Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Way Things Are

[Content note: gruesome disease. Self-plagiarism note: this is based on a Facebook post.]

De Rerum Natura, an ancient poem written by Lucretius, is surprisingly popular this decade. (That’s mostly because of the popularity of The Swerve, a fairly good book that Stephen Greenblatt wrote a couple years ago.) The poem is a summary of Lucretius’s Epicurean views, which amount to this: the world is made of atoms, and when the atoms that make us up disperse, our lives and minds come to a firm end. So we should surround ourselves with friends and enjoy our lives while we can, neither hoping for heaven nor fearing the pit of Hell.

What often gets overlooked is how deeply human the poem is. It is in turns elegant, disturbing, and scorchingly beautiful. I’ve seen it make teenagers go wide eyed and silent. Book III, especially, made me ache the first time I read it. Meanwhile, the very end of the poem—describing the horrifying plague of Athens—is one of the most awful things I’ve ever read. Let me translate part of it (VI.1183-1281), and then make a comment on it that I think makes Epicureanism much sadder—and true to life—than it seems.

And many signs of death appeared: the mind tormented by sadness and fear; the heavy brow; the angry, wild face; the throbbing ears full of ringing sounds; the breath either painting or strangely mustered to tremendous effort; the neck glistening with liquid sweat; the thin, saffron-colored chunks of spit, barely thrown from the rough throat by a cough. ... Then if the sufferer survived the [ensuing] flow of dark blood, the sickness would pass into his nerves and limbs, down to his very genitals. And horrified by the threshold of nothingness, many would cut off their own genitals with a knife, and some would cling to life without their hands or feet, and some even tore out their eyes to live a lightless life. This far did the bitter fear of death press them. And some lost their memory of all things, and failed even to recognize themselves. ... And funerals were rushed along, deserted and lonely. And no one knew of any kind of cure; for what filled the mouth of one with living wind, letting him look upon the stars of heaven, was death to the next and brought him to nothingness. 
But among all these things this was the most miserable and heartbreaking: when a man saw that he was tangled in sickness and doomed to die, he would lie down with a sad heart, and staring into the void would lose his life right there. 
And at no time did they stop catching the all-swallowing disease from each other, just like wooly flocks and horny breeds. Thus was funeral heaped upon funeral. Many would flee from their sick relatives into the fields, thirsting for life and fearing death, but neglect would soon punish them with a foul and terrible death; slaughtering them alone and cut off from help. But those who stayed by would catch the disease and die: the kindest, therefore, died all the same. 
... And all the sacred temples of the gods had filled with dead bodies, and the holy places of the heavenly ones were strewn with corpses—the places which the stewards used to fill with guests. For there was no worship left of the gods, nor were the holy ones respected any more: the suffering was too immense for that. Nor was there any burial-rite left in the city, by which the people had always buried their dead: all were confused and tormented, and each one miserably buried his kin in haste. And circumstances and sudden poverty pressed men to horrible things: with an animal cry they would lay their kin on the pyres of strangers and set them alight, fighting often and spilling blood rather than desert the bodies.
Most commentators think that the poem is unfinished, and that Lucretius would have continued here if he had had the chance. If it were really a poem about how to live, it is argued, the plague would be capped with a moral; with an encouragement to us to live a better life. A mere description of brute facts makes no sense as the ending to a poem that is meant to teach us something.

And yet the poem ends here. Against the consensus of scholars, I think there’s a profound and terrible meaning buried in that fact. After writing a book about the randomness of nature, and the possibility of enjoying life without thinking of the gods or the world to come, Lucretius introduces a troubling caveat: the world, precisely given its randomness, more often than not causes us awful suffering. Pleasure is what we strive for, but pain—and ultimately death—is what the mute world has to offer us in the end. There’s no philosophical rationalization of this, because Lucretius is wise enough to know there cannot be.

The end of the poem, then, is Lucretius’s painful admission that his philosophy is not a cure to all human ills. To the contrary: there is some suffering in the world that is simply too painful to be made right. Death is the only remedy in such a case—and as I will explain below, Lucretius’ attitude to that particular remedy is more ambiguous than it seems.

This, if true, represents a break from Lucretius’ intellectual fathers. The first Epicureans talked worshipfully about the tetrapharmakos, the “four-part cure”, a short creed that was a cure to all anxiety:

Ἄφοβον ὁ θεός,
ἀνύποπτον ὁ θάνατος
καὶ τἀγαθὸν μὲν εὔκτητον,
τὸ δὲ δεινὸν εὐεκκαρτέρητον.
Don’t fear god,
don’t worry about death;
what is good is easy to get, and
what is terrible is easy to endure.

It’s the last part of this slogan that I think Lucretius refused to endorse. Most of De Rerum Natura can indeed be read as an elaboration of the creed. We have sections denying the influence of the gods, railing against the fear of death, and lauding the pleasures of the simple life. But there is nothing in the poem to correspond to the last item: what is terrible is easy to endure. (The traditional position is that Lucretius was on the cusp of finishing the tetrapharmakos when circumstances forced him to end his poem with the plague.) So whether we chalk up the omission to Lucretius balking from a balm to suffering or not having time to include it is an open question. Personally speaking, I think the last item of the tetrapharmakos is the only glib part of Epicurus’ doctrine, which Lucretius’s own account of the plague shows vividly. That’s what impels me to believe that Lucretius simply did not believe that suffering is easily borne.

I think I can go farther, though I am far less sure of what I am about to say. Lucretius builds an elegant case against the fear of death earlier in his poem, reasoning that since death is uninterrupted nothingness, it contains no pain and is therefore not to be dreaded. But I think that the conclusion to his poem shows that he was deeply troubled by the prospect of the void. His description of the plague shows a powerful thirst for life in humanity, which reaches its peak when man looks into the abyss. This longing for life, meanwhile, is too tightly woven into human nature to be easily dispelled by Greek philosophy. If he were true to his teacher Epicurus, perhaps, Lucretius would prescribe suicide in such extreme suffering. Nevertheless, as my friend Greg pointed out to me, Lucretius describes losing the will to live as “the most miserable and heartbreaking thing of all.” There is something beautiful about clinging to life: it is a human impulse that Lucretius documents countless times. When it goes away, when a person is faced with nothing better in his life than slipping into the grave, something terrible has happened. The thirst for life is not only natural but proper and justified.

And what’s more, the wonder and delight with which Lucretius describes life itself testifies to his horror of death. A frequent metaphor in the poem for life is “gazing at the heavens”: only those who are alive can experience the thrill of being awake in the cosmos. Descending to the grave from such a state, even if it involves no pain in the end, is at best an awful shame. It might be better than living in extreme pain, but in such circumstances it is only preferable for lack of a better alternative.

The main question which both of these matters turn on is to what extent Lucretius was willing to break with, or at least modify, classical Epicureanism. The conservative answer is that he was not, which means that the plague narrative must have been meant to conclude with a passage to the effect that “what is terrible is easy to endure,” and that the plague-stricken should have never clung to their own lives. I think this answer is wrong-headed, both as a textual matter and as a question of my own beliefs. Death to Lucretius is awful and pain is worse.

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