Nuovo on Lucretius: The plague of the heart
Editor’s note: This is the 12th 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.”
The conclusion of De rerum natura is somber and troubling; Lucretius ends his poem with a graphic description of the plague of Athens (430 BCE), which brought in its train not only terrible suffering and mass death, but also universal despair and civic disorder. Many have wondered why he chose to conclude his poem in this way, when his overall purpose is to promote human happiness and tranquility of mind.
Indeed, his sixth and final book deals mostly with natural phenomena that are terrifying because they wreak great havoc through their violence and suddenness, and because of the human misery that often follows in their wake: violent storms, earthquakes, volcanic explosions, morbid lakes that give off deadly gases, and, most fearsome of all, pandemics. He looks into the natural causes of these events, takes account of their randomness, for his purpose is to show that such dreadful events are merely natural, that their randomness and the indiscriminate distribution of the harm they cause shows that they are not punishments of angry Gods requiring appeasement or fidelity, but all of them accountable from natural causes.
All of this is further evidence that the world was not designed especially for human happiness and well being, that it is, as was said in a previous essay, an accidental world. So, there is no inconsistency here. Earthquake, wind, and fire, along with plague, are the conventional background of episodes of divine intervention and revelation. Now they are explained away and revealed to be merely props of vain fictions when otherwise employed. Happiness and peace of mind come to those who listen to the quiet voice of reason, and accustom themselves to gaze without blinking at the realities of the world in which they happen to live.
Lucretius’ explanations of what might be otherwise imagined as terrifying natural events are calming, assuring, and occasionally funny. Thunder occurs when flying clouds collide, or passing by they grate upon each other, or when they are made to vibrate in the wind, like a canvas awning, or clothing on a line, or sheets of parchment caught up in a minor maelstrom, or through their rolling motion, and like breaking waves encounter some obstacle, or when the wind rushes through them making them explode, and this is no wonder, since even a bladder full of air — a balloon — if it were suddenly to burst, will make a loud noise.
Lightning is the visible manifestation of seeds of fire, of infinitesimal particles of matter moving at high speeds colliding with each other, and, like steel glancing off hard rock, creating sparks. Lucretius explains that thunder and lightning are products of the same event, and that we see the lightning flash before hearing the thunder because light travels faster than sound. And so he proceeds with other natural phenomena.
He pauses before taking up his last topic, disease and pandemics, to consider a curiosity of nature: magnetism, which is puzzling, because, unlike the common forces of nature, which operate by impact, magnetism seems to involve action at a distance. He goes on to explain that magnets rapidly give off streams of particles at great force, whose effect is to create a vacuum between themselves and the objects they attract. With nothing in between it and the magnet, the object it is propelled by pressure from its other side towards the magnet. It is an instance of nature abhorring a vacuum.
Still, it is unsettling to read about the plague. What is horrifying is not the inevitability of death — indeed, death comes as a relief, but the suffering and humiliation that precedes it. Lucretius’ source of his narrative is the Greek historian Thucydides, who was a survivor of the plague of Athens. The description that he gives, and which Lucretius follows, translating Thucydides’ Greek into Latin, is clinical in detail, and all the more horrifying. Victims “felt their heads burning with fever, their eyes inflamed, their throats … sweated blood, ulcers clogged and closed the passageway of the voice, and the tongue, the mind’s interpreter, oozed with blood, weakened by pain, heavy to move, rough to the touch.”
Fever and unquenchable thirst caused many to cast themselves into flowing streams or into wells, where they died, polluting the water. Their minds became disordered, full of sorrow and gloom and deep anguish. Many who survived had neither hands nor feet nor eyes to see, their minds oblivious to all about them, sensitive only to the pain in their bodies. And there was a rank smell everywhere. Temples became places of death, for there was no help from the Gods; physicians had no remedy, they heroically gave care even when it was futile, until they and many caregivers too succumbed to the plague; and there was civil disorder, as families fought over funeral pyres; it is with this that Lucretius concludes his poem.
The late H.S. Commager Jr., in a pioneering study, has shown that Lucretius deliberately altered Thucydides’ narrative of the Plague of Athens, and recast it as a sort of allegory of the human condition when it lacks wisdom. No matter how far civilization has advanced, or how grand and extravagant and luxuriant our way of life, how full of riches and conveniences, how cultivated our manners, we remain enthralled by unaccountable moments of dread and unsatisfied nameless desires, and this deep unrest befouls everything that enters the mind, and hence also how we perceive everything around us.
The only sure remedy for this plague of the mind, Lucretius insists, is the wisdom of Epicurus, a philosopher from Athens and heir to Democritus. “With truth telling words he scoured the mind, he fixed boundaries on desire and fear, and revealed our chief good, and pointed the way to it, a straight and narrow path that would bring us directly to it” so that the befouling terror and gloom of the mind might be dispelled, “not by the sun’s rays or the bright shafts of day, but by the aspect and law of nature,” by keen observation and thoughtful reflection on the nature of things.
There is no doubt that Epicurus is the world’s least understood, most misrepresented, and undervalued philosopher. Yet, Lucretius considered him the greatest of the Greeks. This warrants a closer look at the wisdom of Epicurus, which I shall provide in the next two essays.
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