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very large place, in his philosophy. Now it was to this very
side of Epicureanism that the fresh intellect of Rome most
eagerly attached itself. It is a great mistake to suppose that
the Romans, or rather the ancient Italians, were indifferent to
speculations about the nature of things. No one has given
more eloquent expression to the enthusiasm excited by such
enquiries than Virgil. Seiieca devoted a volume to physical
questions, and regretted that worldly distractions should
prevent them from being* studied with the assiduity they
deserved. The elder Pliny lost his life in observing the
eruption of Vesuvius. It was probably the imperial despotism,
with its repeated persecutions of the ' Mathematicians,' which
alone prevented Italy from entering on the great scientific
career for which she was predestined in after ages. At any
rate, a spirit of active curiosity was displaying itself during
the last days of the republic, and we are told that nearly all
the Roman Epicureans applied themselves particularly to the
physical side of their master's doctrine.^ Most of all was
Lucretius distinguished by a veritable passion for science,
which haunted him even in his dreams.^ Hence, while Epi-
curus regarded the knowledge of Nature simply as a mean?
for overthrowing religion, with his disciple the speculative
interest seems to precede every other consideration, and
religion is only introduced afterwards as an obstacle to be
removed from the enquirer's path. How far his natural genius
might have carried the poet 'm. this direction, had he fallen
into better hands, we cannot tell. As it was, the gift of what
seemed a complete and infallible interpretation of physical
phenomena relieved him from the necessity of independent
investigation, and induced him to accept the most preposter-
ous conclusions as demonstrated truths. But we can see how

1 Woltjer, op. cit.y p. 5. 2 IV., 966.


he is drawn by an elective affinity to that early Greek thought
whence Epicurus derived whatever was of any real value in
his philosophy. ♦

It has been doubted, we think with insufficient reason,
that Lucretius was acquainted at first hand with Empedocles.*
But, by whatever channel it reached him, the enthusiasm of
Empedocles and the Eleates lives in his verse no less truly
than the inspiration of Aeolian music in the song of his
younger contemporary, Catullus. The atomic theory, with
its wonderful revelations of invisible activity and unbroken
continuity underlying the abrupt revolutions of phenomenal
existence, had been the direct product of those earliest
struggles towards a deeper vision into the mysteries of cosmic
life ; and so Lucretius was enabled through his grasp of the
theory itself to recover the very spirit and passion from which
it sprang.^

But the enthusiasm for science, however noble in itself,
would not alone have sufficed to mould the Epicurean philo-
sophy into a true work of art. The De Rerum Naturd is the
greatest of all didactic poems, because it is something more
than didactic. Far more^ truly than any of its Latin suc-
cessors, it may claim comparison with the epic and dramatic
masterpieces of Greece and Christian Europe ; and that too
not by virtue of any detached passages, however splendid, but
by virtue of its composition as a whole. The explanation of
this extraordinary success is to be sought in the circumstance
that the central interest whence Lucretius works out in all
directions is vital rather than merely scientific. The true
heroine of his epic is not Nature but universal life — human
life in the first instance, then the Hfe of all the lower animals,
and even of plants as well. Not only does he bring before us
every stage of man's existence from its first to its last hour

> Woltjer, op. cit.^ pp. 178 flf.

2 There is an unquestionable coincidence between Lucretius, II,, 69 ff. and
Plato, Legg.., 776 B, pointed out by Teichmiiller, Geschichte der Begriffe, p. 177. >
Both may have drawn from some older source.


with a comprehensiveness, a fidelity, and a daring unparalleled
in literature ; but he exhibits with equal power of portrayal
the towered elephants carrying confusion into the ranks of


war, or girdling their own native India with a rampart of ivory
tusks ; the horse with an eagerness for the race that outruns
even the impulse of his own swift limbs, or fiercely neighing
with distended nostrils on the battlefield ; the dog snuffing
an imaginary scent, or barking at strange faces in his dreams ;
the cow sorrowing after her lost heifer; the placid and
laborious ox ; the flock of pasturing sheep seen far off, like a
white spot on some green hill ; the tremulous kids and
sportive lambs ; the new-fledged birds filling all the grove
with their fresh songs ; the dove with her neck -feathers
shifting from ruby-red to sky-blue and emerald-green ; the
rookery clamouring for wind or rain ; the sea birds screaming
over the salt waves in search of prey ; the snake sloughing its
skin ; the scaly fishes cleaving their way through the yielding
stream ; the bee winging its flight from flower to flower ; the
gnat whose light touch on our faces passes unperceived ; the
grass refreshed with dew ; the trees bursting into sudden life
from the young earth, or growing, flourishing, and covering
themselves with fruit, dependent, like animals, on heat and
moisture for their increase, and glad like them : — all these
helping to illustrate with unequalled variety, movement, and
picturesqueness the central idea which Lucretius carries
always in his mind.

The keynote of the whole poem is struck in its opening
lines. When Venus is addressed as Nature^s sole guide and
ruler, this, from the poet's own point of view, is not true of
Nature as a whole, but it is eminently true of life, whether we
identify Venus with the passion through which living things
are continually regenerated, or with the pleasure which is
their perpetual motive and their only good. And it is equally
appropriate, equally characteristic of a consummate artist, that
the interest of the work should culminate in a description of


this. same passion, no longer as the source of life, but as its
last outcome and full flower, yet also, when pushed to excess,
the illusion by which it is most utterly* disappointed and un-
done ; and that the whole should conclude with a description
of death, not as exemplified in any individual tragedy, but in
such havoc as was wrought by the famous plague at Athens
on man and beast aHke. Again, it is by the orderly sequence
of vital phenomena that Lucretius proves his first great prin-
ciple, the everlasting duration and changelessness of matter.
If something can come out of nothing, he asks us, why is the
production of all living things attached to certain conditions
of place and season and parentage, according to their several
kinds ? Or if a decrease in the total sum of existence be
possible, whence comes the inexhaustible supply of materials
needed for the continual regeneration, growth, and nourish-
ment of animal life ? It is because our senses cannot detect
the particles of matter by whose withdrawal visible objects
gradually waste away that the existence of extremely minute
atoms is assumed ; and, so far, there is also a reference to in-
organic bodies^; but the porosity of matter is proved by the
interstitial absorption of food and the searching penetration
of cold ; while the necessity of a vacuum is established by the
ability of fish to move through the opposing stream. The
generic differences supposed to exist among the atoms are
inferred from the distinctions separating not only one animal
species from another, but each individual from all others of
the same species. The deflection of the atoms from the line
of perpendicular descent is established by the existence of
human free-will. So also, the analysis which distinguishes
three determinate elements in the composition of the soul
finds its justification in the diverse characters of animals — the
fierceness of the lion, the placidity of the ox, and the timor-
ousness of the deer — qualities arising from the preponderance
of a fiery, an aerial, and a windy ingredient in the animating
principle of each respectively Finally, by another organic


illustration, the atoms in general are spoken of as semina
rerum — seeds of things.

At the same time Lucretius is resolved that no false
analogy shall obscure the distinction between life and the
conditions of life. It is for attempting, as he supposes,
to efface this distinction that he so sharply criticises the
earlier Greek thinkers. He scoffs at Heracleitus for imagin-
ing that all forms of existence can be deduced from the single
element of fire. The idea of evolution and transformation
seems, under some of its aspects, utterly alien to our poet.
His intimacy with the world of living forms had accustomed
him to view Nature as a vast assemblage of fixed types which
might be broken up and reconstructed, but which by no possi-
bility could pass into one another. Yet this rigid retention
of characteristic differences in form permits a certain play
and variety of movement, an individual spontaneity for which
no law can be prescribed. The foedera Naturai, as Prof.
Sellar aptly observes, are opposed to Mhe foedera fati} And

' We think, however, that Prof, Sellar attributes more importance to this

element in the Lucretian philosophy than it will bear. His words are : * The

doctrine proclaimed by Lucretius was, that creation was no result of a capricious'

or benevolent exercise of power, but of certain processes extending through infinite

time, by means of which the atoms have at length been able to combine and work

together in accordance with their ultimate conditions. The conception of these

ultimate conditions and of their relations to one another involves some more vital

agency than that of blind chance or an iron fatalism. The foedera Naturai are

opposed to the foedera fati. The idea of law in. Nature as understood by Lucretius

is not merely that of invariable sequence or concomitance of phenomena. It

implies at least the further idea of a "secreta facultas " in the original elements.'

(Roman Poets of the Republic, p. 335, 2nd ed.) The expression secreta facultas

occurs, we believe,' only once in the whole poem (I., 174), and is used on that

single occasion without any reference to the atoms, which do not appear until a

later stage of the exposition. Lucretius is proving that whatever begins to exist

must have a cause, and in support of this principle he appeals to the fixed laws

which govern the growth of plants. Each plant springs from a particular kind of

seed, and so, he argues, each seed must have a distinct or specific virtue of its own,

which virtue he expresses by the words secreta facultas. But, according to his

subsequent teaching, this specific virtue depends on a particular combination of

the atoms, not on any spontaneous power which they possess of grouping themselves

together so as to form organic compounds. With regard to the properties of the

atoms themselves, Lucretius enumerates them clearly enough. Theyare extension,

figure, resistance, and motion ; the last mentioned being divided into downward


this is just what might be expected from a philosophy based
on the contemplation of life. For, while there is no capricious-
ness at all about the structure of animali*, there is apparently
a great deal of capriciousness about their actions. On the
other hand, the Stoics, who derived their physics in great
part from Heracleitus, came nearer than Lucretius to the
standpoint of modern science. With them, as with the most
advanced thinkers now, it is the foedera Natural — the uni-
formities of co-existence — which are liable to exception and
modification, while the foedera fati — the laws of causation —
are necessary and absolute.

In like manner, Lucretius rejects the theory that living
bodies are made up of the four elements, much as he admires

gravitation, lateral deflection, and the momenta produced- by mutual impact.
Here we have nothing more than the two elements of ' iron fatalism ' and ' blind
chance ' which Prof. Sellar regards as insufficient to account for the Lucretian scheme
of creation ; gravitation and mutual impact give the one, lateral deflection gives the
other. Any faculty over and above these could only be conceived under the form
of conscious impulse, or of mutual attractions and repulsions exercised by the atoms
on one another. The first hjrpothesis is expressly rejected by the poet, who tells
us (I., 1020) that the primordial elements are destitute of consciousness, and
have fallen into their present places through the agency of purely mechanical
causes. The second hypothesis is nowhere alluded to in the most distant manner,
it is contrary to the whole spirit of Epicurean physics, it never occurred to a single
thinker of antiquity, and to have conceived it at that time would have needed more
than the genius of a Newton, As a last escape it may be urged that Lucretius
believed in 'a sort of a something' which, like the fourth element in the aoul, he
was not prepared to define. But besides the utter want of evidence for such a
supposition, what. necessity would there have been for the infinite chances which
he postulates ija order to explain how the actual system of things came to be evolved,
had the elements been originally endowed with the disposition to fall into such a
system rather than into any other ? For Prof. Sellar's vital agency must mejin this
disposition if it means anything at aU.

While on this subject we must also express our surprise to find Prof. Sellar
saying of Lucretius that ' in no ancient writer ' is * the certainty and universality of
law more emphatically and unmistakably expressed ' (p. 334). This would, we
think, be much truer of the Stoics, who recognised in its absolute universality
that law of causation on which all other laws depend, but which Lucretius ex-
pressly tells us (11., 255) is broken through by the clinamen. A more accurate
statement of the case, we think, would be to say that the Epicurean poet believed
unreservedly in uniformities of coexistence, but not,-to the same extent, in uniform-
ities of sequence ; while apart from these two classes neither he nor modern
science knows of any laws at all.


its author, Empedocles. It seemed to him a bh'nd confusion
of the inorganic with the organic, the complex harmonies of
Hfe needing a much more subtle explanation than was afforded
by such a crude intermixture of warring principles. If the
theory of Anaxagoras fares no better in his hands, it is for
the converse reason. He looks on it as an attempt to carry
back purely vital phenomena into the inorganic world, to read
into the ultimate molecules of matter what no analysis can
make them yield — that is, something with properties like
those of the tissues out of which animal bodies are composed.

Thus, while the atomic theory enables Lucretius to account
for the dependent and perishable nature of life, the same
theory enables him to bring out by contrast its positive and
distinguishing characteristics. The bulk, the flexibility, the
complexity, and the sensibility of animal bodies are opposed
to the extreme minuteness, the absolute hardness, the sim-
plicity, and the unconsciousness of the primordial substances
which build them up.

On passing from the ultimate elements of matter to those
immense aggregates which surpass man in size and complexity
as much as the atoms fall below him; but on whose energies
his dependence is no less helpless and complete — the infinite
worlds typified for us by this one system wherein we dwell,
with its solid earthly nucleus surrounded by rolling orbs of
light^Lucretius still carries with him the analogies of life ;
but in proportion to the magnitude and remoteness of the objects
examined, his grasp seems to grow less firm and his touch less
sure. In marked contrast to Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics,
he argues passionately against the ascription of a beneficent
purpose to the constitution of the world ; but his reasonings
are based solely on its imperfect adaptation to the necessities
of human existence. With equal vigour he maintains, appa-
rently against Aristotle, that the present system has had a
beginning ; against both Aristotle and Plato that, in common
with all systems, it will have an end — a perfectly true con-


elusion, but evidently based on nothing stronger than the
analogies of vital phenomena. And everywhere the subject-
ive standpoint, making man the univer^l measure, is equally
marked. Because our knowledge of history does not go far
back, we cannot be far removed from its absolute beginning ;
and the history of the human race must measure the dura-
tion of the visible world. The earth is conceived as a mother
bringing forth every species of living creature from her teem-
ing bosom ; and not only that, but a nursing mother feeding
her young offspring with abundant streams of milk — an un-
expected adaptation from the myth of a golden age. If we
no longer witness such wonderful displays of fertility, the
same elastic method is invoked to explain their cessation.
The world, like other animals, is growing old and effete. The.
exhaustion of Italian agriculture is adduced as a sign of the
world's decrepitude with no less confidence than the freshness
of Italian poetry as a sign of its youth. The vast process of
cosmic change, with its infinite cycles of aggregation and
dissolution, does but repeat on an overwhelming scale the
familiar sequences of birth and death in animal species. Even
the rising and setting of the heavenly bodies and the phases
of the moon may, it is argued, result from a similar succession
of perishing individuals, although we take them for different
appearances of a single unalterable sphere.'

A similar vein of thought runs through the moral and
religious philosophy of Lucretius. If we look on him as a
reformer, we shall say that his object was to free life from the
delusions with which it had been disfigured by ignorance and
passion. If we look on him as an artist, we shall say that he
instinctively sought to represent life in the pure and perfect
beauty of its naked form. If we look on him as a poet, we
shall say that he exhibits all the objects of false belief no
longer in the independence of their fancied reality, but in their
place among other vital phenomena, and in due subordination

• v., 695-73, 730-49.


to the human consciousness whose power, even when It is
bound by them, they reveal. But while the first alternative
leaves him in the position of a mere imitator or expositor who
brings home no lessons that Epicurus had not already enforced
with far greater success, the other two, and above all the last,
restore him to the position of an original genius, who, instead
of deriving his intuitions from the Epicurean system, adopts
just so much of that system as is necessary to give them
coherence and shape. It may, no doubt, be urged, that were
life reduced to the simple expression, the state of almost
vegetative repose, demanded by Lucretius, denuded of love,
of ambition, of artistic luxury, of that aspiration towards
belief in and union with some central soul of things, which
all religions, more or less distinctly embody, its value for
imaginative purposes would be destroyed ; and that the
deepest lesson taught by his poem would not be how to enjoy
existence with the greatest intensity, but how to abandon it
with the least regret. Now it is just here that the wonderful
power of poetry comes in, and does for once, under the form
of a general exposition, what it has to do again and again
under the easier conditions of individual presentation. For
poetry is essentially tragic, and almost always excites the
activity of our imagination, not by giving it the assured pos-
session of realities, but by the strain resulting from their,
actual or their expected eclipse. If Homer and the Attic
tragedians show us what is life, and what are the goods of
life, it is not through experience of the things themselves, but
through the form of the void and the outline- of the shadow
which their removal or obscuration has produced. So also in
the universal tragedy of the Roman poet, where the actors are
not persons, but ideas. Every belief is felt with more poignant
intensity at the moment of its overthrow, and the world of
illusion is compensated for intellectual extinction by imagin-
ative persistence as a conscious creation, a memory, or a
dream. There is no mythological picture so splendidly
painted as those in which Lucretius has shown us Mavors


pillowed on the lap of Venus, or led before us the Idaean
mother in her triumphal car. No redeemer, credited with
supernatural powers, has ever enjoyed fUch an apotheosis as
that bestowed by his worshipper on the apostle of unbelief.
Ncwhere have the terrible and mysterious suggestions of
mortality been marshalled with such effect as in the argument
showing that death no more admits of experience than of
escape. What love-inspired poet has ever followed the storm
and stress of passion with such tenderness of sympathy or
such audacity of disclosure, as he to whom its objects were
disrobed of their divinity, for whom its fancied satisfaction
was but the kindling to insaner effort of a fatally unquench-
able desire.? Instead of being ' compelled to teach a truth
he would not learn,' Lucretius was enabled by the spirit of
his own incomparable art to seize and fix for ever, in bold
reversal of light and shade, those visions on which the killing
light of truth had long before him already dawned.

The De Rerum Naturd is the greatest of Roman poems^
because it is just the one work where the abstract genius
of Rome met with a subject combining an abstract form with
the interest and inspiration of concrete reality ; where nega-
tion works with a greater power than assertion ; where the
satire is directed against follies more widespread and endur-
ing than any others ; where the teaching in some most
essential points can never be superseded ; and where de-
pendence on a Greek model left the poet free to contribute
.from his own imagination those elements to which the poetic .
value of his work is entirely due. By a curious coincidence,
the great poet of mediaeval Italy attained success by the
employment of a somewhat similar method. Dante repre-
sented, it is true, in their victorious combination, three in-
fluences against which Lucretius waged an unrelenting warfare

religion, the idealising love of woman, and the spfritualistic

philosophy of Greece. Nevertheless, they resemble each
other in this important particular, that both have taken an



Abstract theory of the world as the mould into which the
burning metal of their imaginative conceptions is poured.
Dante, however, had a power of individual presentation which
Lucretius either lacked or had no opporturiity of exercising ;
and therefore he approaches nearer to that supreme creative-
ness which only two races, the Greek and the English, have
hitherto displayed on a very extended scale.


Returning once more to Epicurus, we have now to sum
up the characteristic excelfences and defects of his philosophy.
The revival of the atomic theory showed unquestionable
courage and insight. Outside the school of Democritus, it
was, so far as we know, accepted by no other thinker. Plato
never mentions it. Aristotle examined and rejected it. The
opponents of Epicurus himself treated it as a self-evident
absurdity.^ Only Marcus Aurelius seems to have contem-
plated the possibility of its truth.^ But while to have main-
tained the right theory in the face of such universal opposition
was a proof of no common discernment, we must remember
that appropriating the discoveries of others, even when those
discoveries are in danger of being lost through neglect, is a
very different thing from making discoveries for one's self;
No portion of the glory due to Leucippus and Democritus
should be diverted to their arrogant successor. And it must
also be remembered that the Athenian philosopher, by his
theory of deflection, not only spoiled the original hypothesis,
but even made it a little ridiculous.

Online LibraryAlfred William BennThe Greek philosophers → online text (page 11 of 39)