Humanist Hero: Lucretius by Sir David Blatherwick
Sir David Blatherwick OBE discusses the poetic good life espoused by Titus Lucretius Carus.
The Roman poet Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus) was a Roman contemporary of Julius Caesar who wrote a long poem which he called De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”). Little is known of him apart from his name and his poem, which nevertheless reveals much about his beliefs and his character.
His poem expounds the atomic theory of Democritus and the moral philosophy of Epicurus – the latter a rather stern code which involves not the pursuit of pleasure (a modern corruption of Epicurus’ meaning) but what we would call living a good secular life. His purpose is a moral one: to demonstrate that religion, superstition and other irrational beliefs have no place in a scientifically explicable universe; and in this universe gods (if they exist – and we have no way of knowing whether they do) have no part in human affairs. He argues that the soul does not exist and that there can be no life after death. Fears of an afterlife or divine displeasure are, he maintains, illusory and to live in dread of them is unnecessary and harmful. In the original Latin hexameter, ”Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum” (“So potent was religion in impelling to evil”).
Given such a theme, one might expect his poem to be dry and joyless. But it is not. He puts the case for a humane rationalism, and against religious or ideological dogma, with immense logical skill and passion. His poem displays a love of life, knowledge of the natural world and an awareness of man’s place in the universe as a whole. The world about us, whether it be the stars or the animals in the fields, is to him the real miracle.
In many ways Lucretius is one of the very first Enlightenment Men. He would have loathed Christian bigotry, al-Qaida or any other contemporary religious nut, but would have advocated arguing with them rather than shooting them. We need more like him today.
This post is part of a series written by members, friends and Distinguished Supporters of the British Humanist Association about their own “humanist heroes”.
You can find out more at www.humanism.org.uk/humanism/humanist-tradition/heroes
The diplomat Sir David Blatherwick OBE was ambassador to the United Nations (1986-9), Ireland (1991-5) and Egypt (1995-9). He was the joint-Chair of Anglo-Irish Encounter from 1992-8, and has been Chair of the Egyptian British Chamber of Commerce since 1999 and a trustee of the British University in Egypt since 2005. He is a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association.