What is the Philosophy of Movement? IV

Screen Shot 2020-04-29 at 10.43.01 AM.png

This is a short excerpt on the philosophy of movement from a recent interview I did with Nico Buitendag for Undisciplined Podcast.

Nico Buitendag: When we first begin to look at the world through motion, what are some of the first things that were previously obscured that suddenly—at least then for you when you started this project—what were some of the things that quickly sprang up for the first time that became very obvious to you that you didn’t expect?

Thomas Nail: To qualify very quickly: It’s not like nobody’s ever talked about motion. Everybody has talked about motion. There’s not a philosopher or theorist, or anybody who hasn’t said something about motion. The difference is whether motion is ontologically primary, whether that’s the starting point of analysis or whether that’s a secondary, or derivative feature. In my view, almost everybody in the history of Western thought at least has treated motion as a secondary thing: something that happens to what is already primary, some substance, or eternal form, or vital force, or temporal a priori or whatever.

But to answer your question, some of the first things that I found to be very shocking when I started looking at this was that: 1) Movement was a subordinated term, but also movement was actually the primary ordering structure of things. Matter is moving around, and that all these other things get built on top of it. And so the interesting question to me—which it’s taken me a lot of years trying to get the answer to it—is if being really is in motion, then how could we have missed this for so long?

What are the techniques and tools…how do we perpetuate other perspectives that cover over that movement? What are the techniques of explanation that obscure the movement of matter and convince us that it’s not actually important or primary? And that has all kinds of answers in aesthetics, in politics, in ontology, and so on.

One of the answers, with respect to ontology, actually has to do with the material techniques of doing ontology, of writing. We don’t know what anybody thought. We always say “so and so thought this,” “so and so thought that,” but we don’t have access to anybody’s thoughts. What we have access to are the residues of historical practices, material cultures, and writings and texts, and all kinds of stuff, but we don’t actually have access to the thoughts of dead people, of what people have thought in history.

So the challenge, at least in Being and Motion, was to go back and say “what are the material techniques?” For example writing, books, printing press, typewriters—what are the material techniques, and what’s their structure of motion? What is the form of motion that covers over the fact that they’re using a material motion in order to generate some thought of the ideal, of the abstract, of the universal, of time, of space? What are they really doing? So there’s a kind of media archaeology that goes along with that from a materialist perspective.

And the second thing I saw, and this is maybe the major thing I found I suppose, are these patterns. Kinetic systems are systems of motion, patterns of motion. These are centripetal, centrifugal, tensional, and elastic. These are major patterns of motion in physics. Obviously, there are subtypes, combinations, and hybrids, but these are the four kinds of patterns that are going on in each of these different historical periods, and these patterns take on a kind of dominance in each period. All of them are always happening, but in some time periods, one of them really takes hold and becomes a guiding structure, and that happens across disciplines. It doesn’t have to do with just politics or ontology, it’s historical. It’s really the way that matter moved and circulated in a given time. So to me, those four types of motion were really important discoveries, and I’m very curious to see how people will respond to those. It’s an empirical kind of argument so I’m open to being wrong about those patterns, but it was quite a discovery. 

The Philosophy of Movement at a Glance

Screen Shot 2020-04-21 at 9.49.13 AM.png


As more books of mine come out people have been asking me how they all fit together. I have been meaning to create a single table showing my philosophy of movement and how all the books fit together, so here it is, or at least how I have been imagining it so far.

So far there are three series of books. The first series covers the traditional core domains of philosophy (politics, ontology, aesthetics, science, and nature). The second traces the intellectual genealogy of three figures who have made motion primary in their work. These first two series are basically done and are either published already or on their way toward publication. The last book left to write is Lucretius III. The third series is what I am working on now. It is written for a wider audience and is intended to share some of the key findings from my academic books.

The patterns of motion have different names in each domain and are associated with a historical period.

It’s an open project so there are more series to come. I am open to adding new theorists of motion and have some leads but nothing solid yet. I have been teaching a class called, “The philosophy of movement” to find new theorists, but none of the thinkers I thought would make motion primary actually did. Its been a fascinating journey. At this point, I am feeling that “philosophy” might be the least likely area to find people taking motion seriously.





Understanding the Coronavirus Pandemic with Foucault? by Philipp Sarasin

Here is a section from one of the best theoretical analyses I have read on the coronavirus so far. Read the full article here.


It is clear that Foucault did not speak of real pandemics but that he used infectious diseases as models of thought in order to organize forms of power according to ideal-typical patterns. We are in a different situation: we live in the midst of a pandemic and are subject to, or observe through the media, different modes of appearance of power and government. So what can the three models that Foucault developed teach us?

First: There are transitions and overlaps between the different forms. The complete lockdown of Wuhan rigorously follows the plague model, and every curfew ultimately does so, too. The models show that curfews are necessary when that statistical knowledge cannot be gained that makes possible the liberal smallpox model.

Only when systematic tests supply massive amounts of data about infected and non-infected people, like for example in South Korea or Singapore, is it possible for governments to restrict themselves to isolating the infected and recommend caution for the rest of the population, without however having to impose a lockdown. It is possible to say this without irony or malice: that public life goes on and the economy continues to function in South Korea or Singapore is precisely the liberal promise of the smallpox model.

Second: the plague model remains a threat, even a danger. This includes, for instance, that in Morocco the corona-related curfew is imposed with tanks in the streets and harsh military measures, that in Israel prominent voices warn of a “coup” executed by Netanyahu under the pretext of the fight against Covid-19, that Victor Orbán in Hungary is planning a transition to government by decree, or that in the United States Attorney General Barr is seeking permission to hold prisoners indefinitely without trial. But it also includes that the storage and evaluation of movement data of everyone carrying a mobile phone is unlikely to easily be relegated to a purely technical possibility after this crisis. The liberal smallpox model fundamentally and always requires that the power of the state be monitored with suspicion.

Third: The smallpox model of power describes, more or less but nevertheless fairly accurately, the form of government in times of a pandemic that the European governments adopt, despite all differences and many national egotisms. The strategy to #flattenthecurve means to reckon with the pathogen and to know that it cannot be eradicated, but to “extend” its distribution over time in such a way that the health system can handle it. And the strategy of prohibiting gatherings of several people does not amount to discipline—for what purpose?—but rather is something like a narrow but well-justified and understandable framework the state sets for individual behavior. In general, the call to observe rules of “social distancing” belongs without doubt in the sphere of liberal techniques of government, which are fundamentally based on individual freedom and must respect this freedom. To take care of oneself, to protect oneself, but also, as can widely be observed at the moment, to find forms of neighborly or solidary organization are techniques of the self that fill the liberal contours of the smallpox model with the concrete material of social self-organization.

Fourth: … but the leprosy model is lurking in the background. It emerges in the idea that appears here and there that one should let old people die “to save the economy”—or it becomes factual reality when retirement and nursing homes are abandoned and their inmates die locked up and alone, as is reportedly the case in Spain.

Postscript on techniques of the self

In his lectures on the history of governmentality in which he developed the smallpox model and spoke at length about neoliberalism, Foucault did not use the concept of techniques of the self. Even if there is an internal connection between his quite positive evaluation of (neo-)liberalism and his concept of techniques of the self, which he examined in the 1980s by using the example of antiquity, it is by no means the case that Foucault regarded techniques of the self as a form of power wrapped in the cover of liberality, as is often asserted today (indeed, he explicitly rejected precisely this interpretation in his lectures). The opposite is the case: the “relationship of self to self” and thus the possibility to conduct oneself in a particular way that is, precisely, notdetermined by power was, for him, the basis of the subject’s freedom. Consequently, as Foucault said in 1982 in his lecture, “there is no first or final point of resistance to political power other than in the relationship one has to oneself.”[14] Today he might add: and resistance to the virus. Or simply: take care.

This essay was first published in German in Geschichte der Gegenwart and has been translated for the foucaultblog by Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson.

3 pandemic predictions from Lucretius How being afraid of death is making some people less ethical

3 pandemic predictions Lucretius

3 pandemic predictions from Lucretius

How being afraid of death is making some people less ethical

The global spread of the coronavirus has forced us to confront our own mortality, and fears about illness and death weigh heavily on the minds of many.

But there’s a risk that fear for our own life will outweigh fear for the collective to the extent that, however unwittingly, we start to act in a way that causes harm to the collective – the global phenomenon of panic-buying is an obvious example.

As early as the first century BC, Roman philosopher Lucretius predicted that humanity’s fear of death could drive us to irrational beliefs and actions that would harm society. And as COVID-19 sweeps across the globe, three of his key predictions are coming true.

Prediction one: being afraid of death corrupts our subjective experience of life.

Lucretius made the case that people aren’t afraid of death unless there’s an immediate danger of dying; it’s when illness or danger strike that we get scared and strive to understand what comes after death.

The goal then becomes alleviating these fears. Some people do so by imagining that they have immaterial souls that shed their bodies or that there is a benevolent God, Lucretius writes. Others might imagine an eternal afterlife, or an immortal soul that is more important than the body and the material world.

But such beliefs carry an ethical danger that people may become preoccupied with something that literally does not matter at all. This fear and anxiety, Lucretius says, stains everything in life. It ‘leaves no pleasure clear and pure’ and it could even lead to ‘a great hatred of life’.

The question of the existence of God aside, the scientific evidence does suggest that anxiety about death isn’t good for us; studies show that this type of worrying can lower a person’s immune system and make it more vulnerable to infections(which, needless to say, is not ideal during a pandemic).

Prediction two: being afraid of death deepens social divisions and puts certain groups at greater risk.

In addition to staining one’s own experience of life, Lucretius predicted that the fear of death could escalate social divisions, because when people are afraid of dying they might think that withdrawing from others will help keep danger, disease and death away.

And while Lucretius wouldn’t have been opposed to social distancing if everyone was able to do it, this isn’t what’s actually happening around the world. Due to many factors, the gig economy being a notable one in the bunch, the sad reality is that the wealthy are able to distance themselves while the poor are being made increasingly vulnerable to death.

This phenomenon is well-documented in terror management studies; the fear of death results in a desire to escape, at the expense of disadvantaged groups. In China for example, rural migrant workers were blocked from quarantined cities, kicked out of apartments and turned away by factory owners, as authorities tried to control the spread of the coronavirus.

In the US, poorer workers do not have the luxury to work from home when schools close, and cannot afford to take sick days or see a doctor, which makes them more vulnerable than those who can afford to isolate themselves.

There is evidence of increased social divisions on the basis of race as well as class; Asian Americans are experiencing increased discrimination, with even schoolchildren becoming the targets of racist comments, and fewer people are going to Chinese restaurants out of fear of being infected.

Prediction three: being afraid of death inspires some people to accumulate wealth or political power at the expense of the community.

Lucretius predicted that some people will take advantage of social crises like plagues and wars to try and gain political power to secure a legacy for themselves after death. He wrote that this ‘blind burning after elected office coerces wretched people to go beyond the boundaries of what is right’ by sacrificing the good of the people for political position.

As well as political power, Lucretius warned that those who fear death may also think they can extend or preserve their life by ‘rising to the level of the greatest wealth’. Although, of course, the belief that the accumulation of power and wealth will secure their life is false.

You can look to President Trump as a manifestation of this prediction. By downplaying the spread of the coronavirus in America, Trump protected his electoral campaign as well as the US stock market (and by extension, his own wealth). In doing so, he placed political position and wealth above public health—just as Lucretius predicted.

There are politicians who learned about the virus early on and sold their stock while downplaying the danger to Americans. Now corporations are seeking tax-payer bailouts for economic damages related to the impact of the virus in what Naomi Klein is calling ‘Coronavirus Capitalism’.  

Advice from Lucretius on how to avoid these predictions:

According to Lucretius, being afraid of dying is irrational because once people die they will not be sad, judged by gods, or pity their family; they will not be anything at all. ‘Death is nothing to us’ he says.

Now, not fearing death is easier said than done. That is why, for Lucretius, it is the most important ethical challenge of our life. Instead of worrying about what may happen after death, Lucretius advises people to focus on keeping their bodies healthy and helping others do the same.

We need courageous caring, not fear.

 You can find out more about Lucretius’ ethics in Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion by Thomas Nail, published this month by Edinburgh University Press.

Published here at The Institute of Art and Ideas


Gendered Ecologies New Materialist Interpretations of Women Writers in the Long Nineteenth Century (Clemson University Press, 2020) Edited by Dewey W. Hall and Jillmarie Murphy

This looks like a great collection. Unfortunately, its only in $120 hardback right now.

Gendered Ecologies: New Materialist Interpretations of Women Writers in the Long Nineteenth Century considers the value of interrelationships that exist among human, nonhuman species, and inanimate objects as part of the environment, and features observations by women writers as recorded in nature diaries, poetry, bildungsroman, sensational fiction, philosophical fiction, and folklore. In addition, the edition aims to present a case for transnational women writers who have been involved in participating in the discourse of natural philosophy from the late eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries. The collection engages with current paradigms of thought influencing the field of ecocriticism and, more specifically, ecofeminism. Various theories are featured, informing interpretation of literary and non-literary material, which include Anthropocene feminism, feminist geography, neo-materialism, object-oriented ontology, panarchy, and trans-corporeality. In particular, neo-materialism and trans-corporeality are guiding principles of the collection, providing theoretical coherence. Neo-materialism becomes a means by which to examine literary and non-literary content by women writers with attention to the materiality of objects as the aim of inquiry. Regarding trans-corporeality, contributors provide evidence of the interrelations between the body-as-matter and animate beings along with inanimate entities. Together, neo-materialism and trans-corporeality drive the edition, as contributors contemplate the significance of interactions among human, nonhuman, organic, and inanimate objects.

  • Seeks to reconsider ecofeminism as a discursive field that is rooted in ecology as derived from natural history and natural philosophy by emphasizing the materiality of nature, which has been anthropomorphized as well as organized through ecosystems and biomes as part of the biosphere

  • Seeks to move beyond the binaries, perhaps false dichotomies, by delving into the intersections, interstices (i.e., intervening space, OED), and cross-currents.

  • Features essays that theorize about the term ecofeminism along a different set of lines involving the transhistorical, transatlantic, and especially trans-corporeal – a term coined by Stacy Alaimo

  • Aims to focus on the significance of matter often entangled in a network of relationships – whether human-to-human, human-to-nonhuman, human-to-inanimate objects, etc. – inter- and intra-relating to each other, even at a quantum level

  • Examines the contributions of nineteenth-century women writers observing, studying, and reasoning about the value of matter – the interrelatedness between subjects and objects – as recorded in their literary and non-literary discourses

The Deleuze Seminars, Website Launch

Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 8.22.20 PM.png

**I have been on the editorial team for years for this project and today we are launching our NEH funded website. It is by far the most comprehensive collection of Deleuze’s seminars on the internet.

The Deleuze Seminars

We are delighted to announce the virtual launch of a new archive site, The Deleuze Seminars (deleuze.cla.purdue.edu), devoted to the work of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995). The site has several goals:

— To provide English translations and French transcriptions, many newly developed for the site, of the seminar lectures Deleuze gave at the University of Paris, Vincennes-St. Denis, between 1971 and 1987.

— To provide additional documents — course notes, lectures, video links, and interviews — that complement the formal course lectures.

— To provide a location for ongoing data rescue. Most of Deleuze’s seminars were recorded by his students, yet very few recordings from the 1970s have been archived, or even survived, and some gaps remain for the 1980 seminars. The Deleuze Seminars is hosting a data rescue effort to retrieve and save as many of these recordings as possible.

We welcome you to explore the resources available at the The Deleuze Seminars by visiting deleuze.cla.purdue.edu. The site includes new English translations (and many new French transcriptions) and already several of Deleuze’s complete seminars on Foucault (1985-86) and Leibniz (1980, 1986-87), with several other seminars currently in development. For queries about the archive or to discuss possible rescue of extant data, please contact thedeleuzeseminars@gmail.com.

The Deleuze Seminars site is an ongoing project that has been undertaken with support from Purdue University, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and in collaboration with the Bibliothèque nationale de France (gallica.bnf.fr/conseils/content/gilles-deleuze), the Université de Paris 8 (www2.univ-paris8.fr/deleuze) and Web Deleuze (www.webdeleuze.com).

Daniel Smith (Purdue University), Charles J. Stivale (Wayne State University)


Nous sommes heureux de vous annoncer la mise en place d’un nouveau site d’archives, The Deleuze Seminars(deleuze.cla.purdue.edu), consacré aux oeuvres du philosophe français Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995). Les buts du site sont les suivants:

— Offrir les traductions en anglais et le transcriptions en français, dont beaucoup sont disponibles pour la première fois, des séances dans les séminaires annuels de Deleuze à l’Université de Paris entre 1971 et 1987.

— Offrir d’autres documents – notes de cours, conférences, liens aux enregistrements vidéos et audios, et entretiens – qui se lient aux séances des séminaires.

— Offrir un lieu pour promouvoir la récupération des données deleuziennes. La plupart des séminaires ont été enregistrés par ses étudiants, mais nous possédons très peu des enregistrements faits pendant les années 70, avec des lacunes également pendant les années 80. The Deleuze Seminars offre donc un site pour soutenir l’effort de retrouver ces ressources afin d’ouvrir un dépôt actif pour les enregistrements, notes de cours, ou vidéos qui n’ont pas encore été partagés.

Nous vous invitons d’explorer les ressources déjà disponisbles au site en le visitant à deleuze.cla.purdue.edu. Le site contient de nouvelles traductions en anglais (et de nouvelles transcriptions en français) et déjà plusieurs séminaires entiers, dont Foucault (1985-86) et Leibniz (1980, 1986-87), avec d’autres séminaires actuellement sous développement. Pour des renseignements à propos de l’archive ou pour fournir des données deleuziennes en vue de les contribuer au site, veuillez nous joindre à thedeleuzeseminars@gmail.com.

Le site The Deleuze Seminars est un effort actif rendu possible grâce au soutien de Purdue University, the National Endowment for the Humanities, et la collaboration de la Bibliothèque nationale de France (gallica.bnf.fr/conseils/content/gilles-deleuze), l’Université de Paris 8 (www2.univ-paris8.fr/deleuze) et Web Deleuze (www.webdeleuze.com).

Daniel Smith (Purdue University), Charles J. Stivale (Wayne State University)


Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion (EUP, 2020) is out now!

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion is now available for 30% off.

Edinburgh University Press: UK discount coupon code: NEW30
Oxford University Press: US discount coupon code: ADISTA5

‘With Lucretius II, Thomas Nail continues his project of re-reading Lucretius’ De rerum natura in a startlingly new fashion – as a foundational text in the philosophy of movement. The results of Nail’s labour are breathtaking: traditional pieties of scholarship fall by the wayside, replaced by a Lucretius truly of and for the twenty-first century.’ Wilson M. Shearin, University of Miami

‘More than just a study of Lucretius, Nail provides a stunning reading of an already fascinating philosopher. Nail’s originally and beautifully composed account of motion generates an ethics worthy of the twenty-first century, allowing us to think of instability as an opportunity for thinking our world anew.’
Claire Colebrook, Penn State University

An ancient ethics for modern life

Suffering, the fear of death, war, ecological destruction, and social inequality are urgent ethical issues today as they were for Lucretius. Thomas Nail argues that Lucretius was the first to locate the core of all these ethical ills in our obsession with stasis, our fear of movement, and our hatred of matter.

Almost two thousand years ago Lucretius proposed a simple and stunning response to these problems: an ethics of motion. Instead of trying to transcend nature with our minds, escape it with our immortal souls, and dominate it with our technologies, Lucretius was perhaps the first in the Western tradition to forcefully argue for a completely materialist and immanent ethics based on moving with and as nature. If we want to survive and live well on this planet, Lucretius taught us, our best chance is not to struggle against nature but to embrace it and facilitate its movement.

Download the Preface and Introduction here.


A new Lucretius is coming into view today. Every great historical epoch returns to him like bees returning to their flower fields in search of nourishment. Each time, though, our return is different – like the expanding arc of a spiral. We bring new questions, find new answers, and make Lucretius speak to us again as if for the first time. We make Lucretius’ epic poem De Rerum Natura into the mellifluous honey of a liquid antiquity that has always coursed through the veins of modernity like a spring of fresh meaning and inspiration.

We thus return to Lucretius not as though he were an unchanging figure carved in stone but as if he were a rush of new life at the cutting edge of the twenty-first century. We stand in front of Lucretius’ breathtaking and revolutionary poem not as passive students of unchanging relics in a museum but as active participants in a history of our present.

I first returned to Lucretius in 2014, when I taught Book II of De Rerum Natura for a class on the philosophy of movement. I added Lucretius to the syllabus because he was an overlooked figure in the history of philosophy who wrote about motion. I was excited about the text, but I was also sceptical that anyone who believed in ‘eternal unchanging atoms’ could have motion as their philosophical starting point. What I encountered, however, absolutely shocked me.

There were no atoms. I scoured the whole Latin text. Lucretius never used the word ‘atom’ or a Latinised version of this word – not even once. Translators added the word ‘atom’. Just as shockingly, I could not find the great isolated swerve in the rain of atoms, for which he is so well known. In Book II, Lucretius says instead that matter is always ‘in the habit of swerving’ [declinare solerent] (2.221) and if it were not [nisi], ‘all would fall like raindrops’ [caderent] (2.222). The solitary swerve and the rain of matter are counterfactual claims. Lucretius never said there was a rain and then one atom swerved. He says that matter is in the ‘habit’ [solerent] of swerving, meaning that swerving happens regularly. This, he says, is the only way to avoid the problem of assuming that something comes from nothing: matter must have always been swerving.

This small but significant discrepancy made me wonder what else had been left out of translations and interpretations. Could it be possible that there was a whole hidden Lucretius buried beneath the paving stones of Greek atomism? If there are no solid atoms and no solitary swerve in Lucretius, can we still make sense of the rest of the book? In 2016 I decided to find out. I dedicated a whole seminar just to Book I of De Rerum Natura read in Latin. To my delight a whole new view on this foundational text emerged that year. I published the results of this study in 2018 as Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion.

Around this time I also began to notice an increasing number of major differences between Lucretius and Epicurus. One of the reasons I thought I would find atoms and isolated swerves in Lucretius was because of a long history of interpretation that conflated the two thinkers, just as earlier scholars had errantly done with Democritus and Epicurus. There is no doubt that Lucretius studied and followed Epicurus, just as Epicurus had followed Democritus. However, between the three thinkers there are worlds of difference that have not been sufficiently understood. Not all students merely imitate their masters. Sometimes imitation functions as a mask for a student to put forward her or his own ideas – which is what Lucretius did I thus began to unravel the ‘Epicurean myth of Lucretius’.

Lucretius did something very strange. He wrote Epicurean philosophy in the style and method of Homeric poetry and in doing so ended up completely changing the meaning of both. Just like an ancient satyr play, Lucretius’ poem has numerous invocations of bacchanalian intoxication, sexual imagery, desire, and deceptive invocations of gods he
does not believe in (Venus and Mars), all affirmed joyfully alongside the destructive power of nature itself: death. This is in stark contrast with the contemplative, serious, pessimistic, and aloof style of Epicurus and his followers.

Epicurus had many Greek and Roman followers who wrote and promoted Epicurean doctrine, but Lucretius did something no one had ever done before. He espoused a version of Epicurean philosophy in a book of Latin poetry written in Homeric hexameter. Why? For pleasure. He wanted to make something new by mixing the old traditions. Lucretius performed a bewildering hybrid of two completely opposed figures and traditions (Homer and Epicurus) and made something novel: something uniquely Roman.

However, De Rerum Natura has largely been treated as a Homeric poem about Epicurean philosophy, but in this book I argue that there is also a hidden Epicurean philosophy of Homeric myth. In the end this is where the real brilliance and originality of Lucretius lies: not in Homer or Epicurus but in their perverse and twisted entanglement. There is thus a becoming Homer of Epicurus. It is a genuine injustice to reduce such a radical enterprise to mere Epicurean ‘doctrine’.

The idea of philosophical poetry is a satyr’s slap in the face to the entire Greek tradition of philosophy from Thales to Aristotle, including Epicurus. With few exceptions, Greek philosophers systematically reduced Homeric poetry to irrational and sensuous mythology in order to define their new abstractions and idealisms against the straw man of the oral tradition. This was a founding moment of exclusion that has stayed with the Western tradition up to the present – contributing to a perceived inferiority of oral and indigenous knowledge. It is therefore completely unsurprising that today, when Lucretius is invoked as a philosopher, he is treated as completely reducible to the real Greek master: Epicurus. By doing so, the Western reception of Lucretius has reproduced the same Grecocentric and idealist tradition that vilified pre-Greek and Homeric poetry and archaic materialism. This is the same Western tradition that continues to devalorise oral knowledge and non-Western mythologies today.

Most Western philosophy, even in its most materialist moments, has in one way or another hated matter and the body. Lucretius was the first from within this tradition to produce a true and radical materialism of sensation and the body. However, like Homer, Lucretius also paid the ultimate price for his materialist sins and was largely exiled from the discipline of philosophy. Either Lucretius was treated as a skilled poet of the Latin tongue or he was treated as a slavish imitator of the great master Epicurus. Never has Lucretius been read as an original philosophical poet of a radical materialism that goes far beyond anything Epicurus achieved. This book and its companion volumes are the first books to show precisely this.

Even more provocatively, Lucretius refused to use Epicurus’ Greek terminology when many other Epicurean and Roman authors, such as Cicero did so often and easily. The Romans are famous for renaming Greek gods: the Greek Aphrodite becomes the Roman Venus, Zeus becomes Jove, and so on. However, it is also well known that there is no strict equivalence between the two deities. The translation was, as translations always are, a transformation that resulted in new stories and a shifting fluidity of roles among the gods. This, I argue, is what happened with Lucretius. De Rerum Natura was not written as Epicurean dogma.

It was an original work of philosophical poetry that translated Homeric mythology and Epicurean philosophy into the Latin vernacular and thus transformed them into an original philosophy of motion. A few scholars have noted the tension between Lucretius’ poetic style and Epicurean doctrine, but none has suggested that it indicated anything philosophically original as a result.

The unearthing of this ‘hidden Lucretius’ is the subject of the present work and its companion volumes. In the first volume, Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion, I located a systematic ontology of motion and a new materialism beneath the atomist and Epicurean myth of Lucretius. In the present volume, I present the reader with a unique kinetic theory of ethics. This second volume builds on the ontological framework developed in the first and expands it explicitly to questions of life, death, knowledge, aesthetics, sex, ecology, and ethics – as they are discussed in Books III and IV of De Rerum Natura.

Each of the three volumes in this trilogy has been written so that it may be read either on its own or with the others. The themes of each of the volumes of the trilogy overlap with one another just as the content of the books in the poem do. However, each volume also focuses on distinct domains of philosophical inquiry: Volume I covers Lucretius’ ontology and cosmology; Volume II covers his ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics; and Volume III, his theory of history. Together, these three volumes compose an original and nearly line-by-line reading of the entirety of De Rerum Natura.

Read on!

Lucretius and the immanence of motion

Image result for minoan art swallows

Lucretius was the first philosopher of immanence. It is he and not Democritus or Epicurus who holds this title. If we want to understand the historical emergence of the concept of immanence, we should start by distinguishing its precursors in Greek atomism from its first complete incarnation in Lucretius. This way, we can see exactly what first defined and distinguished immanence from its past.

Therefore in what follows I would like to make three, perhaps controversial, claims about the emergence of philosophical immanence. 1) Lucretius was not an atomist, 2) Greek atomism reintroduced transcendence, and 3) It is the primacy of motion in Lucretius that defines his philosophical immanence.

Lucretius was not an atomist

This thesis is as counterintuitive as it is straightforward. The first major difference between Lucretius and the earlier Greek atomists is precisely that—the atom. For Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus atoms are always in motion, but the atom itself remained fundamentally unchanged, indivisible, and thus internally static—even as it moved. Thus instead of positing discrete atoms as ontologically primary as both ancient Greek and later modern theories do, one of Lucretius’s greatest novelties was to posit the movement or flow of matter as primary. Lucretius did not simply “translate Epicurus,” as the Greco-centric story goes; rather, he introduced the first immanent kinetic materialism in the West.

For example, although the Latin word atomus (smallest particle) was available to Lucretius to use in his poem, he intentionally did not use it, nor did he use the Latin word particula or particle to describe matter. The English translations of “atom,” “particle,” and others have all been added to the text in translation based on a certain historical interpretation of it. The idea that Lucretius subscribed to a world of discrete particles called atoms is therefore both a projection of Epicureanism, who used the Greek word atomos, and a retroaction of modern scientific mechanism of the fifteenth century onto De Rerum Natura.

Lucretius rejected entirely the notion that things emerged from discrete particles. To believe otherwise is to distort the original meanings of the Latin text as well as the absolutely enormous poetic apparatus he summoned to describe the flowing, swirling, folding, and weaving of the flux of matter. Although Lucretius rejected the term atomus, he remained absolutely true to one aspect of the original Greek meaning of the word, ἄτομος (átomos, “indivisible”), from ἀ- (a-, “not”) + τέμνω (témnō, “I cut”). Being is not cut up into discrete particles, but is composed of continuous flows, folds, and weaves. Discrete “things” (rerum) are composed of corporeal flows (corpora) that move together (conflux) and fold over themselves (nexus) in a woven knot work (contextum). For Lucretius, things only emerge and have their being within and immanent to the flow and flux of matter in motion. Discreteness is an apparent product of continuous folded matter, uncut, undivided, and in motion and not the other way around.

Greek atomism reintroduced transcendence

Greek atomism reintroduced transcendence in several ways. The most significant one is that of the atom itself. If immanence is only immanent to itself and nothing else then any immanent theory of moving matter which posits something which does not move posits something beyond—a principle that transcends it. If all of matter moves except for the atom itself then this reintroduces transcendence. Furthermore, the discreteness of the atoms from one another (called void) also reintroduces a transcendence with respect to the continuum of matter in motion. If matter can only be immanent to itself and nothing else it cannot be divided from itself without reintroducing discreteness.

The second reintroduction of transcendence is Democritus’s determinism. For Democritus all the relations between atoms and the voids that separate them are completely determined. Being is not in any way stochastic, pedetic, or turbulent. Democritus thus introduces a single and universal law which applies equally to the past and to the non-existent future of the atoms. As such, the law transcends the immanence of matter in motion.

The third reintroduction of transcendence is Epicurus’s swerve. For Epicurus atoms begin by falling in perfectly straight laminar lines, until at one uncertain point one of the atoms swerves, hits the others, and all of matter begins to assemble together into a rich and complex composite. Here, Epicurus avoids the determinism of Democritus, but only by positing an original state of ordered laminar flows of atoms and a single spontaneous event that transcends this order.

The primacy of motion defines Lucretius’s philosophical immanence

Lucretius breaks from Greek atomism by putting forward the first purely immanent philosophy: kinetic materialism. For Lucretius there is nothing other than matter in motion. Full stop. Matter is not made of discrete atoms, but rather of purely continuous flows (corpora) which fold (simplex, duplex) into things (rerum).

Contra Democritus, the movement of matter is purely continuous or wave-like instead of particle-like. There is no part of matter that is discrete or atomistic. Flows can be folded without end. Furthermore there is no transcendent law of necessity guiding matter’s motion. Motion is fundamentally stochastic and turbulent. For example, in Book II Lucretius is very clear that corpora move downward carried by their own energy and momentum through, and by making, space (deorsum rectum per inane feruntur ponderibus propriis). At an unassignable space-time before any measurable discrete time or space (incerto tempore ferme incertisque locis spatio) the corpora change, modulate, or deviate (depellere) their motion (momen mutatum) to the smallest possible degree (paulum). This is not the cause of any other external or oblique motion, but internal to the motion of the corporeal flow itself. Just like the turbulent currents of air that drive the dust motes, so the movement of the corpora themselves are also fundamentally turbulent in that they change their motion on their own (momen mutatum) and are thus pedetic, not determined.

Contra Epicurus, Lucretius describes the rain of atoms and swerve not as something which actually happened, but rather as an absurd counter-factual of something that could never happen! Lucretius says that if and only if (nisi) matter was not already in the habit (solerent) of curving or bending (declinare), it would fall downwards without collision like rain (caderent). The caderent is therefore a counter-factual and not a speculative point in time which ever existed. Matter was swerving already before space and time, or at least coexistent with their emergence in the first place. Matter has always been swerving. There was never a time when there was only the caderent without collision (plaga). Such a time is a total abstraction dismissed by Lucretius. If there was such a time, nothing would be, which is obviously not the case.

Immanence today

Lucretius is thus the first philosopher to affirm both the ontological primacy of matter in motion and the immanence of matter in motion without introducing anything transcendent like discrete atoms, deterministic laws, or a single aleatory swerve. He thus stands at the beginning of a long historical sequence of a number of different claims to philosophical immanence, of which only a precious few have actually succeeded in sustaining. Now is not the place to do a genealogy of the various claimants to this position, so in lieu of that much larger project let us consider at least three criteria that Lucretius sets up as the conditions for the possibility of philosophical immanence today.

  1. Immanence entails more than the mere absence of a transcendent God. This is a basic precondition but hardly a sufficient one.
  2. The introduction of any ontologically privileged kind of being over another reintroduces transcendence. This includes granting any special ontological primacy to thought, space, time, event, eternity, objects, or force over matter. Being is only matter in motion. For Lucretius, everything else emerges from its patterns of motion and material composition.
  3. Immanence has no universal or transcendent laws that determine it in advance. Lucretius’ materialism is therefore not crude, mechanistic, or reductionist in any sense.

Here is the kicker: Immanence can only be immanent to what is and since the future is not, the ontological position of immanence can make no speculative claim on the future without reintroducing a transcendence of the future beyond what is. This is the real vertigo of immanence. It can only be a regional and historical ontological claim. This is what makes it different than any other ontology, it is immanent only to itself (what is and what it has been) and must remain entirely agnostic about what it will be.

Published online at: The Immanent Frame