I think that the Roman poet Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus) is the most underrated philosopher of the ancient world. There, I said it.
So far as we know, he only created one work, De Rerum Natura, which is usually translated as On the Nature of Things. As the title suggests, it attempts to explain the universe, including the workings of the human mind. In poetic form. In Latin. And you’ve probably never heard of it. I hadn’t heard of it myself until about halfway through grad school, and I didn’t read it all until I was working on my dissertation. But the point is, it is without question the best piece work ever put out by any thinker who has ever called himself an Epicurean.
You might think it funny, then, that I group him with Plato and Aristotle and not in my treatment (soon to come) of Epicureanism. There are a couple of reasons for that: 1) I think Epicureanism, generally speaking, is quite close to Platonism and Aristotelianism when it comes to ethics; 2) I think Lucretius differs from orthodox Epicureanism in ways that allow him to be read as a “physicalist” “scientific” or “materialist” continuation of the psychological and ethical ideas I’ve discussed in Plato and Aristotle. I don’t want to put too fine a point on that, in the end I don’t need to convince anyone that Lucretius was secretly a Platonist or an Aristotelian and not an Epicurean. I just need to explain to you how Lucretius can fairly be read as usefully and consistently continuing what they started regarding how the mind works and how that feeds into ethics. I do this not only because it strikes me as correct, but in building out the argument of my thesis, I thought it useful and even important to show how the Plato-Aristotle view of the mind might look in a more “scientific” setting.
The First thing You Need to Know about Lucretius
Lucretius, as is true of any Epicurean, was a materialist. And he was an amazingly thorough materialist, even by their standards. I’m going explain that and then I hope you’ll see why I’m going to switch to “physicalist” for the rest of my discussion of him.
The main point of materialism is that everything is made out of actual physical stuff. There are no ghosts, souls, or anything else of the kind unless you can explain how they are made out of physical particles. And everything that happens in the world happens to stuff. In On the Nature of Things Lucretius sets out to explain how this all might work, with the best science of his time. An example of how very thorough he was – He argues that seeing is literally taking in atoms, in the ‘shape’ of the object one sees, which then physically impinge upon the mind.
Next time, we’ll delve into Lucretius’ conception of the mind.