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Not by Chance, Not by Fortune, Not by Fate, Not by Accident, and Not by the Gods was the World Made, But by Natural Law

Epicurus has been slandered through the ages with the contention that he taught that the universe arose “by accident.” Religionists warned their flocks away from Epicurus by arguing that the world we see around us could never have arisen from the accidental collisions of atoms, and thus it must be the work of God. False philosophers denounced the Religionists but advanced an opposing error. Arguing randomness, or even mechanistic fate, they countered that no gods exist, but that indeed except for the sake of pure “accident” the sky could be red instead of blue, all the physical facts that we think are true could be false, and all the ethical principles that we think are right could be wrong.

Under the weight of these two false alternatives the world has suffered for thousands of years.  All but lost is an accurate understanding of Epicurus’ teachings: Nature is not only boundless in space but also eternal in time, and that by Nature ‘s laws alone has the universe been made.

[8/4/2010:  Important note:   Epicurus’ views of chance and natural law are developed with much greater scholarship and precision in the 1977 Article by A.A. Long of the University of Liverpool (now Berkeley) entitled “Chance and Natural Law in Epicureanism” originally published in “Phronesis” and now available on JSTOR.  The reader should consult that article as an excellent discussion of this subject.]

These thoughts come to mind when comparing a passage in Latin from Book I of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura to the translations of two of the giants of Epicurean scholarship, Cyril Bailey and H.A.J. Munro. In Bailey’s version, the following margin note is given to “explain” the text cited below (Book I, line 1020 et seq.):

“Our world was not formed by design but by the chance movements of atoms.” [emphasis added]

With all due deference to Bailey, the Latin original of this passage contains no reference whatsoever to chance or fortune in the movement of the atoms. Rather, according to Lucretius, Epicurus held that the universe has been formed because over the ages the atoms have moved “in motus coniectast convenientis,” which is translated by Munro as “been thrown into the proper motionsor by Bailey himself as “been cast into the movements suited to its being.”

Proper motions” and movements that are “suited to its being” are terms of Natural Law, not of fortune, of randomness, or of religion. Epicurus held that the universe was formed, exists, and will endure forever according to the laws of Nature — not according to the dictates of any god, not bound by inexorable fate, and not according to false philosophers’ ideas of randomness.

* * * * * *

De Rerum Natura – Book I, Line 1020

Cyril Bailey H.A.J. Munro Lucretius
[1020] For in very truth, not by design did the first-beginnings of things place themselves each in their order with foreseeing mind, nor indeed did they make compact what movements each should start, but because many of them shifting in many ways throughout the world are harried and buffeted by blows from limitless time, by trying movements and unions of every kind, at last they fall into such dispositions as those whereby our world of things is created and holds together. And it too, preserved from harm through many a mighty cycle of years, when once it has been cast into the movements suited to its being, brings it about that the rivers replenish the greedy sea with the bounteous waters of their streams, and the earth, fostered by the sun’s heat, renews its increase, and the race of living things flourishes, sent up from her womb, and the gliding fires of heaven are alive; all this they would in no wise do, unless store of matter might rise up from limitless space out of which they are used to renew all their losses in due season. For even as the nature of living things, robbed of food, loses its flesh and pines away, so all things must needs be dissolved, when once matter has ceased to come for their supply, turned aside in any way from its due course. Nor can blows from without on all sides keep together the whole of each world which has come together in union. For they can smite on it once and again, and keep a part in place, until others come, and the sum may be supplied. Yet sometimes they are constrained to rebound and at once afford space and time for flight to the first-beginnings of things, so that they can pass away freed from union. Therefore, again and again, it must be that many things rise up, yea, and in order that even the blows too may not fail, there must needs be limitless mass of matter on all sides. [1020] For of truth neither by counsel did the primal germs establish themselves, as by keen act of mind, each in its proper place; nor did they make, forsooth, a compact how each germ should move. But since, being many and changed in many modes along the all, they’re driven abroad and vexed by blow on blow, even from all time of old. They thus at last, after attempting all the kinds of motion and conjoining, come into those great arrangements out of which this sum of things established is created, by which, moreover, through the mighty years, it is preserved, when once it has been thrown into the proper motions, bringing to pass that ever the streams refresh the greedy main with river-waves abounding, and that earth, lapped in warm exhalations of the sun, renews her broods, and that the lusty race of breathing creatures bears and blooms, and that the gliding fires of ether are alive. [All of] what still the primal germs nowise could do, unless from out the infinite of space could come supply of matter, whence in season They’re wont whatever losses to repair. For as the nature of breathing creatures wastes, losing its body, when deprived of food, so all things have to be dissolved as soon as matter, diverted by what means soever from off its course, shall fail to be on hand. Nor can the blows from outward still conserve, on every side, whatever sum of a world has been united in a whole. They can indeed, by frequent beating, check a part, till others arriving may fulfill the sum. But meanwhile often are they forced to spring rebounding back, and, as they spring, to yield unto those elements whence a world derives, room and a time for flight, permitting them to be from off the massy union borne free and afar. Wherefore, again, again: needs must there come a many for supply; and also, that the blows themselves shall be unfailing ever, must there ever be an infinite force of matter all sides round. [1020] Nam certe neque consilio primordia rerum ordine se suo quaeque sagaci mente locarunt nec quos quaeque darent motus pepigere profecto; sed quia multa modis multis mutata per omne ex infinito vexantur percita plagis, omne genus motus et coetus experiundo tandem deveniunt in talis disposituras, qualibus haec rerum consistit summa creata, et multos etiam magnos servata per annos ut semel in motus coniectast convenientis, efficit ut largis avidum mare fluminis undis integrent amnes et solis terra vapore fota novet fetus summissaque gens animantum floreat et vivant labentis aetheris ignes. quod nullo facerent pacto, nisi materiai ex infinito suboriri copia posset, unde amissa solent reparare in tempore quaeque. nam vel uti privata cibo natura animantum diffluit amittens corpus, sic omnia debent dissolui simul ac defecit suppeditare materies aliqua ratione aversa viai. nec plagae possunt extrinsecus undique summam conservare omnem, quae cumque est conciliata. cudere enim crebro possunt partemque morari, dum veniant aliae ac suppleri summa queatur; inter dum resilire tamen coguntur et una principiis rerum spatium tempusque fugai largiri, ut possint a coetu libera ferri. quare etiam atque etiam suboriri multa necessest, et tamen ut plagae quoque possint suppetere ipsae, infinita opus est vis undique materiai.
[8/4/10 – Note:  This paragraph needs significant revision. The point addressed here is made in a scholarly and compelling fashion by A.A. Long in the article cited above.]  So as not to be too harsh on Cyril Bailey, we have another example of the same injection of “chance” where it should not belong, in this case Book II, line 1048 et seq.  Here it is Munro who injects “chance,” and Bailey who translates a meaning more consistent with Epicurus’ general theory.  Here Bailey follows the text by translating that the movement of the atoms comes “of their own accord” (following the clear meaning of sponte sua ).  On the other hand, Munro decides that forte means “by chance” rather than “strongly,” and chooses to translate “chanced spontaneously.” Perhaps Munro realized that “chanced of their own accord” would make little sense, but I must leave this question to the Latin experts.  Likewise, it would be interesting to know whether forte is present in the most reliable ancient texts before we can clearly decide whether forte is used here as a form of fors (chance) or fortis (strong, powerful, durable).  A translation most consistent with Epicurus’ general theory would take into account that “of their own accord” is inconsistent with “by chance.” Further, a better translation would account for the fact that strength and durability are a fundamental trait of atoms, while “chance” is not.  At any rate, the import of the passage is clear that this world has been made by nature. Munro accurately, though perhaps incompletely, makes this point in his notes by explaining that natura in line 1058 implies “by natural causes, not by divine power or necessity.”  He likely should have added “or by chance.”

It is beyond the scope of this post to examine the question of whether “chance” exists at all, or is just a way of describing those physical outcomes of nature for which we do not (as yet, anyway) know the cause.  While chance most certainly does not exist in the form of intervention by gods of Fortune, it certainly does exist in the form defined as an action that occurs “without intention.”  This might include the event of a lightening bolt hitting a particular place rather than another, or as what we might consider in legal terms to be “negligence.”  It is in these senses that “accidental” or “incidental” have legitimate meanings, with which Epicurus would have agreed, distinct from the ideas of “chance” or “fortune” that he denounced so strongly.

De Rerum Natura – Book II, Line 1048

Cyril Bailey H.A.J. Munro Lucretius
[1048]  First of all, we find that in every direction everywhere, and on either side, above and below, through all the universe, there is no limit, as I have shown, and indeed the truth cries out for itself and the nature of the deep shines clear. Now in no way must we think it likely, since towards every side is infinite empty space, and seeds in unnumbered numbers in the deep universe fly about in many ways driven on in everlasting motion, that this one world and sky was brought to birth, but that beyond it all those bodies of matter do naught; above all, since this world was so made by nature, as the seeds of things themselves of their own accord, jostling from time to time, were driven together in many ways, rashly, idly, and in vain, and at last those united, which, suddenly cast together, might become ever and anon the beginnings of great things, of earth and sea and sky, and the race of living things. Wherefore, again and again, you must needs confess that there are here and there other gatherings of matter, such as is this, which the ether holds in its greedy grip. [1048] In the first place we see that round in all directions, about above and underneath, throughout the universe there is no bound, as I have shewn and as the thing of itself proclaims with loud voice and as clearly shines out in the nature of bottomless space. In no wise then can it be deemed probable, when space yawns illimitable towards all points and seeds in number numberless and sum unfathomable fly about in manifold ways driven on in ceaseless motion, that this single earth and heaven have been brought into being, that those bodies of matter so many in number do nothing outside them; the more so that this world has been made by nature, just as the seeds of things have chanced spontaneously to clash, after being brought together in manifold wise without purpose, without foresight, without result, and at last have filtered through such seeds as, suddenly thrown together, were fitted to become on each occasion the rudiments of great things, of earth sea and heaven and the race of living things. Wherefore again and again I say you must admit that there are elsewhere other combinations of matter like to this which ether holds in its greedy grasp. [1048] Principio nobis in cunctas undique partis et latere ex utroque <supra> supterque per omne nulla est finis; uti docui, res ipsaque per se vociferatur, et elucet natura profundi. nullo iam pacto veri simile esse putandumst, undique cum vorsum spatium vacet infinitum seminaque innumero numero summaque profunda multimodis volitent aeterno percita motu, hunc unum terrarum orbem caelumque creatum, nil agere illa foris tot corpora materiai; cum praesertim hic sit natura factus et ipsa sponte sua forte offensando semina rerum multimodis temere in cassum frustraque coacta tandem coluerunt ea quae coniecta repente magnarum rerum fierent exordia semper, terrai maris et caeli generisque animantum. quare etiam atque etiam talis fateare necesse est esse alios alibi congressus materiai, qualis hic est, avido complexu quem tenet aether.
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