Nuovo on Lucretius: Our accidental world

One of Lucretius’ main goals in his poem is to teach us that we exist in an accidental world. He believed that the recognition of this fact of was a prerequisite for happiness. The dance of atoms in infinite space is without beginning or end, and from this ceaseless activity there has evolved innumerable worlds or universes of every possible shape, size, and degree of durability — a “multiverse.”
We should not be surprised that our world works well enough for us to live in and enjoy, and that it has so long endured; this was bound to happen in a universe of this sort. It is the way things are, and once we have learned this, we will be well on our way to wisdom.
It is also not surprising that Lucretius denied the divine creation of the world. In the fifth book of De rerum natura, he justifies his denial. If the Gods were, as he imagined them to be, eternally content, in need of nothing and without desire, then they would have neither motive nor reason to engage in the novel pursuit of making worlds.
There remains the possibility the world is a product of mere benevolence. In Timaeus, Plato’s dialogue that portrays the divine creation of the world, the reason that prompted a God to make this world is just such an unselfish motive. The divine creator of the world was good, “and one who is good can never be jealous of anything. And so … he wanted everything to become as much like himself as possible.” Plato imagined the product of divine labor to be a world “teeming with living things mortal and immortal,” “a visible God,” the image of a transcendent model, “an intelligible Living thing,” everlasting. Such, he says, is our world.
Lucretius responds that our world is nothing like what Plato imagined. Notwithstanding the many pleasures it affords us, vast stretches of it are uninhabitable to us, fierce animals roam about its wastelands, “red in tooth and claw” — although Lucretius comments that this is nothing compared to the mass cruelty of war, which along with poverty and other injustices, is an invention of civilized societies, a byproduct of its overreaching creativity.
Moreover, human life is full of hazards. Unlike most other animals, we enter the world unprepared, helpless, unclothed, unsheltered, subject to disease and sudden untimely death. Toil and trouble are our constant companions in life. If God were perfectly good and of unlimited power, would he have made a world just like this one full of cruelty, pain, uncertainty and terror? Do we not insult the Gods when we imagine them creators of this world?
Moreover, contrary to what Plato would have us believe, the earth is not divine; it is fragile, its parts are perishable and perishing, always in need of replenishing, under the heat of the sun it becomes parched and “exhales clouds of dust … which strong winds disperse,” or it is washed away by rain or flooding rivers, so that fields must be restored. Sometimes, it seems as though the world is at war with itself, the sun, and the waters, and the wind contending against each other, and earth and its inhabitants become victims.
And he goes on. His purpose, however, is not to cause his readers to despair of nature, but to remove all obstacles that prevent the modest yet real enjoyment of it, to prepare the mind to enjoy the benefits of nature, imperfect as they are, untroubled by theological fancies, extravagant hopes, and irresolvable riddles.
Just as we learn to accept our mortality, and to enjoy the sweet pleasures of what life we have, unperturbed by counterfeit terrors of the supernatural, so earth, our home, becomes the more precious to us, because it is fragile, and like us mortal. It was neither made for us, nor we for it. Yet earth is our mother and our tomb. We are accidental companions in an accidental life and we are consoled in knowing this, and perhaps made gentler and more caring to all things around us, because we share the same pleasures and delights. Our desires become modest, and our sentiments measured.
In this way, nature grounds us, frees us from illusions, and prepares us to engage in moral pursuits, and to go forth in search of the sort of happiness suited to our situation in the world. Unlike Plato, who would have us abandon the earth leaving behind its transient pleasures, hoping to ascend to intelligible realms of truth, Lucretius calls us back to our place in nature, to earth, out of which all life springs, and bids us fashion our societies, its laws and institutions, and values to motivate us.
He is a most consistent environmental philosopher. All good things arise out of the most earthy, elemental affairs. Woman meets man, they make love, marry, cohabit and have children. In the previous essay, I referred to Lucretius’ comments on Romantic love. He treats it almost clinically, as a frenzy that seizes all animals. Yet he presents another aspect of conjugal love: it becomes settled, calm, knowing, without illusions, steady, a friendship, where each partner acknowledges its need for the other and they collaborate in meeting them, so their life together is sustained by gentleness, caring, and a steady affection.
Not all children are conceived in love, nor are they beneficiaries of mother love and parental care. Yet, looking at things from bottom up, these two things, mother love and parental care are the most natural, most earthy excellences. When perfected, they are altruistic to a fault. Add to this the friendship of partners, nurturing their young and providing for their needs. The good is nothing more nor less than the combination of all these things in a common life.
To sum all this up, we are accidental beings in an accidental world; nature has not made us perfect, but our survival thus far shows that we possess the capacities to learn how to continue in this world, and to use the accidental gifts that nature has given us to do good, and to find happiness. These are attainable goals so long as we do not overreach.

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