Knowledge, entropy and dinosaurs: Lucretius’ De rerum natura part 2

For Father’s Day, I bought my old man a book on Epicurus. He’s lived by a lot of the Epicurean tenets and, like I always do, enjoyed the fact that someone else came to the same conclusion and was able to describe it succinctly.

I’m currently reading the Aeneid, and don’t have too much to say about it at the moment, but I have a few more miscellaneous notes to share about Lucretius.

Dismissing Socrates

In Book IV, Lucretius discusses knowledge. Epicureans held that what the eyes perceive is true, at least in the sense that the image resolved by the eyes is always what the eyes actually see. It is the mind, during the process of discernment, that can mistake what is real and not real.

So, without reasoning through what we see, we may think another world exists on the other side of a still puddle on a road:

A puddle no deeper than a finger’s breadth, formed in a hollow between the cobblestones of the highway, offers to the eye a downward view, below the ground, of as wide a scope as the towering immensity of sky that yawns above. You would fancy you saw clouds far down below you and a sky and heavenly bodies deep-buried in a miraculous heaven beneath the earth.

…we do not admit that the eyes are in any way deluded . It is their function to see where light is, and where shadow. But whether one light is the same as another, and whether the shadow that was here is moving over there, or whether on the other hand what really happens is what I have just described – that is something to be discerned by the reasoning power of the mind. The nature of phenomena cannot be understood by the eyes.

Knowledge, it would seem, stems directly from our ability to sense the world and then make sense of it. The universe is composed of objects and phenomena composed of atoms and nothing else, and we cannot know what we do not perceive on some level. This is again at odds with Plato’s forms, particularly since the intellectual processes become vastly different: for Plato, the philosopher’s quest for knowledge is one toward conception of the forms, the intangible ideals that provide a template for all things. To behold a chair with one’s eyes is to see only the shadow of truth. For Epicurus/Lucretius, to know something is to sense it and discern its true nature using reason.

Lucretius, in fact, dismisses Plato outright by dismantling one of Socrates’ most famous quotes, from Apology:

I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.

According to Lucretius:

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.

A clever jab to be sure, but I’m not entirely sure that it’s justified. Socrates reiterates his lack of knowledge in several places throughout the dialogues, but it often takes the form of refuting that the particulars of certain kinds of knowledge are important to begin with, in the context of metaphysics or the divine. Plato’s Socrates seems to be paraphased a lot among Roman philosophers and historians as well (“I know one thing: that I know nothing” and the like), which makes simple, effective (and entertaining) refutations like this easier to dispense.

“…the bodies of huge beasts…”

There’s one more interesting note I hinted at last time. In Book II, Lucretius discusses some form of entropy in the Epicurean cosmos, the alternating periods of building up and wearing away of bodies in the universe. Given time, even the land itself will be broken down and rendered incapable of nurturing the sort of life that once thrived. Lucretius believed that, in his time, the Earth was already over the hill.

It must, of course, be conceded that many particles ebb and drain away from things. But more particles must accrue, until they have touched the topmost peak of growth. Thereafter the strength and vigor of maturity is gradually broken, and age slides down the path of decay.


Already the life-force is broken. The earth, which generated every living species and once brought forth from its womb the bodies of huge beasts, has now scarcely strength to generate tiny creatures.

“Huge beasts”? How much did ancient peoples know about dinosaurs? Surely they had come across bones and footprints themselves or heard of their rumor. Based on his own writing, Lucretius did not seem to accept that certain mythological creatures were real. He says:

It must not be supposed that atoms of every sort can be linked in every variety of combination. If that were so, you would see monsters coming into being everywhere. Hybrid growths of man and beast would arise. Lofty branches would spread here and there from a living body. Limbs of land-beast and sea-beast would often be conjoined. Chimeras breathing flame from hideous jaws would be reared by nature throughout the all-generating earth.

Perhaps not a comprehensive refutation, but close enough to suspect that he might not believe in minotaurs or gorgons or other monstrous creatures. If they were not chimeric foils of gods and heroes, then what were they, these “huge beasts” of ancient times? Makes you wish he would have elaborated a bit more.

I won’t be reading much philosophy over the next few weeks. Mostly history (Tacitus) and a re-reading of the New Testament, but I might write up a couple of posts before I get into Plotinus, Augustine and Boethius.

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