#BuyNothingDay: Read Some More Lucretius

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 5.1430-1439

“The race of man, then, labors uselessly and in vain
as we always consume our time in empty concerns
because we don’t understand that there’s a limit to having—
and there’s an end to how far true pleasure can grow.
This has dragged life bit by bit into the deep sea
and has stirred at its bottom great blasts of war.
But the guardian of the earth turns around the great sky
and teaches men truly that the year’s seasons come full circle
and that all must be endured with a sure reason and order.”

Ergo hominum genus in cassum frustraque laborat
semper et [in] curis consumit inanibus aevom,
ni mirum quia non cognovit quae sit habendi
finis et omnino quoad crescat vera voluptas;
idque minutatim vitam provexit in altum
et belli magnos commovit funditus aestus.
at vigiles mundi magnum versatile templum
sol et luna suo lustrantes lumine circum
perdocuere homines annorum tempora verti
et certa ratione geri rem atque ordine certo.

Epicureanism doesn’t do it for you? Here’s something else;

Epictetus, Encheiridion 44

“These statements are illogical: “I am richer than you and therefore better than you. I am more articulate than you and therefore better than you.” But these conclusions are more fitting: “I am wealthier than you, therefore my possessions are greater than yours. I am more articulate than you, therefore my speech is better than yours.” You are neither your property nor your speech.”

c. 44. Οὗτοι οἱ λόγοι ἀσύνακτοι· “ἐγώ σου πλουσιώτερός εἰμι, ἐγώ σου ἄρα κρείσσων”· “ἐγώ σου λογιώτερος, ἐγώ σου ἄρα κρείσσων” ἐκεῖνοι δὲ μᾶλλον συνακτικοί· “ἐγώ σου πλουσιώτερός εἰμι, ἡ ἐμὴ ἄρα κτῆσις τῆς σῆς κρείσσων”· “ἐγώ σου λογιώτερος, ἡ ἐμὴ ἄρα λέξις τῆς σῆς κρείσσων.” σὺ δὲ γε οὔτε κτῆσις εἶ οὔτε λέξις.

Some Approving Words from Cicero,

Cicero, Paradoxa Stoicorum 7-8

“Can something good be bad for anyone, or is it possible for someone not to be good in the abundance of goods? But indeed, we see that all of those things we mentioned are of such a sort that the wicked have them, but the good do not. For that reason, anyone at all may laugh at me if they wish, but true reasoning will possess more power with me than the opinion of the common mob. Nor will I ever say that someone has lost their goods if they should lose their cattle or furniture. I will always praise the wise man Bias who, as I think, is numbered among the seven sages. When the enemy had seized his fatherland of Priene, and the other citizens were fleeing while carrying many of their possessions with them, Bias was advised by another to do them same himself. Bias responded, ‘I am doing just that – I carry everything I own with me.’”

Potestne bonum cuiquam malo esse, aut potest quisquam in abundantia bonorum ipse esse non bonus? Atqui ista omnia talia videmus, ut et inprobi habeant et absint probis. Quam ob rem licet inrideat, si qui vult, plus apud me tamen vera ratio valebit quam vulgi opinio; neque ego umquam bona perdidisse dicam, si quis pecus aut supellectilem amiserit, nec non saepe laudabo sapientem illum, Biantem, ut opinor, qui numeratur in septem; cuius quom patriam Prienam cepisset hostis ceterique ita fugerent, ut multa de suis rebus asportarent, cum esset admonitus a quodam, ut idem ipse faceret, ‘Ego vero’, inquit, ‘facio; nam omnia mecum porto mea.’

Image result for medieval manuscript marketplace scene
Market scene, 15th century, Manuscript, Bibliothèque Municipale, Rouen

Fire, Sex, and Children Weakened the Human Race

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 5.1011-1018

 

“Then, when they had procured shelter, clothing and fire
And woman joined man in one [home]
They were known, they saw their own children born
And the race of man first began to grow weak.
For fire cared for them so that quaking bodies
Could no longer endure the cold under the roof of the sky;
Venus whittled down their strength and children
Easily broke their parents’ proud character with their charms.”

Roman-Lady-of-Leisure-290x300
As usual, the start of all evil…

Inde casas postquam ac pellis ignemque pararunt
et mulier coniuncta viro concessit in unum
* * *
cognita sunt, prolemque ex se videre creatam,
tum genus humanum primum mollescere coepit.
ignis enim curavit, ut alsia corpora frigus
non ita iam possent caeli sub tegmine ferre,
et Venus inminuit viris puerique parentum
blanditiis facile ingenium fregere superbum.

Far Better People than You Have Died (Lucretius and Homer)

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 3.1034-1053

“You may on occasion say this to yourself:
Noble Ancus* loosed the light from his eyes,
A man who was better than imperfect you in many ways.
And from there, many other kings and luminaries
Died too, men who ruled over great nations.
That very man* who once laid a great road across a vast sea
To provide a path for his armies upon the deep
And taught them to dance across the crescent salt
As he pranced with his horses and dismissed the sea’s roar—
He poured out his soul when his body died and he was robbed of the light.
Clan Scipio’s son, the bolt of war, the scourge of Carthage,
Gave his bones to the earth just as a humble servant would.
Add to these men the inventors of theories and beauty,
Add as well the friends of the Muses whose single Homer,
the sceptered lord, has been quieted in sleep like the rest.
Democritus, too, when advanced age finally warned him
That the moving memories of his mind were fading,
He freely offered his own head to his end.
Epicurus as well departed when the light of his life ran its course,
He surpassed the race of man with his genius, who overshown
The light of all men the way the sun washes out the stars—
And now you will hesitate and be angry to die?
You whose life is already nearly dead, though you live and see,
You who squander the greater part of life in sleep
And snore wide-awake, never breaking from seeing dreams,
As you carry a mind tortured by empty fear.
You can’t figure out what ails you, you poor drunk,
When you are oppressed by so many anxieties everywhere
As you wander adrift on the uncertain compulsions of your mind.”

Hoc etiam tibi tute interdum dicere possis.
‘lumina sis oculis etiam bonus Ancus reliquit,
qui melior multis quam tu fuit, improbe, rebus.
inde alii multi reges rerumque potentes
occiderunt, magnis qui gentibus imperitarunt.
ille quoque ipse, viam qui quondam per mare magnum
stravit iterque dedit legionibus ire per altum
ac pedibus salsas docuit super ire lucunas
et contempsit equis insultans murmura ponti,
lumine adempto animam moribundo corpore fudit.
Scipiadas, belli fulmen, Carthaginis horror,
ossa dedit terrae proinde ac famul infimus esset.
adde repertores doctrinarum atque leporum,
adde Heliconiadum comites; quorum unus Homerus
sceptra potitus eadem aliis sopitus quietest.
denique Democritum post quam matura vetustas
admonuit memores motus languescere mentis,
sponte sua leto caput obvius optulit ipse.
ipse Epicurus obit decurso lumine vitae,
qui genus humanum ingenio superavit et omnis
restinxit stellas exortus ut aetherius sol.
tu vero dubitabis et indignabere obire?
mortua cui vita est prope iam vivo atque videnti,
qui somno partem maiorem conteris aevi,
et viligans stertis nec somnia cernere cessas
sollicitamque geris cassa formidine mentem
nec reperire potes tibi quid sit saepe mali, cum
ebrius urgeris multis miser undique curis
atque animo incerto fluitans errore vagaris.’

This passage reminds me in part of Achilles’ famous vaunt to Lykaon (a man he had previously ransomed) in the Iliad (21.106-113)

“But you die too, friend. Really, why are you grieving thus?
Patroklos also died, and he was much better than you.
Don’t you see how handsome and large I am?
I come from a noble father and a goddess mother bore me—
But, even now, death and compelling fate await me.
The time will come at dawn, dusk, or the middle of the day
When someone rips the life even from me with Ares’ power
As he strikes with a spear or an arrow from its string.”

ἀλλὰ φίλος θάνε καὶ σύ· τί ἦ ὀλοφύρεαι οὕτως;
κάτθανε καὶ Πάτροκλος, ὅ περ σέο πολλὸν ἀμείνων.
οὐχ ὁράᾳς οἷος καὶ ἐγὼ καλός τε μέγας τε;
πατρὸς δ’ εἴμ’ ἀγαθοῖο, θεὰ δέ με γείνατο μήτηρ·
ἀλλ’ ἔπι τοι καὶ ἐμοὶ θάνατος καὶ μοῖρα κραταιή·
ἔσσεται ἢ ἠὼς ἢ δείλη ἢ μέσον ἦμαρ
ὁππότε τις καὶ ἐμεῖο ῎Αρῃ ἐκ θυμὸν ἕληται
ἢ ὅ γε δουρὶ βαλὼν ἢ ἀπὸ νευρῆφιν ὀϊστῷ.

 

*Ancus was the fourth king of Rome

*Xerxes (who built pontoon bridge across the Hellespont to bring an army into Greece c. 480 BCE)

 

Post-Script: I can’t really say that either passages offer much solace to me. It is a given that everyone dies, true, but however unimpressive I am, it still seems absurd at all to exist rather than not exist. To close the circle by ending it seems, even if appropriate, equally absurd.  I’m with Dylan Thomas, I fear, raging….

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 2.1023-1039: Simplicity and Satiey in Wonder

“Listen, put your mind now on true reason.
For a new matter rises fiercely to meet your ears
and a new image of the universe strives to show itself.
Nothing is so simple that at first sight
it is not rather difficult to believe;
and in the same way nothing is so great or miraculous
that over time we don’t slowly fail to behold it with wonder.
Consider first the clear and pure color of the sky
and everything it holds, the wandering stars
the moon and the gleam of the sun with its bright light;
If suddenly mortals now saw all these things
for the first time with no prior experience of them,
could anything possibly be said to be more wondrous
or would the races of men have dared to believe they existed?
Nothing, I believe, that is how striking the sight would be.
But now, since we are so used to seeing them,
no one thinks it worthwhile to gaze at heaven’s bright splendor.”

Nunc animum nobis adhibe veram ad rationem.
nam tibi vehementer nova res molitur ad auris
accedere et nova se species ostendere rerum. 1025
sed neque tam facilis res ulla est, quin ea primum
difficilis magis ad credendum constet, itemque
nil adeo magnum neque tam mirabile quicquam,
quod non paulatim minuant mirarier omnes,
principio caeli clarum purumque colorem 1030
quaeque in se cohibet, palantia sidera passim,
lunamque et solis praeclara luce nitorem;
omnia quae nunc si primum mortalibus essent
ex improviso si sint obiecta repente,
quid magis his rebus poterat mirabile dici, 1035
aut minus ante quod auderent fore credere gentes?
nil, ut opinor; ita haec species miranda fuisset.
quam tibi iam nemo fessus satiate videndi,
suspicere in caeli dignatur lucida templa.

 

[One of the greatest gifts my children have given me is the ability to see the world anew through their eyes…]

Before You Shop for Christmas, Read Some More Lucretius

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 5.1430-1439

“The race of man, then, labors uselessly and in vain
as we always consume our time in empty concerns
because we don’t understand that there’s a limit to having—
and there’s an end to how far true pleasure can grow.
This has dragged life bit by bit into the deep sea
and has stirred at its bottom great blasts of war.
But the guardian of the earth turns around the great sky
and teaches men truly that the year’s seasons come full circle
and that all must be endured with a sure reason and order.”

Ergo hominum genus in cassum frustraque laborat
semper et [in] curis consumit inanibus aevom,
ni mirum quia non cognovit quae sit habendi
finis et omnino quoad crescat vera voluptas;
idque minutatim vitam provexit in altum
et belli magnos commovit funditus aestus.
at vigiles mundi magnum versatile templum
sol et luna suo lustrantes lumine circum
perdocuere homines annorum tempora verti
et certa ratione geri rem atque ordine certo.

We Are Masters of our Dreams and Delusions: Lucretius, DRN 4.453-468

“When sleep has conquered our limbs with sweet rest
And our whole body lies in the deepest slumber,
Then our limbs still watch and seem to move
And there in the blind darkness of night we think
We see the sun and the light of day
And instead of our confined space we think
We have the sky, sea, rivers and mountains under our feet
And we hear their sounds, though the cruel silence of night
Hangs everywhere, we speak while staying silent.

We see many marvels beyond this kind
That try to break the faith of our senses
But they do not, since the greatest of them fail
On the opinions of the mind, things we have provided ourselves,
Visions are seen which have not been seen by our senses.
Nothing is more difficult than to separate obvious things
From the dubious, once your own mind has provided them.”

Denique cum suavi devinxit membra sopore
somnus et in summa corpus iacet omne quiete,
tum vigilare tamen nobis et membra movere
nostra videmur, et in noctis caligine caeca
cernere censemus solem lumenque diurnum,
conclusoque loco caelum mare flumina montis
mutare et campos pedibus transire videmur,
et sonitus audire, severa silentia noctis
undique cum constent, et reddere dicta tacentes.
Cetera de genere hoc mirande multa videmus,
quae violare fidem quasi sensibus omnia quaerunt,
ne quiquam, quoniam pars horum maxima fallit
propter opinatus animi, quos addimus ipsi,
pro visis ut sint quae non sunt sensibus visa;
nam nihil aegrius est quam res secernere apertas
ab dubiis, animus quas ab se protinus addit.

Fear is the Mind-Killer? (Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 2.53-61)

“But what if we see that these things are ridiculous and contemptible,
that, in truth, man’s fear and lurking anxiety
do not shudder at the sound of arms or fierce weapons
or when they bravely move among kings and the world’s rulers
if they do not revere the shine of gold or
turn at the bright shine of purple fabrics—
why do you doubt that real power is wholly the province of reason
especially when life labors completely in the shadows?
For just as children tremble at anything and
jump at dark shadows, so we remain afraid in the light
of things which should not be feared any more
than boys grow pale at shadows in imagining future dangers.
We must therefore dispel the mind’s fear and shadows
Not with a ray of sunshine or the clear shafts of day
But through nature’s clear vision and reason.”

quod si ridicula haec ludibriaque esse videmus,
re veraque metus hominum curaeque sequaces
nec metuunt sonitus armorum nec fera tela
audacterque inter reges rerumque potentis 50
versantur neque fulgorem reverentur ab auro
nec clarum vestis splendorem purpureai,
quid dubitas quin omnis sit haec rationis potestas,
omnis cum in tenebris praesertim vita laboret?
nam vel uti pueri trepidant atque omnia caecis 55
in tenebris metuunt, sic nos in luce timemus
inter dum, nihilo quae sunt metuenda magis quam
quae pueri in tenebris pavitant finguntque futura.
hunc igitur terrorem animi tenebrasque necessest
non radii solis neque lucida tela diei 60
discutiant, sed naturae species ratioque.

Now, I don’t know that Frank Herbert was reading Lucretius (and I don’t know that he wasn’t) but notions of pure rationalism that are a product of Enlightenments thinking (as well as some Near Eastern strands of thought) draw a bit on our friend Lucretius. Reading this passage made me think of the “Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear” which shows up early in Herbert’s Dune:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain

Want to find more connections between the Classics and Science Fiction? There’s a whole book about that: Classical Traditions in Science Fiction edited by Brett Rogers and Benjamin Stevens.