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Lucretius

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Middle-aged but sexy.
Thinking hard
or hardly thinking?

Philosophy
Icon philosophy.svg
Major trains of thought
The good, the bad
and the brain fart
Come to think of it

Titus Lucretius Carus (circa 99 BCE – circa 55 BCE), often shortened to Lucretius in an attempt to sound casual, was a Roman philosopher who spent his life trying to popularize the ideas of Epicurus in the Roman world. His one surviving work, De Rerum Natura (On The Nature of Things), besides being very good bedtime reading, represents an early attempt to work out the structure of the universe using reason.

Views on death[edit]

In his massive poem De Rerum Natura Lucretius wrote lots of fancy words in order to draw Romans to Epicureanism, since Epicurus was only really famous in Greece at the time. In the poem/book, Lucretius takes on the task of persuading people that they should not fear death. Death is somewhat worrying for most people, but an attempt to tackle fear of it philosophically is rare.

Lucretius' philosophy of death is often called the Symmetry Argument, and goes as follows:

  • In the time before your birth, you did not exist
  • In the time after your death, you will not exist
  • The existence in both cases is the same
  • Because you don't suffer in the time before you're born, you will not suffer in the time after your death
  • So it doesn't make sense to fear your death

He expresses the idea a little more poetically as follows:

Look back now and consider how the bygone ages of eternity that elapsed before our birth were nothing to us. Here, then, is a mirror in which nature shows us the time to come after our death. Do you see anything fearful in it? Do you perceive anything grim? Does it not appear more peaceful than the deepest sleep?[1]

Lucretius apparently missed the fact that most people fear death because they like being alive, and that it only makes sense to worry about something that will happen. Since the time before our births has already passed, it obviously doesn't make much sense worrying about it.

Where he was wrong[edit]

Almost everything. This is understandable, since he (and his society) had the scientific knowledge of a dead whelk. However, even the ideas which were utterly wrong are often amusing and represent a heartening attempt at a rational view of nature in an age that Lucretius saw as one of superstition. For instance, he believed that thunder was caused by clouds being spun into balloons by the wind and then popping, that fire exists in particulate form inside all things and can sometimes be knocked out to create sparks, and that there could be no fundamental force of gravity because then trees would not be able to get water up off the ground without lifting it (you can't really blame him for not knowing about transpiration and capillary action).

Where he was right[edit]

He came up with something uncannily similar to the theory of evolution by natural selection a couple of thousand years ahead of time. Mention of this is often neglected, and it remains unclear how much (if any) impact it had on later science.

External links[edit]

References[edit]

  1. Lucretius, On The Nature of Things, section 970