For the scientist who knows how to read the face of nature, every object in our world can be explained by way of a cosmic dance. Given enough time and enough swerves, every mountain, every stream, every tree, every animal—even every human soul—will find its way from lifeless atom into living entity. And yet, that is not the whole story.
Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?
Virgil: On Science
All that I have written, I have written in the shadow of Lucretius. He died just as I was taking my seat among the men, but his great poem on the nature of things shall live on forever. In that poem, he laid forth a grand vision of the universe that has stayed with me my whole life and that gave me new eyes with which to see the world.
Everything, Lucretius taught me, can be traced back to atoms and the void. In a glorious, never-ending march, millions of atoms—Lucretius’s word for indivisible bits of matter—make their way across the vast expanse of the cosmos. Dwarfing even the largest of Roman armies, they move swiftly and silently through the void in their majestic, eternal circumnavigation.
But that is not the whole story. If it were, nothing would ever be born and nothing would ever die: just the atoms traveling side by side in the void. The story Lucretius tells in his epic poem is far more dynamic. Every now and then, it seems, one of the atoms swerves and collides with another. No one can say when this will happen or to which atom, but with each collision, a new form is ushered into being.
For the scientist who knows how to read the face of nature, every object in our world can be explained by way of this cosmic dance. Given enough time and enough swerves, every mountain, every stream, every tree, every animal—even every human soul—will find its way from lifeless atom into living entity.
In my own epic, I celebrate Caesar Augustus and his divine father, Julius Caesar, as descendants of both Venus (the mother of Aeneas) and Mars (the father of Romulus). But long before I composed my Aeneid, Lucretius had already joined Venus and Mars as the parents of all that we see in nature. Just as Mars, the God of War, drives the atoms apart, so Venus, the Goddess of Love, draws them together. Between the discord and the dissolution of the former and the order and harmony of the latter, all life proceeds.
Lucretius has been for me that great oddity: a scientist-poet. He does not sing of gods or spirits or miracles, nor does he speak of divine oracles and riddling prophecies. His vision, as simple as it is profound, fires the reason of the head as much as it does the imagination of the heart. And it brings with it two corollaries.
First, on account of the unaccountable swerve of the atom, human freedom is preserved. Though Lucretius opened up for me the systems and processes of nature, he did not thereby imprison me in a deterministic world where choice is nothing but an illusion. Just as no one can predict in what direction the atom will swerve, so no one can predict what any given human being will choose to do or to say or to become.
Second, since the soul is made of matter and will dissolve back into atoms when the body dies, we need not fear an afterlife of punishment. And because we need not fear divine retribution at our death, we need not be terrified by hypocritical priests who would manipulate us with their threats of damnation if we don’t heed their rules, perform their rituals, and pay their tithes.
As his master, Epicurus, taught him, so Lucretius taught me that I need not live in perpetual dread of cruel gods and charlatan priests. If I would only study the natural order and composition of all things, I would be released from the terrors that plague us in the night. Science and reason, not religion and superstition, offer the surest pathway to peace of mind. I must not fear the gods, but emulate their serene, removed stoicism, their refusal to be moved or perturbed by anything that happens on our ever-shifting earth.
And yet, that, too, is not the whole story. When I was young and proud and filled with righteous indignation, I thought that Lucretius had explained everything. When I became a man, I realized that what he had actually done was explain away everything that really mattered.
Accordingly, I shall end this letter by writing to you of somewhat higher things.
I still look to the science of Lucretius to help me find peace and order, but I no longer look to it as the sole source of answers for the myriad questions of life. It is simply too limited, too reductive, too constrained. There is more than matter in this strange and terrible universe of ours. There is mind, and that mind partakes of a reality that transcends matter.
Perhaps our souls are made of matter. What if they are? Our brains are made of matter; yet, we possess a mind that is something other than the brain that appears to contain it. So it is with the soul. The case may decay and dissolve, but that which was held in the case is something different: it neither decays nor dissolves, but persists and endures.
Lucretius helped break me free from vain superstitions and from those who would use them to hold frightened people in bondage. But neither the persistence of foolish fables nor the machinations of crooked priests disproves the reality of death, judgment, and final rewards. Indeed, the more I have studied myself and my fellow men, the more I have realized that we all know instinctively that there will, that there must, be a judgment in the end. If not, then truth and justice and duty and love are nothing but words.
I still honor the Epicureans, as I do the Stoics, but I have learned to avoid their coldness and insularity. They are too self-protective, too removed from the pain, the confusion, the sheer messiness of life. They prefer safety to risk, scientific certainty to the deep, unshakeable mysteries of God, man, and the universe.
My friends of the future, I encourage you to learn from Lucretius, even as I have done. But do not be bound by his system. Raise your eyes above his purposeless swerving atoms and his impotent, passionless gods to catch sight of the real cosmic dance that our souls yearn to see, to understand, and to join.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Imaginative Painting Showing Galileo Galilei Displaying his Telescope to Leonardo Donato” (c. 1900) by Henry-Julien Detouche (1854-1913), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.