves according to “the will and impulse of the mind.” Will and impulse, it seems, are equally powerful animating forces. While education can refine one’s reason, Lucretius notes that knowledge does not change one’s “natural disposition.” Perhaps Lucretius accepts that some degree of impulse remains regardless of one’s degree of refinement.

Nothing “happens as swiftly as the mind imagines it,” since the atoms require time to respond. So, the mind makes matter real. One could also argue that nothing is real but thinking makes it so.

Regardless, the body and soul are intertwined as co-partners in life. The spirit relies on the mind, and life remains intact as long as the mind does. That mind and body alike can be cured with medicine is proof of their mortality because of the motion of constituent parts: they are compound rather than primary elements.

Making the most of it

Lucretius believed that life is comprised only of our present temporal plane, and therefore, the goal of life should be to avoid pain and enjoy pleasure, freeing one’s self from anxieties and fears. Ataraxia, a state of equanimity free of distress and worry, is the watchword.

Striving and ambition are antithetical to ataraxia, for they are false premises. Returning to the critique of superstition, Lucretius considers avarice and lust for status as being “nourished in no small degree by fear of death,” as if human striving would outsmart the gods anyway.

Preoccupation with death and otherworldly justice is folly. Death is the certain end that everybody meets, and so it should simply be accepted as part of life. To Lucretius, the mortal mind cannot be intertwined with the immortal. The human perishes entirely, so “death is nothing to us,” for “those who no longer exist cannot become miserable.” Fear comes from assuming that some part survives.

Lucretius insists that no part survives, and that life is a lease with an unknown expiry. Rather than worry about its inevitable end, one ought to make the best of this earthly life. “In short,” Lucretius writes, “fools make a veritable hell of their lives on earth.”

Learn to love your lot

To some, the idea that death ends all of one’s concerns is liberating, while to others it is disconcerting. But regardless whether one believes in a soul and an afterlife, Lucretius offers practical earthly wisdom.

It doesn’t matter what the blanket cost that you recuperate from illness under. Riches and rank are folly, and desire is antithetical to pleasure. Longing for perceived lack, and scorning what one has, squanders life, “incomplete and unenjoyed.” Better to follow one’s nature , and to enjoy simple pleasures in nature, to “never feel cheated of enjoyment.”

There is an illness in those who “endeavour to run away from themselves,” and who and “hate themselves because they are sick and do not understand the cause of their malady.” Like children afraid of the dark, illuminating the mind by understanding the nature of how things work can both remove the fear and anxiety, and promote calm self-acceptance.

Use the force, Luke

In this earthly realm, there is no truer information than what is obtained by the senses. As Lucretius posits, “if the senses are false, will reason be competent to impeach them when it is itself entirely dependent on the senses?” Since sense cannot correct itself, it is therefore, always true.

The senses, which work in concert with one another, are the result of evolution, of the adaptation of the species to the environment. “No part of our body was created to the end that we might use it, but what has been created gives rise to its own function.” Sight did not exist before the eyes, but the eyes evolved and gave sight.

The senses can never be fooled because they simply decipher information; it is the mind which interprets it. Sensory errors, or illusions, are “due to influences added by our own minds.”

Indeed, “The truth is that nothing is more difficult than to separate patent facts from the dubious opinions that our mind adds of its own accord.” This is no less true today, where all humans are susceptible to bias, unthinking acceptance, and a fear of challenging one’s own convictions.

Just an appetizer

Lucretius has so much more to say on about the workings of humans, nature, and the universe, and so many subsets therein. It would take volumes, and more knowledgeable scholars, to unpack.

Epicurianism stands quite apart from the philosophies developed by thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, departing from ideals and civic involvement, and instead advocating for a retreat from the bustle and problems of the city to a pleasant life lived in nature with friends.

Lucretius negates the idea of an afterlife and a soul that survives corporeal death, meaning this life is the only one and should be made the most of. It takes science over superstition, often in surprisingly modern ways.

Regardless what one believes, enjoying a pleasant, peaceful earthly life in the company of friends and loved ones, and in harmony with nature’s wisdom, sounds like a good prescription for anyone.

This much, it seems, is a universal truth.

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