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Epicurus, Lucretius and I

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January 3, 1995

I do not know, personally, others who try to describe their version of how things work, of how things are. In my most recent attempt to do this, I first imagined a series of images, poems, snatches of this and of that, those things which constitute my experience -- a more or less complete description of my own nature (genetics), my history (environment), my resultant conclusions. I see this phenomenon as a desire, a need, an urge, an intrinsic proclivity. Commerce has no place in it. A desire to be understood? By whom? Yes, that. Perhaps I do it for my children, at least in part, because I found nothing from my father that allowed me to understand - come to know - him. Nor from my Grandfather. Both men formed my male environment. A bleat? Yes, that too. A bleat of a lost sheep, a bewildered man, awander in the maze of his own neurosynaptic web, not lost. Ariadne's thread, my longing, keeps the exit for me in view.

Why do people write? The Greek sages were worried that writing would make obsolete the oral tradition, what they then called true learning. A thing was not learned unless it could be memorized and resaid, exactly as taught. Language, oral and written, body gesture, body words, translations, definitions are complex; and so complex are the intercultural effects of attempting to say in one language what has been first said in another, that we can completely lose the message that was originally meant. The mistranslation of the Greek word for young woman into the Hebrew word for virgin started a myth that spread like a brush fire and which now rages surely out of control. After three prior translations of his book missed his message, Kundera found it necessary to commission a fourth which he finally approved. It is so delicate, so subtle, this thing we call language, how can we ever hope to be understood?

I know, or I think I do, why I seek what I seek: I am trying to find intellectual consonance. So important is this for me that I find myself avoiding, eschewing momentary pleasures in exchange for a search for one person, or more, who can say to me: "Yes, I agree with your view of the world." Some literary consonance can be found by searching backwards in time. When I discovered Lucretius thirty years ago, I felt I had found a soulmate.

Lucretius was a poet. He was a teacher who died about 50 years before Christ. He was a student and follower of Epicurus and of Democritus. He left a poem, "The Nature of Things," the subject of an essay by Gilbert Highet to whom I owe my introduction. The doctrines contained in the poem are those of Epicurus, the poetry is Lucretius. The contrast between these two persons brings surprises. The differences between a practical man and one driven by passion shine brightly by comparison. Epicurus, an Athenian schoolmaster's son, founded a philosophical college in Athens in 306 B.C. He taught his own system of philosophy, which was based upon the ideas of Leucippus and of his more famous pupil, Democritus. Of these two thinkers, Highet says: "By anticipating some of the most advanced scientific discoveries of our own era, and by doing so without complex apparatus, almost wholly through pure speculative reasoning, these two men gave one of these demonstrations of penetrating and comprehensive thought that justify us in calling the Greeks the founders of Western Civilization."

Four propositions formed the structure of Lucretius' poem: 1. The material of the world is not what it seems to be. It is composed of invisible particles which obey certain laws and which thereby impart to those materials their qualities, for example liquids and solids. 2. All of our universe is made of atoms which come together, change, separate. Our universe will in time cease to exist, but the atoms of which it is composed are eternal. 3. Natural disasters can be explained scientifically, they are not caused by God's anger. 4. Sensations and thought are functions of the body. What is called the soul by some is not immortal, but is born in the body, develops with it and ceases to exist when the other physical functions stop.

Today, most civilized people in the Western world believe proposition 1 and 3, Many believe the second; Some believe the fourth. All four were accepted as unquestionable truths by many Greeks and Romans. One of the unanswered questions about this poem of Lucretius is how it lasted through medieval Christianity where it must have been copied out by monks who understood some of what they read and transcribed it although it was opposed to all the tenets of the Christian belief. Today, in the sociologic cul-de-sac where my son teaches the 3rd and 4th grade, it is the literal meaning of the Bible that forms the beliefs of many of the children who enter his classroom, and more importantly, forms the beliefs of the ignorant parents and a number of his fellow teachers and principals. One of his most recent principals started each day with a prayer and believed without question that the earth had been created by God in seven days, that 'evolution' of Darwin is the enemy, that those who did not believe as she did deserved to burn in hell. How can we have arrived at such a place?

It is complicated, of course, but perhaps the very seeds of our backward journey can be found in Lucretius. Epicurus was a man complete. He was mild, pure-hearted, serene and dedicated to his system of belief. It is perhaps that he was so very convinced of his direction that he no longer had doubts. Humans choose what they believe from a variety of explanations which are brought to their consciousness at any given time. The beliefs which we hold as truth arise because we are challenged by our environment to make a life/death decision. If that decision works in subsequent challenges, it is adopted as our truth. If not, it is quickly rejected. Epicurus seems to have convinced himself that his explanations were sufficient for his purposes. He was after all the founder of the system he taught. The atmosphere of Epicurus' school, is compared by Highet to that of an ashram, not merely a place of instruction, but a community of friends. Friends do not long remain so if there are fundamental differences of belief. The way in which he led his life also tended to create self generating approbations. "Epicurus teaches like a man who never felt a tremor in his heart or a shadow fall on his intellect." Gilbert Highet is a gifted writer.

Lucretius argues his position from several arenas: mankind's triumphant intellect, mankind's social ignorance, mankind's hopelessness. The poem is very pessimistic. It shares none of his teacher's optimism. Lucretius, while satisfied with the explanations for how the world actually works, continually demonstrates the effects of these workings upon humanity. He not only anticipates the germ theory by proposing the cause of the epidemics of typhus which from time to time devastated the populus, but it is done with a revealing anguish. It is as if he hates the effects of his explanations. Explanations do not alter the suffering. A compassionate man, a sympathetic man must be seen in these passages.

The poem ends, almost abruptly, with a description of the human panic which surrounded the burial of kinfolk who died in an epidemic. It is an ending which begs for something more. Can we blame the translator? Did Lucretius die before he could complete it?

Highet offers one possible explanation for the curious nature of the poem. He refers to the Christian chronicle of St. Jerome. Lucretius, it says, was driven mad by a love potion administered by his wife! He wrote the poem in his lucid intervals and committed suicide. Love philters were often used by Roman women, often with dire effects. In the fourth book of the poem, Lucretius runs with the Epicurean warning: "Sexual intercourse has never done anyone any good and may well have done harm." He expands this to say that sexual activity was either a disagreeable routine or a dangerous form of insanity...

This auspicious insight into Lucretius' private domain suggests one suffering the poet's fate. If in poetry and art we try to translate feelings into words or into pictures or shapes, then I must feel the full shove of Lucretius' angst, his passion. His poem, like Dante's, is a scream. Humanity, he says, has all this knowledge, this shining intellect, this explanation for things and yet life does not work, not for those of us who also feel. Lucretius makes a sharp contrast with Epicurus who either did not or could not feel. How can one simply evade sexual passion or emotion? How, unless one is self controlled and will not feel, or perhaps intrinsically bereft and cannot? Dante, his only true love already dead for 27 years, his life superficially orderly, a successful banker, three children, married, is driven by his inner urges to write the shining tribute to love, to his only love, the love that nearly drove him mad, Beatrice. And Beatrice never gave him a second glance when she was alive! The religious scholars believe the Divine Comedy to be a gesture to god. This cannot be so. Or if directed there, then a complaint, not a tribute. Dante screams just as does Lucretius: there is something bigger than the intellect. Something that can take hold of the intellect, can twist and bend it, and that thing is passion, fundamentally it is sexual passion.

So Lucretius, the passionate intellectual is laid low by his gonads. Dante, the brilliant writer, the popularizer of the tongue of the street, is beaten by his gonadal passion. In contrast, Epicurus looks like a knowledgeable nerd, safe in the confines of his own computer room.

So I am brought back to my question: how can it be we seem to be traveling upon a Moebius strip of knowledge? We appear destined to go only so far and then find ourselves back again at the same place. What is there lacking in knowledge that makes knowledge so bitter?

My answer is: 'knowledge is bitter.' If we see that our intellect developed only to advance our species and that advance was a response to the environment no different from the reactions of our fellow animals, then three score and ten years of life are not enough to justify it. It is not payment enough simply to live. Or is it?

I dangle this question over my head each night before I enter the calm sanctum of my sleep. It is enough? As I was writing my book, I came to a dark place where I did see human life only as a means to make more humans. I could then, and can today, offer an explanation for why this is so. I was left only with the wonder of it all, by its unexplainable complexity, I saw that it included everyone else's explanations. As long as I am not killed somewhere along the way as a consequence of the beliefs of a religious zealot, I suppose it doesn't really matter. That wonderful complexity is probably enough.