One of the things that fascinates me about Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura is the strange history behind the work. We know very little about Lucretius’ life. He lived sometime between 99BC – 55BC, but as to the details of his life things are shadowy. Saint Jerome claims that he went mad from a “love philter” and committed suicide in the middle of his life, yet this is most likely an ugly rumor made up by the church to say “if you study this philosophy you’ll be driven mad and dominated by your passions!” Among the most interesting things about the history of De Rerum Natura, it appears that with the fall of the Roman empire and the rise of the Christian/Catholic church, there was a concerted efford to destroy all existing copies of the text. It appears that the church was highly successful as the text entirely disappear during the Middle Ages. Then, in the fifteenth century, one remaining copy was discovered, it was quickly copied into a variety of European languages, and, if Greenblatt is right, it had a decisive impact on art, the newly developing science, and the newly emerging political sensibility. What a history!
What is it, then, I wonder, that makes this such a dangerous book? There are the obvious things: Lucretius was among the first materialists and naturalists, arguing that all things are composed of matter and that there are only natural causes (as opposed to supernatural causes). There is the anti-teleologism of his philosophy. Where, in the Medieval Christian view, teleology rules the day, and works according to the premise that there is always something things ought to be, Lucretius’s materialist naturalism only admits of “causes from behind”. The consequences of this are profound. Consider the difference between how the Medieval Christian mind thinks about a two-headed chicken and how a materialist naturalist thinks about a two-headed chicken. For the Medieval Christian a two-headed chicken is a monster because, by “nature”, there is something chickens ought to be and the occurence of a two-headed chicken is a violation of this divinely designed order of nature. By contrast, for the Lucretian, the two-headed chicken is merely the result of the causes that produced it and is therefore entirely natural. Within this framework, you cannot, to cite the Love & Rockets song, go against nature because when you do it’s nature too.
There is no natural ought in a Lucretian universe. We see that a number of contemporary debates in popular politics revolve around whether or not one is committed to the existence of “natural oughts” or teleologies. The Christian conservative says “marriage is between a man and a woman”, “sex is for the sake of procreation”, “men have this role, women have that role.” Debates between evolution and creationism aren’t just debates about whether or not the two creation myths in Genesis are literally true (literalists never seem to notice that there are two conflicting creation myths), but are about whether the world is teleological such that there exist divinely decreed oughts assigning places to men and women and defining “natural” sexual conduct, or whether, by contrast, nature is without teleology or purposiveness, such that rats having hot gay sex (rats are known to engage in such acts) is no less unnatural than the existence of hens that lay eggs.
In addition to the anti-teleological orientation of any genuine materialistic naturalism, there are also, of course, Lucretius’ stunning and compelling demonstrations that the soul is a material thing and that it doesn’t survive death in Book III of De Rerum Natura. These arguments, of course, undercut one of the central sources of the power of religion and superstition to produce attachments among people because if we cease to exist when we die, then there’s very little reason to attend to the teachings of priests. And then, finally, there are Lucretius’ virulent (and I think often unfair) critiques of religion.
However, as I reflect on what made this such a dangerous book, I wonder if this wasn’t because it attacked the very heart of Christian political power or the premise upon which that social order was produced. Democracy and revolutionary politics were impossible within a Medieval Christian framework because of their teleological conception of the universe based on the idea of a “great chain of being”. For the Medieval mind, social roles, positions, and identities were not inventions or creations of humans and society, but were rather objective properties of human bodies, like your weight, decreed by God. Kings were divinely kings, women divinely had their place in the social order and their particular role, peasants were divinely allotted their place in the great chain of being. To attack the king was not just to attack the king, but to attack God’s will as well. To strive to rise above your status as a peasant wasn’t simply to challenge an unjust social order, but to attack God’s order.
Within such a framework, democratic politics is impossible precisely because democracy is premised on the idea that we create social orders and therefore those orders are contingent or capable of being otherwise. Thus, as Peter Gay argues, the Enlightenment had to jump over Christianity and return to Greco-Roman antiquity to render the various revolutions (American, French, Haitian, Russian, etc.) conceptually possible.
When we read Lucretius distinguishing the difference between properties and states we encounter him challenging the very foundations of this divinely decreed social order. In Book I of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius writes,
A property is that which not at all can be disjoined and severed from a thing without a fatal dissolution: such, weight to the rocks, heat to the fire, and flow to the wide waters, touch to corporeal things, intangibility to the viewless void. But state of slavery, pauperhood, and wealth, freedom, and war, and concord, and all else which come and go whilst Nature stands the same, we’re wont, and rightly, to call accidents.
A property is something that is intrinsic to the thing such that it really is in the thing. Within the framework of my onticology I quibble with this a bit because I hold that what is really in things is powers or dispositions, not qualities or properties (the latter of which I call “local manifestations”). The weight of a rock is not in the rock itself, but is a relational property that emerges in relation to where the rock exists. This weight or local manifestation is different on the planet earth and the moon due to the different masses of these planets. Moreover, this weight or local manifestation differs with the speed at which the rock moves. Most qualities or local manifestations are, I believe, relational in this way. They are not in the things themselves, but rather emerge in and through the relations the entity entertains with other entities.
Setting this aside, what is really interesting in this passage is Lucretius’s discussion of states. In effect, Lucretius observes that the social position of women, the proletariat, minorities, kings, the wealthy, is not a property of these entities, but a contingent state that can pass away or be changed. The Medieval Christian conceit was to conceive social positions and relations as intrinsic to the things themselves. Lucretius argues that social roles and positions are things that we create or invent. As such, he challenges the very foundations of any social order that claims that the way in which human bodies are negentropically distributed, ordered, and organized are natural properities of these bodies, rather than ways in which these bodies relate to one another.
As I argue in my article “Parts and Politics”, the role that a body occupies within a social system (a larger-scale object) is the result of the way in which this larger-scale object transforms other objects into elements within that assemblage. An element is a unit that cannot exist apart from the larger-scale object that constitutes it as an element. In short, the being of elements is purely relational such that they have no independent or autonomous existence apart from the larger-scale object that constitutes them as this sort of element. Thus, for example, there can be no professors apart from students or students apart from professors, there can be no wage-laborers apart from capitalist social systems, etc., etc., etc. “Wage-laborer”, “student”, and “professor” are all elements within a social system or larger-scale object or entity. However, just as my body can only produce cells out of something else, larger-scale objects such as a classroom require other entities out of which to constitute their elements. These other entities are what we can call parts. Larger-scale objects transform parts (or in Marx’s language, “metabolize parts”) into elements.
The difference between parts and elements is crucial. For elements only have relational existence and cannot exist apart from the larger-scale object that metabolizes them, but parts are entities in their own right and can be detached from larger-scale objects. Becoming-elemental is always contingent and capable of being otherwise. In my view, this distinction between properties and states is the necessary condition for any revolutionary egalitarian politics for it is only where states are recognized as contingent, only where states are recognized as construction, that it becomes possible to conceive how things can be otherwise.