Going to a Liberty Fund conference is one of the great joys of my life. I get to sit around a table with 14 very smart people talking about texts that raise deep questions about the historical, philosophic, scientific, theological, and psychological implications of human liberty.
In this case, we will talk about how Lucretius's atomist science of nature might support a natural history of the evolution of everything, and of how human morality, politics, religion, and mind might fit within that Big History.
In particular, I am interested in the possibility of understanding Lucretius as a premodern forerunner of modern evolutionary liberalism. I have written many posts on various aspects of this thought--some of them can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.
I foresee that many (maybe most) of the participants will disagree with me. In particular, I know that John Colman-the author of Lucretius as the Theorist of Political Life--disagrees with me, because his book advances a Straussian interpretation of Lucretius as an ancient political philosopher who was mistakenly appropriated by modern political philosophers to serve their modern project for progress through political enlightenment and technological science.
Prior to Machiavelli, the Straussians assume, the ancient political philosophers saw the philosophic life as the only naturally good life, and they saw that contemplative life of the few people devoted to the truth as opposed to the social life of the many based on common moral, political, and religious opinions that cannot survive rational questioning. But beginning with Machiavelli, modern political philosophers have sought to close the gap between philosophy and the city by promoting a modern liberal social order in which there is freedom of thought and religious toleration, and philosophy is turned towards natural science and technology that gives human beings a mastery of nature that is popular because it makes the life of the multitude more secure and prosperous than it has ever been.
If one accepts this stark Straussian separation between ancients and moderns, then one must be surprised that so many modern philosophers have been deeply influenced by Lucretius, which has been confirmed by much of the recent scholarship on the history of Lucretius's influence. Colman admits that the long list of modern philosophers influenced by Lucretius includes Montaigne, Machiavelli, Bayle, Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes, D'Holbach, and Helvetius; and he also admits that these were true philosophers living the contemplative life. But still Colman argues that Lucretius was not a modern thinker at all, and therefore the modern philosophers influenced by Lucretius were mistaken in that they did not understand Lucretius's true teaching.
Colman says nothing about the most obvious objection to his reasoning--the implausibility of his assumptions that Lucretius was unable to write his book so as to convey his true teaching to his philosophic readers, that all of his early modern philosophic readers were unable to correctly identify his teaching, and that for the first time in history some Straussian scholars have recently uncovered the true teaching that Lucretius failed to convey to his earlier philosophic readers.
Moreover, Colman says nothing about the fact that even Leo Strauss suggested some disagreement with these assumptions. In Strauss's book Liberalism: Ancient & Modern, the central chapter and the longest chapter is his "Notes on Lucretius," thus implying that the Epicureanism of Lucretius anticipates modern liberalism. In the Preface of the book, Strauss noted the modernity of ancient Epicureanism:
"The most extensive discussion is devoted to Lucretius' poem. In that poem, not to say in Epicureanism generally, premodern thought seems to come closer to modern thought than anywhere else. No premodern writer seems to have been as deeply moved as Lucretius was by the thought that nothing lovable is eternal or sempiternal or deathless, or that the eternal is not lovable. Apart from this, it may suffice here to refer to Kant's presentation of Epicureanism as identical with the spirit of modern natural science prior to the subjection of that science to the critique of pure reason" (viii).And yet, Strauss worried about the sadness of this Epicurean teaching--that the world that we love is not eternal, because every world is mortal within the eternal universe of atoms in motion. He identified this as "the most terrible truth" (85, 100, 135). He thought that philosophers can live with this truth with a tranquil mind. But most human beings cannot. And consequently most human beings can find peace of mind only through the pleasing delusion of a religious belief that the world of human concern is supported by a loving intelligent designer.
Although Colman refers repeatedly to Strauss's study of Lucretius, he never refers to this remark about the modernity of ancient Epicureanism. What Colman does say implies that Strauss was just wrong in seeing Epicurus and Lucretius as coming close to modern thought.
For example, Colman argues that while Francis Bacon seemed to be influenced by Lucretius, Bacon was mistaken in his reading of Lucretius, and he failed to see how his teaching contradicted the teaching of Lucretius. According to Colman, Bacon rejected Lucretius's teaching that the philosophic life was the highest life: "Bacon's judgment about the fruitlessness of classical philosophy precluded him from praising the delight in knowledge for its own sake" (141). Unlike Lucretius, Colman claims, Bacon promoted the advancement of technological knowledge that could lead to the human mastery of nature for the relief of the human estate. Bacon sought to overcome the limits of nature through technological power. By contrast, Lucretius taught "the impossibility of overcoming natural necessity and chance through political and technological means" (141).
There are three problems with Colman's reasoning here. The first problem is that far from rejecting the Lucretian claim that philosophic knowledge is the highest life, Bacon repeatedly affirmed that a life of pursuing and contemplating truth is "the sovereign good of human nature" (2002, 342). He argued for a union of contemplation and action, so that neither is subordinated to the other (2002, 148-150, 155, 167, 222, 439).
The second problem is that contrary to Colman's claim that Bacon saw human technological power as unlimited by nature, Bacon was clear that human creation is always limited by nature. Only God can create ex nihilo or destroy in nihilo (2002, 190-91). Human beings command Nature only by obeying her. "All that man can do to achieve results is to bring natural bodies together and take them apart; Nature does the rest internally" (2000, 33).
The third problem is that Lucretius agrees with Bacon in seeing the importance of technological progress in human evolutionary history, which is most fully set out in Book 5 of On the Nature of Things (5.925-1455), where he recounts the history of discoveries and inventions such as the use of fire, language, and farming. Colman recognizes this (104-113). But then he asserts: "According to Lucretius, man's technological and artistic productions are no match for the power of nature. Thus the account of the development of the arts that concluded Book V is corrected by the finale of Book VI, which speaks of natural cataclysms and plague" (139). Here Colman is referring to the account of the horrible suffering caused by the plague in Athens, which is how Lucretius ends his book.
Colman doesn't explain how Lucretius's account of the plague "corrects" his account of technological progress in Book 5. Presumably, Colman's suggestion is that the suffering of the Athenians in the plague "corrects" any belief that human beings can ever have such absolute power over nature as to protected from all the natural causes of suffering. But neither Lucretius nor Bacon ever claim that human beings can have such absolute power over nature. Rather, their claim is that improvements in the human knowledge of natural causes can increase human power for the relief of the human estate, but without ever achieving absolute power, which would require absolute knowledge.
Colman notes that following Thucydides' account of the plague, Lucretius observes that medical doctors were of no use because they were ignorant of the natural causes of the disease. But Colman is silent about Lucretius's explanation of diseases such as plagues as caused by germs (or "seeds") that are invisible to ordinary human vision (6.30, 665, 1090-1131). Thus, Lucretius was the first philosopher to suggest the germ theory of diseases. And by suggesting this just before his account of the plague, he suggests to his careful readers the thought that once scientists identify the germs that cause plagues, human beings can increase their power to protect themselves against such diseases. This is exactly what Bacon had in mind. And as I have indicated in a previous post (here), the medical science of how microscopic bacteria and viruses cause diseases like the plague have helped to improve human health, and this has become one of the great benefits of the modern Liberal Enlightenment.
So can the Straussian scholars recognize that in this and other ways the Liberal Enlightenment has succeeded? It's not clear. Generally, Strauss and his followers insist that liberalism must fail because it denies the natural fact of the contradiction between social order and philosophic truth, so that every social order must be closed to any philosophic or scientific enlightenment. A crucial consequence of this natural fact is the necessity and desirability of esoteric writing: philosophers or scientists seeking the truth about nature must write and speak in such a way as to hide their true teaching from the multitude of people who would be harmed by this teaching.
But recently some Straussian scholars have conceded that he Liberal Enlightenment has become so successful that esoteric writing is no longer necessary or desirable. As I have indicated in some previous posts (here and here), Arthur Melzer has shown that Strauss was right about the importance of esoteric writing up to about two hundred years ago. But Melzer has also indicated that esoteric writing began to disappear around 1800, and today most of us in the modern liberal open societies regard esoteric writing as neither necessary nor desirable, because Liberal Enlightenment has succeeded. If this is so, then Strauss was wrong about the necessary failure of the modern project.
In his best-selling book on Lucretius as the creator of modernity (The Swerve), Stephen Greenblatt proclaimed: "We are all Epicureans now." One evident manifestation of this is that Lucretius's teaching of the atomist science of the cosmos as a spontaneous natural order unguided by any divine design has become the popular cosmology for our societies today, and in the open societies today there is no attempt to suppress this teaching as subversive to social and religious order.
"The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be."
In 1980, that was the first line spoken by Carl Sagan beginning his thirteen-part television series Cosmos, which became one of the most-watched series around the world for the Public Broadcasting System. The book Cosmos became one of the most popular science books ever written. It was a comprehensive presentation of how modern scientists understand the natural history of the universe over 14 billion years. Sagan was clear in his rejection of any conception of the universe as requiring divinely intelligent design. In the 2013 edition of Cosmos, Ann Druyan (Sagan's wife) pointed to the significance of the opening line: "Some religious fundamentalists found that first line offensive. To them it was a shot across the bow that Carl was out to steal their thunder. They were on to something."
In 1996, Sagan wrote another best-selling book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. One of his epigrams in the book was from Lucretius: "As children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so we in the light sometimes fear what is no more to be feared than the things children in the dark hold in terror."
In 2014, Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist, hosted the television successor to Sagan's Cosmos, which was entitled Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. The book tied to the television series--Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution--has only one epigram, which is a quotation from Lucretius: "The world has persisted many a long year, having once been set going in the appropriate motions. From these everything else follows." Tyson used the same epigram for his 2017 book Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. He has become one of the most widely-read authors of popular science books.
So why aren't these Lucretian scientist-philosophers like Sagan and Tyson being persecuted? Or why hasn't the fear of persecution forced them to write esoterically? Isn't the answer clear--the success of the Liberal Enlightenment allows for the popular promulgation of Lucretian natural philosophy without any fear that this will subvert the social order?
Modern liberalism has created more public freedom of speech for teaching Lucretian science than ever before in history. And yet even in the ancient polytheistic world of Greece and Rome, Epicurus and Lucretius were remarkably free in openly teaching what they thought. Epicureanism became one of the most popular philosophical movements in the ancient world, even though it was widely identified as atheistic, and the Epicureans were boldly provocative in their public teaching.
In fact they were so bold in their teaching that we might doubt that they were esoteric writers. Even Colman concedes: "The early modern philosophers were attracted to Lucretius also because they saw in him an unwillingness to make the kind of concessions that the Platonic Socrates or Aristotle had made to the religious opinions of the city. This may explain why Lucretius does not mention either Plato or Aristotle when discussing his philosophic forbearers and limits himself to a few pre-Socratics" (133).
It was not until the Christian Church took political and cultural power over the world that Epicureanism was suppressed, and the books of Epicurus and Lucretius were banned. The Church could accommodate the teachings of Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism, which were absorbed into Christian theology and philosophy. But the Church could not tolerate Epicureanism in any form. It was not until a copy of Lucretius's book was found hidden away in a German monastery in 1417 that modern readers finally had access to Lucretius after a thousand years of suppression. The book was placed on the Church's Index of Prohibited Books.
This suggests that there was more freedom of speech for philosophers in the ancient world--at least for Epicurean philosophers--than Strauss was willing to admit. In a previous post, I have argued that there was far more freedom of thought for philosophers in Athens than the Straussian scholars have recognized.
Bacon, Francis. 2000. The New Organon. Eds. Lisa Jardine and Michael Silverthorne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bacon, Francis. 2002. The Major Works. Ed. Brian Vickers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Colman, John. 2012. Lucretius as Theorist of Political Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Sagan, Carl. 1996. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine Books.
Sagan, Carl. 2013. Cosmos. New York: Ballantine Books.
Strauss, Leo. 1968. Liberalism Ancient & Modern. New York: Basic Books.
Tyson, Neil deGrasse, and Donald Goldsmith. 2004. Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution. New York: Norton.
Tyson, Neil deGrasse. 2017. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. New York: Norton.