September 27, 2007

To rim the lesson, as it were, with honey

larvalsubjects Says: September 26, 2007 at 10:22 pm Orla, I teach Epicurus nearly every semester in my intro to ethics courses, and have a tremendous fondness for him. The great thing about Lucretius in comparison is that De Rerum Natura is primarily focused on the metaphysical doctrine underpinning this ethical system. If you haven’t read this text, it’s a real treat. The text is filled with all sorts of very nuanced and marvellous observations of nature to support its claims, and the argumentation is clever and razor sharp. What I find most impressive is how Lucretius is able to make inferences to the unobserved– the atoms, which are below the threshold of consciousness –based on these observations, simply through thought alone (without the assistance of electron microscopes, etc). A few of my students have exclaimed “how did he manage to come up with this stuff!” Of course, there was an entire tradition of atomist thinkers from which he was drawing, but all the same…
This week we began Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura in my intro philosophy courses. I am extremely excited to teach this text. Not only is it beautifully written, but Lucretius’ brilliance glows on every page in both the ethical concerns that animate the text and his precise and careful observations of various natural phenomena to support his arguments. In my view, a good philosophical thesis problematizes the world and creates research projects. Where before certain things seemed to be obvious features of the world, these hitherto familiar things now become bathed in the light of problems, demanding explanation in terms of the overarching thesis. Thus, for example, Lucretius’ atomism now turns the growth of a tree or water oozing from cave walls into problems or questions to be explained in terms of atoms. Stunning philosophical claims suddenly burst forth like lightening, such as the the claim that “all things are porous”.
Increasingly it looks like Lucretius was mistaken in his conception of atoms as the smallest units of indestructable matter– quantum mechanics seems to suggest that there are no smallest units of matter, only various rhythms and intensities of energy defined more as relations or fields that perpetually reconstitute themselves as dynamic processes in relation to other point-fields, than individual points –but nonetheless Lucretius’ thesis remains one that bathed the world in clarity, making possible questions and explanations that were not otherwise possible. This, too, is a virtue of a good thesis: It becomes lively towards its own material, such that the conditions are created where it can encounter the limits of what it is able to explain, allowing new theses to emerge. When thought is a patchwork quilt with no convictions, such liveliness does not occur as the most heterogeneous elements sit side by side in the patchwork making no claim on the matter.
The first thing that strikes the reader of Lucretius is the form of De Rerum Natura. Why is it written as a poem? After all, Lucretius could have presented his claims as a series of numbered points. Were he alive today he could have presented it as a Powerpoint presentation. Why, then, the poetic form? Lucretius writes:
I teach great things,I try to loose men’s spirit from the ties,Tight-knotted, which religion binds around them.The Muses’ grace is on me, as I writeClear verse about dark matters. This is notA senseless affectation; there’s reason to it.Just as when doctors try to give to childrenA bitter medicine, they rim the cupWith honey’s sweetness, honey’s golden flavor,To fool the silly little things, as farAs the lips at least, so that they’ll take the bitterDosage, and swallow it down, fooled, but not swindled,But brought to health again through double-dealing,So now do I, because this doctrine seemsToo grim for those who never yet have tried it,So grim that people shrink from it, I’ve meantTo explain the system in a sweeter music,To rim the lesson, as it were, with honey,Hoping, this way, to hold your mind with versesWhile you are learning all that form, that patterOf the way things are. (Humphries trans, The Way Things Are, 46-47)
I was delighted to come across this passage as it not only provides the students, frustrated by the poetic form, with a rationale for this form, but also gave me the opportunity to sing the praises of rhetoric. Lucretius’ text functions on two planes of composition, the one composed of strict arguments of an inductive and deductive sort, along with the production of concepts (the astonishing concept of the porous, the invention of the void, the distinction between attributes and by-products, etc), the other being the rhetorical dimension. Recognizing that often the spirit is not persuaded by clear and rigorous arguments despite their soundness, Lucretius hopes to provoke aesthetic pleasure in his readers so as to disarm them and make them sympathetic to his austure metaphysics that otherwise flies in the face of our superstitious yearnings and beliefs. Thus, Lucretius’ arguments and concepts are a bitter medicine that would bring us to health by freeing us of the terror and anxiety– terror and anxiety caused by superstitious beliefs such as those that the Gods judge us and exert their wraith through natural disasters, or that we will be punished for all eternity for not living a particular way –while his rhetoric, his poetics, are sweet honey that allows this medicine to go down more easily as we work our way towards intellectual maturity and acquire the capacity to explain the world in terms of natural causes.

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