When I was about 17, I read The Nature of Things (Dr Rerum Natura) by Lucretius. It was my introduction to Epicurean philosophy and in many ways it became a touchstone for my worldview and personal philosophy. Of course, many of the ideas are a little dated now and most of the ‘facts’ have been replaced with more accurate representations of the universe. But what would you expect from a book that is more than 2000 years old – an accurate representation of how the world does and should work? Surely you jest.
The Nature of Things, despite its flaws, describes a universe that operates at the atomic level. There are no ethers or Forces or prime movers, simply a set of laws that matter follows to produce all the wonders that we see. It is a world without gods and without worship. No wonder the Churches of the world tried to suppress it for a thousand years. In fact, it was sheer luck, as described in the excellent book The Swerve, that preserved it to modern times – thus hastening the Renaissance and the coming scientific revolution.
Lucretius and his mentor, Epicurus, were not only concerned with the function of the larger universe; they were concerned with how a man or woman might live the good life. Contrary to the slanders leveled at Epicureans, it is not a life of excess but rather of seeking pleasure through moderate consumption of all good things – food, wine, music, sex – while cultivating deep and lasting friendships.
While the Epicureans denied the existence of gods, they were never more than gently mocking of their religious contemporaries; one might wish that they were treated the same way, but no. They were persecuted for centuries and there was no greater taint that a priest could level at a philosopher or ordinary citizen than he followed an Epicurean life. The Inquisition could hardly be far behind.
Still, it seems to me, that the world would be a much better place if Epicurus had become the central fount of wisdom for modern society. No more poverty or excessive wealth, no persecution of people for holding different views – merely a demand, made in a jocular fashion, that they defend their views in a rational way based on actual observation of the world. Toleration, moderation, contemplation, friendship, joy, laughter, acceptance, inner peace – all Epicurean values.
Now that would be paradise on earth. But you have to excuse me – I have to go eat a modest breakfast of scones, strawberries and whipping cream washed down with a mug of hot strong coffee. While listening to music with my lovely wife.
And that’s ten minutes.