Lucretius on Religion -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

Lucretius on Religion

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Epicurus and his followers declared war upon religion which feeds off men’s fear and ignorance. The first book of Lucretius’ great philosophical poem The Nature of the Universe contains what amounts to a materialist and atheist manifesto:

"When human life lay grovelling in all men’s sight, crushed to the earth under the dead weight of superstition whose grim features loured menacingly upon mortals from the four quarters of the sky, a man of Greece was first to raise mortal eyes in defiance, first to stand erect and brave the challenge. Fables of the gods did not crush him, nor the lightning flash and the growling menace of the sky. Rather, they quickened his manhood, so that he, first of all men, longed to smash the constraining locks of nature’s doors. The vital vigour of his mind prevailed. He ventured far out beyond the flaming ramparts of the world and voyaged in mind throughout infinity. Returning victorious, he proclaimed to us what can be and what cannot: how a limit is fixed to the power of everything and an immovable frontier post. Therefore superstition in its turn lies crushed beneath his feet, and we by his triumph are lifted level with the skies." (Lucretius, The Nature of the Universe, p. 29.)

Even here, the religious prejudices of the translator are apparent. He cannot bring himself to translate the word "religio" as religion, preferring to render it as "superstition." This, in 1951! The materialist philosophy of Epicurus made a big impact on the young Karl Marx, who chose it as the subject of his doctoral dissertation while at university. Marx considered that the Roman philosopher-poet Lucretius was "the only one in general of all the ancients who has understood Epicurean physics," who has written "a more profound exposition." ( Marx-Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 1, p. 48, referred to hereafter as the MECW.)

In the most striking poetic language, Lucretius defends the indestructibility of matter, the correct idea that matter can neither be created nor destroyed:

"This dread and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by the sunbeams, the shining shafts of day, but only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature. In tackling this theme, our starting-point will be this principle: Nothing can ever be created by divine power out of nothing. The reason why all mortals are so gripped by fear is that they see all sorts of things happening on the earth and in the sky with no discernible cause, and these they attribute to the will of a god. Accordingly, when we have seen that nothing can be created out of nothing, we shall then have a clearer picture of the path ahead, the problem of how things are created and ocassioned without the aid of the gods." (Lucretius, op, cit. p. )

The law of the conservation of energy, proved by Mayer, Joule, Helmholz and others in the mid-19th century shows that the total amount of energy neither disappears nor is created, when changing from one kind to another. This provides an unshakable basis for the materialist position that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. This idea is also brilliantly conveyed by Lucretius:

"The second great principle is this: nature resolves everything into its component atoms and never reduces anything to nothing. If anything were perishable in all its parts, anything might perish all of a sudden and vanish from sight. There would be no need of any force to separate its parts and loosen their links. In actual fact, since everything is composed of indestructible seeds, nature obviously does not allow anything to perish till it has encountered a force that shatters it with a blow or creeps into chinks and unknits it." (The Nature of the Universe, p. 33.)

The Epicurean world view maintains that the universe is infinite, and matter has no limit, either externally or internally:

"If there are no such least parts, even the smallest bodies will consist of an infinite number of parts, since they can always be halved and their halves halved again without limit. On this showing, what difference will there be between the whole universe and the very least of things? None at all. For, however endlessly infinite the universe may be, yet the smallest things will equally consist of an infinite number of parts. (ibid., p. 45.)

And: "Learn, therefore, that the universe is not bounded in any direction. If it were, it would necessarily have a limit somewhere. But clearly a thing cannot have a limit unless there is something outside to limit it, so that the eye can follow it up to a certain point but not beyond. Since you must admit that there is nothing outside the universe, it can have no limit and is accordingly without end or measure." (ibid., p. 55.)

If the scientists of our own century had had an equally sound philosophical outlook, we would have been spared the most glaring errors of method, such as the search for the "bricks of matter," the "big bang" with its finite universe, the "birth of time," the equally absurd "continuous creation of matter," and the like. In relation to time, Democritus stated that time had no origin, that it does not exist in itself, apart from the movement of things or things at rest. How infinitely more scientific than certain present-day physicists who talk about the alleged "beginning of time" 20 billion years ago! In their apparatus, they are more advanced, but in their mode of thinking, they are worlds behind the early materialists.

The consistent materialist outlook of Epicurus earned him the most venomous attacks of the Church from the earliest times. The apostle Paul specifically mentions them in the Acts of the Apostles, xvii, 18. In Dante’s time, the accusation of Epicureanism meant someone who denied the Holy Ghost and the immortality of the soul. In general, Epicurus is thought to have advocated an amoral and hedonistic philosophy, in which all manner of gluttony and licentiousness was permitted. All this is just a crude slander against Epicurus and his philosophy.

In terms of morality and ethics, the Epicurean philosophy represents one of the noblest products of the human spirit. It resembles the famous dictum of Spinoza: "Neither weep nor laugh, but understand." Epicurus sought to free humanity from fear, by promoting a clear understanding of nature, and man’s place in it. He asked himself what is the basis of all fear, and answered, the fear of death. His main aim was to eliminate this fear, by explaining that death is nothing for me in the present, for I am alive, and will be nothing to me in the future, since, after death, I can know nothing about it. Therefore, he enjoined men to set aside fear of death and live life to the full. This beautiful and humane philosophy has always been anathema to those who wish to direct the eyes of men and women away from the problems of the real world to an alleged world after death, which is supposed to reward or punish us according to our just deserts.

The accusation of grossness and hedonism against Epicurus stems from the vengeful attitude of the Christian apologists against a cheerful and life-enhancing philosophy—the exact opposite of their own. They sought to bury their enemy under a heap of slander. In fact, Epicurus, like Spinoza, identified the good with pleasure, or the absence of pain. He considered human relations from the point of view of utility, which finds its highest expression in friendship. In a period of great social turbulence and uncertainty, he preached withdrawal from the world, and a life of peaceful meditation. He recommended men to reduce their needs to a minimum, away from the world of strife, competition and war. This was, of course, an utopian idea, but it is nothing to do with the ugly and spiteful caricature put in circulation by the opponents of materialism. Epicurus remained true to his ideals on his deathbed, from where he wrote: "A happy day is this on which I write to you…The pains which I feel…could not be greater. But all of this is opposed by the happiness which the soul experiences, remembering our conversations of a bygone time."

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