Friday, October 14, 2011

Before Jesus there was Lucretius

I am speaking at the local UUA congregation this Sunday. My topic will be "Joys of Secularism!" The text will be The Nature of Things by Lucretius, written about 60 b.c.e. I am using the Rolfe Humphreys translation, entitled The Way Things Are. The book or essay is a 7500 line poem.

I really got into it and summarized it in two pages. I left out all the stuff on the senses, including preferred positions for sexual intercourse, which scholars say doesn't differ much from what other classic writers said. And I left out the lengthy and depressing ending on the plague in Athens and how people die and their bodies decay. But I am guessing that the rest of what he wrote will surprise many readers. Here is part I:

You may think you are entering
the ABC’s of godlessness. Not so.
The opposite is true. Too many times
Religion mothers crime and wickedness.
I try to loose people’s spirit from the ties,
tight-knotted, which religion binds around them.

Our staring-point shall be this principle:
Nothing at all is ever born from nothing by the gods’ will.
Ah, but people’s minds are frightened
because they see, on earth and in the heaven,
many events whose causes are to them
impossible to fix; so, they suppose
the will of the gods is the reason.
But we shall perceive with greater clarity
how things are caused,
and no “gods’ will” about it.

Our second axiom is this, that nature
resolves each object to its basic atoms
but does not ever utterly destroy it.
Solid and everlasting; these we call
seeds of things, firstlings, atoms,
and in them lies The sum of all created things.

All perish, all, and in one flick of time
nothing be left but desert, chaos, darkness.
If you know this,
it only takes a very little trouble
to learn the pattern of the way things are.

These lessons brighten each other,
no dark night will keep you pathless,
astray, from ultimate vision and light,
but all things are illumined
in each other’s radiance.

Sweetness lies
in watching evils you yourself are free from.
We do not need so much
for bodily comfort, only loss of pain.

I grant you, luxuries are very pleasant,
but nature does not really care if houses
lack golden statues in the halls, young men
holding out fiery torches in their hands
to light the all-night revels.
Much poorer people are every bit as happy.  

Why do you hesitate, why doubt that reason
alone has absolute power?
Our life is spent in shadows,
and it suffers in the dark.
Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
must be dispelled, then, not by sunshine’s rays,
not by those shining arrows of the light,
but by insight into nature, and a scheme
of systematic contemplation.

We can see all things flowing away with time,
while the sum of things Is constantly renewed;
all creatures live in symbiosis.
There is no center or bottom to the universe,
space is infinite, unlimited,
reaching beyond all bounds, in all directions.

Some people do not know how matter works.
They think that nature needs
the will of the gods to fit the seasons of the year
so nicely to human needs.

To be sure, we breed to keep the race alive,
but to think that gods
have organized all things for our sake
is nothing but a lot of foolishness.
The nature of the world just could not be
a product of the god’s’ devising; no,
there are too many things the matter with it.
Two thirds of it is too hot or too cold.

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