26 October 2011

The Way Things Are (Lucretius)

Inspired by the success of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve—which describes the rediscovery of Lucretius’s ambitious poem about everything, claiming it helped spark the Renaissance—I pulled out my trusty college copy of The Way Things Are (Latinly De Rerum Natura) and re-had at it. I have to say, I didn’t love it as much as I did when I was nineteen. (I suspect this is the simple result of having read a lot of subsequent philosophy and science in the meantime, so that I’m too aware of what he got hilariously wrong.)

But it’s still an amazing achievement. Lucretius chose poetry as a medium to explain the universe through the lens of Epicurean philosophy, much of which is quite modern: atheistic, materialistic, logical. His oft-repeated refrain is:
Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled then, not by sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation.
Many of his deductions have since been proven empirically: atoms, void, even the conservation of matter. To have figured this out just by thinking about it? Wow.

And then there’s the swerve. In Lucretius’s (pretty accurate, at least to my non-physicist lights) view, the world consists of different kinds of atoms flying about, colliding and recolliding until they hit upon a useful combination. What keeps them from falling into patterns, always mixing the same way, is the swerve—the element of randomness that causes the universe. It’s a charming and mysterious way to characterize the chance and chaos that sometimes coalesces into order. Here, have a helpful illustration from my long-ago title page! I think it really says it all.

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