Tag Archives: lucretius

Dialogues on Matter in Motion – Introduction

Go to his Garden some time and read the motto carved there: “Dear Guest, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.” The caretaker of that abode, a friendly host, will be ready for you; he will welcome you with barley-meal, and serve you water also in abundance, with these words: “Have you not been well entertained? This garden does not whet your appetite; but quenches it. Nor does it make you more thirsty with every drink; it slakes the thirst with a natural cure – a cure that requires no fee. It is with this type of pleasure that I have grown old.” – Seneca, reporting on the hospitality of the Garden

Exercise yourself in these and kindred precepts day and night, both by yourself and with him who is like to you; then never, either in waking or in dream, will you be disturbed, but will live as a god among people. For people lose all appearance of mortality by living in the midst of immortal blessings. – Epicurus, in his Epistle to Menoeceus

I have made it a tradition to write at least one Epicurean blog per month on the 20th of every month in observation of the feast that Epicurus established in his final will and testament. This has evolved into a chance to discuss some aspect of the teaching, and also of giving literary and other updates to the students of Epicurean philosophy. In one of my latest Twentieth messages, I wrote:

As some of you may already be aware, the blog Caute is authored by a Unitarian Church minister from Cambridge, UK, who identifies both with Christian atheism and with the Epicurean tradition. He has written about Lucretius more than once, and from time to time incorporates Epicureanism into his liturgy and even holds Epicurean gatherings in his church. His last piece is titled Learning from Lucretius in the Shadow of Coronavirus. There, he warns us against allowing peddlers of religious fear to exploit our existential vulnerabilities, and accentuates the importance of accepting the Epicurean doctrines on how death is nothing to us, rather than remaining neutral to the dangers of organized religion.

I acknowledged his background because it’s frequently useful to respect and meet people where they are. As a result of this mention, Andrew James Brown (author of the Caute blog), left a comment:

Dear Hiram, Greetings! Thanks for posting a link to my most recent Lucretian/Epicurean address. That’s very thoughtful and generous of you.

Secondly, just to say that I very much enjoyed your excellent, persuasive and admirably clear essay in “How to Live a Good Life” and will certainly be directing people to it. Bravo to you for that.

And, thirdly, a quick question relates to Epicurus understanding of in what consists the material conditions for nature as it appears (naturae species ratioque) and that held by Lucretius. Epicurus clearly thinks the material conditions are atoms and void but, at least if one follows Thomas Nail’s reading of the DRN (in his book Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion, see link below), Lucretius seems to think the material condition is constantly moving flow, folds and fields (the flow is what is ‘a-tomos’, indivisible, for Lucretius). If Nail is correct – and that is clearly debatable (even if I am personally persuaded) – then we get a development of Epicurean thinking and ethics that is not inconsistent with the way modern physics understands in what consists the material conditions for nature as it appears. This seems important because we now know Epicurus’ atomic theory is simply wrong and, as such, it seems to me to be the biggest barrier to people adopting an Epicurean way of being in the world with a clean heart and full pathos. Anyway, I’d value hearing your thoughts on the matter.

“Lucretius was not an Atomist” by Thomas Nail

Every best wish and thanks for all your splendid work. Marvellous stuff.


To which I replied:

Hi! Thank you for the comment, and for visiting the blog.

I disagree that “Epicurus was simply wrong”. Atoms have been photographed, and are understood in much more detail today. However the word a-tomoi in Greek does not translate as atoms in English. I always translate the word as particles. The word means in-divisible. The early atomists were reacting against a pre-Socratic paradox that argued that bodies could be divided to infinity, but the atomists said if that was the case then there would be an infinite number of particles in each body, and then the bodies would be infinite in size which is not what our eyes report. So there must be a limit in small particles. Hence, a-tomoi, the indivisible units. That reasoning is still both sound and empirical.

The author of “God and the Atom” Victor Stenger defends the standard model of atoms.

Now, this is not mutually contradictory from flows because small particles will behave like water, just consider the sand and how easily bodies, wind and other forces can move through the grains. (I also remember in my discussions of the Tao Te Ching that I noticed a parallel between Epicurean atoms and void + ying and yang, because the only behavior of the void is that it yields, and ying is yielding while yang is asserting.) So this is what Epicurus called polyvalent logic: many explanations, theories and ways of explaining and understanding things are valid and acceptable so long as they don’t contradict evidence or each other.

So I don’t think Lucretius contradicted Epicurus, on the contrary, he starts each book praising him, and I wish we had more of the 37 books On Nature by Epicurus. We would be able to trace the ideas back more clearly.

When I wrote my review of Nail, I also remember thinking that he must not have read Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus. It seems like he only studied Lucretius, not the direct sources in Epicurus (Julien de la Mettrie also did this). I look forward to your reply and to continuing discussions on this. Cheers!

To which he replied:

Greetings once again. Thanks for the reply and, following that, I checked out your review of Nail’s book so I can see why you say what you say above. As I’ve already indicated I’m minded to think Nail is on to something but it’s clearly going to be impossible to explore this together properly in comment boxes! But I still think it is reasonable to say that ‘Epicurus is simply wrong’ in thinking that atoms and void are primary, i.e. they are themselves the material conditions for nature as it appears. Atoms and void now seem to be dependent on (or emerge from) ‘something’ much, much stranger and so a truly relevant, modern Epicurean stance in the world needs to take this into consideration. It strikes me that Nail’s reading of Lucretius (and Nail’s associated claim that Lucretius deliberately did not follow Epicurus’ atomism but radically revised it) gives us the way to be firmly in the Epicurean tradition but in a way that is not inconsistent with the way contemporary physics is suggesting the world is. Sticking with Epicurus’ original physics seems, as I’ve intimated, just the wrong thing to be doing.

With best wishes and thanks again for all your excellent writing and promotion of all things Epicurean. Much appreciated.


Prior to continuing, perhaps we should remember Epicurus’ instructions on innovation.

In the necessary and inevitable process of updating Epicurean teaching and tradition, I have subjected the potential innovations to the criteria given by Epicurus (Erler, 2011) dealing with innovation and forbidding the ‘muddling’ of doctrines that disagree with each other. The two guidelines provided by Epicurus are akoloythia and symphonia, which translate as consistency (has no internal contradictions) and coherence (is in symphony with the rest of Epicurus’ doctrine).

And so let’s keep in mind that consistency and coherence are the two criteria that govern innovation, as we move forward. After Andrew’s last email, it made better sense to continue our discussions via email, as the comments section of a blog is not the best format for these types of discussion.

Hi Andrew!

Thanks again for commenting on my blog. I greatly respect your intellect and am open to hearing your thoughts or Nail’s thoughts on Lucretius. Since you’ve already read my own comments about Nail, and since you say (and I agree) that the blog comments section is not a good place to fully explore these matters, I’d like to see how we can present our ideas for the benefit of students of Epicurean philosophy.

This would be helpful for students of Epicurean philosophy, and it would also allow a fair hearing for Nail’s ideas on our webpage, and hopefully create friendly debates that help people to better assimilate Epicurean ideas. Let me know what you think.


Andrew replied:


It’s a wonderful idea and I’m very happy to be involved in whatever way our conversations reveal to be the best way. Thank you for asking. I particularly value your point about the creation of friendly debates — goodness knows we need more of them in our world. Fortunately, I think that, on this particular subject, because both Epicurus’ atomic theory and Nail’s new take on (what may have been) Lucretius’ revised kinetic theory leave the basic Epicurean ethical stance intact. This means, to borrow and modify a phrase from my own very liberal church tradition, it is clear we need not think alike (about whether it’s all atoms/void or all flow/fold/field) in order to love alike. Modelling that will, in itself, be a great advert for the Epicurean way of life.

Equally important — as you so rightly note — most of us (and that includes me) are only familiar with the basics and it’s vital to keep that foregrounded in any public debates/fora. Having some input from someone genuinely familiar with contemporary physics will, of course, be a great help.

And lastly, but not least, I would like to stress that I, too, greatly respect your intellect and am open (and excited) to hearing your thoughts. Your work has done a great deal to get Epicurus’ way of being in the world out into the world in a wonderfully accessible way and your essay in the recent book is a splendid thing.

Warmest wishes,

Andrew J. Brown, Unitarian Minister

As you read in the introduction, Epicurus meant for us to practice philosophy as a friendly conversation among friends and in a warm, welcoming environment. Epicureans in antiquity were known for their virtue of suavity, or kind speech to each other, and part of the curriculum of human values they underwent in the Garden involved learning how to kindly communicate with friends. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to transfer the modeling of the virtue of suavity into an online platform, which loses many of the nuances of normal human communication, but in the coming weeks and months, Andrew and I (and hopefully others) will attempt to model these Epicurean virtues for the benefit of those learning Epicurean philosophy as we discuss Nail’s particular (and controversial) interpretation of Lucretius, as well as the intersection between Unitarianism and Epicureanism. Please stay tuned!


The Punctured Jar Parable

Divine Pleasure, the Guide of life, persuades mortality and leads it on that, through her artful blandishments of love, it propagate the generations still, lest humankind should perish. – Lucretius, De Rerum Natura II.172

I’ve been enjoying the pleasures of reading Lucretius’ classic On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura), and will be blogging based on it in the future. I’m concerned today with Lucretius’ approach to therapeutic philosophy and to the pursuit of happiness as exemplified in his parable of the punctured jar.

The parable presents Epicurus as a Doctor that heals the ills of the soul. Like all good physicians, he must evaluate the symptoms and determine what the spiritual health problem is. The Frank Copley translation of DRN is much more eloquent in describing the existential situation of an ungrateful, unphilosophical mortal, linking her anxieties to a pervasive, untreated, and unevaluated fear of death.

Will you hang back, indignant that you must die: alive and awake, you live next door to death; you waste the greater part of life in sleep, and even waking, you snore, and dream, dream on; you wear a heart confounded by empty fears. You rarely can tell what caused them when, oppressed and drunk and wretched with unremitting cares, you wander, waver, and wonder where to turn.

Notice the Buddhist-like reference to wakeful dreaming. What is expected of a philosopher is a kind of awakening, of mindfulness, a way of paying attention. Let’s not think of this as a state (a noun, which often Platonizes what’s meant) but as a verb (an activity). We must be present in order to savor life.

In the parable, which is meant to serve as therapy for existential angst and fear of death, Mother Nature advises mortals to be ready to leave this world as one who has enjoyed a banquet and is satisfied. Satisfaction and gratitude are important ingredients in the cultivation of ataraxia. In the banquet passage, Lucretius places words on the lips of Mother Nature:

“Mortal, what hast thou of such grave concern
That thou indulgest in too sickly plaints?
Why this bemoaning and beweeping death?
For if thy life aforetime and behind
To thee was grateful, and not all thy good
Was heaped as in sieve to flow away
And perish unavailingly, why not,
Even like a banqueter, depart the halls,
Laden with life? why not with mind content
Take now, thou fool, thy unafflicted rest?
But if whatever thou enjoyed hath been
Lavished and lost, and life is now offence,
Why seekest more to add- which in its turn
Will perish foully and fall out in vain?
O why not rather make an end of life,
Of labour? For all I may devise or find
To pleasure thee is nothing: all things are
The same forever. Though not yet thy body
Wrinkles with years, nor yet the frame exhausts
Outworn, still things abide the same, even if
Thou goest on to conquer all of time
With length of days, yea, if thou never diest”

In the text, Lucretius argues that if we were to live forever, eventually the pleasures that the Earth has to offer would be all the same. There would be no new experiences, and therefore we should feel sated at the end of a good life.

Ungratefulness to life, to nature, to time, is on the other hand a mortal sin to the Epicurean philosopher. The William Leonard translation does not express it as beautifully as the Frank Copley one, which says: “you wanted what isn’t, scorned what is … life slipped through your fingers shapeless and unlovely“.

What’s being said here is that life is full of many kinds of blessings, but when we are mindless and ungrateful it’s as if we are walking through life with a punctured jar. The water in the punctured jar drains off and the blessings are squandered. With the help of Epicurus, we can train ourselves to make the vessel whole again so that we are enjoying the fullness of the blessings that life has to offer at all times.

In Book VI, his final one, Lucretius picks up the metaphor again, saying that when we fail to experience life’s pleasures, the “fault must lie within the vessel”, with the broken vessel image representing our own souls. The idea of our brokenness would be usurped by the Christians to build a guilt-based theology. In Epicurus and Lucretius, the goal is therapeutic.

For when saw he that well-nigh everything
Which needs of man most urgently require
Was ready to hand for mortals, and that life,
As far as might be, was established safe,
That men were lords in riches, honour, praise,
And eminent in goodly fame of sons,
And that they yet, O yet, within the home,
Still had the anxious heart which vexed life
Unpausingly with torments of the mind,
And raved perforce with angry plaints, then he,
Then he, the master, did perceive that ’twas
The vessel itself which worked the bane, and all,
However wholesome, which from here or there
Was gathered into it, was by that bane
Spoilt from within,- in part, because he saw
The vessel so cracked and leaky that nowise
‘T could ever be filled to brim; in part because
He marked how it polluted with foul taste
Whate’er it got within itself. So he,
The master, then by his truth-speaking words,
Purged the breasts of men, and set the bounds
Of lust and terror, and exhibited
The supreme good whither we all endeavour,
And showed the path whereby we might arrive
Thereunto by a little cross-cut straight …. And he proved
That mostly vainly doth the human race
Roll in its bosom the grim waves of care.
For just as children tremble and fear all
In the viewless dark, so even we at times
Dread in the light so many things that be
No whit more fearsome than what children feign,
Shuddering, will be upon them in the dark.
This terror then, this darkness of the mind,
Not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light,
Nor glittering arrows of morning can disperse,
But only nature’s aspect and her law.

Epicurean philosophy, therefore, is meant to help cleanse our souls by speaking truth, and by limiting our desires and fears through exposure to the study of nature, and by establishing clearly that life’s goal is happiness, and by which methods we most efficiently arrive at happiness: Epicurus gave us a science of happiness.

Today is the International Day of Happiness. Isolation and depression are proven health risks, epidemics on par with obesity and smoking. A smart mortal would never leave something as sacred and important as his or her happiness to the whims of fortune and chance. Happiness is a path best trod mindfully and in good company. Please share philosophical literature and content with your friends today and take care to restore your own punctured vessel via a philosophical education. You may also enjoy deep-belly laughter exercises for fifteen minutes … or share something funny online, or call a friend who is a clown and always makes you laugh. Whatever you do, don’t postpone your happiness today!

Naturalist Reasoning on Friendship

And when they saw an offspring born
From out themselves, then first the human race
Began to soften. For ’twas now that fire
Rendered their shivering frames less staunch to bear,
Under the canopy of the sky, the cold;
And Love reduced their shaggy hardiness;
And children, with the prattle and the kiss,
Soon broke the parents’ haughty temper down.
Then, too, did neighbours ‘gin to league as friends,
Eager to wrong no more or suffer wrong,
And urged for children and the womankind
Mercy, of fathers, whilst with cries and gestures
They stammered hints how meet it was that all
Should have compassion on the weak. And still,
Though concord not in every wise could then
Begotten be, a good, a goodly part
Kept faith inviolate- or else mankind
Long since had been unutterably cut off,
And propagation never could have brought
The species down the ages.

Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura 5:1015-27

Lucretius’ account of how friendship emerged in the human race as a result of its softening and civilizing reminds me of comparative behavioral studies concerning the two species of chimpanzee. The better known species of chimpanzee is aggressive and its tribes and clans are governed by strong, feared alpha males who compete and fight over resources, over the right to mate, and over domination. The other species, the affable bonobos, like to make love instead of war. They solve all their conflicts through sexual exchanges, prefer to cooperate and share resources (again, always using sex as the social lubricant), and their societies are more egalitarian. It has been noted that the bonobos evolved in parts of the African forests where there were plenty of resources to share, whereas the evolution of the traditional chimp saw more scarcity, ergo their more violent nature.

Some of the most violent species of baboons, by way of contrast, experience so much stress during their short lifetimes that they’re in constant state of alert and their health suffers greatly as a result. Humans in overpopulated cities, and those in areas with high levels of poverty, tend also to exhibit higher rates of violent crime whereas wealthier societies exhibit lower rates of violence.

Because examples of both war and cooperation exist among our closest relatives, it’s difficult to discern whether our instances of war and cooperation are the result of nurture or nature. But it can not be denied that similar behavioral patters are found among humans and chimpanzees. We also have our authoritarian alpha males with their docile clans, and elsewhere our open and egalitarian bonobo-like societies.

It should perhaps be asked whether the fact that Abrahamic religions emerged from the desert (no doubt one of the most inhospitable and unfruitful places on Earth) may help to explain the authoritarian and patriarchal alpha-male tendencies in Abrahamic religions. But then, what are we to make of our philosophy of the Garden, a place of fruitfulness and greenery, particularly in contrast with spiritualities of the desert? It’s interesting to note that our Garden tradition emerged in glorification of the pleasures of friendship, the most egalitarian model of human interaction and that its most outstanding cultural expression, the gathering on the 20th, is an exuberant display of plenty, of abundance.

In light of this, we can understand why a Garden philosophy must be a philosophy of autarchy (self-sufficiency), and how self-sufficiency produces friendly humans just as plenty in the African bush produces affectionate bonobos. Without autarchy, we must either depend on others (and build hierarchies based on production and exploitation) or steal from them (engage in pillaging, plunder and violence). With self-sufficiency, we are free from the anxieties that arise when we can’t provide our natural needs and we can easily relate to others affectionately and as trusting equals.

Lucretius said it well: Philos reduced our shaggy hardiness and neighbors began to league as friends eager to wrong no more or be wronged.

The above article first appeared in the May 2014 issue of Happy 20th!

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