June 19, 2014

Knowledge, entropy and dinosaurs: Lucretius' De rerum natura part 2

For Father's Day, I bought my old man a book on Epicurus. He's lived by a lot of the Epicurean tenets and, like I always do, enjoyed the fact that someone else came to the same conclusion and was able to describe it succinctly.

I'm currently reading the Aeneid, and don't have too much to say about it at the moment, but I have a few more miscellaneous notes to share about Lucretius.

Dismissing Socrates


In Book IV, Lucretius discusses knowledge. Epicureans held that what the eyes perceive is true, at least in the sense that the image resolved by the eyes is always what the eyes actually see. It is the mind, during the process of discernment, that can mistake what is real and not real.

So, without reasoning through what we see, we may think another world exists on the other side of a still puddle on a road:

A puddle no deeper than a finger's breadth, formed in a hollow between the cobblestones of the highway, offers to the eye a downward view, below the ground, of as wide a scope as the towering immensity of sky that yawns above. You would fancy you saw clouds far down below you and a sky and heavenly bodies deep-buried in a miraculous heaven beneath the earth. 
...we do not admit that the eyes are in any way deluded . It is their function to see where light is, and where shadow. But whether one light is the same as another, and whether the shadow that was here is moving over there, or whether on the other hand what really happens is what I have just described - that is something to be discerned by the reasoning power of the mind. The nature of phenomena cannot be understood by the eyes. 

Knowledge, it would seem, stems directly from our ability to sense the world and then make sense of it. The universe is composed of objects and phenomena composed of atoms and nothing else, and we cannot know what we do not perceive on some level. This is again at odds with Plato's forms, particularly since the intellectual processes become vastly different: for Plato, the philosopher's quest for knowledge is one toward conception of the forms, the intangible ideals that provide a template for all things. To behold a chair with one's eyes is to see only the shadow of truth. For Epicurus/Lucretius, to know something is to sense it and discern its true nature using reason.

Lucretius, in fact, dismisses Plato outright by dismantling one of Socrates' most famous quotes, from Apology:

I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.

According to Lucretius:

If anyone thinks that nothing is ever known, he does not know whether even this can be known, since he admits that he knows nothing. Against such an adversary, therefore, who deliberately stands on his head, I will not trouble to argue my case.

A clever jab to be sure, but I'm not entirely sure that it's justified. Socrates reiterates his lack of knowledge in several places throughout the dialogues, but it often takes the form of refuting that the particulars of certain kinds of knowledge are important to begin with, in the context of metaphysics or the divine. Plato's Socrates seems to be paraphased a lot among Roman philosophers and historians as well ("I know one thing: that I know nothing" and the like), which makes simple, effective (and entertaining) refutations like this easier to dispense.

"...the bodies of huge beasts..."


There's one more interesting note I hinted at last time. In Book II, Lucretius discusses some form of entropy in the Epicurean cosmos, the alternating periods of building up and wearing away of bodies in the universe. Given time, even the land itself will be broken down and rendered incapable of nurturing the sort of life that once thrived. Lucretius believed that, in his time, the Earth was already over the hill.

It must, of course, be conceded that many particles ebb and drain away from things. But more particles must accrue, until they have touched the topmost peak of growth. Thereafter the strength and vigor of maturity is gradually broken, and age slides down the path of decay. 
[...] 
Already the life-force is broken. The earth, which generated every living species and once brought forth from its womb the bodies of huge beasts, has now scarcely strength to generate tiny creatures.

"Huge beasts"? How much did ancient peoples know about dinosaurs? Surely they had come across bones and footprints themselves or heard of their rumor. Based on his own writing, Lucretius did not seem to accept that certain mythological creatures were real. He says:

It must not be supposed that atoms of every sort can be linked in every variety of combination. If that were so, you would see monsters coming into being everywhere. Hybrid growths of man and beast would arise. Lofty branches would spread here and there from a living body. Limbs of land-beast and sea-beast would often be conjoined. Chimeras breathing flame from hideous jaws would be reared by nature throughout the all-generating earth.

Perhaps not a comprehensive refutation, but close enough to suspect that he might not believe in minotaurs or gorgons or other monstrous creatures. If they were not chimeric foils of gods and heroes, then what were they, these "huge beasts" of ancient times? Makes you wish he would have elaborated a bit more.

I won't be reading much philosophy over the next few weeks. Mostly history (Tacitus) and a re-reading of the New Testament, but I might write up a couple of posts before I get into Plotinus, Augustine and Boethius.

May 21, 2014

Mars to Venus: Lucretius' De rerum natura

So the Epicurean project of tranquility through materialism extends for centuries, and history's primary instructor in these tenets doesn't end up being Epicurus himself, since much of his work is lost. Instead, a Roman poet named Titus Lucretius Carus writes a book-length poetic treatise on Epicureanism addressed to a Roman official, Gaius Memmius. It is simultaneously a work of literature, of rhetoric and of instruction.

Lucretius frames the persuasive element of the work around a metaphorical concept of devotion, a shifting of allegiances. He wants to persuade Memmius and certainly the rest of Rome to leave behind all things martial (war, conquest, political ambition) and pursue beauty, love and a thriving, unbothered existence, so Lucretius recommends a change of patron deities, from Mars to Venus. Several times through the poem he reaches back to make use of this metaphor.

When I finished reading the text, it was actually surprising how thorough Epicurus' explanations were in his letters. Certainly Lucretius expands upon the specifics and provides numerous examples, particularly when discussing natural phenomena, but the core principles are easily extrapolated into different scenarios, particularly since theoretical rigidity is not part of the curriculum. Some things are "undiscoverable." 

"New Atheism" as Epicurean comfort


Before I delve into my notebook to highlight a few passages that stimulated thought or highlighted certain principles, a thought about the recent push for a similar evangelical materialism, usually dubbed New Atheism, but not excluding the derivatives, of which there are many. It seemed to crest in the middle 2000's after the most recent push to teach Creationism in schools, and as people like Dawkins and Dennett and Wilson acquired more and more attention - the great portion for "incivility" or "controversial" opinions, not for profundities - there was a shift in tactics from some of the New Atheists before the whole thing splintered into political tribes. Dawkins and company, and their adherents seemed to find their inner John Muir, or perhaps, for our purposes, their inner Lucretius. There is beauty in this life, peace and tranquility through disbelief in rapacious deities. If you want awe, just look at reality, the poetry of reality, so to speak: the infinitely large and the infinitesimally small, the epic struggles, the bodily collisions, the idiosyncratic extremes, the sheer ability to behold it all, etc.

Religion is a disease, they said. And reason, rationality and critical thinking are the cure. Not only for a certain peace of mind, but for truth. What happened next? What happens to every seemingly unified ideological front on the internet? It splintered into a thousand fragments, which either dispersed entirely or coalesced into more tightly focused communities. Materialism, it turns out, at least in this case, is not a sufficient cause to rally around.

So perhaps there's some overlap in effect two millenia distant, consequences of ordering of the mind's perceptions in certain ways. I don't think there is an Epicurean goal of peace of mind in the recent secularist impulses, but I do believe it has a similar effect, which is undeniably appealing.

"Live Unknown": An anti-political stance


In his essay, "Whether 'Live Unknown' be a wise precept", Plutarch calls Epicurus a hypocrite for telling his students to "live unknown" while Epicurus enjoyed centuries of philosophical fame.
He who uttered this precept certainly did not wish to live unknown, for he uttered it to let all the world know he was a superior thinker, and to get to himself unjust glory by exhorting others to shun glory. 
...what need was there to utter a precept like this, or to write and hand it down to posterity, if he wished to live unknown to his own generation, who did not wish to live unknown to posterity?
The phrase "live unknown" condenses Epicurus' warning that associations for the sake of fame are to be avoided, particularly political ambitions. Lucretius compares a life of politics to the punishment of Sisyphus:
Sisyphus too is alive for all to see, bent on winning the insignia of office, its rods and ruthless axes, by the people's vote, and is embittered by perpetual defeat. To strive for this profitless and never-granted prize, and in striving toil and moil incessantly, this truly is to push a boulder laboriously up a steep hill, only to see it, once the top is reached, rolling and bounding down again to the flat levels of the plain.
If Lucretius is aware of the contradiction between what Epicurus says is the best life and what he lived, he never mentions it. In fact, he writes of Epicurus with the same reverence he attends to the gods themselves, as a healer, as unerring, as the bearer of the whole truth.
It was Athens no less that first gave to life a message of good cheer through the birth of that man, gifted with no ordinary mind, whose unerring lips gave utterance to the whole of truth. Even now, when he is no more, the widespread and long-established fame of his divine discoveries is exalted to the very skies. 
He saw that, practically speaking, all that was wanted to meet men's vital needs was already at their disposal, and, so far as could be managed, their livelihood was assured. He saw some men in the full enjoyment of riches and reputation, dignity and authority, and happy in the fair fame of their children. Yet, for all that, he found aching hearts in every home, racked incessantly by pangs the mind was powerless to assuage, forced to vent themselves in recalcitrant repining. He concluded that the source of this illness was the container itself, which infected with its own malady everything that was collected outside and brought into it, however beneficial. He arrived at this conclusion partly because he perceived that the container was racked and leaky, so that it could never by any possibility be filled: partly because he saw it taint whatever it took in with the taste of its own foulness. Therefore he purged men's breasts with words of truth. He set bounds to desire and fear. He demonstrated what is the highest good, after which we all strive, and pointed the way by which we can achieve it, keeping straight ahead along a narrow track. He revealed the element of pains inherent in the life of mortals generally, resulting whether casually or determinately from the operations of nature and prowling round in various forms. He showed by what gate it is best to sally out against each one of these evils. And he made it clear that, more often than not, it was quite needlessly that mankind stirred up stormy waves of disquietude within their breasts.
In Book 5, Lucretius writes most bitterly of the pursuit of political fame as opposed to the tranquil life. How was this received by Memmius and his ilk? Surely this was not an accurate description of the Rome - so like the Greece - they held dear:
Men craved for fame and power so that their fortune might rest on a firm foundation and they might live out a peaceful life in the enjoyment of plenty. An idle dream. In struggling to gain the pinnacle of power they beset their own road with perils. And then from the very peak, as though by a thunderbolt, they are cast down by envy into a foul Tartarean abyss of ignominy. For envy, like the thunderbolt, most often strikes the highest and all that stands out above the common level. Far better to lead a quiet life in subjection than to long for sovereign authority and lordship over kingdoms. So leave them to sweat blood in their wearisome unprofitable struggle along the narrow pathway of ambition. Since their wisdom is taken from the mouths of other people and their objectives chosen by hearsay rather than by the evidence of their own senses, it avails them now, and will avail them, no more than it has ever done.
As much praise as Lucretius gives to Athens for producing his mentor, he doesn't seem to appreciate its gift of democracy to the world. The following excerpt reads like a subversion of The Oresteia; instead of a purge of savagery by civilized justice, the barbarism persists, channeled through the state in the form of punishment for lawbreaking.
Down in the dust lay the ancient majesty of thrones, the haughty scepters. The illustrious emblem of the sovereign head, dabbled in gore and trampled under the feet of the rabble, mourned its high estate. What once was feared too much is now passionately downtrodden. So the conduct of affairs sank back into the filthy lower depths of mob rule, with each man struggling to win dominance and supremacy for himself. Then some men showed how to appoint state officials, to establish civil rights and duties so that men would want to obey the laws. Mankind, worn out by a life of violence and enfeebled by feuds, was the more ready to submit of its own free will to the bondage of laws and institutions. This distaste for a life of violence came naturally to a society in which every individual was ready to gratify his anger by a harsher vengeance than is now tolerated by equitable laws. Ever since then the enjoyment of life's prizes has been tempered by the fear of punishment. A man is enmeshed by his own violence and wrongdoing, which commonly recoil upon their author.
John Dos Passos shares a similar sentiment in his novel, Three Soldiers, rejecting the notion that a civilized society is a foil of primal iniquity:
Men were more humane when they were killing each other than when they were talking about it. So was civilization nothing but a vast edifice of sham, and the war, instead of its crumbling, was its fullest and most ultimate expression.
Since this is running a bit long, I'll stop here for now. I have a few more notes to share, including a jab at Socrates and a mention of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs?

May 7, 2014

Reading list intro & short review of Epicurus' letters

For the past year or so, due to a realization that work and the arrangement of a working life had obscured the life of reading and writing I had before the maturation of a "professional" career, I've been filling in the gaps in my education by constructing a historical reading list and working my way through, book by book, supplementing the material with what course lectures and essays can be found online and in local libraries. The list is by no means comprehensive; it revolves around my political, philosophical, historical and scientific personal interests.

I started in Ancient Greece as most liberal arts programs seem to do, and read through the majority of Plato and Aristotle, the great tragedians and poets, the histories written by Thucydides and Herodotus and the like. I've finished much of the Old Testament, which became a sort of review of the material as an adult, and I'm currently beginning some major works by Roman thinkers. I have an enormous backlog of notes which I should have been writing about during the entire process, and perhaps I can return in a few years when I have more or less completed my project, at least in the major sense, to wrap up and plow through again.

I'm writing for memory's sake. These posts will be musings on snippets in the main, not a series of introductory descriptions or summaries. If these posts become useful for others, or a source of conversation, I welcome that opportunity to share and learn.

Epicurus' Letters


The empiricism of the Epicureans like Lucretius is immediately appealing. The desire to seek out the world as it is using our senses and hold away notions of "superstition" resonates with our modern ideals of reason supplemented by observation, a concept that Plato had Socrates call "looking down" instead of up, if I remember correctly.

In his letter to Pythocles, Epicurus seems to embrace constructing hypotheses based on what the senses can perceive as important steps toward understanding:
...one must not be so much in love with the explanation by a single way as wrongly to reject all the others from ignorance of what can, and what cannot, be within human knowledge, and consequent longing to discover the undiscoverable.
He then proposes a series of possible explanations for phenomena, some that were (and still are) attributed to divine interventions, such as lightning:
Lightning precedes thunder, when the clouds are constituted as mentioned above and the configuration which produces lightning is expelled at the moment when the wind falls upon the cloud, and the wind being rolled up afterwards produces the roar of thunder; or, if both are simultaneous, the lightning moves with a greater velocity towards its and the thunder lags behind, exactly as when persons who are striking blows are observed from a distance.
Epicurus is, of course, essentially correct about the velocities of the elements that compose thunder and lightning. As an atomist, he believed these phenomena were both composed of particular fundamental particles of the same nature as the rest of sensible matter, the "films" - as Lucretius calls the constantly shedding outer layers of objects - of which interact with our sense organs to produce a sense of the thing and its attributes.

Similar to Aristotle's conceptions of matter, but not identical, since Aristotle was critical of the atomists, Epicurus considers these attributes (heat, size, color, etc.) incidental to bodies (sensible objects in the world), indicative of its composition, its nature. From his letter to Herodotus (not the historian):
...shapes and colors, magnitudes and weights, and in short all those qualities which are predicated of body, in so far as they are perpetual properties either of all bodies or of visible bodies, are knowable by sensation of these very properties: these, I say, must not be supposed to exist independently by themselves (for that is inconceivable), nor yet to be non-existent, nor to be some other and incorporeal entities cleaving to body, nor again to be parts of body. We must consider the whole body in a general way to derive its permanent nature from all of them, though it is not, as it were, formed by grouping them together in the same way as when from the particles themselves a larger aggregate is made up, whether these particles be primary or any magnitudes whatsoever less than the particular whole.
This idea of incidental attributes is a departure from Plato's forms, where bodies derived attributes from ephemeral absolutes, ideals of hot or cold or beauty, and much more in line with modern processes of understanding through analysis. Epicurus stops just short of refuting the existence of the divine entirely; he rejects intervention, claiming that if the gods are perfect and without fear of death, which is the main reason why human beings are so miserable, then they are perfectly happy, and why would such a creature seek to condescend, to meddle in human affairs? I suppose this makes him a sort of deist, acknowledging their existence, but rejecting the notion of intervention.

There's a purpose to his methods of understanding the world: complete peace of mind. The Epicurean devotion to empiricism serves to unbind human beings from the fear and worry that comes from believing that life and death depended on the fickle desires of a pantheon of petulant deities. This belief (or disbelief, perhaps) extends to the afterlife; death is nothing to Epicurus: literally nothing. 

If the following is true...
  • the infinite universe is only matter and void (space for matter to be)
  • matter can only interact with matter
  • the atoms (matter) of the spirit dissipate at the moment of death
  • the atoms of the spirit are utterly dependent on the body
  • only through the body can the spirit interact with the world
...then death is not to be feared, since a life has no senses to cause it stress after it is extinguished. If it is possible to conceive of life in this way, Epicurus asks Menoeceus,
Who, then, is superior in your judgment to such a man? He holds a holy belief concerning the gods, and is altogether free from the fear of death. He has diligently considered the end fixed by nature, and understands how easily the limit of good things can be reached and attained, and how either the duration or the intensity of evils is but slight. Fate, which some introduce as sovereign over all things, he scorns, affirming rather that some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency. For he sees that necessity destroys responsibility and that chance is inconstant; whereas our own actions are autonomous, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach. It were better, indeed, to accept the legends of the gods than to bow beneath that yoke of destiny which the natural philosophers have imposed. The one holds out some faint hope that we may escape if we honor the gods, while the necessity of the naturalists is deaf to all entreaties.
This is also a further affirmation of his insistence that it is problematic to "be so much in love with the explanation by a single way" that one clings to a solely deterministic view of the universe. As an aside, I appreciate his resistance to necessity in the context of Greek "naturalists" of the time. Western Civilization seems to become increasingly convinced that, even if the truth of the source of choice is "undiscoverable," institutions should act as if life itself unfolds by necessity anyway.

Reading through Lucretius at the moment. More on that later.

June 2, 2012

May 4, 2012

Affect

It's 71 and humid. How do you feel about the weather?


Do you <3 the weather? Does the weather make you want to say "Ugh!" as you recline in your climate controlled living room? Click the chat bubble that corresponds to the abstraction approximate to your basest feelings. The Weather Channel cares about how the weather makes you feel. The Weather Channel is your muse! Express yourself. Make a choice (along defined, dichotomous parameters). You're affecting something.