At the heart of the modern day science and religion debate is the conflict between the creation passages of Genesis and Titus Lucretius Carus’s poem ‘On the nature of things’, two competing visions of the meaning and the value of human existence. Both are in a sense cosmogonical myths, yet to recognize them as such is not to diminish their significance or truthfulness. Myths are not lies or detached stories. Rather they serve as imaginative patterns, networks of powerful symbols that can present particular ways of interpreting the world and its meaning. As the British philosopher Mary Midgley argues, the myths we live by ‘shape our symbolism, our metaphysics and our understanding of what is real’. This is a point often missed when referring to Genesis which has come to be regarded as an inerrant repository of scientific truth. Yet to hold its message as literal is to ignore the reality of how we use language and literature in many different ways; as Origen puts it in 'On First Principles' :
‘What man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without the sun and moon and stars?....I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history and not through actual events’
Polanyi in ‘Personal Knowledge’ similarly reflects that:
'The book of Genesis and its great pictorial illustrations, like the frescos of Michelangelo, remain a far more intelligent account of the nature and origins of the universe than the representation of the world as a chance collection of atoms. For the Biblical cosmology continues to express - however inadequately - the significance of the fact the world exists and that man has emerged from it, while the scientific picture denies any meaning to the world, and indeed ignores all our vital experience of this world. The assumption that the world has some meaning which is linked to our calling as the only responsible beings in the world, is an important example of the supernatural aspect of experience which Christian interpretations of the universe explore and develop.’
On the nature of things is an epic which moves in lofty and conversational language through such themes as the universe, human beings, the soul, death and the Gods. Lucretius’s pretext for writing the poem is to convert his friend Memmius to Epicureanism; but also to strike a blow against antiquity’s teleologists, the Platonists, the Aristotelians and most of all, the Stoics. He chooses to do so in verse in order to sweeten this bitter pill of his rather dismal and dispiriting philosophy in which life is accidental both in the everyday and in the genesis. To Lucretius, his mentor Epicurius is the spiritual and moral savior of himself and mankind; a man whose teachings have the power to free humankind from the fear of the gods by demonstrating that all things occur by natural causes. The poem seeks to grandly proclaim the reality of humanity’s role in a universe ruled by chance, a cosmos in which we are decoupled from any cosmic master plan. It is a statement of personal responsibility in a world in which everyone is driven by hungers and passions with which they were born and do not understand, an expression of both defiance and hope in the face of philosophical despair. For Lucretius, one of the chief obstacles to the tranquillity of mind is the fear of death, the fear of punishment after death and the fear of the gods. By showing that the mind and spirit are mortal, and that they therefore cannot live on after we die, the poet seeks to banish these concerns;
‘Death..is nothing to us: when we exist death is not present; and when death is present, we do not exist. Consequently it does not concern either the living or the dead since for the living it is non existent and the dead no longer exist’
Phillip Larkin certainly didn’t find any scrap of consolation in Lucretius. As he stared into the abyss, the abyss stared back into him. In his great poem ‘Aubade’ he remarked:
‘This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says
No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round..’
If non existence is indeed the eventual state of affairs then Larkin presumably never had to experience the embarrassment of looking down from upon high as his friends and family discovered he had amassed the largest collection of hardcore pornography in the northern hemisphere. Nor did he have to watch on in horror as his biographers poured through his diaries to find he had written of the joys of ‘WATCHING SCHOOLGIRLS SUCK EACH OTHER OFF WHILE YOU WHIP THEM". Perhaps Lucretius was right and eternal annihilation has its plus side.
Of perhaps the most significance in the poem is its depiction of Epicurus’s version of atomism, in which the universe originates at some indefinite point in the past as an infinite number of small, hard, indestructible particles moving downward through void space in parallel. Ours is a world in which bodies composed of many atoms entangled with one another, then move in a variety of ways and interact with one another through collision. Superficially the depiction of reality contained in ‘On the Nature of Things’ would seem to be anathema to the picture contained in Genesis of an orderly Cosmos created and ruled over by an Omnipotent God, yet it was the creative tension between the two which gave birth to the mechanical philosophy of early modern science. The atomistic picture succeeded when it was wedded by Gassendi, Mersenne and Descartes to the purposive understanding of the cosmos derived from Genesis and biblical notions of God’s power. Descartes for example, expressed motion as follows:
‘From the mere fact that God gave pieces of matter various movements at their first creation, and that he now preserves all this matter in being in the same way as he first created it, he must likely always preserve in it the same quantity of motion’.
What we now recognize as a scientific principle was therefore formulated through a theological concept of divine immutability. The universe ran like a clock, but not autonomously; divine preservation shaped it and held it in being . Later theorists such as Boyle recognized the atomistic picture as an ally to Christian belief, divesting nature of all inherent powers and making brute matter subservient to God’s immediate Will, controlled in motion by laws externally imposed. In such a universe God’s sovereignty could be celebrated. Genesis and ‘On the Nature of Things’ appear strange bedfellows but molded together they provided a powerful interpretive framework capable of gaining great insight.
At first glance, the world around us is much as it was described in De Rerum Natura, which has become something of a creation myth for metaphysical naturalism, minus the magnificently indifferent Gods whom the materialists have long since evaporated with their animosity towards the supernatural. In the atomistic picture, the soul is just a collection of particles animated by blind chance, the discovery of the evolutionary process shattered Paley’s watchmaker argument, Laplace eliminated God from the heavens and natural theology retreated into talk of process.
And yet, as Francis Bacon was to write on the difference between the Aristotelian and Epicurean world pictures:
‘Nay, even that school which is most accused of atheism doth most demonstrate religion; that is, the school of Leucippus and Democritus and Epicurus. For it is a thousand times more credible, that four mutable elements, and one immutable fifth essence, duly and eternally placed, need no God, than that an army of infinite small portions, or seeds unplaced, should have produced this order and beauty, without a divine marshal’.
The God has been eliminated by enlightenment doubt, yet the rational ordered universe remains as an inexplicable brute fact, its laws and regularities curiously permitting of our existence. As Bacon would say ‘It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism’. But when one steps back from creation and looks in wonder at the whole majestic sweep, at the finely balanced atomic structures, the infinity of stars across the night sky, a universe of mathematical beauty, and the unlikely emergence of Einstein, Newton and Michelangelo from the blind algorithmic workings of evolution and the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules; then one gets a dim sense of the mind behind this universal frame. We are nothing but atoms, but we are much more than just atoms. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
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