I hesitate to post mainly a series of questions, rather than suggested answers, but the subject of this post is a topic I think so important that it merits an exception. The subject is the nature of “the mind” (or “the soul”) and the elements which comprise it. The key text I wish to submit for your consideration is Book III of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, focusing on lines 231 – 257. Five of the translations that I find most helpful convey these lines as follows:
Therefore, again and again I say, you are to know that the nature of the mind and the soul has been formed of exceedingly minute seeds, since at its departure it takes away none of the weight. We are not however to suppose that this nature is single. For a certain subtle spirit mixed with heat quits men at death, and then the heat draws air along with it ; there being no heat which has not air too mixed with it: for since its nature is rare, many first-beginnings of air must move about through it. Thus the nature of the mind is proved to be threefold ; and yet these things all together are not sufficient to produce sense; since the fact of the case does not admit that any of these can produce sense-giving motions and the thoughts which a man turns over in mind. Thus some fourth nature too must be added to these: it is altogether without name; than it nothing exists more nimble or more fine, or of smaller or smoother elements : it first transmits the sense-giving motions through the frame; for it is first stirred, made up as it is of small particles; next the heat and the unseen force of the spirit receive the motions, then the air; then all things are set in action, the blood is stirred, every part of the flesh is filled with sensation ; last of all the feeling is transmitted to the bones and marrow, whether it be one of pleasure or an opposite excitement. No pain however can lightly pierce thus far nor any sharp malady make its way in, without all things being so thoroughly disordered that no room is left for life and the parts of the soul fly abroad through all the pores of the body. But commonly a stop is put to these motions on the surface as it were of the body : for this reason we are able to retain life.
Wherefore once and again you may know that the nature of the understanding and the soul is formed of exceeding tiny seeds, since when it flees away it carries with it no jot of weight. Already then we have found the nature of the soul to be triple; and yet all these things are not enough to create sensation, since the mind does not admit that any of these can create the motions that bring sensation (or the thoughts of the mind). It must needs be then that some fourth nature too be added to these. But it is altogether without name; than it there exists nothing more nimble, nothing more fine, nor made of smaller or smoother particles. It first sends abroad the motions that bring sensation among the limbs: for it is first stirred, being made up of small shapes ; then heat receives the motions and the hidden power of wind, and then air ; then all things are set moving, the blood receives the shock and all the flesh feels the thrill; last of all it passes to the bones and marrow, be it pleasure or the heat of opposite kind. Yet not for naught can pain pierce thus far within, nor any biting ill pass through, but that all things are so disordered that there is no more place for life, and the parts of the soul scatter abroad through all the pores of the body. But for the most part a limit is set to these motions, as it were, on the surface of the body: and by this means we avail to keep our life.
Let me repeat: infinitesimal motes must form both mind and spirit, since we see no loss of weight when these depart the body. But do not think theirs is a simple nature. A thin breath, mixed with heat, deserts the dying, and this heat draws air with it; heat includes, because it is by nature rarefied, always an element of air. So now we find the nature of the mind to be composite, threefold at least. But these are not enough to cause sensation – reason would deny that any one, or all, could generate sense-bringing movements or the stir of thought. There must be a fourth element, and this lacks, so far, even a name; nothing exists more tenuous, more mobile; it is made out of the smallest, lightest particles, and it is this which first imparts to limbs sense-bringing movements. Being so minute, it is most easily responsive, stirs first into motion; heat is next, then wind with its blind power, then air, then all things move. The blood is roused, the vital organs feel sensation, even the marrow of the bones reacts to pleasure or its opposite. Pain cannot penetrate too far, or evil seep its corrosive acid through the frame without so much disturbance and distress that life has little room, and the motes of spirit fly every which way through the body’s pores; But as a rule this panic rush subsides at the last moment, at the borderline, and we stay strong enough to keep on living.
W.H.D. Rouse (Loeb Edition)
Therefore again and again I say, we may understand the substance of mind and spirit to be made of very minute seeds, since in departing it takes nothing from the weight. But we must not believe this nature to be single. For a kind of thin breath mixed with heat leaves the dying, and the heat, moreover, draws air with it. Nor is there any heat which is not mixed with air; for since its nature is rarefied, many first-beginnings of air must be moving through it. Already, therefore, the nature of the mind is found to be threefold; yet all these three together are not enough to produce feeling, since the mind cannot admit that any of these can produce sense-bringing motions and the thoughts which it itself revolves. A fourth nature must therefore be added to these; this is entirely without name; nothing exists more easily moved and more thin than this, or made of elements smaller and smoother; and this first distributes the sense-giving motions through the limbs. For this is first set in motion, being composed of small shapes; after that, heat takes on the movement, and the unseen power of wind, then the air; after which all is set in movement, the blood is agitated, the flesh is all thrilled through with feeling, last is communicated to bone and marrow it may be the pleasure, it may be the opposite excitement. Nor is it easy for pain to soak through thus far, or any violent mischief, without throwing all into so great a riot that no place is left for life, and the particles of spirit flee abroad through all the pores of the body. But usually there is an end to the movement almost at the surface of the body; on this account we are strong enough to retain life.
Note: CF Aetius 4.3.11 (Usener 315): “Epicurus regards the soul as a mixture of four things — something fiery, something airy, something windy, and a fourth nameless element” ….. Also Plutarch ad Colotem 1118 D-E (Usener 314). The Epicureans felt that the fourth unnamed element, an element of unsurpassed subtlety, was needed to initiate the subtle processes of sensation and thought.
Martin Ferguson Smith:
So I insist that the substance of the mind and spirit evidently is composed of extremely tiny seeds, since in its flight it carries off not one grain of weight. However, we must not suppose that the substance of the soul is simple. At death a sort of light breath impregnated with heat leaves the body, and heat draws air with it; indeed there is no heat that is not impregnated with air, because the rarity of its substance means that it must be interpenetrated by many primary particles of air. Already, then, the substance of the soul has been found to consist of three elements. But a combination of these three is not sufficient to produce sensibility, since the mind refuses to accept that anyone of them is capable of producing sensory motions and the thoughts that it itself revolves. Therefore a fourth element must be added to their number. This is entirely nameless; it surpasses every existing thing in its mobility, in its subtlety, and in the smallness and smoothness of its atoms; this it is that initiates the channeling of the sensory motions through the limbs. It is the first to be stirred, because of the smallness of its component atoms; then the heat and the invisible power of the wind take up the motions, then the air; then everything is put in motion: the blood is actuated, and every part of the flesh is pervaded by the sensation; the bones and marrow are the last to be affected, whether it be by pleasure or by the opposite emotion. But pain cannot penetrate so far, and intense agony cannot pierce so deep, with impunity: if they succeed, they cause general commotion of such violence that no place is left for life, and the particles of the spirit disperse through every pore of the body. For the most part, however, these motions are checked virtually on the surface of the body; and this is why we are able to preserve life.
NOTE: 241-242: Cf. Altius 4.3.11 (Us.lr. 315): “Epicurus regards the soul as a mixture of four things-something fiery, something airy, something windy, and: a fourth nameless element.” As Lucretius makes clear, the nameless element, an “element more subtle than any element of our experience, was added in order to “account for the extraordinarily subtle processes of thought and sensation. The idea of the fourth element may owe something to Aristotle’s concept of the fifth element or quintessence.
Although it is easy for us today to dismiss the idea that the soul is composed in part of “breath, heat, and air,” I do think it is important to consider to what extent names such as these convey properties that we today would not consider to be characteristics of “inert” matter. The issue becomes even more complex, however, when we see that Lucretius (and presumably therefore Epicurus) considered breath, heat, and air to have properties so clearly insufficient to produce sensation that “the mind rebels” at the notion that these alone could constitute the components of the soul.
Here are a number of questions that occur to me in no particular order:
– Why was this fourth element not given a name? Epicurus was obsessed with clarity in communication, and I gather from my reading that he was quite willing to “coin” his own technical terms as needed. Why not give the fourth element a name?
– Presumably the “proof” of the existence of this fourth element is analogous to the proof of the capacity of atoms to “swerve,” in that it even though we cannot determine its attributes clearly, this fourth element “must exist” given the existence of those things that we do see clearly? Or do the remaining texts indicate an argument deeper than this?
– Is there more to be derived from the observation that this fourth element must exist, beyond the fact that it explains sensation? Do the attributes of this fourth element have any relation to other aspects of Epicurean thought?
When I discuss the ideas of Epicurus with those who are not familiar with him, the most frequent objection I hear is that consciousness cannot arise from “atoms” that are totally “inert.” To use Lucretius’ phrase, the mind “refuses to accept” (Smith), “cannot admit” (Rouse), or “does not admit” (Bailey) that sensation can be produced by elements which react only passively, and do not have active properties of some special kind.
Does anyone know of any good articles or commentary on this subject?