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Epicurean eternal recurrence: no reason to doubt the mortality of the soul?

Classical Literature

Epicurean eternal recurrence: no reason to doubt the mortality of the soul?

Lucretius the Epicurean author of De Rerum Natura On the Nature of Things


by Patricia Slatin, Ph.D.

One of my students a few years ago in a course on ancient cosmologies challenged an argument in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, and I thought she made a good point. The following is developed from the question she asked.

Like the Stoics, the Epicurean philosophers of antiquity posited a theory of eternal recurrence, though they were driven to it by metaphysical and cosmological doctrines completely at odds with those of Stoicism, for, like Nietzsche, the Epicureans scoffed at the idea that the universe could be a living being. Their stark and reductive metaphysics allowed only two things to count as real: atoms and void. An infinite number of indivisible atoms forever falling through infinite space – this is the whole nature of the universe, according to them. The atoms have a great (though not an infinite) number of shapes and sizes, and when they collide with one another, as they do whenever one of them for no particular reason swerves from its straight downward path through the void, their differing shapes allow them to adhere together and form compounds. Everything else besides atoms and void that can be said to exist – our world and all the things in it, including we ourselves, our souls along with our bodies; the innumerable other worlds that come about in infinite space – is an atomic compound that arises for a time but inevitably falls apart again, being resolved into its component atoms, which are then free to be incorporated into further compounds. The gods alone, who live blessedly in the intermundia (the spaces between the worlds), are able to prevent themselves from suffering dissolution, not because they are made out of anything other than atoms, but because they possess a unique ability to attract the right kinds of atoms to themselves, so that when they lose some of their atoms in effluences from the surface of their bodies (as all compounds continually do), they can replace what they have lost with similar material and so keep themselves in existence. These gods do not pay attention to us or to anything that happens in the various worlds, since such meddling would be inconsistent with their maintaining an imperturbable peace of mind, upon which their blessedness depends; their indifference is a good thing for us, too. Far from lamenting deity’s absence from our world and deafness to our prayers, Epicureans celebrate the divine non-interference, as it means we never have to worry about the gods’ punishing us, whether in life or after death.

It would be impossible in any case for the gods to punish us after death, since Epicurean materialism forces the conclusion that the soul does not survive death. The poet Lucretius in his epic De Rerum Natura, written in Latin in the middle of the first century B.C., attempts to overcome people’s fear of death, which he regards as the greatest obstacle to human happiness, by demonstrating conclusively that the soul is just as mortal as the body. If, Lucretius believes, people can just be convinced that death is the end and that the soul will not exist to suffer in an afterlife, they will lose all fear of death and be able to attain ataraxia, tranquility of mind (the Epicureans, being hedonists, sought happiness in pleasure, but they defined pleasure as absence of pain, hence in their view the happiest life was one of ataraxia). With this ethical motive in view, Lucretius argues that our soul is a fine network of extremely small, smooth, round atoms, easily set in motion by external stimuli to produce sensation and thought. When the coarser network of the body’s atoms has suffered some significant calamity, the atoms of the soul cannot remain confined within it but slip out, and, being so very fine and small, they are immediately dispersed in the air, bringing an irrevocable end to our sensation and consciousness. Therefore, “death is nothing to us,” Lucretius asserts with apparently perfect conviction.

Yet more than a hint of unease appears beneath his increasingly insistent and sometimes scolding tone near the end of the epic’s third book, where he is confronting objections that might be raised to his attempts at proving ‘death is the end’, one of which stems from the Epicureans’ own theory of eternal recurrence. Assuming an infinite number of atoms of a finite number of types (the number of atoms belonging to each type being infinite) moving continually through infinite space in infinite time, it is a mathematical necessity that the same combinations of atoms recur – not just once or a few but an infinite number of times. The theory requires there to exist at the present time an infinite number of other worlds exactly identical to ours, except insofar as they are separated in space from our world, and the atoms making them up, while qualitatively identical, are numerically distinct from the atoms composing our world. That is to say, our world has an infinite number of identical twins out there right now, and so of course do we ourselves, though it is clear that these contemporaneous doppelgangers cannot be identical to our own selves, being numerically and spatially distinct from us. Yet the theory also requires the very same atoms that now compose our world to come back together again at some point in the future in exactly the same arrangement, however long they may have been scattered apart from each other and however many other combinations they may have entered into in the meantime. This reconstitution of our world will, in fact, happen an infinite number of times in the future, even as it has already happened an infinite number of times in the past. Now, just for argument’s sake, let’s say that the reconstitution happens in exactly the same part of the void where our world has existed previously, so that not even spatial separation can be invoked to distinguish the reconstituted world from ours that exists presently (not that there could be any way to distinguish one part of an infinite void from another). Will this not be our own world come back again? And will not the person in the reconstituted world who looks and acts identically to me be really myself, alive again? If so, Lucretius has a big problem.

Memento mori a mosaic in Pompeii Be minful of death

He is quick to dismiss the objection, arguing that

… even if the matter that composes us should be reassembled by time after our death and brought back into its present state – if the light of life were given to us anew – even that contingency would still be no concern of ours once the chain of our identity had been snapped. We who are now are not concerned with ourselves in any previous existence: the sufferings of those selves do not touch us. When you look at the immeasurable extent of time gone by and the multiform movements of matter, you will readily credit that these same atoms that compose us now must many a time before have entered into the selfsame combinations as now. But our mind cannot recall this to remembrance. For between then and now is interposed a break in life, and all the atomic motions have been wandering far astray from sentience. (trans. R.E. Latham)

Is this reasoning enough to dispel all concern? The fact that we do not remember previous existences does not prove we have not had them. If we were to come to life again and remember the sufferings of past lives, that would no doubt increase our suffering, but the fear of an afterlife is the fear that we will exist to suffer again, whether or not we remember having suffered before. Lucretius puts much emphasis on the idea that our consciousness comes to an end at death – there occurs “ a break in life” – as if that sufficed to guarantee that our life could not return. But what is consciousness, and what is our identity, according to Epicureans? Recall their metaphysical premise: nothing is real but atoms and void. I can be nothing over and above these particular atoms in this particular arrangement having these particular motions; my consciousness is nothing over and above the atoms of my soul moving thus and so. If my same atoms assume again the same arrangement and move again with the same motions, how can Lucretius deny that this is myself and my own consciousness returned to the “light of life”? He will insist that the temporal separation makes all the difference: “between then and now is interposed a break in life,” but here’s the catch – the Epicureans have to deny the reality of time, as time is neither the same as void nor is it made out of atoms. Only a thing that does not really exist separates my present from my recurrent self. So is Epicurean metaphysics robust enough to give Lucretius the conclusion he wants? This was my student’s question.


patricia slatin
Dr. Patricia Slatin has a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of California at Berkeley. She has taught classes in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Philosophy at U.C. Berkeley, Georgetown, and Stanford. Her teaching credits include “Death and the Afterlife in Classical Antiquity”, “Socrates and His Legacy”, and “Becoming Like God: An Introduction to Greek Ethical Philosophy”. Dr. Slatin currently teaches Latin and tutors both Latin and Greek for the Carmenta Online Latin School.

Click here to see Dr. Slatin’s full profile on the Carmenta Faculty Page.



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