Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Lucretius and Truth


Reading a few different books lately has got me pondering what we can know and how we can know it. The Roman philosopher-poet (an odd combination one might think) Lucretius was interested in the same kind of things, and talks about it in his didactic poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of the Universe). Here's some of what he has to say:

"If anyone thinks that nothing is ever known, he does not know whether even this can be known, since he admits that he knows nothing. Against such an adversary, therefore, who deliberately stands on his head, I will not trouble to argue my case. And yet, if I were to grant that he possessed this knowledge, I might ask several pertinent questions. Since he has had no experience of truth, how does he know what either knowledge or ignorance are? What has originated the concept of truth and falsehood? Where is his proof that doubt is not the same as certainty?"

[Lucretius, De Rerum Natura IV.469ff]

Post-Modernism (or at least the relativism that often characterises it) is not as new as a lot of people think. But Lucretius does more than just undermine this idea, he proposes his own theory on how we can know what we know:

"You will find, in fact, that the concept of truth was originated by the senses and that the senses cannot be rebutted. The testimony that we accept as more trustworthy is that which can spontaneously overcome falsehood with truth. What then are we to pronounce more trustworthy than the senses? Can reason derived from the deceitful senses be invoked to contradict them, when it itself is wholly derived from the senses? If they are not true, then reason in its entirety is equally false... Whatever the senses may percieve at any time is all alike true."

[Lucretius, De Rerum Natura IV.478ff]

For Lucretius the senses were the primary arbiter of truth- if you could percieve something, it must be real. This belief sprang from, believe it or not, his ideas about physics. He (along with Epicurus whose philosophy he was adapting into Latin) believed that the world was made up exclusively of atoms and void (ie empty space). Everything we percieve is the result of atoms banging into each other, and therefore our senses give us a true representation of reality- nothing supernatural exists to decieve our senses, nor to somehow reveal truth to us.

12 comments:

teenage dirtbag said...

you ponder too much mr morrison. 'tis a compliment.

sarah s said...

Excellent blog! Two things I have meant to tell you, but have been unable to remember in class:

1) The other night I was doing some last minute Googling for notes on Livy and Virgil, and on the first page of Google, your blog came up. Woohoo!

2) Now that we have done those essays, is it worth keeping our notes and further adding to/summarising them, or will we not need them ever again? Because I don't know which folder to file them in.

PS: Wikipedia has heaps of stuff related to this blog, if you/anyone is interested. I read it all once, ages ago, and it is really great!

sarah s said...

PPS: By "this blog", I meant this particular entry and the ideas discussed, not your actual blog itself. That would just be weird. Maybe I should go and write something about it on the school's wikipedia page?

byron said...

philosopher-poet (an odd combination one might think)
Why is this an odd combination? Seems to have been fairly common historically. Perhaps common ideas about what philosophy is have changed quite a bit...

jm said...

as always, an excellent point Byron, though it is kind of unusual in antiquity for philosophy to be expounded in verse. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius wrote their philosophy mostly in prose as far as I'm aware (Cicero also wrote bad poems and Seneca also wrote plays), although there were some 6th and 5th century BC Greek models (such as Empedocles) for Lucretius to imitate.

it was odd for Lucretius however, as Epicurus, whose philosophy Lucretius was 'translating' into Latin, thought poetry was a bit of a waste of time, since it distracted one from the real business of philosophy.

Lucretius himself saw that his poetry was like honey around the rim of a cup of medicine- the philosophy is good for you, but unappealing; the honey of his poetry makes it more palatable.

(by the way you can have ten points if you can tell me who's in the picture, and what it has to do with this post).

Persephone said...

In the picture: Jesus Christ standing before Pontious Pilate.

Relevance: (I should have spent more time in Youth Group) didn't Jesus say "The wise man is he who admits he knows nothing", which is basically a paraphrase of De Rerum Natura IV.469ff...?

Alternately, the "seeing is believing" of the second excerpt: After the resurrection, they saw, they believed he was the son of God (except Simon who insisted on putting his fingers in the piercings)

Or, the senses were the primary arbiter of truth - "I am the way, the truth and the light".

Quite honestly, I should procrastinate. I end up miles off the mark and making a right royal fool of myself in the process.

jm said...

persephone, you're spot on about the picture. those weren't the links i had in mind, though they do have their own kind of logic. i think it was socrates who said "the wise man is he who admits he knows nothing" (or something to that effect) wasn't it? you can five points (not that i'm keeping score).

Mike Salter said...

Although I still think the board's selections are terrible, I've enjoyed reading Lucretius again these last couple of years. It's an interesting psychological study among other things - half the time he seems to be trying to convince himself more than Memmius.

sarah s said...

I love Lucretius, and PS: I knew it was Jesus too, I just didn't know the other half of the answer.

Persephone said...

Ah, you are indeed correct. Socrates was the one who said "The wise man is he who admits he knows nothing".

Well, in that case, I'll admit I'm completely stumped as to its relevance.

jm said...

Persephone, during Jesus' trial Pilate asked him "What is truth?"

Persephone said...

Ah. Well now it definately makes sense (and I'm sure my Christian Studies teacher would disown me for not knowing that).

Thanks for clearing that up!