It’s hard not to simultaneously feel crushed and filled with wonder and joy when reading Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, all morons. I jest, of course, but truly, in De Rerum Natura, it’s all there. Beautiful poetry, a profound understanding of nature, a beautiful ethical vision and project of emancipation, an account of emergence, a thoroughgoing posthumanism, a [rather misguided] sex manual replete with meditations on love; it’s all there. All too often we get the sense that many philosophers are civil servants acting on behalf of the state, superstition, and ideology, yet with Lucretius we get the sense that we are before truth– or at least the germinal hypothesis that would lead us truth –and the seeds of a genuinely emancipatory project. That emancipatory project unfolds at the psychological level striving to free us from fear and to lead us to peace of mind, that unfolds at the social level, emancipating us from superstition and ideology, and that unfolds at the political level emancipating us from despots and unjust systems.
Yet perhaps most of all the wonder that Lucretius instills lies in the way he transforms the ordinary and familiar into a question. For Lucretius there is just atoms and void. With this hypothesis all things are to be explained. We take it for granted that wind can bend trees, yet with Lucretius’ hypothesis we must now ask how wind, which seems like nothing at all, can have this force. We take it as obvious that sound can be heard through walls, but now we must ask what it is that travels through walls and how one entity can pass through another that is solid (all things no matter how apparently solid, Lucretius will teach, contain void). We will now need a theory as to how water is able to change colors with wind and waves (the patterns and relationships among the atoms are reconfigured). As I write this my daughter lays on the couch watching Beetlejuice. What is it I’m seeing as I regard her? She is in a diffferent position in the void, so how is it possible for me too see her? This too will need explanation and Lucretius will argue that bodies emit films or simulacra that impinge upon our bodies. To see something else is to be affected by an emanation, not the thing itself, such that whatever we do see is an effect of what took place in the past is films or simulacra take time to travel in the void.
With Lucretius that which is most ordinary and familiar, all things in the world, become fascinating, calling for counter-intuitive and charming explanations. To be a Lucretian today– as in the case of being a disciple of any philosopher –is not to follow him in all he says and in all his explanations. One need not hold, for example, that atoms are hard, indivisible, simple units, nor that bodies secrete simulacra (photons of light bouncing of bodies will do). No, to be a Lucretian is to follow the materialist, posthumanist, and naturalist spirit of his thought, the mode of explanation it entails, and the ethical and emancipatory project that issues from it.
To be a Lucretian today is to follow him in the new conception of nature that he introduced. This new concept of nature is nicely articulated by Love & Rockets in their song no new tale to tell:
“You cannot go against nature when you do it’s nature too.” The old Platonic, Aristotlean, and Medieval conception of nature was teleological in character, such that each entity was haunted by an essence that it should be and where everything has a divinely decreed place in a hierarchical order. This is why, for example, we occasionally find Aristotle talking about “monsters” when he encounters something like a two-headed chicken. If two-headed chickens are, for Aristotle, monsters, then this is because there is something chickens ought to be. With Lucretius, by contrast, we get nature as absolute interactive immanence where whatever comes to be is but one of the possibilities of nature. Within this nature there is no outside or other (there is no culture, for example, that is something “other” than nature), but rather there is just The Wild. Culture too is a part or manifestation of the wilderness. One cannot travel to the wilderness or wild because wherever one is they are already in the wild or wilderness. Our building of houses is no more unnatural than beavers building damns. And this conception of nature, without teleology or divinely decreed ought is the condition and mark of any genuinely emancipatory project.