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Epicureanism and the Missing Soul of Modernity by Michael W. Weyns

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Epicureanism and the Missing Soul of Modernity

Engraving from the first published full translation of De Rerum Natura, Oxford University Press, 1683.

When Titus Lucretius Carus composed his classical poem De Rerum Natura, he set the cadence of his verses to the same grandiloquent metrical regime as ancient epics like the Iliad and the Odyssey: the dactylic hexameter. At first glance, this might strike us as odd, given the poem’s objective of espousing a philosophy. Indeed, rather than glorifying heroism in any traditional sense, the narrative’s primary mode of agency is ultimately noetic. Even if, as Constant Martha had it, “Lucretius interests himself in his atoms as Homer in his heroes,” the symphony overall maintains its crescendo to a point of omnivorous insight. Its purport is perspicacity, not drama. And yet, if “existence, for the epic, is an ocean,” as Walter Benjamin once put it, then Lucretius’ work proves itself beyond a doubt. For, in fact, De Rerum Natura contemplates the world the way a roaring ocean is gazed at from the shoreline, revealing a vast, listless void, buoying an infinite flux of tiny particles. In the words of Tennyson’s “Lucretius”:

A void was made in Nature; all her bonds / Crack’d; and I saw the flaring atom-streams / And torrents of her myriad universe, / Ruining along the illimitable inane.

This world, as it figures in Lucretius’ magnum opus, is of Epicurean make. It is a world denuded of divine influence, reduced to a drab and tranquil steadiness. Its substantial uniformity also foreshadows, to an uncanny degree, the empirical emptiness of modernity. Indeed, according to Leo Strauss, in De Rerum Natura, “not to say in Epicureanism generally, premodern thought seems to [have] come closer to modern thought than anywhere else.” This is no coincidence. Lucretius’ influence on early modern thinkers was considerable. Prodigious characters like Francis Bacon, Pierre Gassendi, and Isaac Newton all fell under his spell. When it was rediscovered by the modern world, De Rerum Natura effectively furnished a new poetry of science, whose herald and champion was the ancient sage Epicurus. 

De Rerum Natura copied by Augustinian friar Girolamo di Matteo de Tauris for Pope Sixtus IV in 1483.

As the progenitor of Lucretius’ system of nature, Epicurus himself had been a great admirer of the pre-Socratic Democritus, who was among the very first to proffer an atomistic theory of being. According to Democritus, “in nature there is nothing but atoms and emptiness.” This seems obvious now to us moderns, who are usually taught, implicitly or explicitly, that elementary physics and chemistry provide a full explanation of matter. Yet, in ancient times, such a materialist conception of reality came with a specific ethical injunction: “The end of being is tranquillity … a state in which the soul continues calm and strong, undisturbed by any fear or superstition or any other emotion.” Superstition is rendered by Diogenes Laërtius as deisidaimonía, which means something like ‘fear of the divine.’ What an atomistic theory of being teaches more than anything is a psychological privation of this kind of fear. Intellectual subjection to the void of existence and freedom from superstition of the divine come as an inextricable pair.

Among the most ardent detractors of the Democritean paradigm was Plato, the grandfather of philosophical idealism. Purportedly, “Plato wished to burn all the writings of Democritus he could collect.” It isn’t very hard to see why. At bottom, Plato and Democritus (and in the latter’s wake, Epicurus and Lucretius) disagreed on the nature of the soul. In this, their quarrel reached its profoundest point. For Plato, the soul was daemonic, a winged interstitial substance, communing between the mortal realm of perishable “mutabilities” and the eternal realm of the ideas. For the founder of the Academy, “every soul [was] immortal,” because it was self-inducing, self-perpetuating, and ultimately uncaused.

By contrast, Democritus held that, like the sun and the moon, the human soul was composed exclusively of “smooth and spherical masses,” a flurry of tiny globules he called átomoi, “uncuttables.” The soul was only one among a profusion of innumerable atomic “conglomerations.” Lucretius would later qualify this Democritean outlook as follows:

Soul exists / A subtle fabric, of particles minute, / Made up from atoms smaller much than those / Of water’s liquid damp, or fog, or smoke, / So in mobility it far excels, / More prone to move, though strook by lighter cause / Even moved by images.

Contra the Platonic teachings and the whole nexus of Socratic philosophy, the atomistic soul is the most mortal, most impressionable arrangement of parts in the cosmos.

If we assume a bird’s-eye view of Western history, we can see this ancient Greek quarrel play out on a much grander scale. While in Attica, both Platonism and Epicureanism had enjoyed their respective successes, when the former later merged with Christian myth under the influence of such thinkers as Philo, Origen, Augustine, and numerous others, it began to enjoy a level of acclaim unrivalled by any other philosophical school. In effect, much of the wisdom of the ancient Platonic academy was absorbed into the nascent Catholic Church. As Nietzsche would put it, early Christianity as such became “Platonism for the masses.”

While much of the ancien régime was dominated by various strands of Platonism, this tradition came under stress when it conflicted with the Pauline notion of the Resurrection. Platonism conceives of the body as a tomb of the human soul. Each personal self inheres in its soul, and this soul yearns to be released from its bodily encasement. Yet, echoing the principle of Christ’s Incarnation, the raising of the righteous dead involves precisely the resurrection of bodies. Why should the soul, liberated from its earthly vessel, want to return to it? 

“Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas” (ca. 1470 – 1475), a 230 x 102 cm tempera on poplar wood painting by Benozzo Gozzoli (1420 – 1497), located in the Louvre.

Sensitive to the importance of this question, in the 13th century, “the Angelic Doctor” Thomas Aquinas sought to integrate Church doctrine with a more Aristotelian framework of philosophical understanding. Aristotle, after all, argued for a tighter coupling between body and soul than did his teacher Plato. For “the Philosopher” (as Aquinas referred to Aristotle), the soul relates to the body the way form relates to matter. The soul informs the body. Though Aristotle insisted on a natural affinity between souls and bodies, his teaching doesn’t imply a straightforward material reductionism. Being itself eidetic, the soul remains substantially incorporeal. In fact, very similar to Plato’s theory of soul in the Timaeus, Aristotle in De Anima held especially that the intellective faculty was “a distinct species of soul, and it alone admits of being separated, as the immortal from the perishable.” Consequently, Aquinas also held that “the human soul, which is called the intellect or the mind, is something incorporeal.” Crucially, once severed, this soul can no longer be said to constitute a proper person in the full sense, since “the soul is not the whole human being.” To become whole again, body and soul must eventually be reunited at the Resurrection.

Aquinas was thus able to solve a core theological conundrum while maintaining a doctrine of “separated essences” similar to Plato’s. He made it so that a certain continuity could be ensured regarding the Church’s teachings on the matter of the soul. Hence, in the 14th century, it was still perfectly reasonable for the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri to condemn Epicureans to the sixth circle of the Inferno, simply because these philosophers held that “the soul dies with the body.” Later, however, the inception of modernity was marked precisely by a veiled reintroduction of Epicurean motives. Indeed, the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, one of the fathers of modern political philosophy and a chief architect of modernity as such, was explicitly motivated by the poetic vision of Lucretius.

Concerning temporal affairs, the Catholic Church had always inhabited the medial reality of potestas indirecta, taking on the role of regal censor vis-à-vis the worldly realms of Caesar. The seeds of modernity were sown when Hobbes, in his great political tractate Leviathan, hijacked Protestant scepticism of Church authority under false pretences. His true goal was the establishment of an absolute potestas directa—a caesaro-papist government, unburdened by ecclesiastical oversight—to overthrow the dominance of “vain philosophy,” by which he meant the alleged “logic-chopping” of Scholastic philosophers like Aquinas, and finally facilitate the chief Epicurean virtue of ataraxía.

Ataraxía is central to the Epicurean way of life. It is, at heart, a privative term, signifying the mere absence of disturbance, or pure equanimity. Recall, in this context, the guiding Democritean principle of ethics: “The end of being is tranquillity,” a state of obdurate calm. To create a space for his ataraxía, Hobbes must operate in the same fashion as his Epicurean forebears, and demonstrate the falsity of certain core religious teachings, especially insofar as they pertained to a numinous, inaccessible realm beyond the senses. Spirits, angels, souls—these must refer not to incorporeal forms, but only to (qualities of) material bodies. Since there can be no separate spiritual essences, there can also be no separate spiritual realms. Hence, humans may rest assured that they will not be risking eternal damnation in the gulfs of Gehenna. 

It was Hobbes’ denial of substance dualism that led him also to deny the dualism of powers, the polarity between an ecclesiastical potestas indirecta and a Caesarean potestas directa: “The greatest, and main abuse of Scripture, and to which almost all the rest are either consequent, or subservient, is the wresting of it, to prove that the Kingdom of God … is the present Church.” After all, “spiritual Commonwealth there is none in this world,” seeing as it is “our Saviour [who] shall judge the world, and conquer his adversaries, and make a spiritual Commonwealth. In the meantime, seeing there are no men on earth whose bodies are spiritual, there can be no spiritual Commonwealth amongst men that are yet in the flesh.” 

The denial of the Church as the guarantor of the spiritual commonwealth on earth, as the sovereign of men in their patriotism to heaven above, finally allowed Hobbes to argue for an ataractic commonwealth. The potestas indirecta must be abolished, “for this distinction of temporal and spiritual power is but words. Power is as really divided, and as dangerously to all purposes, by sharing with another indirect power, as with a direct one.” The Church, built on the fanciful notions of Plato and Aristotle, only “frights [men] from obeying the laws of their country.” With its demotion, all that remained was “the (Unum Necessarium) Only Article of Faith, which Scripture makes simply Necessary to Salvation,” namely, “that Jesus is the Christ.” This made it possible to sever one’s private faith completely from the public confession of that faith, without having to fear for one’s salvation in the Kingdom to come. It also meant one could now safely be subjected to the total dominion of an earthly ruler, cast in the role of the eponymous biblical Leviathan—the draconic animus of the hard-hearted Law; the executor of a “doctrine of government and obedience.” So, the real objective was achieved: Man could be protected from his natural fear of “the danger of violent death,” which haunts him in the absence of absolute arbitration and renders his life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This fear was for Hobbes the summum malum of real human existence, the privation of which, engineered by an absolute sovereign, was at the same time his Epicurean summum bonum: ataraxía.

Hobbes secured the first human right, the right to bare life. On this basis, an ataractic society could be established, safeguarding mere subsistence at all costs. To accomplish this, Catholicism had to be sacrificed, and temporal power freed from any higher coordination. Thus, the status of the Church shifted from that of potestas indirecta, from being God’s prelate on earth, to something quite the opposite. In Hobbes’ own words: a “Kingdom of Darkness,” a “Confederacy of Deceivers”; a kind of Miltonian Pandæmonium for the Adversary. 

“Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council” (1824), a 39.1 x 55.9 cm mezzotint with drypoint on laid paper print by John Martin (1789 – 1854), located in the National Gallery of Canada.

While Hobbes’ conception of society is not yet the sort of classical liberalism to which most Western states have subscribed since the late 18th century—for the outlines of liberalism proper we must look to his immediate successors, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau—in Leviathan the conceptual premises were first set out for all modern kinds of sociality. This sociality hinges on a peculiar notion of humanity that makes it indistinguishable from a kind of mechanistic animal species. Given the Democritean ontology that underpins it, its natural tendency is towards fragmentation: it reduces humans (and animals, for that matter) to perambulating solids, briefly coagulating with others to form ephemeral clots of concentrated activity, only then to disperse and dissociate again. 

Lucretius asked: “Must we not grant that mind and soul consist / Of a corporeal nature?” When Hobbes poured over the palatial designs of biblical scripture, he was encouraged to answer in the affirmative: the word spirit in the Bible couldn’t actually mean “spirit or incorporeal substance,” but must always refer to the kinetic vitality of moving bodies. Hence, for the first time in over a millennium, materialism found its way back into the Western mind; secular society, to invert Nietzsche’s aphorism, subjected itself to an Epicureanism for the masses.

Following its adoption by a diverse cast of distinguished figures—from David Hume, Adam Smith, and Jeremy Bentham to Thomas Jefferson and even Karl Marx—we can now easily recognize the credo of Epicurean materialism being expounded all around us. If we look, for example, at the corpus of the humanist philosopher A. C. Grayling, we find him, like many of the New Atheists, untiringly—and oftentimes pedantically—arguing against “the amorphous target” that is religion. The arguments he puts forth usually centre around the historical harm perpetrated in the name of the divine. These arguments are purely Hobbesian: Harm is regarded as a net negative, regardless of what has motivated it, precisely, in fact, because any motivations are inevitably deemed superstitious and so irrational. 

Without knowing the genealogical origins of this kind of thinking, it is easy to become blinded by its apparent self-evidence. Yet, as presented, the argument is topsy-turvy: it is the very primacy of ataraxía in Epicurean thought that needs to get rid of deisidaimonía as a matter of course. The notion that religion is merely superstition—a quintessentially materialist notion—emerges precisely on account of Epicurean priorities. 

In the same spirit as Grayling, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature argues explicitly for a progressive evaluation of history on account of its increasing tendency towards Epicurean ends. Compared to ancient societies, we moderns statistically fare far better on the scale of violence-reduction (or in Epicurean terms: aponía, the “absence of pain”), because we got rid of “superstitious killing” and externalized conflict resolution to a leviathan state, which is itself “not a deserving target of revenge.” It is really quite remarkable that this single metric should suffice to congratulate us on a job well done. The reduction of physical suffering, while certainly not bad in and of itself, is again a purely privative criterion. What the much-lambasted apologists of religion typically object to is the spiritual cost incurred by this abrasive insulation from harm: a cost that is, as of yet (and perhaps by its very nature), immeasurable. 

For Epicurus, life’s end goal (télos) consisted in a perfected state of undisturbed mentality and physical comfort. This kind of life is akin to a kind of death (Thanatos); it is a fossilized life, trapped in amber. If we follow the Hobbesian enterprise to its logical conclusion, a bleak portrait emerges: an ataractic and calcified society, made up  of zombified, catatonic beings. As Lucretius put it: “death cannot be lived.” A life of ataraxy is no life at all.

Michael W. Weyns is an independent writer with an M.Sc. degree in computer science and a background in philosophy. He currently lives and works in Belgium and divides his time between doctoral research and forays into intellectual history.


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