Ancient and modern

Lucretius vs Richard Dawkins

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

Richard Dawkins has been confusing his categories again, comparing Trinity College, Cambridge, with Islam. His attack on religion does precisely the same, as if the pre-scientific Biblical account of the world somehow disproves the whole religious phenomenon. The Roman poet Lucretius (c. 100–55 BC) had argued in this way long before Dawkins.

In his great poem On the Nature of the Universe, Lucretius built on earlier Greek thought to argue that the whole universe — mind and matter, body and soul, god and man, earth, sky, sun, moon and stars — was made up of atomic particles, below the level of perception, and to explain how it all worked. Further, the gods, made up of self-regenerating atoms, were serenely uninterested in us and our worries.


That Dawkinsian assertion does not follow, but it enabled Lucretius to confirm that death should hold no fears for us: the whole point of his poem. Our body and soul simply broke down into their component atoms and dissipated into thin air like smoke, and the gods could not care less. He concluded ‘To none is life given on freehold; to all, on lease. Past generations have taken your road, and so will future. Look back at the eternity that passed before we were born, and see how utterly it counts for nothing. That past is the mirror Nature holds up to us, in which we can see the time that shall be when we are dead. Does the sight terrify?’

Lucretius’ attack on religion had no discernible effect, any more than Dawkins’s has had, for all his celeb-maddened twittering. After the collapse of the western Roman Empire, Lucretius’ poem disappeared, but a text of it was rediscovered in a monastery library in Italy in 1417. The French Jesuit Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) became fascinated by it, as was Francis Bacon (1561–1626) before him, and argued that atomic theory was the best way of investigating nature. The idea caught on, and in 1803 John Dalton founded modern atomic theory. So Lucretius did in fact change the world, even though (in his eyes) for completely the wrong reason. Maybe there is hope for Professor Dawkins yet.

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