Naturae species ratioque: "the outward appearance and inner workings of nature"


Before I begin I think it is worth just making a couple of preliminary remarks. The first is that this address is being given in a time of great uncertainty - not only politically both here and in the Middle-East but also in terms of religious belief, especially in the West and North America. Those of us who can no longer subscribe to monotheistic metaphysics are undoubtedly seeking some kind of spiritual security amidst all this and what I have to say today is a very modest attempt to try and give us this in a fashion appropriate to our secular age.

The second thing to note is that this address is closely related to last week's which used Stevens' poem 'Anecdote of a jar'. I took that poem as a kind of blueprint of what I think we need to be doing to create the kind of religion or spirituality we need. Today I offer a specific grounded example and the jar, the thing from the margin of our culture that we need to bring to centre is, I take it here, Lucretius' 'De Rerum Natura'.

Lastly I want to connect the theme of this address with an excellent recent BBC Radio 4 Point of View given by Alain de Botton on teaching of the humanities in British Universities. The text of this can be found here; the podcast can be found here.

So, off we go . . .

READINGS: De Rerum Natura Book 1.1-28 & Book 3:1-30 (The out of copyright texts which follow are translated by William Ellery Leonard. My preferred modern English version is the lovely one made by David R. Slavitt - which we used in the service.)

Book 1.1-28

     Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
     Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
     Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
     And fruitful lands--for all of living things
     Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
     Through thee are risen to visit the great sun--
     Before thee, Goddess, and thy coming on,
     Flee stormy wind and massy cloud away,
     For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
     For thee waters of the unvexed deep
     Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky
     Glow with diffused radiance for thee!
     For soon as comes the springtime face of day,
     And procreant gales blow from the West unbarred,
     First fowls of air, smit to the heart by thee,
     Foretoken thy approach, O thou Divine,
     And leap the wild herds round the happy fields
     Or swim the bounding torrents. Thus amain,
     Seized with the spell, all creatures follow thee
     Whithersoever thou walkest forth to lead,
     And thence through seas and mountains and swift streams,
     Through leafy homes of birds and greening plains,
     Kindling the lure of love in every breast,
     Thou bringest the eternal generations forth,
     Kind after kind. And since 'tis thou alone
     Guidest the Cosmos, and without thee naught
     Is risen to reach the shining shores of light,
     Nor aught of joyful or of lovely born,
     Thee do I crave co-partner in that verse
     Which I presume on Nature to compose
     For Memmius mine, whom thou hast willed to be
     Peerless in every grace at every hour--
     Wherefore indeed, Divine one, give my words
     Immortal charm.

Book 3:1-30

     O thou who first uplifted in such dark
     So clear a torch aloft, who first shed light
     Upon the profitable ends of man,
     O thee I follow, glory of the Greeks,
     And set my footsteps squarely planted now
     Even in the impress and the marks of thine--
     Less like one eager to dispute the palm,
     More as one craving out of very love
     That I may copy thee!--for how should swallow
     Contend with swans or what compare could be
     In a race between young kids with tumbling legs
     And the strong might of the horse? Our father thou,
     And finder-out of truth, and thou to us
     Suppliest a father's precepts; and from out
     Those scriven leaves of thine, renowned soul
     (Like bees that sip of all in flowery wolds),
     We feed upon thy golden sayings all--
     Golden, and ever worthiest endless life.
     For soon as ever thy planning thought that sprang
     From god-like mind begins its loud proclaim
     Of nature's courses, terrors of the brain
     Asunder flee, the ramparts of the world
     Dispart away, and through the void entire
     I see the movements of the universe.
     Rises to vision the majesty of gods,
     And their abodes of everlasting calm
     Which neither wind may shake nor rain-cloud splash,
     Nor snow, congealed by sharp frosts, may harm
     With its white downfall: ever, unclouded sky
     O'er roofs, and laughs with far-diffused light.
     And nature gives to them their all, nor aught
     May ever pluck their peace of mind away.
     But nowhere to my vision rise no more
     The vaults of Acheron, though the broad earth
     Bars me no more from gazing down o'er all
     Which under our feet is going on below
     Along the void. O, here in these affairs
     Some new divine delight and trembling awe
     Takes hold through me, that thus by power of thine
     Nature, so plain and manifest at last,
     Hath been on every side laid bare to man!

(The full text is available here)

On Thursday Susanna and I went to the gardens at Anglesey Abbey to enjoy the winter garden's transfiguration into a spring one with the glorious appearance of the snowdrops and the budding into bloom of many of its trees and plants (see the picture at the top of this blog). After our walk was over, and as we sat having a cup of tea on the veranda of the cafe, I read once again the two readings you have just heard. And though for the past four years I've constantly had in my knapsack a copy of the De Rerum Natura of the Roman poet Lucretius, it is at this time of year that I take an especial joy in reading his words about Venus' life-giving approach and Epicurus' ability as a teacher who valued so highly empirical observation of the natural world.

I return again and again to Lucretius, not simply for the beauty of his poetry, but because I am increasingly convinced that he offers us a sort of religious language - though perhaps spiritual language would be better - that is ideally suited to our secular and scientific age and culture.

I can begin to show you why I think this so by introducing you to a central idea that Lucretius repeats four times during his long poem (cf. 1.148, 2.61, 3.93, 6.41). Lucretius desired to offer us in poetic form the basic teachings of the third-century Greek rational philosopher Epicurus. These teachings are summed up in what is known as the Tetrapharmakos - the four-part cure:

God should not concern us.
Death is not to be feared.
What is good is easy to obtain.
What is bad is easily avoided.

Following Epicurus, Lucretius firmly believed that human fears and misconceptions about themselves, the gods and the world would be dispelled, 'not by the sun's rays or the bright shafts of day' but by the 'outward appearance and inner workings of nature' (1.148). His poem, the 'De Rerum Natura' or 'On the Nature of Things', was an attempt to do just this.

In Latin, 'aspect and law of nature', is expressed as 'naturae species ratioque' and by 'ratio' it seems that Lucretius meant nature's 'law or inner workings' and he uses it to refer to how the world shows up to us (shines) when we consistently apply active human reasoning to it - i.e. the dispassionate and rational aspect of our being.

By 'species', it seems that Lucretius was gesturing towards the 'face' or 'outward appearance' of nature - i.e. how nature shows up for us (or shines) as human-beings who are always-already in the world not only as creatures with a dispassionate and rational faculty but also an emotional and poetic ones. As human beings we are emotionally involved in the world and not just distant, dispassionate spectators.

Now Lucretius' phrase, 'naturae species ratioque' seems to me to tie in very strongly with something the contemporary philosopher James C. Edwards has noticed and which I have brought before you on other occasions, namely, that for us 'full belief (pathos - impressiveness) comes only with an intellectual or artistic inevitability'(The Plain Sense of Things p. 231).

What Edwards means by this is that although we have lost faith in our old monotheistic metaphysics we find, thankfully, that we are still thoroughly persuaded by, and can say we *believe* strongly in, the truth of two other things. The first is the rightness, the truth of the disciplined methods employed by the natural and formal sciences. The second is the rightness, the truth of the various disciplined methods employed by creative artists whether they be poets, musicians, painters, writers, actors, dancers, sculptors, cooks, carpenters, gardeners, flower-arrangers or sports men and women.

I'm sure all this is fairly uncontentious and that we all know - deeply - that science *has* revealed to us countless true and trustworthy things about our world. Today, innumerable aspects of our world are built upon this knowledge. We may question - indeed should question - whether at times we are deploying this knowledge appropriately and wisely, but the truth of the methods of science seems to have for us the inevitable, shining quality that a belief in god once had.

We also know - deeply - that creative artists have also revealed to us true and trustworthy things about the world. We don't, of course, always respond to and like the same things these artists reveal or produce (and in what precisely consists the perfect meal, home run, picture, piece of music or flower arrangement is different for every one of us) but, man, we know it when we encounter it. That whoosing-up of joy or the shiver up the spine, the feeling we experience, the shining we see is just, well, just right, just true. We know we can trust the rightness of a piece of music, a piece of beautifully made furniture or meal in a way similar to how we know we can trust the rightness of science.

Now Lucretius is remarkable in speaking to this trust so perfectly and compellingly from a distance of over two-thousand years. He achieves this by poetically associating two characters with 'species' and 'ratio' and so Venus becomes to 'species' what Epicurus becomes to 'ratio'. As Jeffrey M. Duban notes:

"Species is the realm of observable process and appearance governed by Venus. As such, it elicits an emotional response and sense of involvement which we associate with the workings of Venus and of poetry. [That's why our first reading was from the opening of Book 1]. Ratio is the realm of hidden process and reality governed by Epicurus. As such, it requires empirical observation and the sense of detachment which we associate with the philosophy of Epicurus as with all scientific inquiry" (Venus, Epicurus and Naturae Species Ratioque, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 103, No. 2 Summer, 1982, pp. 165-177). [That's why our second reading was from the opening of Book 3].

First lets look at 'ratio' - connected for us, and Lucretius, with all scientific enquiry. As Durban notes, 'it is the realm of hidden process and reality governed by Epicurus.' By this Durban means that for Lucretius and, potentially for us, Epicurus stands as a poetic model, an exemplar - a reminder - of how properly to go about this scientific inquiry which 'requires empirical observation and the sense of detachment which we associate with the philosophy of Epicurus as with all scientific inquiry'. In much of the poem Lucretius is encouraging us to adopt this approach by presenting to us colourful, detailed and memorable reminders of the world drawn from his careful, detached observations of it and which he uses to show us with increasing clarity, that the gods neither created the world nor intervene in it and so, in turn, Lucretius reveals the sufficiency of nature. He persuasively shows us that we need not to fear god nor death and that we should trust only in nature and her extraordinary processes. In other words under the titles 'ratio' and 'Epicurus', Lucretius is offering us a way to talk beautifully and persuasively about one of the things that in our own age strikes us as intellectually inevitable - namely the natural sciences.

Let's turn now to 'species'. As Durban notes this is 'the realm of observable process and appearance governed by Venus.' By this Durban means that for Lucretius and, potentially for us, Venus stands as a poetic model, an exemplar - a reminder - of how we may talk about and explore our emotional responses to, and sense of deep involvement - comminglement - in the natural world. This kind of talk 'we associate with the workings of Venus and of poetry.' Lucretius, as a poet, belongs, of course, to this realm of Venus and his poem was intended to offer us - under the titles of 'species' and 'Venus' a way to talk beautifully and persuasively, not only about the natural and formal sciences, but also about another of the things that in our own age strikes us as intellectually inevitable - namely the work of creative artists. But please note that, as a poet in the realm of Venus, his primary aim is to persuade us of the calming rational truths revealed by Epicurus.

Durban sums all this up by stating that: 'As Epicurus was a creator of ideas, Lucretius is a creator of poetry. The two, working together, recreate mankind . . . (thus performing) a task like Venus' of fertilization.'

Of course, the 'mankind' - the humanity - Epicurus and Lucretius hoped to recreate didn't last as long as they hoped because Christianity came along and became the religion of the Roman Empire. But I have hopes - a belief even - that Epicurus and Lucretius didn't fail in their attempt at fertilising our culture in preparation for a later blossoming - a late Lucretian spring, if you like.

I have good reason to say this because Lucretius' poem - despite its clear challenge to all traditional monotheistic thinking - has slowly been making its way back from the margins of our culture since its rediscovery in 1417. In the first instance the poem was often read simply because people were impressed by the astonishing beauty of the writing - Venus surely cast her spell here. However, with the emergence of atomist ideas during the seventeenth-century Lucretius increasingly came to be read for his proto-scientific ideas which were seen as being prophetically ahead of their time - Epicurus' and ratio surely played its part here.

This slow journey back into our culture from the margins has been likened by my mentor and close friend, the philosopher Victor Nuovo, to the Trojan Horse that was pulled into the city of Troy by its unsuspecting inhabitants. It's a good image (though given last week's sermon perhaps it should be a Trojan jar!) and it seems to me that the time is ripe for the ideas contained within it to come tumbling out to recapture, in a poetic way, our own age. 

This is because Lucretius still offers us a coherent, beautiful and compelling poetic vision that speaks directly to our present need for intellectual and artistic inevitability. It also resonates powerfully with our increasing feeling that, in the words of Durban, the fullest comprehension of nature requires the marriage of both detached empirical comprehension *and* an involved emotional response.

I simply know of no better description than this of the kind of spirituality we need at beginning of the twenty-first century and Lucretius gives us the poetic, emotionally sensitive language to do it and to do it well.