Some ancient texts shed light on today's world. Word On Fire Research Assistant Jack Thornton discusses Lucretius' great philosophical poem, De Rerum Natura, and The Book of Ecclesiastes with this in mind.
Earlier this summer I attended a two-day seminar hosted by the faculty of the Program of Liberal Studies, my major at the University of Notre Dame. The Program (or PLS, as we all call it) is the great books major at Notre Dame. The summer seminar I attended focused on Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and Ecclesiastes, books I had read previously but was glad to revisit.
It was a very interesting two days. One of the thoughts I had was, “Wow, all these other alumni are way smarter than I am.” Seriously. They blew me away.
But this was not my only thought, which is good because that wouldn’t be a very good blog post. I had others.
One was that the contrast between the materialism of Lucretius and the possibility for transcendence in Ecclesiastesstill echoes in today’s society and that looking at these two texts can lend insight into the Christian perspective.
This one is better for a blog post.
Here’s a very quick summary. Lucretius was a 1st century B.C. poet and philosopher. Very little is known about his life, but it seems that he was a well-educated, wealthy member of the Roman upper class. His only work that has survived the ages is the roughly 7,400 line, 6 book philosophical poem De Rerum Natura, which translates to The Nature of Things or The Way Things Are.
The main message of the poem is that all the unhappiness of humanity stems from a fear of death, the fear of dreadful existence in the underworld after death and the belief in the oppressive gods whose wrath results in the misfortunes of this life and the next. His goal is to eradicate the fear and unhappiness by extolling an Epicurean philosophy based on understanding the physical and the natural. He explains in great detail how the universe is eternal and uncreated, and is made of void and atoms, which combine into all the physical forms and elements we experience. The human body and soul are made up of these atoms, which separate after death and so there is no afterlife. By grounding everything, including the soul, in physical terms Lucretius tries to eliminate any need for divinity or the supernatural.
The poem starts with an invocation of Aphrodite, not as the goddess of beauty but as a personification
of the generative power of the universe, and ends with a graphic description of the plague that swept Athens during the Peloponnesian War. It starts with life and ends with death, just as Lucretius’ view of existence does (this is a good example of form following function in poetry). In between, Lucretius discusses almost every other subject including morality and happiness. Happiness for him lies in enjoying life’s pleasures, in moderation, while avoiding pain.
Avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure seems nice at first but when you really follow that line of thought you see a dark element in it. Avoiding pain, for Lucretius, involves a level of detachment that is unnerving. He advises against falling in love and mocks those who do (and is wickedly funny while doing it) since attachment can lead to a tendency to irrationality (“desire makes men blind”) and loss instead of easy going, balanced enjoyment.
In short, don’t fear death since there is nothing after death, don’t fear the gods since they don’t exist, and don’t get too attached to anything, even other people, but try to enjoy life as best you can.
It’s an unsettling philosophy, but it sounds familiar doesn’t it?
Alright. Let’s turn to Ecclesiastes (again, this is a very cursory look at it).
At first glance, it’s very, very similar to The Way Things Are. It’s a poem with very profound philosophical and theological depth. Here the author looks to the world and to life itself and sees that “vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” Things come into being and things pass out of being— “one generation passeth away and another generation cometh”—so the speaker advises the readers to enjoy what life has to offer: “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour.”
It sounds a lot like Lucretius. This life is full of uncertainty, much of it seems meaningless and we will all die. So try to enjoy what you have.
There’s a major difference between Ecclesiastes and Lucretius though.
For a material reductionist like Lucretius the world is an end in itself. There is nothing after or beyond this life. Morality has nothing to do with an objective truth greater than pleasure because there is no objective truth or morality. There is no transcendent meaning or truth to hope for.
Ecclesiastes seems similar but the key difference is that, as Christians, we read the Bible as a cohesive unit. This means that Ecclesiastes is a chapter of the story that ends with Christ and the Resurrection. The Bible presents the narrative of humanity as one where we are loved into being, and granted the possibility of grace and eternal life. This is possible because of the Incarnation and Passion of Christ.
Read in this context, Ecclesiastes takes on a whole new meaning. Instead of the tragedy of a world
that ends in death we have the great comedy (as in Divine Comedy, not Will Ferrell movies) that resolves in life and love.
Death isn’t an end; it’s a move to a better beginning. Matter isn’t all there is; there is a reality that transcends matter and gives meaning to it. God exists, not as a punishing, petty creature up in the clouds but as the source of life and hope and being.
Both the materialist and the Catholic perspectives still abound today. The idea that physicality and matter are the end all be all is popular and widespread. You hear it all the time in modern culture. Of course, we can learn a lot from the physical world, and studying it is very valuable. I'm not trying to attack science here. But, divorced from transcendental redemption, materialism seems ultimately unfulfilling and bleak.
The Christian world view allows for hope, grace and love. The materialist excludes these and substitutes pleasure, detachment and avoidance of pain.
I don’t know about you, but I’ll take Christianity every time.