Victor Nuovo: Lucretius: ‘Where shall wisdom be found?’
Editor’s note: This is the 16th and final 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.”
When, in my youth, I began to study philosophy, I fell under the spell of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), and, I confess, I have not entirely broken free of it, even though I am decidedly not a Hegelian, but a naturalist and an empiricist of sorts, which places me diametrically opposite him. Many of his works still sit on my bookshelves, and whenever I pass by them I feel a longing to take one up and read it. What attracted me then, as it does even now, was his massive learning. His lectures covered everything: nature, religion, art, history, politics, law, domestic life, and anything else I’ve failed to mention. Hegel loved learning, and so do I.
Hegel took universal human history seriously, regarded it comprehensively, and attempted to show, if not prove, its true meaning, which explains his enduring appeal. Philosophically considered, history is a narrative of all events contemplated by an interested observer, a universal intelligence aspiring to be the soul of the world, a great mind in search of a great body. The universal mind, as Hegel conceived it, was not just an onlooker of things. It was the director and interpreter of everything, so that, Hegel claimed, world history regarded absolutely and in its totality was the object of a supreme creative mind contemplating and facilitating its own becoming. He borrowed this idea from Aristotle but deliberately altered it to fit his purposes.
Aristotle imagined that the universe was empowered by a perfect intelligence that did nothing more than contemplate its purely intelligible self, a universal intelligence without any interest in concrete things and their historical fate. Its creative power resided in the fact that it was the supreme object of desire; it was therefore the Unmoved Mover of all motion, change, and generation. Hegel considered universal intelligence to be the standard and standpoint of all truth; where everything would come to be known completely after a long process of historical development. Nothing escaped it; things in all their detail and concreteness were preserved and included in a grand synthesis of everything that he supposed to be the end of history.
Hegel supposed that since history was the career of a universal intelligence, its sequences must have a rational, or logical order. He employed the term “dialectic” to signify a rational movement in the stages of universal history. Dialectic begins with opposition followed by a synthesis or reconciliation of them on what was supposed to be a higher plane. Philosophical interpretation of history aims to describe this movement in its actual operation.
This insight into the meaning of history makes me reluctant to disavow Hegel altogether. His method of interpreting history, if applied modestly and circumspectly, sometimes makes sense, although regarded uncritically it is grossly optimistic in a not very nice way, for, like Leibniz, Hegel subscribed to the notion that everything happens for the best in the best of all possible worlds, nothing is just plain bad, because it contributes in some way to universal good. But in fact some things are just plain bad.
It was while reflecting on my two previous series of essays, and wondering where to go next, that a Hegelian solution dawned on me. Plato and Lucretius represent opposite standpoints. Plato was in mortal conflict with Democritus and materialism, and, accordingly, denied the sufficiency of mere nature. The insufficiencies of nature were compensated by eternal ideas, operating from above, although without perfect effect. Lucretius staged a counterattack, sustained by the forces of boundless nature that he took to be always self-sufficient, always productive, although not supremely purposeful in any way that might satisfy purely human interests.
Whereas Plato believed that the causes of value and order transcended nature, Lucretius attributed them to a native or spontaneous ingenuity of natural things. Natural things struggle for survival, and, as Darwin would later observe, some succeed and others fail. The laws of nature were covenants, products of experiments and experience.
Is it possible to achieve a creative reconciliation of these opposing points of view as Hegel supposed? I’m certain he would answer “Yes”; and if asked by whom, he would point to himself. But I believe that this was accomplished before him in a far better way, during the 17th century, in Holland, by Benedictus de Spinoza (1632–1677). This, then, is my longwinded way of announcing a third series of essays, its subject, and purpose.
But there must be a reason for doing this. Here is what I think. There is truth in both standpoints: the sovereign intelligibility of ideas, and the boundless productivity of nature. Yet, they stand apart historically in the systems proposed by Plato and Lucretius. Adhering to these two truths is like having two homesteads. The philosophical mind needs to dwell in one place. Spinoza realized this need and met it simply and efficiently.
Besides, he was the only early modern philosopher who grasped the significance of the scientific revolution for our understanding of the nature of things; the most compelling advocate of freedom of thought upon which not only science and philosophy depends, but also civil society. He was not only a great metaphysician, but a great political philosopher also. All things considered, there is none wiser than he.
Spinoza also, like Hegel, borrowed Aristotle’s idea of an Unmoved Mover. But unlike Hegel, he equated it with Nature, which he equated with God. God or Nature is the sum of all things, which makes very good sense when you think of it. Finite things like you and I, the chair I am sitting on, the house I live in: none of them exists by itself; everything comes from something and while it exists depends upon others, and if we trace things back to their ultimate point of origin, we discover that, like all organic and inorganic things, our ultimate parent and constant upholder is Nature.
But Nature is an idea as well as a productive power, the order of Nature is intelligible, a sequence of causes and effects that proceed with regularity, according to law. So, whatever exists is inherent in and is conceived through Nature or God, which operates without beginning or end. To this end, Spinoza found it necessary to exchange an empiricist method with a rationalist one that proceeds from an original idea. More will follow.
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