I have just read a book that has achieved a rather impressive audience recently: The Swerve, by Harvard Professor of Humanities Stephen Greenblatt. Accurately subtitled “How the World Became Modern”, it is a look at the re-discovery and modern embrace of Roman Epicurean philosopher-poet Lucretius and his epic work On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura).
Little is known of Lucretius’ life. One historian writes that “Lucretius was probably a member of the aristocratic gens Lucretia, and his work shows an intimate knowledge of the luxurious lifestyle in Rome. Lucretius’s love of the countryside invites speculation that he inhabited family-owned rural estates, as did many wealthy Roman families, and he was certainly expensively educated with mastery of Latin, Greek, literature, and philosophy.”
In chapter 8, Greenblatt summarizes Lucretius:
Everything is made of invisible particles, eternal, infinite in number but limited in shape and size, all in motion in an infinite void. The universe has no creator or designer.
Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve [i.e. random motion]; the swerve is the source of free will.
Nature ceaselessly experiments. The universe was not created for or about humans; humans are not unique. Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
The soul dies; there is no afterlife; death is nothing to us.
All organized religions are superstitious delusions, and invariably cruel.
The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.
Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.
Greenblatt’s very readable summary got me to thinking. Epicureanism is the only honest and logically consistent answer for an atheist asking how to live life. Enjoy yourself. Maximize pleasure. Minimize pain. Do not worry about any further meaning of life.
Every other non-religious answer is an effort to invent meaning. But invented meaning is artificial and inherently meaningless. I may decide to spend my life comforting the afflicted or collecting stamps. If they both give me pleasure and cause me no pain, they are effectively equal. And if I decide that sadism and brutality are my pleasures, my neighbors will simply have to watch out.
This is so because any morality (that goes beyond “enjoy yourself”) must be based on some form of Natural Law; that is, an innate human understanding that I and others inherently recognize certain things as right and others as wrong.
But Natural Law is fundamentally incompatible with atheism. If, as Lucretius thought, we – our bodies, our souls, and everything we perceive around us – is just atoms, then right and wrong, being immaterial, have no objective reality.
The other alternative for atheists is ideology: faith in a purely human path to human perfection (or at least improvement). But all ideologies (gnostic political faiths, as Voegelin put it) are dead ends, inevitably shattering on the rocks of reality in history.
Marxism’s inability either to produce or distribute goods (the economics which are at the core of Marxism’s world view), or to allow freedom, inevitably dooms its regimes. Only its political embrace of envy and hatred as motivation ultimately survives.
And now we face the positivist reign of social science. It, too, is a dead end, effective only at the destruction of human institutions built on the classical and Christian understanding of Man.
Atheists, if they are truly honest and self-aware, must learn to live with the Epicurean creed. Fortunately, it can be a very pleasant lifestyle – if you have the money and security to live it. It is no creed for those struggling with the difficulties of a hard life.
Greenblatt ends by quoting Jefferson:
“On the basis of sensation, of matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need.”
“These are the sentiments that Lucretius had most hoped to instill in his readers. ‘I am,’ Jefferson wrote to a correspondent who wanted to know his philosophy of life, ‘an Epicurean.’
He was also a slaveowner, who built his enjoyable plantation lifestyle on the coerced, unpaid labor of countless nameless fellow human beings routinely whipped into submission by his overseers. He believed that the elites should be above superstitious religion while the laboring masses should be guided by its rules.
So in many respects, indeed, he was as Epicurean as Lucretius himself.