Ellis Washington
On Lucretius, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and the nature of life and death
By Ellis Washington
June 13, 2014

"Again we are all sprung from a heavenly seed, all have that same Father..."

~ Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Book II

If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now.

~ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book VIII, 47

Prologue: Biography

Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 99 BC – c. 55 BC) was a Roman philosopher and poet. His only known work is the epic philosophical poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things or On the Nature of the Universe) regarding the doctrines and philosophy of Epicureanism – a materialist worldview which disfavors superstition and divine intervention while declaring pleasure (hedonism) to be the only intrinsic good and the absence of pain as the greatest pleasure. Historical facts about the life of Lucretius are few; the only reliable information is that he was either an associate or patron of Gaius Memmius, the person he addressed and dedicated this opus.

De rerum natura was a significant inspiration on the Augustan poets, especially Horace and Virgil (in his Aeneid and Georgics, and to a lesser extent in his Eclogues). The work essentially vanished during the Middle Ages, but was rediscovered in a German monastery in 1417. This opus played a central part both in the development of atomism (Lucretius was a vital inspiration on Pierre Gassendi) and the efforts of various philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment to create a new Christian humanism. Jerome chronicles how Lucretius was driven mad by a love potion and wrote his poetry between fits of insanity, eventually committing suicide in middle age; however, modern scholarship believes this version was probably not true.

Epictetus was born c. 55 AD, presumably at Hierapolis, Phrygia. His name in Greek means "acquired." He was a slave during his youth in Rome owned by Epaphroditos, an affluent Roman citizen and secretary to Emperor Nero. During his youth, Epictetus developed a passion for philosophy, and with the consent of his rich master, he studied Stoic philosophy which permitted his social status to rise in as he obtained more education. After Nero's death in 68 AD Epictetus obtained his freedom and started teaching philosophy in Rome. However, in 93 AD Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from Rome, and Epictetus escaped to Nicopolis in Epirus, Greece, where he founded a philosophical school.

His most noted student, Arrian, studied under him when a young man (c. 108 AD) and wrote the famous Discourses derived from his lecture notes, though some historians contented this work should be considered an original composition by Arrian, comparable to the Socratic literature primarily popularized by Plato. Throughout his life Epictetus eschewed materialism and lived a very frugal life, thus his philosophy reflects a rather austere worldview.

Marcus Aurelius (Espejo, 26 April 121 AD – Vienna, 17 March 180 AD) was Roman Emperor (161-180). He served as co-emperor with Lucius Verus (161-169) until Verus' death in 169. He is regarded one of the most essential Stoic philosophers and was the last of the so-called "Five Good Emperors." Marcus Aurelius' opus, Mediations, written in Greek between AD 170 and 180 during his almost incessant war campaigns against the Germanic tribes. This work is still respected as a literary masterpiece to this day. In this work he uses Stoic philosophy to praise first principles like – life, service, discipline, heroism, honor, and duty, describing how to find and preserve self-control in the middle of pressure, calamity and battle by following nature, reason and logical deduction as a foundation of guidance and inspiration.

The nature of life and death

Men have separated the entirety of things in different ways. Several fundamental divisions are related to the difference between the natural and the supernatural, between the material and the spiritual, and between the lifeless and the living.

The same kind of basic question is raised by each of these divisions, and given conflicting answers in the literary tradition of the Classics. The question is not at all times conveyed in the same way. It could be a question about the reality of the supernatural order or of spiritual entities. It could be a problem of whether the expressions of the division signify a factual duality or simply different features of one and the same whole. Are God and nature singular or are they fundamentally different? Is spirituality simply one manifestation of human existence, or are there two worlds, a world of physical forms and a world of spirits?

Regarding the principle which is occasionally called "animism" and sometimes "panpsychism," everything is alive, everybody is besouled, however at the beginning of the scale the symbols of life continue to be obscured from normal observation. While this theory is typically attributed to a primitive vision of nature, it appears in an understated form in certain philosophical progressions which make soul or mind a principle as universal as substance. "There is one common substance," says Marcus Aurelius, "though it is distributed among countless bodies which have their several qualities. There is one soul, though it is distributed among infinite natures and individual circumscriptions."

Living things according to Lucretius are not just more complex groupings of atoms and void. Their constitution contains a distinct type of soul-atom, whose round, smooth shape and speed of movement inside the living body accounts for the powers and actions which are characteristic to that body. Lucretius is considered to be a materialist and a mechanist, however he manifestly divides living from non-living bodies and appeals to a distinct principle – the soul-atom – to explain this change in kind.

There is comparable reasoning in pagan tradition. Suicide is an act of violence and, says Plotinus, "If there be a period allotted to all by fate, to anticipate the hour could not be a happy act. ...If everyone is to hold in the other world a standing determined by the state in which he quitted this, there must be no withdrawal as long as there is any hope of progress." A Christian would interpret the pagan idea of suicide as the sin of despair where one abandons all hope even as life exists.

Nevertheless paganism throughout history also expresses counter opinions. Suicide, under the Stoic philosophy, isn't as unacceptable as murder. To those who criticize life's pains and the fetters of the body, Epictetus says, "The door is open." In a principle in which material things that touch only the body are unconcerned to the soul's comfort, death too is indifferent. "Death is the harbor for all; this is the place of refuge; as soon as you choose, you may be out of the house."

Lucretius On the Nature of Things (Books I – VI)

Lucretius's poem, De rerum natura, conveys the ideas and ideals of Epicureanism, which comprises atomism, and psychology. Lucretius was the first writers to introduce Roman readers to Epicurean philosophy. The poem is separated into six untitled books, and explains Epicurean physics through elaborately poetic language and metaphors. Lucretius offers the principles of atomism – that all matter was composed of small indivisible particles called atoms; the nature of the mind and soul; descriptions of impression and thought; the expansion of the world and its wonders; and describes a diversity of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe defined in the poem functions according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna ("chance"), and not by the divine intervention of archaic Roman gods.

Thus Lucretius believes that once the vessel (the body) shatters (dies) its contents (mind and spirit) can no longer exist. Therefore, death can be neither good nor bad for this being. Being completely lacking of feeling and thought, a dead person cannot miss being alive. According to Lucretius, fear of death is a prediction of anxieties experienced in life, of agony that only a living (intact) mind can experience.

Epictetus The Discourses of Epictetus (Books I-IV)

Epictetus believes that the foundation of all philosophy is auto-didactic learning (self-knowledge), that is, the principle of our unawareness and gullibility should be the first subject of diligent, systematic study. Logic provides effective reasoning and certainty in judgment, but it is secondary to real-world necessities. The first and essential aspect of philosophy regards the use of doctrine, for example, that people should not steal; the second concerns causes, e.g. why people should not steal; while the third, observes and institutes the reasons. These are the logical progressions of the philosophy of Epictetus, which discovers reasons, establishes what is a reason, and that a specified reason is a correct one. This last part is essential, yet essentially based on the second (causes), which again is rendered necessary by the first (doctrine). Both the Discourses and the Enchiridion begin by citing distinctions between those things in our power (prohairetic things) and those things not in our power (aprohairetic things).

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (Books I-XII)

The Meditations is separated into 12 books that serve as a singular narrative of different periods of Aurelius' life. Because the book wasn't originally written for public consumption but as an autobiographical journal, each book is not in sequential order. Aurelius' Stoic style of writing dominates the text where the narrative is one that is rudimentary, honest, and though written by a Roman Emperor, not anything related to royalty, but rather the singular voice of a man among other men which allows the reader to relate to and embrace his transcendent wisdom.

An essential subject of Meditations is the zealous pursuit of the Good Life: to examine your judgment of self and others and creating a universal worldview. He believes in discovering one's place in the world and sees that everything derives from nature, and so everything shall eventually return to its natural state. The worldview of Aurelius shows all of humanity as collectively part of a larger paradigm of the universe thus taking a collectivist approach as opposed to having an individualist view. Furthermore, Marcus Aurelius urged mental and physical self-control, deliberation and to be without distraction together with upholding strong moral principles such as "Being a good man."

Epilogue: The Philosophy of Life and Death in History

Lucretius wrote, "It is great wealth to a soul to live frugally with a contented mind." Alain de Botton wrote of Lucretius, "In the works of Lucretius, we find two reasons why we shouldn't worry about death. If you have had a successful life, Lucretius tell us, there's is no reason to mind its end. And, if you haven't had a good time, 'Why do you seek to add more years, which would also pass but ill?'" In Lucretius there exists an existential dualism, for example when he writes, "Nature repairs one thing from another and allows nothing to be born without the aid of another's death." In another passage, "Love is a product of habit" and "Victory puts us on a level with heaven."

Nevertheless, one major problem I have with philosophy is when utopian or idea/ideal theory fails to comply with actual practice in human affairs. For example, Aurelius' idea that rationality and dispassionate logic allows one to live in accord with the logos and allows one to rise above defective opinions of "good" and "bad." Nevertheless, history chronicles that during the first two centuries of the Christian era, it was resident Roman officials and bureaucrats who were mainly guilty for persecution of Christians. Particularly from the second century AD until Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in the early fourth century under Constantine (Edict of Milan, 312 AD), emperors treated Christianity as a domestic problem to be handled by their subordinates.

In this respect the number and brutality of persecutions of Christians in many locations of the empire apparently increased during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD). The magnitude to which Marcus Aurelius was responsible, encouraged, or was aware of these persecutions is uncertain and disputed by historians to this day, nevertheless we see the continued persecution of Christians in modern times for human nature is weak, tribalist, and duplicitous thus people fail to learn from history for as existential philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard warned, "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."

The Modern Age and modern history is marked by genocidal atheism, socialism, progressivism warring against Jews and Christians – from the anti-Christian, anti-religion genocide of the French Revolution (1789-99) and Napoleon's tyranny throughout Europe (1800-15), to Germany's Otto von Bismarck proto-Nazi policies against Jews and Catholics during his reign (1871-90), to the rise of Islamic, fascist, socialist and communist tyrants of the early twentieth century – Turkey's Ottoman Turks, Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Franco, Hirohito, Mao, Saddam, Iran Ayatollah, etc., up to today with Nigeria's Boko Haram; existing wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, all seem to ignore the undeniable truism by Lucretius – "We are all sprung from a heavenly seed, all have that same [heavenly] Father."

Therefore, to the extent humanity ignores, understands or appreciates the transcendent value of our collective Life, will be to the same extent we embrace or hasten our collective Death through destructive acts, policies and ideas which are antithetical to Natural Law and Veritas (truth).

*N.B.: This essay is based in part on ideas from Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-Chief (University of Chicago, 1952), Vol. 2, chap. 48 – Life and Death and Vol. 12 – Lucretius, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius.

Book Notice

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Invitation for manuscripts

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© Ellis Washington


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Ellis Washington

Ellis Washington is a former staff editor of the Michigan Law Review (1989) and law clerk at the Rutherford Institute (1992). Currently he is an adjunct professor of law at the National Paralegal College and the graduate school, National Jurisprudence University, where he teaches Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, American History, Administrative Law, Criminal Procedure, Contracts, Real Property, and Advanced Legal Writing, among many other subjects... (more)


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