So I finished The Swerve, which I briefly mentioned earlier, about the composition, loss to obscurity, rediscovery, and impact of Lucretius’ Epicurean philosopical poem On the Nature of Things. Utterly loved it. I learned a lot about a lot of periods of history that I didn’t know very much about, and it presented a very convincing account of the rôle of this classical poem, almost lost and really preserved largely by accident, in laying the intellectual foundations for the modern Western world. [More about Lucretius and The Swerve.]
One thing that struck me as a 21st-century reader, reading Greenblatt’s exposition of Lucretius’ view of the universe, is just how far you can get by pure speculation, without formally using anything like the scientific method. Lucretius, and Epicurus before him, made up what they thought they knew about the world with nothing like formal experimentation, with no theory-testing, just coming to conclusions based on whatever they happened to observe, plus whatever biases were already in their heads. And to be sure, they got an awful lot laughably wrong from a modern vantage point. Quoting Greenblatt:
Lucretius believed that the sun circled around the earth, and he argued that the sun’s heat and size could hardly be much greater than are perceived by our senses. He thought that works were spontaneously generated from the wet soil, explained lightning as seeds of fire expelled from hollow clouds, and pictured the earth as a menopausal mother exhausted by the effort of so much breeding.
But he also believed that everything in the universe, whether matter we interact with on earth or lights we see in the sky, was made up of tiny indivisible particles; that while physical objects seem solid, those tiny particles probably have space between them,; that they interact, and that while a rock face may be eroded to sand and a human being may decompose to dirt, the tiny indivisible particles (though they may scatter) never change or disappear; and that all these particles were in constant motion, and that their behaviour in aggregate was controlled by random fluctuations, by what we would now call laws of statistics. He believed that living matter was made of the same particles as inanimate matter. He believed that human beings were animals, and that the differences between different kinds of animals were generally matters of degree, rather than kind. He believed that animals develop from other animals, as the random changes (or “swerves”, hence the title of Greenblatt’s book) of the atoms the animal was made up of accumulated into larger changes, and the animals with beneficial changes did better than the animals with detrimental changes, so that the beneficial changes were passed on. He believed that consciousness was a phenomenon produced by physical bodies that could be explained (like everything else in the world) by the incredibly complex interactions of uncountably many tiny particles.
All in all, it strikes me (and Greenblatt) as a startlingly accurate picture of the world for Iron Age philosophers to make up out of their own minds, their haphazard observations of the world around them, and earlier authorities’ writings.
So of course I had to order the Loeb edition of On the Nature of Things. I wish my Latin were good enough to read it in the (particularly difficult, I gather) original, but I’m going to have to content myself with glancing across at the original when I come across a particularly good or interesting passage. (And looking a lot of stuff up.) It’ll be a while till I get to that anyway.
I also recently read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis 2 (the sequel to Persepolis, which I read a few months ago. Both very highly recommended (and quick reads, of course, being comics). They’re great example of the use of the comic format; there were lots of panels which were very concisely evocative in ways I can’t imagine a pure-text book or a movie being.
And finally, on Friday plumtreeblossom and I went back to see Theatre@First’s production of Pride and Prejudice again. And again it rocked (often with laughter). It obviously wasn’t exactly the same this time, but you can basically re-read my opening-night review and not go wrong. Of course, we noticed lots of stuff this time that we’d missed last time. And this time I took a lot of pictures, which hopefully I will eventually get around to posting on Flickr.
Still desperately looking for a renter (or, failing that, a sugar daddy or a winning lottery ticket), but I have a few nibbles this week.
So, full crazy-busy busy life, but largely full of fun.