The Discovery of Nature and the Problem of the Infinite and Eternal

Part of the Recovering Political Philosophy book series (REPOPH)


Lucretius wishes to reveal to Memmius the obscure discoveries of the Greeks but acknowledges that there may be some resistance on his part given the novelty of the teachings (I, 136–139, and II, 1023–1029 and 1040). Lucretius later attributes part of the difficulty with the introduction of novel teachings to a general wariness of looking upon the nature of things, and the heavens in particular (II, 1030–1039). One may infer from this resistance to novelty that a certain comfort is gained through acceptance of the stories of the poets and priests and that which philosophy reveals may be discomforting. Lucretius has, therefore, created some doubt about the status of religious myths and introduces the possibility that philosophy may reveal a truth more terrible than that of religion.


Secondary Quality Infinite Space Book Versus Bitter Truth Divine Creation 
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  1. 1.
    James Nichols, Epicurean Political Philosophy: The De Rerum Natura of Lucretius (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976), 56.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Benjamin Farrington, Greek Science, vol. 2 (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1949) 119.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See al so, Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, t rans., W. H. D. Rouse (Cambr idge: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1992). V, 1183–1193.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 90.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    The six proofs offered for the impossibility of creation out of nothing do not refute divine intervention, as none can be said to address the possibility that the gods create everything out of something. This possibility was not explicitly ruled out by his initial contention in the proem about the nature of the gods (I, 44–49). The denial of such a possibility will come later in Book II (II, 167). That he chooses not to address that here is in keeping with the spirit of the initial presentation of the first principle. Lucretius presents the belief in the coming into being out of nothing as not only contrary to what we commonly experience, but inherently hostile to life. It is only by positing that all things arise from their own fixed seed that any regularity, stability, and predictability can be discovered in nature. Without such regularity the world would surely inspire fear. See, Strauss, Liberalism Ancient and Modern (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1989), 86,Google Scholar
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    Leo Strauss, J ewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity, ed. K. Green (Albany: SUNY Press, 1997), 98 and 117. See also, The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, ed., Thomas Pangle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 75.Google Scholar
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    The doctrine of the swerve is perhaps the most perplexing aspect of atomic physics. There is no extant writing of Epicurus’s that discusses it and in his Letter to Menoeceus, which outlines the basic principles of his physics, there is no mention of it. Cicero in his criticisms of materialist philosophy in both De Finibus (I, 18) and De Fato (22 and 46) addresses the doctrine of the swerve. In De Finibus, Cicero calls the doctrine a “childish fantasy” and an “arbitrary fiction.” He goes on to suggest that it fails to achieve what it was intended to achieve, the refutation of the possibility of creation out of nothing. He remarks that by positing the swerve, Epicurus has committed “the capital offense” of natural philosophy, which is to speak of something as taking place without a cause. See Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, trans., J. M. Ross (London: Penguin Books, 1972). Cicero suggests that the swerve is but a bit of trickery employed to escape criticism of an impossible position (I, 70). The position that Cicero most believed they were trying to avoid was that of denying freedom of thought and movement; see Cicero, De Fato, vol. 4 (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press) 10.23. Such a suggestion may be supported by Epicurus’s remark in the Letter to Menoeceus that it would be “better to accept the legends of the gods than to bow beneath the yoke of destiny which the natural philosophers have imposed.”Google Scholar
  9. See Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, trans. R. D. Hicks (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), Book X, section 134, 659.Google Scholar
  10. 15.
    Much of the secondary literature seeks to show how the swerve establishes a uniquely human kind of willfulness. Cyril Bailey argues that the doctrine of the swerve is essentially the introduction of chance into the nature of things as an alternative to free will (Bailey, De Rerum Natura, vol. 2, 841). Bailey, however, goes on to argue that our ability to act or not act in a given situation is the product of the swerve. The most obvious difficulty with this interpretation is that Lucretius does not speak of such deliberation in his account of the swerve. Additionally, it is difficult to see how such deliberateness can be traced to a source that is anything but deliberate. David Furley argues, the swerve guarantees that we are not simply determined in our character from birth and that we have the ability to change and adapt. See, David Furley, Two Studies in the Greek Atomists (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), 161–237. Aside from the fact that such arguments are not present in Lucretius, he does not provide an account based in atomic principles that would prove that the swerve is within the purview of human control. Absent such a proof, the swerve may show we are changeable but does not provide that such change is willful. We are still left with the determinism that Furley seeks to show we are free of. There are other studies of the swerve similar to Furley that seek to show how the swerve frees man from having a determined character. David Sedley, focusing mostly upon fragments from Epicurus’s On Nature , which nowhere mention the swerve, tries to argue that the swerve is the source of a willfulness that has nonphysical causes. That the atoms can swerve is, for Sedley, the essential point, it is not that they swerve but the possibility of their swerving that accounts for the vol-untariness of our act ions, “It will not be so much the actua l occur rence of swerves that matters as the mere possibility of their occurrence.”Google Scholar
  11. David Sedley, “Epicurus’ Refutation of Determinism,” in Studi Sull’Epicureismo Greco e Romano offerti a Marcello Gigante (Naples: Bibliotecadell a P aroladel Passato, 1983), 41. John Masson’s account of the swerve is that because we have free will, the atoms of the soul must likewise have free will, “man could not be free unless there exists in the atoms a principle apart from the fall and collision.” This of course cannot alone argue for free will so Masson argues that Lucretius distinguishes the world of nature absolutely governed by necessity and the mind of man.Google Scholar
  12. Masson, John “Lucretius’ Argument for Free-Will,” Journal of Philology 12, no. 83 (1883): 129–130. Walter Englert in his book length study of the swerve presents the argu-ment that what we find in Lucretius is Epicurus’s response to the criticisms of Aristotle and a reply to Aristotle’s theory of voluntary action from Book VIII of the Physics.Google Scholar
  13. Walter Englert, Epicurus on the Swerve and Voluntary Action (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987). The swerve is, according to Englert’s rather complicated argument, able to account for voluntary action, deliberate choice, and moral responsibility. Englert must, however, rely heavily on thinkers other than Lucretius to make his point and frequently argues that what we find in Lucretius is little more than the thought of Epicurus. That there is no discussion in any of Epicurus’s extant writings of the swerve and no discussion of Aristotle in Lucretius are difficulties that appear inconsequential to Englert. That aside, we are again left with the difficulty that Englert cannot explain willful choice originating in random capr icious movement. Eng lert argues that the swer ve is akin to Aristotle’s suggestion that there must be a third kind of motion in addition to forced and passive motion of the elements, “which somehow accounts for the ability of living creatures to initiate action.” Englert states that we h ave to g o beyond Luc ret ius to find an answer to this “somehow,” a s there is no evidence in Lucretius that man is capable of controlling the swerve. Arguments such as Englert’s, that man seizes upon a simulacrum and then the mind sets the swerve in motion, fail to account for how the mind is initially focused and how it can control the swerve.Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    Ibid., 96–97. While the swerve initially appears to be a source of comfort and human dignity Lucretius’s use of examples and following discussion appear to undermine such intentions. See Leo Strauss, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion (New York: Schocken Books, 1982), 41. Strauss states that the discovery of nature must be such that a “soothing regularity and necessity must prevail. This necessity must not tyrannize over us, it must leave us our freedom. Hence the notorious resort to the theory of the arbitrary movements of the atoms, so that human tranquility may persist, even in the face of the otherwise inexorable necessity of atomic events.” Lucretius counteracts the notoriousness of the swerve by limiting it in the way that he does and also by rescinding most, if not all, of what it offers immediately afterwards. See Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, II, 295–308. Compare to Strauss, Liberalism Ancient and Modern , 96. See also, Nichols, Epicurean Political Philosophy, 66–67.Google Scholar

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