Pandemic prediction from Lucretius

(ORDO NEWS) — In his philosophical masterpiece On the Nature of Things, written around 50 BC, Lucretius laid out the arguments in favor of radical materialism. People should not be in fear of divine punishment, he wrote, or make slavish sacrifices in the hope of a divine reward.

The universe is not a mysterious game of gods or demons; it consists of atoms, emptiness and nothing else. The atoms, which Lucretius called semina rerum, “seeds of things,” are in motion, endlessly revolving, colliding, combining, separating, and recombining into new and unforeseen patterns.

In all this movement there is no fixed pattern, no overarching design, no trace of intelligent design. Instead, in the boundless space and time, incessant random mutations occur. Old forms are constantly dying; new forms are constantly emerging.

For Lucretius, this vision was deeply comforting: instead of worrying about the gods or worrying about the afterlife, you need to focus your attention on this world, the only one you will ever experience, and calmly engage in increasing pleasure for yourself and for everyone around you.

But he knew that the news he brought was not unequivocally encouraging. If diseases were not forced on you by angry gods, they must nevertheless have come from somewhere, namely from the same relentlessly whirling atoms that produce everything else. Seeds of things, he wrote,

Necessary to sustain our lives.

At the same time, it’s obvious.

that harmful particles fly around us

fly, moths of disease and death.

When particles hostile to us begin to move, confusion arises, “and change is imposed / In our habitual chambers.” At times like these, strange things happen to the world we thought we knew so well. The sky above seems both familiar and alien at the same time, and the things that provide existence begin to seem deeply threatening, writes Lucretius,

Falls on water or grain fields, falls

For other food of animals and people,

Or hovering in the air.

From which our breath inhales her, draws her down

throughout our body.

It is not surprising that darkness falls on the faces of people, and melancholy and fear settle in the minds. In the poem “On the Nature of Things” Lucretius ends his story about the devastating epidemic that struck Athens during the Peloponnesian War.

That the poem ends abruptly on such a somber note has led many scholars to conclude that Lucretius must have left it unfinished. There was even a legend that he died suddenly from the effects of a love potion that his wife gave him.

Perhaps that is the way it is. But our struggle with the Covid-19 pandemic today makes us look at the end of the poem in a different light. The plague, after all, tests us in unique ways. It ruthlessly measures our values, challenges our habitual assumptions, casts a merciless light on our social, political, and religious order.

I wonder if the poem’s final emphasis on epidemic disease could actually be entirely intentional. This is exactly the existential challenge, Lucretius believed, which any worthy society and any worthy philosophy must solve.

When things are going well, it is easy enough to reflect on our place in the material world. But what if things don’t go so well, if mutations in the seeds of things bring sickness and death?

Only if you can resist the invisible bullets that surround us and still remain calm, remain rational, and somehow find an opportunity to enjoy life, have you learned the lesson that the poem teaches.


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