"Earth’s distant orb appeared the smallest light that twinkles in the heaven; whilst round the chariot’s way innumerable systems rolled and countless spheres diffused an ever-varying glory. It was a sight of wonder: some were hornèd like the crescent moon; some shed a mild and silver beam like Hesperus o'er the western sea; some dashed athwart with trains of flame, like worlds to death and ruin driven; some shone like suns, and as the chariot passed, eclipsed all other light." From "Queen Mab" by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1813)

Monday, 9 August 2010

Ancient And Modern

I’ve been mightily attracted of late to the ancient world, particularly the ancient Roman and Greek worlds.  A couple of years back, after visiting the eternal city of Rome for the first (and hopefully not the last) time, I wanted to read about Rome and find out more about things Roman. I'm finally getting round to it. Also more recently I saw a brilliant documentary about Leonidas and the 300 Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae followed by watching the film “300”, so the Greek world was opened up for me too, although I had read Homer’s “Odyssey” after seeing the film “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” at the cinema a few years back. More recently I got hold of a copy of “Herodotus: The Histories” so I've got that to look forward to as well.
I’ve just started reading Tacitus’ “Annals and Histories” after finishing “The Letters Of Pliny The Younger”. I’d wanted to read Pliny for some time, as I explained in a previous blog but reading him made me want to read “Natural History” by Gaius Plinius Secundus, the elder Pliny, uncle of the younger letter writer. “Ta met’ alla” - one after another.
The Oxfam bookshop at the top of Park Street came up trumps for this particular volume just a couple of weeks back and while reading the introducing by John F Healy I came upon a passage referring to the Roman poet and Epicurean, Titus Lucretius Carus and his epic poem “On the Nature of Things”. Healy says that Lucretius believed that “a knowledge of the laws of physics” would dispel the “mental fears and forebodings that ‘religion’ instils”. Now that is right up my street, so I had to know more about both Lucretius and Epicurus so I followed this up with some brief online research. Can opened, philosophical worms all over the place, including profound implications for the philosophy behind Cactus County, one result of which is that I am going to have to rename one of the towns in the county.

There is much to commend the Epicurean philosophy and I am very drawn to it from the small amount of research I have done so far. Is this to be my new philosophy? Further study needs to be undertaken but as I say, so far I like what I have discovered about it.
So what do Epicurean’s believe? Well, if I’ve got it right, it’s that life should be spent seeking out modest pleasures rather than excess in order to attain a state of tranquillity and freedom from fear known as “ataraxia” and also life without physical pain known as “aponia”. The important thing for me though is that Epicurean’s believed that this could be done through a knowledge of the workings of the world, and they did not believe in superstition or divine intervention. They also believed there was no life after death and that death was not to be feared as we would return to the same state of nothingness there was before our birth.

Now this in particular is something I want to get my head around, because for as long as I can remember I have been afraid of death. Not dying, I’m not so worried how I will die or even of the possible pain or indignity of death but instead of the absence of life, of missing the sensations of being alive. There I times when I think about this and I experience a sensation of utter dread, of complete aloneness in the universe, of an inkling of what it might be like to experience being dead. It only ever lasts a few seconds but for me it is the most awful thing I ever feel. It is worse than physical pain because it seems to stretch out for eternity, an unending nothingness and isolation from everything and everyone I know and love. It’s accompanied by a physical sickness in my stomach, like being in a lift that seems to drop very quickly.

Now I know in reality that once I am dead there is no way I will feel the absence of life, I won’t feel alone, I won’t feel anything. I know that, I understand it rationally. But trying to marry that understanding with this fear and dread of death I have is very difficult. So anything that helps me deal with my fear of being dead definitely needs looking into.
By the way, the modern use of the word “epicurean” meaning one who seeks excess pleasure in all things, particularly food, is quite at odds with the original philosophy that I’m talking about here. Although, given my love of food and the quantities of it I indulge in, it may not be totally inappropriate.

It’s given me a lot to think about both personally and also because the Epicurean philosophy has so many connections with my view of the philosophy of Cactus County. I think the founders of the county would have known about Epicurus, Lucretius and the elder Pliny. They would have been inspirational to such a scientifically and atheistically minded people as much as Darwin was to them. So, the three towns that make up Cactus County are now to be called Cactus: the original settlement and administrative headquarters for the county; Evolution: where the mines of Cactus County are located and where many fossils have been found and also home of Carson’s Robot Factory; and Ataraxia: the location of Cactus County’s world renowned university, telescope and particle accelerator and named for the Epicurean state of tranquillity which according to Wikipedia is “synonymous with the only true happiness possible for a person. It signifies the state of robust tranquillity that derives from eschewing faith in an afterlife, not fearing the gods because they are distant and unconcerned with us, avoiding politics and vexatious people, surrounding oneself with trustworthy and affectionate friends and, most importantly, being an affectionate, virtuous person, worthy of trust”.
So, my recent voyage into the ancient world has born some philosophical fruit. And it makes a change from reading books about space. I have a long way to go in my reading about and understanding of the ancient world and still further to go in my personal philosophical journey through life. But having discovered this Epicurean philosophy I feel, I believe, I have found something that connects me more strongly not only to the world around me but also to the ancient world of the past, and there is much comfort and pleasure in that thought.

Suggested reading: “Natural History: A Selection” by Gaius Plinius Secundus, Pliny The Elder, translated by John F Healy.

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