Ideas from 'On the Nature of the Universe' by Lucretius [60 BCE], by Theme Structure

[found in 'On the Nature of the Universe' by Lucretius (ed/tr Latham,Ronald) [Penguin 1951,0-14-044018-6]].

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3. Truth / A. Truth Problems / 1. Truth
The concept of truth was originated by the senses
                        Full Idea: The concept of truth was originated by the senses.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], IV.479)
                        A reaction: This is a refreshing challenge to the modern view of truth, which seems entirely entangled with language. Truth seems a useful concept when discussing the workings of an animal mind. As you get closer to an object, you see it more 'truly'.
12. Knowledge Sources / D. Empiricism / 4. Pro-Empiricism
The senses are much the best way to distinguish true from false
                        Full Idea: What can be a surer guide to the distinction of true from false than our own senses?
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], I.700)
                        A reaction: This doesn't say they are the only guide, which leaves room for guides such as what is consistent or self-evident or inferred. There is enough here, though, to show that the Epicureans were empiricists in a fairly modern way.
If the senses are deceptive, reason, which rests on them, is even worse
                        Full Idea: The structure of your reasoning must be rickety and defective, if the senses on which it rests are themselves deceptive.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], IV.518)
                        A reaction: This strikes me as one of the most basic tenets of empiricism. It denies the existence of 'pure' reason, and instead asserts that it is built out of complex and abstracted sense experience, which makes it ultimately a second-class citizen.
13. Knowledge Criteria / B. Internal Justification / 4. Foundationalism / c. Empirical foundations
The only possible standard for settling doubts is the foundation of the senses
                        Full Idea: If a belief resting directly on the foundation of the senses is not valid, there will be no standard to which we can refer any doubt on obscure questions for rational confirmation.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], I.422)
                        A reaction: A classic statement of empiricist foundationalism. The Epicureans don't appear to have any time for a priori truths at all. I wonder if they settled mathematical disputes by counting objects and drawing diagrams?
13. Knowledge Criteria / D. Scepticism / 3. Illusion Scepticism
Most supposed delusions of the senses are really misinterpretations by the mind
                        Full Idea: Paradoxical experiences (such a dreams and illusions) cannot shake our faith in the senses. Most of the illusion is due to the mental assumptions we ourselves superimpose, so that things not perceived by the senses pass for perceptions.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], IV.462)
                        A reaction: Some misinterpretations of the senses, such as thinking a square tower round, are the result of foolish lack of judgement, but actual delusions within the senses, such as a ringing in the ears, or a pain in a amputated leg, seem like real sense failures.
14. Science / C. Induction / 1. Induction
Even simple facts are hard to believe at first hearing
                        Full Idea: No fact is so simple that it is not harder to believe than to doubt at the first presentation.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], II.1022)
                        A reaction: Hence induction is just 'drumming it in' until you come to believe it. There are good evolutionary reasons why we should be like this, because we would otherwise believe all sorts of silly half-perceptions in the gloaming.
15. Nature of Minds / A. Nature of Mind / 1. Mind / d. Location of mind
The mind is in the middle of the breast, because there we experience fear and joy
                        Full Idea: The guiding principle of the whole body is the mind or intellect, which is firmly lodged in the mid-region of the breast. Here is felt fear and alarm, and the caressing pulse of joy. Here, then is the seat of the intellect and mind.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], III.140)
                        A reaction: Even by this date thinking people were not clear that the mind is in the brain. They paid insufficient attention to head injuries. The emotions are felt to have a location, but intellect and principles are not.
The mind is a part of a man, just like a hand or an eye
                        Full Idea: First, I maintain that the mind, which we often call the intellect, the seat of guidance and control of life, is part of a man, no less than hand or foot or eyes are parts of a whole living creature.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], III.95)
                        A reaction: Presumably Lucretius asserts this because some people were denying it. Sounds like common sense to me. The only reason I can see for anyone denying what he says is if they are desperate to survive death.
15. Nature of Minds / A. Nature of Mind / 5. Unity of Mind
The separate elements and capacities of a mind cannot be distinguished
                        Full Idea: No single element [of the soul] can be separated, nor can their capacities be divided spatially; they are like the multiple powers of a single body
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], III.262), quoted by A.A. Long - Hellenistic Philosophy 2.7
                        A reaction: It is interesting that this comes from someone with a strongly physicalist view of the mind (though not, if I recall, focusing on the brain). He is still totally impressed by the unified phenomenology of mental experience. He is an empiricist.
16. Persons / F. Free Will / 2. Sources of Free Will
The actions of the mind are not determinate and passive, because atoms can swerve
                        Full Idea: The fact that the mind itself has no internal necessity to determine its every act and compel it to suffer in helpless passivity - this is due to the slight swerve of the atoms at no determinate time or place.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], II.294)
                        A reaction: No one likes this proposal much, but it is very intriguing. The Epicureans had seen a problem, one which doesn't bother me much. If, nowadays, you are a reductive physicalist who believes in free will, you have a philosophical nightmare ahead of you.
17. Mind and Body / A. Mind-Body Dualism / 2. Interactionism
Only bodies can touch one another
                        Full Idea: Nothing can touch or be touched except body.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], I.303)
                        A reaction: This is the key objection to interactionism, and the main reason why the atomists have a thoroughly material view of the mind. It is an induction from a very large number of instances, but the argument is not, of course, conclusive.
17. Mind and Body / A. Mind-Body Dualism / 3. Panpsychism
The earth is and always has been an insentient being
                        Full Idea: The earth is and always has been an insentient being.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], II.658)
                        A reaction: The fact that Epicurus needs to deny this shows that some idea close to panpsychism must still have been around in his time. He is discussing gods at the time, so maybe pantheism was the view being attacked, but that is a subset of panpsychism.
Particles may have sensation, but eggs turning into chicks suggests otherwise
                        Full Idea: There is the possibility that particles have senses like those of an animate being as a whole, …but from the fact that we perceive eggs turning into live fledglings, we may infer that sense can be generated from the insentient.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], II.914)
                        A reaction: He gives other arguments for his view. The egg example is not a strong argument, but is precisely our puzzle of how consciousness can emerge from the process of evolution, and natural selection makes dualism look unlikely.
17. Mind and Body / E. Mind as Physical / 1. Physical Mind
The mind moves limbs, wakes the body up, changes facial expressions, which involve touch
                        Full Idea: Mind and spirit are both composed of matter, as we see them propelling limbs, rousing the body from sleep, changing the expression of the face, and guiding the whole man - activities which clearly involves touch, which involves matter.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], III.164)
                        A reaction: This is the inverse of Descartes' interaction problem, and strikes me as a straightforward common sense truth. However, if you believe in spiritual gods, this gives you a model for the interaction (however mysterious) of matter and spirit.
Lions, foxes and deer have distinct characters because their minds share in their bodies
                        Full Idea: Why are lions ferocious, foxes crafty, and deer timid? It can only be because the mind always shares in the specific growth of the body according to its seed and breed. If it were immortal and reincarnated, living things would have jumbled characters.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], III.743)
                        A reaction: A nice argument which I have not encountered in modern times. Of course, even Descartes admits that the mind is intermingled with the body, but it seems that the essential character of a mind is dictated by the body.
17. Mind and Body / E. Mind as Physical / 2. Reduction of Mind
You needn't be made of laughing particles to laugh, so why not sensation from senseless seeds?
                        Full Idea: One can laugh without being composed of laughing particles, ..so why cannot the things that we see gifted with sensation be compounded of seeds that are wholly senseless?
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], II.988)
                        A reaction: Lovely argument! You might feel driven to panpsychism in your desperation to explain the 'weirdness' of consciousness, but it would be mad to attribute laughter to basic matter, so comedy has to 'emerge' at some point.
21. Aesthetics / C. Artistic Issues / 5. Objectivism in Art
One man's meat is another man's poison
                        Full Idea: What is food to one may be literally poison to others.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], IV.638)
                        A reaction: This seems to be the origin of the well-known saying. This is not relativism of perception, but a relativism of how individuals actually respond to the world. It sums up the position with, say, the operas of Wagner.
22. Metaethics / B. The Good / 3. Pleasure / e. Role of pleasure
Nature only wants two things: freedom from pain, and pleasure
                        Full Idea: Nature only clamours for two things, a body free from pain, a mind released from worry and fear for the enjoyment of pleasurable sensation.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], II.21)
                        A reaction: I can't help agreeing with those (like Aristotle) who consider this a very demeaning view of human life. See Idea 99. Bentham agrees with Lucretius (Idea 3777). I think they are largely right, but not entirely. Other motives are possible than sensations.
22. Metaethics / C. Ethics Foundations / 2. Source of Ethics / e. Human nature
Our bodies weren't created to be used; on the contrary, their creation makes a use possible
                        Full Idea: Nothing in our bodies was born in order that we might be able to use it, but the thing born creates the use.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], IV.834)
                        A reaction: This remark (strongly opposed to Aristotle's view of human function and nature) raises the obvious question of why the body is so very useful for staying alive. Most of its uses are not random. Lucretius would abandon this view if he read Darwin.
24. Applied Ethics / C. Death Issues / 1. Death
The dead are no different from those who were never born
                        Full Idea: One who no longer is cannot suffer, or differ in any way from one who has never been born.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], III.867)
                        A reaction: There is a special kind of pain in being poor if you were once rich, which is not suffered by those who experience only poverty. Lucretius is right, but we are concerned with how we feel now, not with how we won't feel once dead.
26. Natural Theory / A. Speculations on Nature / 1. Nature
Nature runs the universe by herself without the aid of gods
                        Full Idea: Nature is free and uncontrolled by proud masters and runs the universe by herself without the aid of gods.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], II.1094)
                        A reaction: A nice remark. This apparent personification of nature implies the application of laws to an essentially passive reality. See Idea 5442 and Nature|Laws of Nature|Essentialism for a different view.
26. Natural Theory / A. Speculations on Nature / 5. Infinite in Nature
The universe must be limitless, since there could be nothing outside to limit it
                        Full Idea: The universe is not bounded in any direction. If it were, it would necessarily have a limit somewhere, but a thing cannot have a limit unless there is something outside to limit it.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], I.959)
                        A reaction: This is a subtler argument than the mere enquiry about why you would have to stop at the end of the universe. It still seems a nice argument, though Einstein's curvature of space seems to have thwarted it.
There can be no centre in infinity
                        Full Idea: There can be no centre in infinity.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], I.1069)
                        A reaction: This is highly significant, because if we can establish that the universe is infinite (as Epicurus believes), it follows that the human race cannot be at the centre of it, as the Ptolemaic/medieval view proposed.
26. Natural Theory / A. Speculations on Nature / 6. Early Matter Theories / g. Atomism
Everything is created and fed by nature from atoms, and they return to atoms in death
                        Full Idea: The ultimate realities of heaven and the gods are the atoms, from which nature creates all things and increases and feeds them, and into which, when they perish, nature again resolves them.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], I.46)
                        A reaction: Sounds right to me. Nothing in modern particle theory and string theory has refuted this claim. But what makes the atoms move, and what makes them combine in an orderly way? Is the orderliness of atoms made of atoms? Essences?
If an object is infinitely subdivisible, it will be the same as the whole universe
                        Full Idea: If there are no atoms, the smallest bodies will have infinite parts, since they can be endlessly halved. ..But then there will be no difference between the smallest thing and the whole universe, as they will equally have infinite parts.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], I.620)
                        A reaction: Another argument which remains effective even now. There must surely (intuitively) be more divisions possible in a large object than in a small one? Unless of course there were many different sizes of infinity…. See Cantor.
In downward motion, atoms occasionally swerve slightly for no reason
                        Full Idea: When atoms are travelling straight down through empty space by their own weight, at quite indeterminate times and places they swerve ever so little from their course.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], II.217)
                        A reaction: Never a popular theory because it seems to breach the Principle of Sufficient Reason (Ideas 306 + 3646). This seems to be the beginning of a strong need for the concept of free will, and an underlying explanation. Most thinkers put mind outside nature.
26. Natural Theory / D. Laws of Nature / 7. Strictness of Laws
Nothing can break the binding laws of eternity
                        Full Idea: Nothing has power to break the binding laws of eternity.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], 5.56)
                        A reaction: This seems to be virtually the only remark from the ancient world suggesting that there are 'laws' of nature, so I'm guessing it is a transient metaphor, not a theory about nature. 'Even the gods must bow to necessity'.
27. Natural Reality / A. Classical Physics / 1. Mechanics / a. Explaining movement
Atoms move themselves
                        Full Idea: Atoms move themselves.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], II.133)
                        A reaction: Something has to move itself, I suppose, but then that could be psuché, giving us free will (see Idea 1424). Why does Epicurus need the 'swerve' if atoms are self-movers? See Idea 5708.
If there were no space there could be no movement, or even creation
                        Full Idea: We see movement everywhere, but if there were no empty space, things would be denied the power of movement - or rather, they could not possibly have come into existence, embedded as they would have been in motionless matter.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], I.342)
                        A reaction: This still seems a good argument, if reality is made of particles. People can move in a crowd until it becomes too dense.
27. Natural Reality / A. Classical Physics / 2. Thermodynamics / d. Entropy
It is quicker to break things up than to assemble them
                        Full Idea: Anything can be more speedily disintegrated than put together again.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], I.558)
                        A reaction: Clearly the concept of entropy was around long before anyone tried to give a systematic or mathematical account of it.
27. Natural Reality / C. Space-Time / 2. Time / i. Time and change
We can only sense time by means of movement, or its absence
                        Full Idea: It must not be claimed that anyone can sense time by itself apart from the movement of things or their restful immobility.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], I.465)
                        A reaction: This seems a remarkably Einsteinian remark, though he is only talking of the epistemology of the matter, not the ontology. We are not far from the concept of space-time here.
27. Natural Reality / D. Cosmology / 1. Cosmology
This earth is very unlikely to be the only one created
                        Full Idea: It is in the highest degree unlikely that this earth and sky is the only one to have been created.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], II.1057)
                        A reaction: I can only admire the science fiction imagination of this, which roughly agrees with the assessment of modern cosmologists. We think imagination was cramped in the ancient world, and now wanders free - but that is not so.
27. Natural Reality / D. Cosmology / 2. Eternal Universe
Nothing can be created by divine power out of nothing
                        Full Idea: In studying the workings of nature, our starting-point will be this principle: nothing can ever be created by divine power out of nothing.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], I.152)
                        A reaction: This claim seems to cry out for a bit of empiricist caution. What observation has convinced Lucretius that creation out of nothing is impossible? The early Christians switched to the view that divine creation is 'ex nihilo' - out of nothing.
28. God / B. Proving God / 3. Proofs of Evidence / a. Cosmological Proof
If matter wasn't everlasting, everything would have disappeared by now
                        Full Idea: If the matter in things had not been everlasting, everything by now would have gone back to nothing, and the things we see would be the product of rebirth out of nothing.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], I.544)
                        A reaction: See Idea 1431, which is Aquinas's Third Way of proving God. Aquinas thinks there must be a necessary being outside of the system, but Lucretius thinks there must be some necessary existence within the system (as Hume had suggested).
28. God / B. Proving God / 3. Proofs of Evidence / c. Teleological Proof critique
The universe can't have been created by gods, because it is too imperfect
                        Full Idea: The universe was certainly not created for us by divine power: it is so full of imperfections.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], II.180)
                        A reaction: This is certainly a problem if God is 'supremely perfect', as Descartes proposed, because then the universe would also have to be supremely perfect. See Idea 2114 for a possible answer from Leibniz. Hume agrees with Epicurus about design.
28. God / C. Attitudes to God / 3. Deism
Gods are tranquil and aloof, and have no need of or interest in us
                        Full Idea: The nature of deity is to enjoy immortal existence in utter tranquillity, aloof and detached from our affairs. It is free from all pain and peril, strong in its own resources, exempt from any need of us, indifferent to our merits and immune from anger.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], II.652)
                        A reaction: This seems to be the seed of late seventeenth century deism - the idea of a Creator who is now absent, and ignores our prayers. At that time 'Epicurean' became a synonym for atheist, but Epicureans never quite reached that point.
28. God / C. Attitudes to God / 5. Atheism
Why does Jupiter never hurl lightning from a blue sky?
                        Full Idea: Why does Jupiter never hurl his thunderbolt upon the earth and let loose his thunder out of a sky that is wholly blue?
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], VI.400)
                        A reaction: Nice question! It really doesn't take very much to see through superstition, and the fact that most people believed such things shows how staggeringly uncritical they were in their thinking, until philosophers appeared and taught them how to reason.
29. Religion / D. Religious Issues / 2. Immortality / a. Immortality
Spirit is mortal
                        Full Idea: Spirit is mortal.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], III.542)
                        A reaction: This is asserted at an historical moment when immortality is beginning to grip everyone's imagination.
For a separated spirit to remain sentient it would need sense organs attached to it
                        Full Idea: If spirit is immortal and can remain sentient when divorced from our body, we must credit it with possession of five senses; but eyes or nostrils or hand or tongue or ears cannot be attached to a disembodied spirit.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], III.624)
                        A reaction: This is a powerful argument against immortality. If you are going to see, you must interact with photons; to hear you must respond to compression waves; to smell you must react to certain molecules. Immortality without those would be a bit dull.
An immortal mind couldn't work harmoniously with a mortal body
                        Full Idea: It is crazy to couple a mortal object with an eternal and suppose that they can work in harmony and mutually interact.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], III.799)
                        A reaction: An interesting thought, though not a terrible persuasive argument. A god would indeed be a bit restless if it were chained to a human being, but it would presumably knuckle down to the task if firmly instructed to do it by Zeus.
29. Religion / D. Religious Issues / 2. Immortality / b. Soul
The mind is very small smooth particles, which evaporate at death
                        Full Idea: Since the substance of the mind is extraordinarily mobile, it must consist of particles exceptionally small and smooth and round, ..so that, when the spirit has escaped from the body, the outside of the limbs appears intact and there is no loss of weight.
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], III.201)
                        A reaction: Lucretius is wonderfully attentive to interesting evidence. He goes on to compare it to the evaporation of perfume. The fine-grained connections of the brain are not far off what he is proposing.
If spirit is immortal and enters us at birth, why don't we remember a previous existence?
                        Full Idea: If the spirit is by nature immortal and is slipped into the body at birth, why do we retain no memory of an earlier existence, no impress of antecedent events?
                        From: Lucretius (On the Nature of the Universe [c.60 BCE], III.670)
                        A reaction: Plato took the view that we do recall previous existence, as seen in our innate ideas. This problem forced the Christian church into the uncomfortable claim that God creates the soul at conception, but that it then goes on to immortality.