Lucretius Today Podcast Episode 25: The Swerve Part 2 – As The Basis of Human Agency

“Episode 025: The Swerve Part Two: As The Basis of Human Agency”

Welcome to Episode Twenty-Five of Lucretius Today! I am your host Cassius, and together with my panelists from the forum, we’ll walk you through the six books of Lucretius’ poem, and discuss how Epicurean philosophy can apply to you today. Be aware that none of us are professional philosophers, and everyone here is a self-taught Epicurean. We encourage you to study Epicurus for yourself, and we suggest the best place to start is the book, “Epicurus and His Philosophy” by Canadian professor Norman DeWitt.

Before we start, here are three ground rules.

First: Our aim is to bring you an accurate presentation of classical Epicurean philosophy as the ancient Epicureans understood it, which may or may not agree with what you here about Epicurus at other places today.

Second: We aren’t talking about Lucretius with the goal of promoting any modern political perspective. Epicurus must be understood on his own, and not in terms of competitive schools which may seem similar to Epicurus, but are fundamentally different and incompatible, such as Stoicism, Humanism, Buddhism, Taoism, Atheism, and Marxism.

Third: The essential base of Epicurean philosophy is a fundamental view of the nature of the universe. When you read the words of Lucretius you will find that Epicurus did not teach the pursuit of virtue or of luxury or of simple living as ends in themselves, but rather the pursuit of pleasure. From this perspective it is feeling which is the guide to life, and not supernatural gods, idealism, or virtue ethics. And as important as anything else, Epicurus taught that there is no life after death, and that any happiness we will ever have must come in THIS life, which is why it is so important not to waste time in confusion.

Now let’s join the discussion with today’s text.

Daniel Browne Edition:

Besides, were all motion of the seeds uniform, and in a straight line, did one succeed another in an exact and regular order, did not the seeds, by their declining, occasion certain motions, as a sort of principle, to break the bonds of fate, and prevent a necessity of acting, and exclude a fixed an eternal succession of causes, which destroy all liberty, whence comes that free will, whence comes it, I say, so sensibly observed in all creatures of the world who act as they please, wholly rescued from the power of fate and necessity? That will by which we are moved which way soever our inclination leads us? We likewise forbear to move, not at any particular time, nor at any certain place, but when and where our mind pleases; and without doubt, the will is the principle that determines these motions, and from whence all motion is conveyed to the limbs. Don’t you observe, when the barriers of the lists are thrown open of a sudden, the eager desire of the horses cannot start to the race with that celerity as their mind requires? Because the spirits, or particles of matter that maintain the course, must be got together from all parts of the body, and stirred through every limb, and fitly united, that they may readily follow the eager desire of the mind. You see then the beginning of motion rises in the heart, proceeds then by means of the will, and is thence diffused through every limb over the whole body.

But the case is otherwise, when we act as we are compelled by force by the prevailing power and the great violence of another, for then we feel plainly that the whole weight of our body moves, and is urged on against our consent, ‘til our will restrains the motion through all our limbs. Don’t you see now that though an outward force drives us on, and often compels us to proceed against our will, and hurries us headlong, yet there is something in the heart that resists and strives against that compulsion, at whose command the spirits or particles of matter are forced through the nerves into the several limbs and members, and are curbed likewise by the same nerves, and obliged to retire backwards.

Wherefore you must needs confess there is something else beside stroke and weight which is the cause of those motions from whence this innate power of our will proceeds. We see nothing can arise from nothing, for weight, which is natural to bodies, hinders us to conclude that all things are moved by stroke or outward force, and lest the mind should seem to act by some necessary impulse within itself (this is, by motion that proceeds from weight) and overpowered, be compelled, as it were, to bear and suffer, this is occasioned by ever so little a declination of the seeds, which however is done at no certain or determinate time or place.

Nor was the mass of matter ever more close or more loose, nor did the number of seeds ever increase or diminish, and therefore the same course in which the seeds move now, the same motion they had for the time past, and they will be carried on hereafter in the very same manner, and the things that have been hitherto produced shall be formed again in the same way; they shall come into being, grow, and arrive at perfection, as far as the laws of their respective natures will admit. For this universe of things no force can change, neither is there any place into which the least particle of matter may fly off from the whole mass, nor is there a place from whence any new seeds may break in upon this All, and so change the nature of things and disorder their motions.

There is nothing wonderful in this, that when all the principles of things are in continual motion the whole should at the same time seem to be at perfect rest, though every particular body has a sort of motion peculiar to itself, for the nature of first seeds is so subtle that they lie far beyond the reach of our sense. And therefore, since you cannot perceive them by the eye, their motions are much less to be discerned, especially, as we observe many things are discovered to us by our sight whose motions we cannot perceive, by being placed at a remote distance from us. For often the wooly flock upon a hill wander about, and crop the tender grass, wherever the sweet herbs crowned with pearly dew invite. The lambs, their bellies full, wantonly play and try their tender horns. All this to us standing far off appears confused, and like a steady white spread over the green. And this a mighty army fills the plain, and moves about, and acts a real fight – the horse scour over the field and wheel at once, and in the center charge, and shake the ground with mighty force. The blaze of arms darts up to heaven, all the earth around glitters with brazen shields, and groans beneath the feet of men engaged. The neighboring hills, struck with the noise, rebound it to the skies. Yet place yourself upon a mountain-top to view this wild confusion, and you’d think it was a fixed and steady light that filled the plain.