Ancestor Worship: The Epicurean Lucretius

While doing some background research on the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), I discovered that he had been much influenced by Lucretius, who lived in the first century BCE (around the time of Julius Caesar) and published a six-volume treatise titled On the Nature of Things. As if writing philosophy in narrative form were not hard enough, Lucretius — who belonged to the Epicurean school — wrote the entire work in Latin verse!  You can find and download the complete work here.

Although I had known that Lucretius advanced an atomic theory of matter that was remarkably similar to modern atomic theory, I did not know that he was a skeptical naturalist who provided a non-theistic account of prehistory that was astonishingly accurate.  Here is how David Sedley (writing for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) describes Book V of Lucretius’ work — this is simply amazing:

Lucretius envisages how life first emerged from the earth, and (an especially admired and influential reconstruction) how humans developed from nomadic hunters to city-dwellers with language, law and the arts. In this prehistory the exclusion of divine intervention, while rarely foregrounded, is plainly the underlying motivation. The fertile young earth naturally sprouted with life forms, and the organisms thus generated were innumerable random formations. Of these, most perished, but a minority proved capable of surviving – thanks to strength, cunning, or utility to man – and of reproducing their kind. This account, which has won admiration for its partial anticipation of Darwin’s principle of the survival of the fittest, is plainly using a kind of natural selection to account non-teleologically for the apparent presence of design in the animal kingdom.

Much the same anti-teleological program underlies the ensuing prehistory of civilization. Each cultural advance was prompted by nature, and only subsequently taken up and developed by human beings. Hence, it is implied, no divine intervention need be postulated as an explanatory tool. No Prometheus was needed to introduce fire, which rather was first brought to human attention by naturally kindled forest fires. Language emerged because people started to notice how their instinctive vocal responses to things, comparable to animal noises, could be put at the service of their intuitive desire to communicate (for which infants’ pre-linguistic pointing is cited as evidence). The [book] is rich in other cultural reconstructions, including the origin of friendship and justice in a primitive social contract, and of conventional religion in early mankind’s misguided tendency to link visions of the gods, above all in dreams, to their desire to explain cosmic phenomena.

[In conclusion], Lucretius works through a range of the phenomena that physical theorists were standardly called upon to account for: storms, waterspouts, earthquakes, plagues and the like. Once more the exclusion of divine causation undoubtedly motivates the account, the phenomena in question being nearly all ones popularly regarded as manifestations of divine intervention. Lucretius not only explains them naturalistically, but is ready to mock the rival, theological explanations: for example, if thunderbolts are weapons hurled by Zeus at human miscreants, why does he waste so much of his ammunition on uninhabited regions, or, when he does score a hit, sometimes strike his own temple?

There have been times in the past when I have thought that classical scholars need to look beyond the Greco-Roman world and cease their ancestor worship.  This is not such a case.  Here, we have a Greco-Roman philosopher whose work surely influenced many modern theorists (including Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and Charles Darwin), but we seem to have forgotten him.

This forgetting was not accidental.  The conjoined weight of Platonic philosophy and Christian religion won out over Lucretius, and he was vilified by the early Christian church.  On the Nature of Things was lost — or deliberately hidden, until 1417 when an Italian scholar fortuitously discovered a complete ninth century manuscript of his work.  Much to the displeasure of ecclesiastical authorities, the manuscript was published in 1563.  We know that Hobbes and Hume read it, and I would not be surprised to learn that Darwin and Nietzsche also read it.

One correction needs to be made to Sedley’s interpretation of Lucretius: Darwin was not the originator of the phrase “survival of the fittest.”  That honor belongs to Herbert Spencer.

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One thought on “Ancestor Worship: The Epicurean Lucretius

  1. Michael Blume


    that’s a truly interesting find! Thank you for that one!

    Concerning Darwin, he referred to Hume’s Natural History of Religion, but I will keep an open eye to the possibility that he had read Lucretius, too.

    From the perspective of evolutionary studies of religion, the works of Lucretius seem to emphasize the point that agnosticism or atheism have been possible worldviews from early on. But as they tend to go with very few children (quickly falling below replacement level), they remained in minority positions up until today.

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