Ancient & Modern: Lucretius de rerum natura 4.470-471 How Can We Know?
denique nil sciri siquis putat id quoque nescit
an sciri possit quoniam nil scire fatetur.
In the final analysis, if somebody thinks nothing is known,
then that individual does not know
whether or not something could be known.
After all, the claim is that the person knows nothing.
Lucretius de rerum natura 4.470-471
Some years ago (1991) in the book Signs of the Times one David Lehman deconstructed deconstruction and razed the puzzling construct that was Paul de Man. During the latter part of the previous century the higher academic hermeneutics in legal, cultural and literary studies was responsible for the large swaths of deforested land to fabricate the vast edifices of paper needed (in that pre-personal computer era) to house its texts demonstrating the meaningless of texts. The death of intelligibility and the indeterminacy of language were proclaimed on many a breathless page as novel and profound insights helpful to our desperate, post-modernist condition.
The opposition seemed to have been dazed or dazzled — as the case may be — into cowed uncertainty. Here is where Lucretius comes to mind, for he had already put forth the perfect response, over 2,000 years ago, in the witty distich aimed at comparable philosophical charmers in his own day, the Neo-Academic skeptics. About a generation later in his Academica Cicero (45 BCE), using language pointedly prescient of contemporary “innovative” deconstructionists, was to say about these sometimes obnoxious know-it-naughts that theirs was a philosophy quae confundit rem cum falsis, spoliat nos iudicio, privat adprobatione omni, orbat sensibus (“which confuses fact with falsehood, robs us of any criteria for judgment, removes all forms of verification, and steals away our trust in our senses”). Lucretius, then, has little truck with their epistemological and linguistic chicanery and informs us that their circular preciosity does not impress.
Philosophically speaking Lucretius (c. 100 – c. 55 BCE) was a materialist’s materialist. There was about his view of reality a kind of no-nonsense pragmatism validated at all times by the sensorium. He explains the underlying materiality of the phenomenological world with an uncluttered directness, often through striking poetic analogy to quotidian actualities. Professing a wish to free humans of their silly religious superstitions and their foolish fears of death, he adopts and adapts for Roman ears the physical theories of Epicurus and earlier Greek atomists to demonstrate that the soul is material and therefore mortal, and hence we are not subject to divine punishments after the body’s death. Our souls, just like our bodies, simply become recyclable atoms. Among his many intriguing theories is one (my personal favorite) on how we exercise the sense of smell, based as it is on a kind of model of molecular stereotaxis that is in some of its general concepts not unrelated to what modern biochemistry has to say about the variable fir of molecules to receptor sites – and all in an unapologetic text of powerful Latin cast in vigorous dactylic hexameters. [See here.]
At least for Lucretius the text was very understandable, and it conveyed a very knowable message, the skeptics very much to the contrary notwithstanding. It made sense to him two millennia ago; it still makes sense to me today. Otherwise we might as well shut down contemporary universities and modern civilization, where texts still mean, and are supreme – even for denying deconstructionists.