Lucretius’ Material Ecology

MATERIAL ECOLOGY AND ENVIRONMENTAL AFFECT

Lucretius’ theory of simulacra means that there are no discrete subjects and objects—only affective ecologies. The whole environment is not just something to be passively “considered” but something that plays an active role in constituting and entire atmosphere or situation. To illustrate this, Lucretius describes the beautiful way in which atmospheric color and light transform and shape the movement of things (4.81–83).

et quanto circum mage sunt inclusa theatri

moenia, tam magis haec intus perfusa lepore

omnia conrident correpta luce diei.

And the more the walls of the theater encircle and enclose,
the more all these things within are soaked
with splendor and laugh when the light of day is diminished.

            Early Roman theaters were sunken pits filled with seats and covered with a purple cloth to keep the sun off the viewers. This poetic image could not be more fitting for the point Lucretius wants to make: Matter is performative. The environment is not an empty space filled with discrete objects but something much more like a woven cloth rippling in the wind that throws off pattern, color, and movement everywhere lavishly. The cloth-wrapped performative space is a space made by woven motion.

            Things, Lucretius says, are soaked [perfusa] with splendor and begin to move and laugh in response to the undulations of color and light as the sun goes down. Shadows begin to ripple across things and through the air showing the entanglement of everything in the theatre. The laughter [conrident] of things is not metaphorical. Nature really is undulating pleasantly in the wind. Matter shakes without breaking or coming completely apart. Pleasant movements without complete destruction (i.e. not ataraxia) is a recurring ethical image for Lucretius found in the laughter of Venus or in the springtime winds of Favonius.

            This theatrical scene shows dramatically what is otherwise happening all the time. Matter is flowing off itself and diffracting with other matters in a complex and kinetic ecology. Ecology is not something that only happens out in the woods. Nor is it merely the passive stage that actors play on. Contra Shakespeare, all the world is not a stage, and all the men and women are not the only players.[i] Humans do not play on the static stage of nature. The whole stage, the actors, the audience, and the whole theater are soaked through with material ecological affects that ripple across them like water or like bees into a beehive [caveai] as Lucretius describes it (4.78).

            The ecological theater is a buzzing beehive made by the movement of matter through it. The form of the honeycomb is an emergent pattern or figure traced by, drawn out, and woven kinetic habits. Ecological affects like temperature are connected with the increased oscillation of matter and with emotion.[ii] But if emotion is not merely mental representation, then nature too has e-motion.

            Water and food shortages are related to fluctuations in the climate and increase the likelihood of social conflict.[iii] Wearing or seeing certain colors also has proven affects on human behavior.[iv] Even just looking at or walking around living plants and forests can significantly change the chemical composition of the human body, alter mood, blood pressure, and stress hormones.[v] This is all to say that Lucretius’ theory of simulacra is shockingly prescient about what we are only recently discovering scientifically about the entangled relationship of ecological affects.[vi]

            Given Lucretius’ description of this simulacral ecology, and what we know from increasing contemporary studies on ecological affect, an ethics based on individuals is completely misguided. Ethics is nothing if not ecological and simulacral. If the entire world is in motion, radiating, intertwining, and diffracting itself, then the ethics of moving well together must take these movements seriously. Ignoring them and treating ethics as a strictly anthropocentric project (as if ecology played no role in actively shaping ethical landscapes and human beings themselves) is partly to blame for global pollution and the feedback loops of toxic particles (dioxins, phthalates, glysophates, etc.) now coursing through our bodies. If we think ethics is something only humans do, then we are more likely to forget that the rest of nature not only plays in active role in producing human bodies but is identical with humanity itself. We live and move in affective tangles because of the nature of simulacral matter.

Weaving String Figures

It is absolutely crucial to remember that simulacra, for Lucretius, are not discrete particles or representations.[vii] We should not imagine that simulacra are like individual photos on film images that peel off of things one by one in discontinuous succession. As collective and intertwined ecological processes they cannot be isolated. Lucretius is extremely clear about this in lines 4.87–89.

sunt igitur iam formarum vestigia certa,

quae volgo volitant subtili praedita filo

nec singillatim possunt secreta videri.

There are therefore then figurative traces
which freely fly around composed of subtle threads
and which are not able to be seen singly or separately.

            Sensation is fundamentally atmospheric and ecological. Simulacra are composed of flows or material threads [filo] (4.88) that move all around through the air drawing out [formarum] (4.87) tracks, traces, or footprints [vestigia] (4.87). Since these movements are collective processes, they are not reducible to the “things” [rerum] or the simulacra they produce. Simulacra are composite things woven together through a vast ecological network of diffracting flows of matter [corpora]. It is therefore fundamentally impossible to separate out “one” simulacrum [nec singillatim] because simulacra are multiplicities in continuous motion.

            What we sense when we sense the world, or when the world senses itself, is nothing but simulacra, all the way down. But simulacra are nothing but moving woven patterns of subtle flows of matter streaming out together, folding and unfolding continually before our eyes. If they are folded tightly enough they appear stable, if they are folded loosely they appear unstable (smoking, bleeding, liquid, and so on). It is all a question of weaving.

            Lucretius says that these threads of matter literally pour, leak, or flow out [diffusae] (4.91) of things [rerum] and that their artful twisting, winding, and curving [flexum] (4.93) draws out the shape of things and the shape of the simulacra that flow out of things. In other words, because the flow of matter is always swerving inside and outside things, there simply is no original thing of which simulacra are faithful or unfaithful copies. There are only continually woven processes, all the way down to the swerving flows of matter themselves. Flows of matter that are thrown off of mirrors, water, and shiny surfaces look similar [simili specie] because the path of woven matters is less bent or curved than others (4.100).

            Matter flows, but simulacra are sensed when the flows of matter fold back over themselves and tangle with one another in a continuous pattern of repulsion, rhythm, and return that allows matter to affect itself and produce sensation (4.104–109).

sunt igitur tenues formarum illis similesque

effigiae, singillatim quas cernere nemo

cum possit, tamen adsiduo crebroque repulsu

reiectae reddunt speculorum ex aequore visum,

nec ratione alia servari posse videntur,

tanto opere ut similes reddantur cuique figurae.

There are thus thin kinetic patterns of similar

images, which though no one is able to see discretely,

nevertheless by continuous and frequent repulsion they rebuff

and return a visible figure from the surface of mirrors.

All of nature is composed of a continuous movement of weaving matter which “reverberates, throws back, and restores things” [repulsu reiectae reddunt] through folding (Figure 6.2). Simulacra do not just move between things. Things are nothing but simulacra, which are themselves nothing but flows or threads of matter [primordia] (4.111) continually folded and woven together [exordia rerum cunctarum] (4.114–115) and constantly reverberating off one another in various sonic, visual, olfactory, and haptic patterns.

            This is why images appear not just near the surface of things but appear in midair through diffraction (4.129–140). Just as we see giant faces, mountains, or monsters in the clouds, so to do we see diffracted images patterns in midair elsewhere. Clouds, like simulacral diffractions, are liquid [liquentia] (4.141) and perpetually fluid [perpetuoque fluant] (4.144) kinomophic assemblages. Clouds are certainly more fluid than most simulacra around us on the the surface of earth, but the basic structure is the same. Nature is one big entangled parallax of shifting flows.

            We know this because whenever we take out a mirror, Lucretius says, it immediately starts reflecting simulacra around without perceptible delay. This means that the flow of matter must be occurring everywhere all the time at very high speeds (4.155–158).

et quamvis subito quovis in tempore quamque

rem contra speculum ponas, apparet imago;

perpetuo fluere ut noscas e corpore summo

texturas rerum tenuis tenuisque figuras. 

And however suddenly, at whatever time you place a mirror
in front of each thing, an image appears,
so that you may realize that constantly flowing from the outer surface

of things are thin woven webs and thin figures.

            Just like the high speed and constant flow [perpetuo fluere] (4.157) of photons (and their quantum fields), matter [corpore] (4.157), according to Lucretius, is constantly “weaving things” together [texturas rerum] by drawing out their figures [figuras] (4.158). Simulacra do not fly through empty space. Space, as we know from books I and II, is made by matter in motion. Space, locus, for Lucretius, is porous and folded. Wherever it seems empty, we need only hold up a mirror to see it shot through with tangled webs of simulacra.

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion, 159-164.

 


[i] William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII.

[ii] Thalma Lobel, Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence (New York: Atria Books, 2016).

[iv] See Thalma Lobel, Sensation, chapters 4, 5, 6 on color and light and dark.

[v] Florence Willimas, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (New York: Norton, 2018).

[vi] See Benjamin Lieberman and Elizabeth Gordon, Climate Change in Human History: Prehistory to the Present (London: Bloomsbury, 2018) and Nigel Clark, Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2011).

[vii] For a related treatment of string figures, see Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, “Playing games of string figures is about giving and receiving patterns, dropping threads and failing but sometimes finding something that works, something consequential and maybe even beautiful, that wasn’t there before, of relaying connections that matter, of telling stories in hand upon hand, digit upon digit, attachment site upon attachment site, to craft conditions for finite flourishing on terra, on earth.” 10.

 

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion (Pre-order 30% off) and Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion $6.50

Screen Shot 2020-02-03 at 8.54.51 AM.png

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion is now available for pre-order and 30% off during February and March.

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

Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion digital book (epub/pdf) is also now available for $6.50 at Edinburgh here for the month of February.

‘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.

Preface

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!

 

 

“Understanding the Philosophy of Movement” An Interview with Thomas Nail

 

Kinetic Revolution - Understanding the Transversal Reality of the "Philosophy of Movement" (dragged).jpg

 

Kinetic Revolution: Understanding the Transversal Reality of the “Philosophy of Movement”

Dario Giovanni Ali interviews Thomas Nail, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver on his theory of “kinopolitics.” Translated into Italian and published in Visitors, K-Pocket Guide (Italy, Kabul Press, 2020), 52-61.

Download here in English and Italian.

Dario: In The Figure of Migrant (Stanford University Press, 2015), you claim that the migrant has become the political figure of our time. Human migration is increasingly common in all nations of the world, more today than ever before. With your words: “The migrant is the political figure who is socially expelled or dispossessed as a result, or as the cause, of their mobility. The migrant is the collective name for all the political figures in history who have been territorially, politically, juridically, and economically displaced as a condition of the social expansion of power” (Hostis Journal, 30 June 2015). So what is the social impact of this recognition of the migrant as the main political figure of our time?

Thomas: If migration is understood to be, as I believe it is and has been, a major constitutive social force throughout history, my hope is for at least two consequences: First, I hope it means that migrant voices and agency will be included in the social processes they themselves help to build and reproduce. Those who contribute socially and are affected socially should have the right to determine how they are affected socially. Currently, we are living in a global apartheid in which millions of migrants who form the backbones of so many social and economic systems are treated as if they are nothing or as if they were “illegal.” 

Second, and relatedly, there is an important historical consequence: Western civilization was founded on the dispossession and colonization of migrants (nomads, barbarians, vagabonds, and the proletariat). Western culture has also made it a strategic point to destroy and marginalize migrant histories. My hope in showing migration to be a much longer and larger historical structure is that we will try and recover these erased histories to supplement and even overthrow the currently dominant and exclusionary ones. 

D) Speaking in an interview with CriticalTheory.com in 2015, you claimed that “societies themselves are not, as they are often treated, static entities of fixed members but continuous circulations of metastable social flows.” Historically societies are actually the result of a mixture of different people and cultures.

In The Figure of the Migrant, three words are essential to understand the “kinopolitics”: “flows,” “junctions” and “circulation.” What is the exact meaning of these words, and how are they interlinked? How can a word such as “citizenship” take on new meanings and implications in the politics of movement?

T: A flow is a continuous movement of matter. Societies are produced and reproduced by accumulating a continual flow of materials such as water, wood, air, stone, metals, money, people, and so on. Instead of just letting rivers flow, trees grow, and people move, societies try and harness these flows by continually capturing them and iterating them again and again in a social “junction” or “cycle.” These cycles are what allow matters to become metastable, like eddies or whirlpools in a river. Each cycle siphons off a material flow, cycles it, and discards the waste. There are no perfect circles—only leaky entropic ones—so the quest of continual extraction continues. Once enough of these flows have been sustained in relatively stable cycles, the cycles can be ordered into much larger fields of social circulation. Some cycles are larger, more central, contain more sub-cycles, and so on—and at the limit of these large orders is where you find the emergence of what we call “borders.” Borders are the main operators that expel social waste, dispossess people outside, and fortify the final social junction so that the whole process of social circulation is secured and defended. 

Citizenship is an extremely heterogenous idea with widely diverging historical meanings. Conceptually, I am not sure that the risk of salvaging this term is worth all the dangers and misunderstandings that are likely to come with it. Can there be citizenship without exclusion? I am not sure. I have not written a lot about “citizenship” but rather about “migrant cosmopolitanism,” which is defined not by any universal category such as “cosmopolitan citizenship” but by the singularity of the struggles and demands of concrete migrant groups. There is no final social system or universal subject of politics for me. The figure of the migrant is not a universal ahistorical social figure but a historical one primary to our present moment that demands our ethical and philosophical attention. The challenge, then, is to respond to new figures as they emerge. The migrant happens to be the figure of our time. For example, the refugees and allies now struggling to enter the United States through Mexico are not universal; they are concrete and historical, and we should not presume to know their demands and needs before hearing them out.             

D) Movement is a specific feature of social life. Historically, however, the emergence of sedentary cultures has developed a sort of suspicion toward movement because it cannot be contained, framed and therefore ruled. If, on the one hand, fixity is historically linked to authoritarianism, to control, and to forms of governance, on the other side movement expresses an unrestricted sense of freedom. The jester is one of the most significant figures that had embodied the essence of movement during the Middle Ages. Considering that he was never part of the traditional social orders of Middle Ages (oratores, bellatores, and laboratores), he was harshly condemned  by the Catholic church as an evil and dangerous figure. Some of the contemporary figures you identified are those of the nomad, the barbarian, the vagabond, and the proletariat. Can you talk a little more about that?

T: Movement, for me, is neither good nor bad. It’s not a normative idea. There is, physically speaking, no such thing as stasis in the entire universe as we currently know it. Given this, it makes sense to me to start from where we are at historically and think of how movement is distributed or arranged in patterns of circulation. It is amazing, however, that so much of Western history has been so obsessed with achieving stasis and explaining motion by something else (eternity, forces, time, etc). The migrant, for me, is not a figure of freedom or constraint, but a figure defined by the expansion and expulsion of social circulation and bordering. The migrant is the one who is continually expelled by territorial, political, juridical, and economic dispossession in order to expand a certain regime of social motion (agriculture, cities, kingdoms, and capitalism). The nomad, barbarian, vagabond, and proletariat are the historical names given to a similar historical process of migration. Each name characterizes the territorial, political, juridical, and economic nature of their social expulsion.   

D) In Being and Motion (Oxford University Press, 2018), you further develop the theory expressed in The Figure of the Migrant, and you present the basis of what has been called a “philosophy of motion.” You claim that “the old paradigm of a static cosmos, linear causality, fundamental particles, and classical space-time no longer fits the twenty-first-century reality of cosmic acceleration, turbulence, and continuously vibrating fields.” Your theoretical proposal refers to sociology, economy, law, and politics, embracing even cosmology: It includes a real reformulation of all aspects of human and nonhuman life, and in this respect it sounds revolutionary. What are the political, economic, scientific and aesthetic consequences of a new kinetic paradigm based on motion?

T: The philosophy of movement is a six-volume project with new and exciting implications for politics, ontology, art, science, and nature. Here is a complete list of the volumes, half of which are still forthcoming: The Figure of the Migrant, Theory of the Border, Being and Motion, Theory of the Image, Theory of the Object, and Theory of the Earth. I will not try and summarize each one, but in general all the books try to show that in each of these major fields, movement has been marginalized and explained by something else—and that this has caused some serious errors in our thinking and in our histories. The aim of this project is to invert this situation and offer a new, movement-oriented framework.  

Each of the volumes follows a similar tripartite structure as The Figure of the Migrant: Part I is conceptual, Part II is historical, and Part III describes the implications for contemporary life. Each book follows a similar “historical ontological” method by beginning with a contemporary problem (migration, borders, digital media, quantum theory, and climate change) and then does a deep, historical immanent critique of this problem that ends up completely inverting the way we think about the past and the present. 

I do not imagine this project as a new metaphysical system of philosophy like Kant, Hegel, or even an anti-system like Deleuze—but rather a strictly historical and new materialist project animated by and situated in a particular present. I have no opinion about the “nature of reality in itself” or whether it is being or becoming or vitalist or otherwise. I hope that it is clear in Being and Motion that the philosophy of movement is distinctly different than what we typically call “process philosophy” in a number of important ways described in Chapter 3 of Being and Motion.      

D) I have a question about another one of your research areas. In Lucretius I. An Ontology of Motion (Edinburgh University Press) you reference the Latin philosopher and poet Lucretius—responsible for the reintroduction of Greek atomism into Latin and Western thought—as an important historical figure in relation to movement and new materialism. How can a literary work such as De rerum natura be considered still contemporary in order to promote a new philosophy of motion and a real “kinetic revolution”—as you defined it?

T: Lucretius, I argue, was the first philosopher to put movement and motion first in his philosophy. I spent a lot of time going through the history of the philosophy of motion and was really quite shocked to find that only a few philosophers affirmed motion without trying to explain it by some other kind of substance, force, law, logic, or principle. Who in the history of philosophy thought that nature and matter moved stochastically without mechanism, vitalism, or other exterior explanation? Based on my research, my current conclusion, for reasons I cannot go in to here, is that only Lucretius, Karl Marx, and possibly later Henri Bergson fit this description. Marx and Bergson both wrote their first books on Lucretius, so there is a direct connection.  

With the aim of tracing the historical precursors of the philosophy of movement in the Western tradition I am writing a series of books on a number of figures, not all philosophers, who have been important precursors to this maligned idea of movement. 

To the point, Lucretius is important because he is the first materialist to do away with all residues of stasis. Even the atomists still held onto the idea that atoms were eternal, unchanging units. In Lucretius, however, you will find that he never uses the word “atom” or any Latin cognate for this term. It’s a major misunderstanding with huge consequences for the Western tradition. Lucretius, I think, is really a pre-Western thinker whose most important influences come from pre-Greek Minoan and Homeric oral cultures—and not primarily from Epicurean rationalism. Instead of atoms, Lucretius writes about flows, folds, weavings, strings, vibrations, textures, and pedetic movements without origin or end. Lucretius rejects all origins, all teleologies, all stasis, all gods, and all metaphysics. In the end, for Lucretius, every thing is a kinetic, performative, and meta-stable process that emerges from indeterminate matter in motion. 

This is roughly where physics is at with what is now called “quantum gravity theory” in physics. In quantum gravity theory, space and time and all the laws of nature are not, as Einstein thought, a priori features of nature. They are emergent, metastable processes of indeterminate quantum fluctuations of energy. This is an extremely radical and relatively recent idea to which Lucretius is a precursor, in my mind. Physicists do not have an agreed-upon and experimentally supported unified theory of quantum gravity yet, but it’s where most of the work is being done in theoretical physics and quantum cosmology today. I think Lucretius was an important precursor to this new worldview and thus strikingly contemporary and prescient. 

Returning to Lucretius

IMG_0197.jpeg

 

IMG_0198.jpeg

Why Return to Lucretius?

I think a new Lucretius is coming into view today. Every period in Western history since Lucretius has returned 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 always has coursed through the veins of modern history like a spring of fresh meaning and inspiration. 

We thus return to Lucretius today 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 21st 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. Today, we are asking Lucretius again to tell us something about nature.  

I recently returned to Lucretius in 2014, when I taught Book II of De Rerum Natura for a class on what I called “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 skeptical 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 Latinized 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 therefore 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 it happens more than once. This, he says, is the only way to avoid the problem of assuming that something comes from nothing—the swerve of matter in the rain.  

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 atoms and no solitary swerve in Lucretius, can we still make sense of the rest of the book or had a missed something? In 2016 I decided to find out. I dedicated a whole seminar to just Book 1 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 effort 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 his teacher 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 I think Lucretius did. I thus began to unravel what I call 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, and desire, 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. He wanted to make something new by mixing the old traditions: a double profanation. Lucretius performed a bewildering hybrid of two completely opposed figures and traditions (Homer and Epicurus) and made something novel: something uniquely Roman. 

De Rerum Natura has largely been treated as a Homeric-style poem about Epicurean philosophy, but I think 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. I think it is a genuine injustice to reduce such a radical enterprise to mere Epicurean “doctrine.”  

The method itself of philosophical poetry is a satyr’s slap in the face to the whole Greek tradition of philosophy from Thales to Aristotle, including Epicurus. With few exceptions (Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Empedocles) 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 pre-classical and indigenous oral knowledge. It is therefore completely unsurprising that today Lucretius is still almost always invoked as a philosopher 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 Homeric poetry and archaic materialism. 

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 is a skilled poet of the Latin tongue or he is 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 is what I have tried to do in my books.

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; i.e. 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 my books. In the first volume I worked out a systematic ontology of motion and a new materialism beneath the atomist and Epicurean myth of Lucretius in books one and two. In the second volume, I described a movement-based theory of ethics through a close reading of books 3 and 4. Volume three is not yet written but will focus on natural history in books 5 and 6.  

Where am I coming from with all of this? 

My project is not an isolated one but is part of longer but under-read linage of thinkers who have held heterodox interpretations of Lucretius. To give you a sense of where I am coming from I would like to quickly highlight three major works that have led me in this direction.  

1) The first is German philosopher Karl Marx’s 1841 dissertation on “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature.” There Marx gave one of the most radical and heterodox interpretations of Epicurus and Lucretius the world never saw. The complete work was not even available in German until 1927 and not in English until 1975 in his expensive collected works. It is no wonder that it remains one of the most neglected of all Marx’s books. However, in his dissertation, Marx was the first to argue not only that Epicurus had a distinct philosophy different from Democritus’ but that the core concepts of atomism (atom, void, fall, swerve, repulsion) all were actually continuous dimensions of the same flow of matter. 

2) This radical idea was virtually left for dead until the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze miraculously picked it up in 1962 in his book, Nietzsche and Philosophy. There, Deleuze credited Marx’s brilliant discovery but argued instead that the swerve was the result of a vital “force” immanent to matter. Later Deleuze developed this reading into a new “immanent” interpretation of Epicurus and Lucretius that appeared as an appendix to his 1969 Logic of Sense. 

3) From there, the French philosopher Michel Serres explicitly adopted the idea of a vital and unpredictable force immanent to matter and developed it into the first truly pathbreaking, book-length treatment of a new, turbulent Lucretius consistent with the early chaos theory of the day in The Birth of Physics in the Text of Lucretius (1977). Unfortunately, Serres’ book was not translated into English until 2000, after which it quickly went out of print. 

Beginning in 2016 an unusual burst of new books was published, tracing their lineage back to this tradition and overturning the old orthodox reception of Lucretius. In 2016 a wonderful collection of essays offering contemporary reassessments and reinterpretations of Lucretius drawing on the “immanent” tradition was edited by Jaques Lezra and Liza Blake and published as Lucretius and Modernity. In the next year Ryan Johnson published The Deleuze-Lucretius Encounter, and in the fall of 2017 Pierre Vesperini published a devastating critique of the “myth of Lucretius” in his Lucrèce: Archéologie d’un classique européen. Among other things, Vesperini argued convincingly against every single major point Stephen Greenblatt made in his error-filled narrative history of the discovery of De Rerum Natura, The Swerve (2011). Vesperini argued that Lucretius was not a faithful Epicurean; that Lucretius was not an unknown radical of his day; and that Lucretius did not provide a “complete kit for modernity,” but was historically appropriated by mechanistic modernists and then retroactively lionized by the Romantics. 

The coup de grâce of this burst came in January 2018, when Serres’ The Birth of Physics was retranslated and republished with a blurb on the back by Claire Colebrook explicitly acknowledging the timely importance of reintroducing this book for its contributions to twenty-first century new materialism. Two months later saw the publication of my first book, Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion, and Lezra’s book On the Nature of Marx’s Things. There has been an absolutely unprecedented explosion in heterodox readings of Lucretius in just the past three years. I think the time is right now for a full return to Lucretius, materialism, and radical naturalism.

What am contributing to this tradition? 

My books on Lucretius are part of this tradition but also diverges from it in important ways worth mentioning. It diverges from Marx’s reading insofar as Marx treats Epicurus and Lucretius as identical and I do not. The difference between Epicurus and Lucretius is one of the most important contributions of my books.  

What I call the “kinetic Lucretius” also diverges from Deleuze’s vitalist reading. Deleuze, following Marx, read Lucretius and Epicurus as identical but broke from Marx when Deleuze argued that the swerve is identical with Spinoza and Nietzsche’s concept of contatus, “vital striving,” “force,” or “power.” What I have tried to show in my books is that this kind of vitalist reading is textually unsupportable. Matter is, above all, in motion, and motion is not just about life. It is just as much about death, decay, and decomposition. It is purely arbitrary to privilege one side of this ontological binary, life versus death, and claim that everything is life, or alive, or vital power. Vitalism in all its forms is just another way of explaining the movement of matter with recourse to something else: life. At its worst, it falls prey to the fear of death that Lucretius locates as the locus of unethical action. The ontologization of life is yet another way to escape death and motion. 

My work even diverges from the great Michel Serres’ The Birth of Physics. Serres who, like Marx and Deleuze, still equated Epicurus and Lucretius. He also still accepted the existence of Lucretian atoms, despite their textual absence from De Rerum Natura. Serres showed how Lucretius prefigured chaos theory’s understanding of turbulence, entropy, and far-from-equilibrium states. However, in addition to these insights, my books have tried to argue that Lucretius also prefigured quantum theory’s understanding of entanglement and indeterminacy.

Mechanistic materialism has been throughly criticized across the humanities and sciences, but I think we have been too quick to throw out materialism with the mechanistic bathwater. Lucretius is such a wonderful figure to return to today because he embodies the diffractive relations we need to rediscover between the arts, sciences, and humanities for a new posthumanities and a new materialism. Lucretius was a scientist and philosophical poet. Knowledge today, however, has been so compartmentalized that thinkers like Lucretius are extremely rare. This is a profound loss for most universities. 

However, if we are going to address contemporary ethical practice at the global level seriously, we can no longer be merely scientists, philosophers, or poets. It is no longer enough to be merely the scholars of such and such figure or topic; the humanities and sciences need to come back together again. The study of nature unites all theoretical practice. Globalization and climate change demand that we see the big picture—that human activity is completely continuous with natural processes. Humans are geological actors, and the Earth is not a passive stage for our performances. The disconnect between the humanities and natural sciences is part of the same disconnect between humans and nature. We have divided up our knowledges as we have divided up our world, and the consequences have been disastrous. We can no longer study nature as if our acts of inquiry were not already ethical and transformative practices of nature itself. 

There will be no resolution to the deepest problems of our times until the Lucretian unity of humans, nature, and art (the humanities, sciences, and arts) are brought back together again in collective ethical practice.  

Part II: Three Counter-Theses 

1. First Counter-Thesis: “Lucretius was not an Atomist”

The 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 remains fundamentally unchanged, indivisible, and thus internally static—even as it moves. Instead of positing discrete atoms as ontologically primary as both ancient Greek and later modern theories do, one of Lucretius’ greatest novelties was to posit the movement or flow of matter as primary. I think Lucretius did not simply “translate Epicurus;” he transformed him. 

For example, although Lucretius could have easily Latinized the Greek word atomos as atomus [smallest particle], as Cicero did, he intentionally did not, 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 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 and a retroaction of modern scientific theories of mechanism onto De Rerum Natura. As such, Lucretitus’ writings have been crushed by the weight of his past and future at the same time. 

In my books I argue that Lucretius rejected entirely the notion that things emerged from discrete particles. The existence of discrete bodies is deeply at odds with the enormous poetic apparatus he summoned to describe the flowing, swirling, folding, and weaving of matter. However, although Lucretius rejected the term atomus, he remained absolutely true to one aspect of the original Greek meaning of the word, ἄτομος (átomos, meaning “indivisible”). Nature is not cut up into discrete particles, but is composed of continuous flows, folds, and weaves. Not flows of a single substance but nature as an ongoing process. Discrete “things” [rerum] are composed of corporeal flows [corpora] that move together [conflux] and fold over themselves [nexus] in a woven knotwork [contextum]. For Lucretius, things, only emerge and have their being within and immanent to the flow and flux of matter in motion. Relative discreteness is a product of folded flux, not the other way around.

Lucretius’ description of matter alternates interchangeably between several words, none of which necessarily refer to discrete unchanging eternal particles: māteriēs (matters), primordia (first-threads), corpora (body), semine (seeds, sprouts, or shoots). This is an interesting methodology for any materialist to define matter so heterogeneously. Lucretius thus follows the Homeric and poetic tradition of not adhering to a single fixed ideal concept and instead describes material processes with a variety of contextual words precisely because matter is a process of transformation. In Homer there is rarely a “single word” used in every case to describe similar processes.  

Rerum Versus Corpora 

The difference between rerum and primordia rerum is one of the most crucial terminological distinctions in the whole text, and we should take care never to conflate them or translate them equally as ‘things’, and above all not as ‘atoms’. For example, when Lucretius uses the word rerum alone without any conditional modifiers such as semina, corpora, or primordia rerum, he is describing rerum as they appear as seemingly discrete ‘things’. However, when he directly modifies the word rerum as with semina rerum (1.58), corpora rebus (1.196), or rerum primordia (1.55), as we will see, he is describing the active material conditions for the ordering and production of seemingly discrete things. 

This technical distinction between rerum and corporea rerum is crucial to understanding Lucretius’ philosophical method. If the condition of discrete things (primordia rerum) is just other discrete things (rerum), we have explained nothing and precisely failed to give an account of the nature or conditions by which discrete things themselves are produced. We have only presupposed precisely what we set out to explain: things. The conditions cannot resemble that which they condition. This is the fundamental thesis of Lucretian materialism. If they did then our explanations would be circular, mechanistic, and would uncover nothing about the nature of things. 

[image: flow (copora) / fold (rerum)

Weaving and Folding

Instead of talking about discrete particles, Lucretius talks endlessly about flows and folds. These are the core tenets of what I call Lucretius’ “kinetic materialism.” If matter does not flow it cannot fold; if it folds it must also flow. However, if we interpret Lucretius’ concept of corpora as ‘discrete particles’ or ‘atoms’ instead of flows, his whole conceptual edifice of folding [plex] (simplex, duplex, complex, amplex) completely unravels. Atoms simply cannot fold. If Lucretius is an atomist, then we are left with a truly confounding problem of explaining this crucial aspect of his poetic thought. Discrete particles or things [res] cannot, by definition, fold themselves because the two sides of a thing cannot touch without reunifying the thing with itself. This is because discreteness implies that the thing [res] is already bound and limited, with a single and absolute interior and exterior. There is nothing here to fold. 

Among all the images of weaving, I will give just two quick examples: the weaving of forms and of the soul. 

Weaving of Forms and Figures

Forms are woven together [exordia] by threads [filo]. Lucretius importantly does not say that there are simply different pre-existing forms but rather that there is a long or far distance or difference between woven the forms. The invocation of weaving here is directly related to the Homeric, poetic, and feminine tradition of craft knowledge [metis] and not to Epicurean rationalism. Lucretius says,

Now let us see the motion from which all things are first woven and how far different they are in form, how varied they are in their many kinds of figures.

Other weaving words throughout are [textum, contextum, nexum].

Weaving the Soul

Lucretius also describes the soul as a process of “weaving” [nexam] (3.217). Lucretius’ description of the soul as something woven is no coincidence. Poetry from Minoan Crete to Homer is frequently described as an act of weaving.

Since the soul and body come into being with their matters “woven” [inplexis] (3.331) together and “roots” [radicibus] (3.325) growing together, they are also “unwoven” or “untied” [dissolu-antur] (3.330) together as well. Since the soul and body are in constant motion, then it follows that the soul is always weaving. However, it also follows that if all movement is also death, then the soul’s movement is also an unweaving as well: death. Weaving, then, just like the movement of the “first-threads” [primordia], is both creative and destructive at the same time. There is no binary opposition here, not even an alternation. Living is dying, and dying is living. The two are united in the same kinetic process.

The soul is woven together [nexam, inplexis] (3.217, 3.331) into a textured fabric [textum] (3.208-210), which in turn is woven by Lucretius’ words in the poetic textum, which is in turn woven [exordia] of the first-threads [primordia] or flows of matter [materies]. In other words, nature performs itself poetically through humans—poetry is not a representation of nature; it is a performance.

2. Second Counter-Thesis: “Lucretius did not believe in a spontaneous swerve in a rain of atoms through the void.”

Contrary to Epicurean and modern interpretations, I think Lucretius is clear that the swerve or change of motion, mutatum, depellere, or declinare, does not happen ex nihilo. Such a spontaneous change would contradict the first thesis of materialism: nothing comes from nothing. So it could not be the case that first there is a rain of parallel atoms falling through the void, and then out of nowhere one of the atoms swerves. Rather, Lucretius says matter has always been in the habit of swerving. (2.221–4). 

Because unless they were accustomed to swerving, all would fall downwards like drops of rain through the deep void,

nor would a collision occur, nor would a blow be produced

by the first beginnings. 

If and only if [nisi] (2.221) matter was not already in the habit [solerent] (2.221) of curving or bending [declinare] (2.221) would it fall downwards without collision like rain [caderent] (2.222). The caderent is therefore a counter-factual and not a speculative point in time which ever existed. The swerve was already before space and time, or at least coexistent with their emergence. There was never a time when there was only the caderent without collision [plaga] (2.223). Such a time is a total abstraction. If there was such a time, nothing would be, which is obviously not the case. 

Matter has always been swerving. Lucretius formulates this thesis no less than three times in this section of the poem. In line 2.221 he writes that matter has always been in the habit of swerving [declinare solerent]. In line 2.293 he writes that all matter has the clinamen or swerve within it from the beginning [clinamen principiorum]. In lines 2.294–307, for those still tempted to think that there was ever the counter-factual state of atoms falling through the void, Lucretius clearly states that the swerving motion of matter has always been this way and always will be (2.297–9). 

Wherefore with whatever motions the first beginnings

now move, they moved with the same motions in ages past,

and in the future they will always be carried along in a similar way. 

Corpora have always moved according to the same motions [motu principiorum corpora] (2.297–8). There never was a cataract. There never was a point in time or space when they started swerving, because it is only their swerving motion that produces time and space in the first place. 

This is the hardest idea to think. The swerve is neither determined nor random. It is an indeterminate relational process capable of producing emergent forms. This is what he means when he says there is no oblique causal motion. For Lucretius, there is an immanent self-causality or continuous transformation of the whole of nature at each moment. Each motion comes from another, not in a completely determined or random way. Randomness is merely another version of ex nihilo creation. Lucretius is therefore neither a mechanist or a vitalist. 

Wherefore again and again it is necessary that corpora swerve a little, but no more than a minimum, lest we seem to be inventing oblique motions, and the true facts refute it. 

3. Third Counter-Thesis: “There is no ethical “peace of mind” or ataraxia in Lucretius.”

Is there such a thing as a “Lucretian ethics?” The almost universal answer to this question historically has been “no,”: there is only an Epicurean ethics that Lucretius parroted. One of the main arguments I tried to make in volume 2 is that there is a distinct Lucretian ethics—different from Epicurus and from other contemporary ethicists as well.

First of all, Lucretius’ ethics is different from hedonism and asceticism—both attributed to Epicurus. Oddly enough the most frequent interpretations of Epicurus’ ethics seem completely opposed to one another. Epicurus sounds like a hedonist because he says pleasure is the highest good, but he is also sounds like an ascetic because he says that the maximum amount of pleasure one can obtain can be achieved only by detaching oneself from pleasure through self-discipline. More precisely, however, Epicurus called this highest ethical ideal ἀταραξία (ataraxía), meaning “untroubled” or “undisturbed.” The highest good, for Epicurus, is therefore to have no pain and no pleasure. This is achieved through a simple life of individual contemplation. 

For Epicurus there are two kinds of pleasures: katastematic pleasures and kinetic pleasures. Katastematic pleasures are those that occur in the absence of pain [aponia] and in an undisturbed mind [ataraxia]. Kinetic pleasures, however, are those that occur through movement and action. The aim of Epicurean ethics is to attain the former and try one’s best to steer clear of the latter. For Epicurus, only the gods exist in perfect ataraxia. 

There are without a doubt similarities between Lucretian and Epicurean ethics, but let’s focus on two important differences. First and most important, for Lucretius, there are only kinetic sensations because all of matter is in motion, including the mind. The interconnected, unceasing, and continuous movement of the mind, body, and soul is the main thesis of Book III. Lucretius is explicit in numerous places that there is nothing static in nature. The mind cannot escape movement through egoistic contemplation. Thus one r will never find Lucretius saying, as Epicurus does, that one should try and avoid all kinetic pleasures.

On the contrary, Lucretius’ poem is filled with sensuous scenes of moving desire the likes of which Epicurus would never have dreamed to write, such as the erotic love scene between Venus and Mars (1.32–5), the poet’s own intoxication and orgastic penetration by the “wand” of Bacchus (1.927–34) [describe this scene], the auto-erotics of bodies along the riverbanks (2.29–33), and the absolutely ecstatic “divine rapture” of desire that “seizes” Lucretius when he reads the words of Epicurus (3.29). Lucretius even opens De Rerum Natura with a proem to Venus: the desire and pleasure of gods and men (1.1). There is perhaps no less Epicurean a way to open an Epicurean treatise than an invocation of a Venusian nature overflowing with desire, sex, war, and death, as Lucretius does. However, Lucretius also never says “pleasure is the highest good.” He even explicitly warns against the dangers of romantic idealism (4.1121–1140).

So Lucretius is neither a hedonist nor an ascetic, nor does he think there is any ataraxia in nature. This leads to a second difference with Epicurus: If there is no ataraxia in nature because matter is ceaselessly moving (2.97–9), then there can be no motionless and unperturbed Epicurean gods, either. Such gods are explicitly impossible for Lucretius, and so he invokes them only as ideas that “sprung from [Epicurus’] mind” (3.14). In short, ataraxia and katastematic pleasure are, for Lucretius, transcendent values with no real existence in nature.   

Conclusion

So I think its worth returning to Lucretius today because there is new interpretive work to be done and because I dont think we should give up on the possibility of a new (non mechanistic, vitalistic, or discrete) materialism that can unite the humanities, arts, and sciences. 

“Returning to Lucretius,” talk at Saint John’s College, Santa Fe, Friday, April 5th, 7:30pm

IMG_0105.jpegI am giving a talk at Saint John’s College on Lucretius, Friday, April 5th, 7:30pm. It will be recorded.

“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 always has coursed through the veins of modernity like a spring of fresh meaning and inspiration.” 

The Return to Lucretius III

Image result for botticelli

We are witnessing a return to Lucretius. What felt like early shoots in 2014 are today now starting to bear fruit in numerous recent books breaking with the received tradition. My work on Lucretius is now part of a handful of new works offering contemporary interpretations of Lucretius. The authors of this return offer different perspectives but also share a common belief that something is deeply missing from our current reception of Lucretius and that certain problems in contemporary life might find their surprising solution in the work of this ancient poet. Just like the moderns and the romantics before us, we are just now beginning to rediscover a Lucretius for our time. 

The New Lucretius

The new Lucretius has an old lineage. This lineage traces its roots back to the German philosopher, Karl Marx’s 1841 dissertation “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature.” There Marx gave one of the most radical and heterodox interpretations of Epicurus and Lucretius the world never saw. The complete work was not even available in German until 1927 and in English until 1975 in his expensive collected works. It is no wonder that it remains one of the most neglected of all Marx’s books. However, in his dissertation, Marx was the first to argue not only that Epicurus had a distinct philosophy different form Democritus but that the core concepts of atomism (atom, void, fall, swerve, repulsion) were actually all continuous dimensions of the same flow of matter. 

This idea was largely left for dead until it was picked up by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze in 1962 in his book Nietzsche and Philosophy. There, Deleuze credits Marx’s brilliant discovery but argues instead that the swerve is caused by a vital “force” immanent to matter. Later Deleuze develops this reading into a new “immanent” interpretation of Epicurus and Lucretius in an appendix to his 1969, Logic of Sense. 

From here this idea was explicitly adopted by the French philosopher, Michel Serres who developed it into the first truly path-breaking book-length treatment of a new turbulent Lucretius consistent with the early chaos theory of the day, The Birth of Physics in the Text of Lucretius (1977). Unfortunately, Serres book was not translated into English until 2000, after which it went out of print.

The Immanent Interpretation of Lucretius 

This is a brief history of only the most sustained book-length attempts at the “immanent” reading of Lucretius being reactivated today. Beginning in 2016 an unusual burst of new books either tracing their lineage back to this tradition and/or deconstructing the orthodox reception of Lucretius came out. In 2016 a wonderful collection of essays offering contemporary reassessments and reinterpretations of Lucretius drawing on the “immanent” tradition was edited by Jaques Lezra and Liza Blake and published as Lucretius and Modernity. In the next year Ryan Johnson published, The Deleuze-Lucretius Encounter and in the fall of 2017 Pierre Vesperini published a devastating critique of the “myth of Lucretius” in his Lucrèce: Archéologie d’un classique européen. Among other things, Vesperini argues convincingly against every single major point made by Stephen Greenblat in his narrative history of the discovery of De Rerum Natura, The Swerve (2011). Vesperini argues that Lucretius was not a faithful Epicurean; that Lucretius was not an unknown radical of his day; and that Lucretius did not provide a “complete kit for modernity,” but was historically appropriated by mechanistic modernists and then retroactively lionized by the Romantics. This lionization is explored in Sweet Science: Romantic Materialism and the New Logics of Life (2017) by Amanda Jo Goldstein. Goldstein’s conclusion is right on target in citing Marx as the start of this tradition.

The coup de grâce of this burst came in January of 2018 when Michel Serres, The Birth of Physics was retranslated and republished with a blurb on the back explicitly acknowledging the timely importance of reintroducing this book for its contributions to twenty-first-century new materialism. Two months later saw the publication of my first book Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion and Jacques Lezra’s book On the Nature of Marx’s Things. Even in just the past eight years, we have seen a notable return of Lucretius to contemporary philosophy, in particular by new materialist philosophers.