Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Way Things Are, or Lucretius, Part Deux

Nature has no tyrants over her,
but always acts of her own will; she has
no part of any godhead whatsoever.

Which of the gods is strong enough
to hold the reins of absolute profundity.
Who can be immanent in every time,
in every place – to cloud the world in dark.
Who sends the lightning’s blast
even at his own temples?
And in wrath, lets fly the bolts
that pass the guilty by
and murder undeserving innocents?

Death is nothing to us,
has no relevance to our condition,
knowing that the mind is mortal.
We may be reassured that in our death
we have no cause for fear, we cannot be
wretched in nonexistence.
No one, when body and soul are lost in sleep,
finds oneself missing, or conducts a search
for his identity.

So we must think of death as being nothing,
as less than sleep, or less than nothing, even,
since our array of matter never stirs
to reassemble,
once the chill of death has taken over.
Life’s a gift to no man only a loan to him.
Earth’s our mother, also our common grave.
And so Earth is receiving loss and gain forever.

What we do not have
seems better than everything else in all the world,
but should we get it, we want something else.
Our gaping thirst for life is never quenched.

The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
serene, content with little.
There’s enough of this possession always.
The rich man’s blessed life.  What vanity!

Fear of the gods crept into human hearts,
imposing over all the world dread awe
of holy, groves, altars, and images.

One more thing you can’t believe:
that the gods dwell somewhere
in hallowed places in our universe.
Not so: gods’ natures are
far from our touch, therefore, being intangible,
they cannot touch us either.
The gods had no need to plan this world.
This world of ours was not prepared for us
by any god.  Too much is wrong with it.

People in wonderment
watched how the season’s variable rounds
followed an order they could not discern,
so they evasively assumed the gods
must be responsible; that all things went
at their caprice.

They gave them homes in heaven
since that was where the moon and the sun,
clouds, rain, snow, winds, thunderbolts,
and hail all had their residence.
What sorry creatures!
Unhappy race of people, to grant the gods
so much and add bitter vindictiveness.

Ah, no. In true devotion lies the power
To look at all things with a peaceful mind.
Even those who have learned the lesson well
that gods lead lives supremely free of care,
may wonder, now and then, by what intent
this thing or that can happen.
This wonderment leads to confusion,
leads them to regress to obsolete religious awe.

Shut out all such stuff, I tell you,
Stop having thoughts unworthy of the gods,
Alien to their serenity.
An ignoramus never understands
What causes things on earth or above,
and so he thinks the gods must be responsible.

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.
[illustration from The New Yorker]

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