LUCRETIUS: On the Nature of Things [Book III]

Book III

  • “In the third book, he describes the nature of the mind and the soul, commencing with a eulogy on Epicurus, who taught that the world was formed, not by any divine power, but from a fortuitous concourse of atoms, and who succeeded, beyond any other philosopher, in relieving the minds of men from the fear of the gods, of death, and of torments after death. Many who pretend to be free from this fear are still disquieted with it; and it is often the source of crimes. He then shows that the mind and soul are a part of man, not less than the hand or foot, and not a mere harmony of the parts of the body, as some philosophers taught. Reasons on the separate affections of the body and mind, on sleep, on corporeal mutilations, and on the cessation of breathing. Uses the terms mind and soul indiscriminately, yet shows that the mind (animus) is the chief part, residing in the middle of the breast, the soul (anima) being diffused throughout the body, and under the direction of the mind. That this mind, and soul, are corporeal, acting on the body by material impact, and consisting of minute atoms, imperceptible to the senses. That the substance of the soul and mind is not simple, but composed of four subtle consistencies, heat, air, aura, and a fourth, to which no name is given. That the soul and body cannot be separated without destruction to both; and that the sentient power is not confined to the soul. He then refutes the opinion of Democritus, who thought that the soul and body had correspondent parts. Shows that the preservation of life depends more on the mind than on the soul. Afterwards, he demonstrates by 20 strict arguments and six additional observations that the soul perishes with the body, ridiculing the Pythagorean transmigration. Hence he observes that as death is the end of man, nothing is to be feared after it; that it cannot be in itself an evil, because the dead can regret nothing that they have left; and that prolongation of life is not to be desired, as it would furnish nothing but what has been already enjoyed. Says that all the Tartarean sufferings which are dreaded after death are witnessed and endured in life. Consoles mankind by observing that the best men have died as well as the worst, and exhorts them to contemplate death with reason and calmness. Concludes with a few more moral reflections to the same purpose.”

“It is more satisfactory to contemplate a person, in order to judge his character, in doubtful dangers, and to learn what he is in adverse circumstances; since words of truth are then at last elicited from the bottom of the heart, and the mask is taken away, while the reality of the man remains.”

“Avarice and ambition, which are the wounds and plagues of life, are nourished for the most part by the dread of death.”

“Nothing hinders men from leading a life worthy of the gods.”

“All suffering happens to us not in death but in life.”

“He who has grown weary of remaining at home often goes forth from his vast mansion, and suddenly returns, inasmuch as he perceives that he is nothing bettered by being abroad. Each man flees from himself, but cannot escape.”

“That which we desire seems, while it is distant in the future, to excel all other objects; but afterwards, when it has fallen to our lot, we covet something else; and thus a uniform thirst for life occupies us, longing earnestly for that which is to come.”

“By protracting life, we do not discover any new pleasure, nor do we deduct one moment from the duration of eternal death.”

In Book 3, Lucretius writes that a man’s true character is discerned during adverse circumstances. In other words, the actions of a man under extreme hardships will demonstrate the true nature of a man. This notion is very similar to Aristotle’s argument that virtue and vice are formed by habit, and that in moments of urgency, such as when an army is surprised by the enemy at night, the true virtues and vices of a man are most apparent; for when a man has time to contemplate a course of action, he can be persuaded to pursue a behavior contrary to his true nature. I think that this concept is interesting when we consider the Socratic exhortation to “know thyself.” Both Aristotle and Lucretius argue that one’s self if most accurately manifest in times of adversity and urgency, when there is no time to consider various actions. Are they arguing that Reason is not the true nature of man? Instead, is the true nature of man merely an involuntary impulse? On the other hand, Aristotle would likely argue that the actions of a man undertaken during moments of adversity are directly related to the habitual characteristics that the man cultivated through the exercise of Reason.

Lucretius argues that the excessive striving for wealth and power arises from a fear of death. Because men believe that the poor dwell at the gates of death, they wish to remove themselves as far as possible from that impoverished condition. In the effort to compass this desire, men slaughter their own brothers with delight, fear their own friends and family, etc. That men wish to attain wealth and power because they fear death is a very interesting notion. I have never encountered it before. I have read and listened to arguments that men seek such earthly goods because the goods are pleasurable, or because some cultures have convinced men that wealth and power are what constitute a good life. Fear of death is the source of every human care.

Lucretius believes that if men banished the fear of death, then they would not commit crimes or envy others. I do not agree. Aaron, from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, shows no fear of death, yet he inflicts suffering, misery, and death on many people. Although Lucretius argues that men commit crimes because they fear death, Aaron commits crime merely because it is pleasurable to him.

I think that this is the first text in the reading plan to argue that the body and soul cannot exist without one another. The body and soul are so closely interwoven that they cannot be torn asunder. The consequence of this proposition is that when the body dies, the soul dies too – there is no after-life. He uses many analogies to support his position. One such analogy is that of balls of frankincense – perfume cannot be removed from balls of frankincense without the nature of it being destroyed. The soul is the perfume; the body is the ball of frankincense. This is a nice analogy, but I don’t think that it is very convincing because it is merely an analogy; it does not prove or refute anything. One must accept that the body and soul possess the same relationship as perfume and balls of frankincense in order for the analogy to prove that the body and soul cannot exist without one another.

A more powerful argument made by Lucretius is that the body and soul grow together. When the body is young and weak, the mind is too. When the child matures into a robust and strong adult, the mind matures and increases in strength. When the body declines into the infirmity of old age, the mind declines. Thus, when the body dies, the mind dies. In order for Lucretius’ argument to be valid and sound, one would need to accept the proposition that the mind is the soul; for Lucretius argues his point by referring to mental processes – i.e. “the mind follows and corresponds to the weakness of the body.” Thus, according to Lucretius, it is reasonable that the soul/mind will partake in death. Sure, it is reasonable, but not certain. Furthermore, one must accept the proposition that the mind is the soul. Is the mind the soul? With all this said, Lucretius does not need to refute the immortality of the soul because there are no sound and valid arguments proving the immortality of the soul. Faith always seems to be the ultimate arbiter of metaphysical questions – for both the believer and non-believer.

Lucretius argues that all immortal things permit no change; for when something undergoes a change, it undergoes a death or termination of that which it was before. This is a very interesting insight. What constitutes change? If one views a new landscape, the memory of that individual changes, and thus the individual has undergone a termination of his previous state. The previous state of the individual is not immortal, but if an ever changing, and thus dying individual were to experience absolutely everything, to possess all of Being itself, would that individual become immortal?

He describes the nature of mankind as ungrateful. Mankind is never satisfied with the blessings of life, but constantly seeks ever newer pleasures. We ought to contemplate our imperfect nature, and try to change it.

Lucretius argues that the tortures that many people fear await them after death only exist in this life – the myth of Sisyphus is similar to the attempts of men to attain power and who are inevitably disappointed; mankind is eternally unsatisfied, always wanting something more. On the other hand, the actual state of death that awaits mankind according to Lucretius is one of peaceful, undisturbed slumber. This notion that the tortures of the after-life actually exist here, in the present world, reminds me of the scene in Marlowe’s Faustus where Faust asks how Mephistopheles can leave hell to come to earth. Mephistopheles replies: “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.”

Towards the end of book 3, Lucretius asserts that mankind wastes the majority of his life in sleep, whether in actual sleep or in parts of life similar to sleep. These parts of waking life similar to sleep are those parts that men spend in contemplation of “dreams” and dread of “empty terrors.” These “dreams” and “empty terrors” are mistaken thoughts about what awaits men after death. It is interesting to consider Lucretius’ notion that mistaken beliefs and fears are similar to the nature of dreams. I find that they are very similar. Furthermore, just as Descartes discovered that it is impossible to determine whether one is dreaming (without the ‘logical’ inferences derived from cogito sum),it is impossible to determine whether the dreams and empty fears about death are mistaken beliefs until we actually experience death – or don’t experience death according to Lucretius.

The Nature of Things (Penguin Classics)

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