July 01, 2007

Lucretian Revival

I'm certainly not ready to read it untranslated yet, but Lucretius' The Nature of Things strikes me as a work that is more important now than when it was written, more than two millennia ago.

Inspired by the philosopher Epicurus (I am fairly certain I am not an Epicurean -- quietism doesn't strike me as being an honorable or practical response to life), Lucretius set about applying the atomic theory -- the notion that we, our buildings, the glass I'm drinking from as I write -- are made of tiny invisible particles.

Democritus of course originated the theory. Matter persists, but objects undergo change. A shield rusts, an amphora cracks and the pieces crumble -- thus, these things must be made of smaller things that retain their integrity, even as the larger object (our bodies among them) disintegrate. Epicurus, who came up with the notion that these atoms swarm in clouds -- combining and splitting apart from one another -- was more interested in ethics than physics. Lucretius, the poet, was interested more in the physics -- and their implications -- than in ethics.

Lucretius gets a lot right -- the notion that even the most effete chardonnay sipping poets among us descend from brutish, uncouth, hairy ancestors; that plants preceded animals; that the constant variation and recombination of atoms explains the diversity of life (we of course recognize this as happening, not on the atomic level, but rather the molecular); that there may once have been massive animals roaming the earth. He also gets a lot wrong -- for example, he rejects the notion that land animals coud share an aquatic ancestor.

But so what?

The other book I'm reading -- Ernst Mayr's What Evolution Is -- puts poor Lucretius to shame when it comes to reciting evidence. Mayr is right about a lot more than Lucretius -- but they're part of the same conversation. Lucretius, like Democritus and Epicurus, is postulating based upon the empirical evidence of his senses and his reason. In a 2,000-year-old poem.

Now read, for example, this, or this, or even this, and ask whether there are any facts Mayr has that might persuade them to reconsider...

Posted by Ideofact at July 1, 2007 11:59 PM

Hi Bill,

Welcome back! I was worried when you stopped blogging so abruptly.

I look forward to enjoying your observations.

Best Regards,

Posted by: Mahsheed at July 2, 2007 02:38 PM