Thursday, 12 January 2012

Simple pleasures

I have just read a wonderful book called  The Swerve: how the Renaissance began by Steven Greenblatt

It outlines the idea that the re-discovery of an ancient Roman poem, On The Nature of Things by Lucretius, contributed to the sweeping changes in Europe we call the Renaissance - when humanist thought and science first began to compete with the Christian monopoly on thinking.

Lucretius, in turn, looked back to the Greeks, and in particular to the group called the Epicureans. As with so many such groups, the meaning of the word has slid away from it's original meaning (as with the Cynics, the Sophists, the Stoics, etc).  This can partly be blamed on the propaganda of the Christian Church fighting a rearguard action against dangerous thoughts.  Nowadays we might think of an epicure as someone with fine tastes in food and wine, someone quite fastidious, but the original group led simpler lives than that, although they enjoyed the sensory life without guilt or shame - considering humans as animals, no more.

In the book Steven Goldblatt makes it clear that the Church dismissed the atomic philosophy as leading to atheism, but in fact Lucretius does not say gods do not exist, as yet another complex combination of eternal atoms, simply that they do not bother themselves with human activities and so all attempts to placate them, or plead with them, remain pointless.  Some apologists suggested that as he had lived before Christ, he had pagan religions in mind when he described all organised religions as pernicious.   Hmmm.

Anyway, these bullet points from Chapter 8 summarize some of the startlingly modern ideas that appear in the poem (easy to see how these ideas influenced Giordano Bruno):

• Everything is made of invisible particles

• The elementary particles of matter – “the seeds of the things” – are eternal

• The elementary particles are infinite in numbers but limited in shape and size

• All particles are in motion in an infinite void

• The universe has no creator or designer

• Everything comes into being as the result of a swerve (“at absolutely unpredictable times and places they deflect slightly from their straight course, to a degree that could be described as no more than a shift of movement” (2.218-20). The swerve, which Lucretius called variously declinatio, inclinatio or clinamen – is only the most minimal of motions.

• The swerve is the source of free will

• Nature ceaselessly experiments

• The universe was not created for or about humans

• Humans are not unique

• Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquillity and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival

• The soul dies

• There is no afterlife

• Death is nothing to us

• All organised religions are superstitious delusions

• Religions are invariably cruel

• There are no angels, demons or ghosts

• The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain

• The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion

• Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder

In spite of the fact that Epicureans became portrayed by their enemies as decadent and self-indulgent - because of their delight in the sensory world – it appears they considered the simple life as more likely to lead to pleasure, and did not torment themselves with pain and guilt in this life or fear of the next world (unlike the Christians of the time). In their preference for the reduction of unnecessary suffering we might perceive some resemblance to Buddhism.
And how about “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”? Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean.

And finally, but never last, this 'swerve' lies at the heart of Jarry's 'Pataphysics - there called the clinamen, but we may have to save detailed pursuit of that idea for another time.
One essay among the Tate Papers might clarify some of that:

'Pataphysical Graham': A Consideration of the Pataphysical Dimension of the Artistic Practice of Rodney Graham

[excerpt to save you clicking through]

1.''Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions', which implies that all solutions to any problem whatsoever, scientific or otherwise, are imaginary in nature; and

2.'Pataphysics is the science of exceptions – in other words, there are no universally valid laws such as science seeks to discover; laws or principles can only be legitimately applied to particular cases, and are in any case imaginary in nature.


There several pataphysical motifs in Graham's work – or at least I think I see them there – but I want to focus on two: the clinamen and the spiral. Graham has written about the clinamen on two occasions, and it informs his work in general. This concept, which is featured in Faustroll and which is foundational to 'pataphysics, was the Roman author Lucretius' term for what the Greek philosopher Epicurus understood to be an indeterminate swerve in the downward motion of atoms. The concept of the clinamen was used to refute the idea of a uniform, fatalistic flow of atoms, which had previously been suggested by Democritus. Here is Graham's own definition of the clinamen:

The word is from Lucretius, for whom it signifies the sudden and unpredictable swerve of a single atom from its otherwise pre-ordained trajectory ... It is the clinamen, according to the physicist, that breaks the endless chain of fate and yields the law of nature.

Lucretius, following Epicurus, described an exception to the fatalistic understanding of matter by Democritus, as a kind of free will that was a property of atoms themselves. To this extent, the unmotivated swerve or clinamen becomes the locus and the guarantor of free will in general, against fatalistic thinking.

 The concept of the clinamen underpins Jarry's understanding of 'pataphysics as the science of exceptions, which attempts to undermine all claims to universal validity. Graham makes a particular application of this concept, which we will come to later.


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