Victor Nuovo: Lucretius on Civilization and its Discontents

Editor’s note: This is the 11th in a series of essays on Lucretius, an early philosopher who provides a link to “lost classics” through his epic poem “On the Nature of Things.”
Lucretius supposed that the human species is exceptional in one way only: we are, compared to other animals, ill prepared for life. It is left to us to find ways to achieve security and comfort; the product of our efforts is civilization.
He did not think this was always so. He imagined that in the beginning, human life was wild, unsettled and solitary. Women and men lived off the land, slept in the wild, satisfied their sexual desires as they pleased, and went their own ways. They were subject to no laws, no obligations, except perhaps to themselves, to preserve their lives; they were ruled only by their particular desires.
But, Venus, the goddess of love, intervened, inclining them towards each other and to a softer and more companionable life, one that was settled and secure. Women and men cohabited together, discovered fire, built shelters, clothed their bodies, and cared for their young, becoming fond parents. Recognizing that there is safety in numbers, they gathered into settlements, formed friendships and mutually beneficial associations, and invented language to facilitate these things.
“Then, when they had got themselves huts and skins and fire, and woman mated with man and they withdrew into their own dwelling … they began to take notice of their own offspring; the human race became soft … Venus sapped their wild strength, and children easily broke their parents’ proud spirits by coaxings. Then also neighbors began to unite in friendship, eager to do no harm or to suffer any violence, and they desired from each other protection for their children and women, signifying by voice and gesture with stammering tongue that it was right for all to have compassion on the weak.”
This, of course, is all conjecture, but it is a likely enough tale of how human society began. Civilization depends upon on a rudimentary social life, on arts and crafts, on safe havens, but it depends even more on solemn agreements concerning what is right and therefore obligatory to all. Lucretius says that civil society began when a company of adults agreed “by voice and gesture … that it was right, fair, and equitable to have compassion on the weak.” Language facilitates public agreements; the desired content of these agreements is what is deemed fair, equitable, and therefore just. Lucretius justifies giving priority to compassion for the weak; without it, the human race would not survive.
Who are the weak? He mentions women and children as instances. But he is inconsistent in counting women as weak. At the outset of his tale, he treats women and men as equal. Moreover, he attributes to women priority in mating, and regards them as principals of domesticity; in a state of nature, they are as robust as men, more clever, and they are their own providers.
So it is surprising that just when he comes to the important themes of society and justice he relegates women to the status of subjects in need of protection. It is, as I’ve noted before, a prejudice, and it can be summarily dismissed, for there is no need of it in Lucretius’ theory of civil society. Women and children are merely his examples of weakness, but we can substitute others without changing the theory.
There are many kinds of weakness that require the care and compassion of a rightly formed civil society: physical or mental infirmity, poverty, and a multitude of misfortunes. And they come and go. We are all subject to periods of weakness and require protection.
What counts is just the general rule: that it is fair, equitable, and just to have compassion on the weak. It applies to all who are partners in this agreement. This is not far from Plato’s belief that civil society arises out of human need. Where it differs is in how to remedy the need: whereas Plato leaves it up to guardians to rule us by a higher wisdom, here the beginning of civil government is by common consent concerning what is fair: it is open and transparent. It is also rudimentary.
The word that Lucretius chooses to signify this common agreement is “foedus,” usually translated “covenant.” Philologists trace the derivation of the word to “fides”: A covenant is an agreement in which parties agree to keep faith, or pledge their fidelity to what is mutually decided. Covenants are self-imposed laws; “federal” is a word in common use to signify a kind of government by which the people covenant to certain fundamental laws to establish and govern their society. The American Federalists were advocates of the Constitution of the United States, which the people, desiring a more perfect and just union, fashioned through their representatives, and, by agreement of the states, it became the law of the land, and those whose law it is became citizens, the creators and custodians of American civilization.
Lucretius also used the term “foedus” to signify laws of nature. He didn’t mean that the forces of nature were persons who agreed to unite in some way; he chose the word to convey a sense of the character of nature, its tentativeness and its habit of evolving through trial and error. Politics is like this also; historians often speak of the American experiment in constitutional government. So, with respect to our understanding of nature, and of politics, we seem to be heirs of Lucretius, not Plato.
Nevertheless, Lucretius and Plato share a common concern about the growth of civil society and its civilization. Civilization is the seedbed of ambition, it creates great wealth, fosters vain notions of glory and greatness that secure power, promotes imperial expansion, invents war, worst of all civil war, slavery, superstition, national myths, racism, the exploitation of the poor and less fortunate, and the desecration of the earth in a rush for hidden treasures that it contains: gold, silver, copper, iron, the latter well suited for weapons of destruction.
Civilization has the tendency to alienate us from nature and to make us violent and cruel in ways in ways that nature never imagined. To sustain our fantasies, we imagine that we are a species from or destined to another world. Religion persuades us that this is true. Lucretius believed that only the study of nature could deliver us from such illusions and the wrongs that they foster, by introducing us to the true causes of things. 

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