That Other Western Civilization

Backtracking a little after Meditations, I bit the bullet and read Lucretius' De Rerum Natura.This title is and can be translated a number of different ways, owing to the broadness of the Latin word res. The most literal translation would probably be "About the nature of things". However, in this context "things" encompasses the entire universe. It is a first-century BC Latin Epicurean poem, physics textbook, philosophical treatise, and personal letter all rolled into one. The linked translation is pretty standard for Loeb editions. In other words, there's Latin on the left and fairly literal English on the right with a moderate number of footnotes and a scholarly introduction. You may want to consider other options if you have no interest in the Latin on the left-hand side.

Epicureanism is a curious thing. While other ancient schools of thought like Platonism, Aristotelianism, and even Stoicism still hold some currency in the present day, Epicureanism is largely forgotten in the mainstream. And when it is remembered, it is used as a synonym for hedonism. And the thing that makes this strange is that Epicureanism actually more closely aligns with the modern Western world view than these other philosophies in many ways. For example, Lucretius argues that either the gods do not exist or that they have no reason to care about the affairs of mortals and are therefore irrelevant. He also champions atomism, the idea that matter is made from atoms rather than the classical elements. He even concludes that other planets must exist. While he still argues largely through logic, much in the way that Aristotle and Plato did, he also pushes the Epicurean idea of the reliability of the senses. In other words, Epicureans rejected the Platonic notion of a shadow world and instead accepted the idea of an objective and observable universe. This belief in the senses, incidentally, is the root of the insistence that Epicureans are hedonists. The form of argumentation is very familiar but the conclusions are completely different. It is like looking in a mirror version of the Western tradition.

So given the strong parallels to modern thinking and the empirically-verified truth of that thinking, why did Epicureanism die off rather than catch on? I think Epicureanism had problems with both the medium and the message.

By "medium", I mean the style of argumentation. Argument by logic alone is fraught with peril. It only takes one faulty assumption or one fallacy to turn an entire, seemingly logical, worldview into a useless house of cards. And in worse instances, Plato accuses some "philosophers" of spinning logic with no regard for truth simply because it was an easy way to get students and their fees. To varying degrees, ancient philosophers were aware of the limitations of their epistemological approach. However, most were certain of the rigor of their own methodology. The end result is that logic alone lacked sufficient persuasive force. Even if the conclusions were true, it was too difficult to discern complex and true logic from complex and false logic. You can see similar problems in our modern statistical approaches. One mistake and "overwhelming" statistical evidence can become completely meaningless. Empiricism, in contrast, lends itself to physical demonstrations. And in a way that worried Plato but likely pleased the Epicureans, people believe what they can see. But lacking that, philosophies could come and go like fashions, regardless of how accurately they described the world. Truth alone was not sufficient and often not even required.

And by "message", I mean that some of the claims of Epicureanism are extremely inconvenient. For example, the essential atheism of Epicureanism made it impossible for many political figures to openly endorse it. Roman paganism was the de facto state religion and many government ceremonies and practices were essentially religious. Lucretius even warns his intended reader, the praetor Gaius Memmius, that pursuing the truth of Epicurean philosophy may not always be compatible with his official duties. Contrast this with Stoicism. Some argue that Stoicism tends toward monotheism. Others reject this. But in either case, it is compatible with the general idea of deism. And even if it were not, Stoics would argue that duty obliged Stoic politicians to perform the necessary state rituals with at least seeming earnestness. In other words, Emperor Marcus Aurelius could function both as a Stoic and as Emperor openly without any real philosophical conflict and without turning popular opinion against him. An Epicurean Emperor would have been in a much more difficult position. And this would have been true, to varying degrees, of anyone with any office in the Roman political system. In other words, Epicureanism was likely at a patronage and advocacy disadvantage. Religions and philosophies benefit immensely from the conversion of political figures. And Epicureanism could never realistically compete on that front.

In a similar vein, many people likely had issues with the Epicurean view that even though the soul exists, it is mortal. In other words, there is nothing after death. And this has never been a popular point of view. People take comfort in the notion of an immortal soul, whether it is Aristotle or the Pope preaching the idea. The survival instinct in humans, like all animals, is strong and the thought of utter annihilation makes our blood run cold. Fighting such instinctual preferences requires more evidence than Epicurean methods could muster.

In short, if you are going to push a new philosophy or religion, it helps to make it convenient and appealing. Impossible-to-prove promises that feel good can often win more converts than truth. Lucretius was somewhat aware of this fact that. It is the whole reason De Rerum Natura is a poem. He thought that a beautiful form would make uncomfortable truths easier to digest.

My next reading will probably take me back to the Stoics with the letters of Seneca, assuming Amazon ever ships me the third volume in the set.