In approximately 60 BC, the Roman poet Lucretius wrote On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura). In the tradition of Parmenides’ On Nature, Lucretius’ poem is an ontological epic. Lucretius reprised the themes of many ancient Greek philosophers – Pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, Neo-Platonists, Stoics and, of course, his own Epicureans. He reprised their themes…but he proposed radically new solutions, solutions that eerily resonate with ideas we generally attribute to the 20th century.
Lucretius was an atomist. He believed that all objects (he called them ‘bodies’), sentient or otherwise, are made up of ‘primal germs’. These primal germs are solid, eternal, indestructible and unchangeable. By themselves, these germs do not have characteristics that can be perceived by our senses.
“Primal germs have solid singleness nor otherwise could they have been conserved through eons and infinity of time for the replenishment of wasted worlds.”
“Nature, reserving them as seeds for things permitteth not of rupture or decrease.”
“Nature all dissolves into their primal bodies again, and naught perishes ever to annihilation.”
The primal seeds exist on a scale that is imperceptible:
“Far beneath the ken of senses lies the nature of those ultimates of the world.”
But they are not infinitesimal.
“Were there not a minimum (size), the smallest bodies would have infinites, since then a half-of-half could still be halved.”
Clearly, Lucretius is aware of Zeno’s Paradox and solves it by introducing an ancient version of the Planck Scale.
There are a specific but unspecified number of distinct germ types, distinguished from one another only by their ‘shapes’. These differing shapes make it possible for germs to interlock. When differently shaped germs interlock, a ‘body’ is formed. Only bodies have sensible properties.
The idea that geometry constitutes the substructure of all that we experience as our ‘world’ is found in Plato (Timaeus) but more recently in the work of Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller (Synergetics) and in a 21st century theory of physics called Tetronics.
Because no primal germ can link directly with another germ of the same type (i.e. shape), all bodies are comprised of differently shaped germs.
“Nothing there is that’s not of mixed seed.”
But not all different germ types can interlink. Certain combinations of shapes are compatible for union, others are not.
In looking at the world, we are immediately awed by its seemingly limitless variety; and yet not everything we can possibly imagine can actually be. In fact, when we think about it further, there are more combinations of traits that are impossible than possible.
Lucretius’ model accounts for this beautifully and economically. If we liken primal germs to the letters of an alphabet, the shapes of those germs would constitute the word formation and sentence formation rules of the corresponding language. As we all know, most combinations of letters do not produce words; most combinations of words do not result in sentences. Still, the great variety of potential words and sentences allows an almost limitless range of thought.
Thinkers have long marveled at the fact that things, though greatly varied, yet are distinct. Variation is not continuous; it is quantized. Biologist Stephen Jay Gould referred to this phenomenon as “punctuated equilibrium”. Plato resorted to his famous “ideas, ideals or forms” to account for it; Christians use the concept of Logos to explain it. Lucretius’ reliance on geometry is more economical in keeping with Occam’s Razor.
Lucretius’ understanding of matter is remarkably near to what we believe today. His primal germs are a cross between sub-atomic particles and atoms. His bodies correspond to our molecules. All in all, Lucretius gives us a model that is very close to the Standard Model of Particle Physics.
Unlike primal germs, bodies have properties. Lucretius attributed such properties to the different ways in which different germ types interlock. Like a modern day chemist, he explained differences in the behavior of different ‘bodies’ and differences in the states of matter (solid, liquid, gas) in terms of the structure of the bonds formed among germs.
Lucretius distinguished properties from accidents:
“A property is that which not at all can be disjoined and severed from a thing without a fatal dissolution…weight to rocks, heat to fire.”
Accidents, on the other hand, are not essential to the identity of the body. In concert with modern day social thinking, Lucretius cites slavery vs. freedom and poverty vs. wealth as examples of accidents.
Lucretius’ theory of accidents leads to a fascinating concept of time:
“Even time exists not of itself; but sense reads out of things what happened long ago, what presses now, and what shall follow after…All past actions may be said to be but accidents, in one way of mankind, in other of some region of the world.”
For Lucretius, only the Present essentially is. The Past and Future exist only in so far as they are manifest in the Present. For example, the Past may exist in the Present in the form of memory and the Future in the form of desire. It is a short jump from here to the Hasidic notion that the world is continually coming into being ex nihilo.
Lucretius’ time is epiphenomenal. In fact, it is merely ‘accidental’. Unlike a ‘property’, it is in no way essential to the identity of the event itself. Instead, temporal sequence (past and future) is assigned to events after the fact: “Sense reads out of things…” An event’s place in such a sequence is an ‘accident’ of the event itself and of the region of space in which that event occurs. This is a remarkable deconstruction of time not seen again until the late 20th century.
Lucretius’ concept of time as ‘accidental’ lays the ground work for his ontology of absolute freedom:
“Every act at bottom exists not of itself, nor as body is…but rather of sort more fitly to be called an accident of body and of place wherein all things go on.”
It hardly needs be pointed out that according to this model causality is also an accident and therefore determinism is a total non-sequitur.
“Cause succeed not cause from everlasting, whence this free will for creatures o’er the land, whence it is wrested from the fates, – this will whereby we step right forward where desire leads each man on…In these affairs ‘tis each man’s will itself that gives the start.”
Lucretius may be seen as the first philosopher of absolute freedom, something not seen again until the 19th and 20th centuries. The existentialist French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, believed that etre pour soi is characterized by totally unconditioned freedom. Likewise, Alfred North Whitehead believed that every ‘actual entity’ originates with a conceptual selection of target values and then freely chooses its own unique path toward the manifestation of those values.
Lucretius’ world does not consist only of matter (germs). Germs need space in order to combine and bodies need room (both internally and externally) in order to grow, move, interact, combine, decay and ultimately dissolve. Therefore, Lucretius adds a second fundamental ontological category, the Void. By equating space with the Void, Lucretius ensures that space must be infinite:
“Space has no bound nor measure and extends unmetered forth in all directions round.”
Primal germs plus the Void account for all the bodies with all the properties that constitute our world.
Only the primal germs themselves are devoid of void (and therefore must be featureless and eternal); the bodies they engender are necessarily made up of germs and Void. Because of this admixture of the Void, all bodies are changeable and mortal. The Void assures this; it is the agent of mortality.
One of the thorniest problems of Western philosophy has been the struggle between monism and dualism. If you believe that everything consists of a single substance, it is difficult to account for the flexibility, variety and changeability of ‘actual entities’ (or events). On the other hand, if you believe that two (or more) distinct substances are required to account for those events, it is difficult to explain how these fundamentally alien substances communicate with one another and modify each another’s behavior.
In his seminal work, The Concept of Mind, 20th century British philosopher Gilbert Ryle argued that a dualistic mind/body model of human behavior amounted to putting a “ghost in a machine”.
In the 20th century, Jean-Paul Sartre proposed an ingenious solution to this problem: being and nothingness (Etre et Neant). There is a single ‘substance’ which Sartre called ‘etre’ but that substance perpetually confronts its own potential negation, ‘neant’. The combination of the substantial and its perpetual negation is sufficient to account for all of the complex behavior of entities in our world, including mental phenomena, free will, etc. Lucretius was essentially in the same place…just 2,000 years earlier.
For both Sartre and Lucretius, the existence of Neant and Void as a primary ontological category means that causality has severe limits. For both philosophies, those limits give both ‘chance’ and ‘freedom’ the space they need to operate.
Alfred North Whitehead’s great work of systematic philosophy, Process and Reality, begins with three ‘undefined terms’: one, many and creativity. Lucretius’ germs and Void roughly cover the same terrain as Whitehead’s one and many. Whitehead’s creativity is anticipated by Lucretius with a third fundamental but unnamed ontological category:
“No less within the primal seeds thou must admit, besides all blows and weight, some other cause of motion, whence derives the power in us born of some free act. – Since naught from nothing can become…Just as they move today, the elemental bodies moved of old and shall the same hereafter evermore.”
As with Whitehead’s creativity, there is a fundamental unrest in the universe that leads germs to conjoin.
So bodies, consisting of conjoined primal germs plus the Void, constitute the world. Lucretius reasoned that such a world must be spatially infinite and that the number of germs of each germ type must also be infinite.
“Throughout the universe, end there is none…Space to all sides stretches infinite and free, and seeds, innumerable in number, in sum bottomless…fly bestirred in everlasting motion there.”
He argued that the world must look the same no matter where one stands and no matter what direction one looks.
“For center none can be where world is still boundless.”
In this, Lucretius anticipated the thinking of Albert Einstein and the Theory of Relativity.
Lucretius’ world is an infinite lattice of uniform density. Lucretius went on to reason that in such a world, where the laws of physics (combination and dissolution) are uniform throughout, bodies, including those exhibiting ‘soul’ and ‘mind’, must exist in all regions.
“Thus I say, again, again, ‘tmust be confessed there are such congregations of matter otherwhere, like this our world…’Tmust be confessed in other realms there are still other worlds, still other breeds of men.”
He anticipated by 2000 years one of the strongest arguments for today’s SETI programs.
For Lucretius, soul and mind are joined but distinct. Both consist of configurations of “tiny germs” (tiny because of the levity and speed associated with them).
“Nothing is seen to happen with such speed as what the mind proposes and begins.”
Soul is diffused throughout the body while mind has a fixed location.
“Mind and soul, I say, are held conjoined one with other, and form one single nature of themselves…soul throughout the body scattered, but obeys – moved by the nod and motion of the mind.”
Both soul and mind are material and therefore mortal.
“Nature of mind and soul corporeal is.”
They cannot live apart from the body and so they die when the body dies.
“There’s naught of which thou canst declare it lives disjoined from body…for whatever exists must be a somewhat.”
Tracing everything back to the primal germs plus Void, whether mental or physical, Lucretius satisfies the modern definition of a ‘materialist’.
Lucretius also proposes something very close to the modern concept of entropy:
“Each thing is quicker marred than made.”
“All of things by sure degrees are wasting away and going to the tomb, outworn by venerable length of life.”
Lucretius’ concept of entropy, though early in intellectual history, is certainly not timid or superficial:
“So all have birth and perishable frame, thus the whole nature of the world itself must be conceived as perishable too.”
“Sky above and earth beneath began of old in time and shall in time go under to disaster.”
“I have assumed that earth and fire are mortal things indeed, and have not doubted water and the air both perish too.”
None of this, however, challenges Lucretius core belief in the eternal reality of the primal germs and Void. In fact, combining this entropy with his previous notion of an infinite universe, Lucretius reasons that the primal germs must be eternal. If primal germs, never perishing, were not forever available to generate new bodies, there would be no world now:
“By now bodies of matter would have been so far reduced by breakings in old days that from them…nothing could be born…All fore-passed time would now by this have broken and ruined and dissolved that same could ne’er in all remaining time be builded up for the plenishing of the world. But mark: infallibly a fixed bound remaineth stablished against their breaking down.”
If time is infinite and if all order is inexorably subject to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics with no lower bound, then the probability that we would be observing a world characterized by any degree of order would be infinitesimal.
Nowhere is Lucretius more poetic…and disturbing…than when he speaks of death. In spite of his belief in universal and all pervasive entropy, he holds death lightly:
“Therefore death to us is nothing nor concerns us in the least, since nature of mind is mortal evermore.”
He accepts death as the ultimate eraser…but finds there no cause for angst:
“Nothing for us there is to dread in death, no wretchedness for him who is no more, the same estate as if ne’er been born.”
“In true death there is no second self, alive and able to sorrow for the self, destroyed.”
Nor does he rely on any sort of ‘second hand immortality’:
“Nor think that aught we see hither and thither afloat upon the crest of things, and now a birth and straightway now a ruin, inheres at rest deep in the eternal atoms of the world.”
“Look back: nothing to us was all fore-passed eld 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.”
I think most of us are somewhat uncomfortable with the notion that to die is equivalent to never having been born. We imagine somehow that our existence is real even when it is no longer present. Even confronted with the extreme likelihood that the entire Universe will end in Heat Death, Big Crunch or Big Bounce, we still cling to the idea that there is an objective value to once having been. Whitehead, for example, did not believe in the immortality of subjective experience; but he did believe that the objective contents of our lives are preserved eternally in the Consequent Nature of God.
Lucretius clings to no such notions. With no support from any religious belief, Lucretius accepts death with equanimity. In part at least, this is because of his view that universe is a cycle of regeneration:
“Mixed with the funeral is the wildered wail of infants coming to the shores of light.”
“Ever the old, outcrowded by the new, gives way.”
“Nature ever upbuilds one thing from other, suffering naught to come to birth but through some other’s death.”
Lucretius faces the reality of death and looks it squarely in the eye: