What follows is the conclusion of my book review of Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion.
Let me start my conclusion about Nail’s book by saying that it is true that the religious fantasies concerning immortality and a changeless heaven reveal a longing to overcome death, to overcome constant change and motion. It’s true that fear of death has the potential to make us hate life. And there are, at times, great insights in the book:
If ethics begins with a materialist philosophy, it will avoid the abstract immaterial traps of immortality, the good, and morality that lead to suffering, hatred of the body, hatred of matter, and hatred of motion. If people believe there are static moral duties, virtues, or values other than what their bodies can do, then they will end up hating their own immoral bodies. – Ethics of Motion, pages 57-58
Nail also does a good job of accentuating the physicality of the mortal soul and of memory, and his idea of death as part of the movement of life is accurate. He says that “death is not a value to us”, and calls for a performative, embodied philosophy–even if he does not clarify what this means in practice.
Nail also accurately names idealism as a tyranny over the body that takes many forms, but does not describe its mechanisms as accurately and eloquently as Vaneigem, resorting instead to listing abstract moral problems (like racism, etc …) without really describing how they’re linked to idealism.
An Atheist Lucretius?
It must be acknowledged that Lucretius does seem more anti-religion than Epicurus, and generally sees religion as a dangerous and evil force in society–but that does not necessarily mean that Lucretius did not believe in physical gods existing somewhere in the innumerable worlds. In the Epicurean cosmos, these gods simply don’t care about us!
But Nail claims that Lucretius offers ecstatic poems to gods he “doesn’t believe in” (page IX)–all this while comparing him to the “contemplative, serious, pessimistic” Epicurus who does believe in the gods. He again says in page 90 that “there are no gods”, while citing a passage unrelated to the gods. He claims in page 59 that “there are no transcendental gods” while citing DRN 1.83, but when we read that portion, it does not deny the gods exist. It only says religion can turn evil. This is not different from what Epicurus taught.
The Importance of Clear Speech
Epicurus in Against Empty Words and Philodemus in Rhetorica both argue that words should be clear, evident and concise in order to be useful in communication. Both are critical of the flowery language of the poets. Poetry presents unique problems when used to philosophize. We must concede that Lucretius, when he decided to undertake the project of translating Epicurean philosophy into Latin poetry, accepted the peculiar set of challenges that led to interpretations like the one we see in Nail, even if he didn’t fall into the notoriously esoteric lack of clarity that we see in philosophers like Nietzsche.
Since he’s not philosophizing as an Epicurean, Nail doesn’t follow Epicurean protocols of clear speech, and of using conventional words as used in common speech. For instance, it’s hard to even know what he’s talking about when he says in pages 115-116
These unethical consequences … are anti-ethical barriers to collectively deciding how to move well together, since they foreclose the possibility of pietas. If everyone is not included in the ethical process then there is no pietas and no moving well together.
It was never clear to me how Nail came to his definition of piety as having to do with “moving well together”, as this is impossible to detect in De Rerum Natura. I know that piedad, in Spanish sometimes means “to have mercy” on someone, but in Lucretius true piety is associated with seeing nature clearly (where the gods do not intervene and need not be feared).
Nor, O man,
Is thy true piety in this: with head
Under the veil, still to be seen to turn
Fronting a stone, and ever to approach
Unto all altars; nor so prone on earth
Forward to fall, to spread upturned palms
Before the shrines of gods, nor yet to dew
Altars with profuse blood of four-foot beasts,
Nor vows with vows to link. But rather this:
To look on all things with a master eye
And mind at peace.
Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura
Many of the anti-Epicurean ideas that the author, Thomas Nail, presents, are based on a flawed understanding of Epicurus. At other times, he says that “pleasure has no philosophical value on its own”, saying that Epicureans seek instead to avoid pain. However, in the Letter to Menoeceus we find that Epicurus calls pleasure “the alpha and omega” of the blessed life, and “our first and kindred good”. Here is another translation of that portion:
we call pleasure the beginning and end of the blessed life. For we recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge every good.
Nail also says:
It is completely inverted to place our desire for pleasure as a uniquely human or even ethical priority. Pleasure exists before humans. Humans only exist because there is pleasure in nature.
Here, Nail is taking an argument from Lucretius’ diatribe against creationism and applying it to the telos, the observation that humans naturally seek pleasures and shun pains. While Epicurus says there are ethical insights we may learn from the study of nature, the method by which we infer ethical insights from the physics is perhaps not clearly explained in the surviving literature except when he gives general guidelines like “one should not force nature” (VS 21). Some have argued that Epicurean ethics are more descriptive than prescriptive. As a result, Nail misreads ethics into all sorts of physics in a manner that is not as intended by Lucretius, and fails to read ethical insights where they are to be found.
Nail is an academic who is not committed to Epicurean teachings or to an Epicurean lifestyle, and who delivers an anti-Epicurean book, by his own admission. Sometimes his thesis is a bit forced and over-interpreted.
What I most disliked in Ethics of Motion is the persistent and unwarranted ill-will and animosity against Epicurus. Nail even goes as far as to claim, without any evidence whatsoever, that Lucretius’ poetry in praise of Epicurus is satirical. What reasons he had to conclude this, I can’t imagine. We have absolutely no reason to assume that De Rerum Natura was written, in any way, to mock Epicurus. Lucretius lived during a generation that saw Epicurus increasingly revered as a hero of Hellenistic Humanism. A couple of centuries after Lucretius, Empress Plotina would still refer to Epicurus as her personal Savior, and even the comedian Lucian of Samosata wove into his satires heart-felt words of praise for Epicurus (“that great man whose holiness and divinity of nature were not shams, who alone had and imparted true insight into the good, and who brought deliverance to all that consorted with him“) and, in another passage, praised his Principal Doctrines. Even Seneca, a Stoic, conceded that Epicurus was a holy man and that his teachings were holy. This is a curious choice of words. If the pupil of an enemy school concedes this, why would anyone assume Lucretius’ own words of praise to be mockery? It’s more accurate to say that Lucretius contributed greatly to the promotion of Epicurus as a holy, near-mythical figure.
For all these reasons I do not recommend the book Ethics of Motion for sincere students of Epicurean philosophy who wish to use philosophy as intended: to help us to sculpt a pleasant life. I would, however, recommend a critical reading of it for poets, and for Unitarian, Sunday Assembly, Humanist celebrants, and other ministers who wish to utilize Lucretian poetry to weave Epicureanism into their liturgy, always keeping in mind that:
Philosophy that does not heal the soul is no better than medicine that does not heal the body. – Epicurus of Samos