In 54 BC Cicero mentioned in passing the ‘poems of Lucretius’ writing to his brother that they were both imaginative and skilful. That is about all we really know of Lucretius. Well, that is not quite true, it is believed he was born around 94 BC and died in 55 BC. He was a Roman poet and a philosopher. You might – if you have been reading this blog from the beginning – ask why, in my reading and research on my astronomical hero Aristarchus, am I reading about a Roman poet who lived at least 200 years later?
I am still learning about who Lucretius was. I have so far read Book 1, and half of Book 2, of The Nature of Things (Translated by A. E. Stallings, Penguin Classic (2007)) and I am loving it. Lucretius, by this stage in the poem, has dismissed with great panache, the philosophies and beliefs of at least three (last count) Greek philosophers. His dismissals are magnificent, poetic, dramatic and seared through with logic as sharp as a double-edged sword. It is hard to disagree with him. I am drawn in to wonder who influenced him the most. Where did he begin his thinking, and did those who influenced Aristarchus also influence him? Is it possible to understand the thinking of earlier philosophers by the interpretations of those who came afterwards by teasing out the later philosophers’ different angles of thought? Of course, (spoiler alert), this is the whole point of this, and the reason I am so keen on understanding Aristarchus, who was, in my opinion, pivotal in Greek astronomy and consequentially, modern cosmology.
How is today’s modern scientific and specifically cosmological thought, influenced by the type of thinking that has gone before? What influences have played their part? I am interested in Chinese, Indian, Babylonian, Egyptian and many other societies, people, and cultures and how they thought. How a society thinks is as important as what they think because what they think evolves from how they think. it is possible mathematically to show that 2 = 1 with some clever logic, flawed logic yes, but the same type of logic which has come down to us from as early as Anaximander, through to Aristotle, Plato and those who influenced them. How much of the mathematical logic today is also flawed but with flaws so discreetly and discretely woven in as to be invisible to cosmologists and quantum physicists of today?
Lucretius writes for and possibly to his friend Memmius (although it has to be said, this is ambiguous, as he could well be addressing Venus, in fact it appears he is, or is he? Any light on this would be received most gratefully), and he writes with both passion and urgency, imploring Memmius (or Venus) to,
“Open your ears, apply keen intellect. Far from cares, to true philosophy…” (Book 1, line 50)
Lucretius is aware of the lack of words of the Latin language to express Greek ideas as he says here,
“Nor does it fail me that discoveries – obscure and dark – of Greeks are difficult to shed much light on with the spark of Latin poetry, chiefly since I must coin much new terminology because of our tongue’s dearth and due to the novelty of subject matter” (Book 1, lines 136-139)
The first Greek to be dismissed is Heraclitus (line 639), and closely followed by Empedocles (line 717), and then almost immediately Anaxagoras’ falls by the wayside (line 830). He does so with great irony, in fact, I would say verging on sarcasm. His dismissal of Empedocles takes almost a whole page of setting up his fall…with
These men were giants; when they stumble, they have far to fall: First because they allow for motion with no void at all.” (Book 1 lines 741-742)
Lucretius’ logic is brilliant as he deconstructs each idea and theory, and it is precisely this, ironically which is so fascinating because it is the logic of those same Greek philosophers he uses, a legacy of logic passed down from Anaximander throughout the centuries, and which Lucretius uses to knock down the very pillars he is building on.
In a future post I might look specifically at some of Lucretius’ logic with examples of where he uses the same type of logic as those whose theories he endeavours to dismiss. Lucretius was surely one of the most brilliant minds of his time. Both entertainingly laugh out loud at times in presenting the absurdity of some of the established theories of his day, while breath-taking in his clarity of reasoning.
I wonder, who is doing that for us today?