Nothing in the whole universe but infinite atoms at motion in the infinite void. What an intoxicating idea! In his youth he had assumed (as, indeed, had everyone else) that the earth, the sky, the wandering stars and the rolling oceans were simply the work of the gods; perhaps, on deeper reflection, that all things were fashioned somehow from a primeval fire or other metaphysical stuff; or (and this after he had been exposed to various trendy treatises on Stoic philosophy in his father’s library) that one capital-G God itself was identical with the universe, that everyone and everything somehow or other partook of a single mystical essence. It was all highly inexplicable, of course, a Divine Mystery hidden from mortal ken. And so everyone believed, he had thought. The very idea that everything in the entire universe could be understood by mere human intellect and perfectly explained by a single, easily grasped concept – astonishing. Atoms at motion in a void, atoms colliding, atoms assembling into bodies, bodies disassembling into constituent atoms. Beautiful women into soil, soil into plants, plants into bread, bread into more beautiful women … into planets … into stars; an eternal cosmic dance of atoms, so simple, so beautiful. It was breathtaking, intoxicating.
Yet almost no one would believe it. It smacked of hubris, they said, to trespass on divinity’s fiefdom with feet of mortal clay. We were not meant to understand, they said, we must not even try, or risk the ire of offended deity. But Epicurus had dared, he alone among mortals had broken through the once sacred walls of eternity and returned with his simple message: that the secrets of the cosmos are not hidden, that they are in fact transparently evident to one and all. One need only look with unclouded sight. It is not hubris to prefer the evidence of one’s senses to dogma, to make observations and inferences drawn from nature instead of from dusty old books. To believe what you can see, hear, touch, smell; in short, to trust that your own human intellect really can comprehend the mysteries of creation. Atoms and void and absolutely nothing else required. No magical, metaphysical third stuff, no divine intervention. Simple. Astonishing.
Still, in his garden on this balmy late-Spring afternoon, with the sea breeze tickling his ears and the chamomile fragrance tickling his nostrils, he felt the numinous attraction of transcendent Beauty, the eternal goddess herself. His father’s statue of Venus, its translucent alabaster skin, its silver-gilded curves, ruby lips, fascinating stare. How did sculptors do it? With chisels and hammers, that much he knew, for he had seen them often enough in the workshops near the city docks. Rocks and ropes, hammers, cutting tools, noise, dirt, an infinity of dust. Unlikely birthplaces for the Beautiful. The lowest of the low, manual labourers, skin pitted, faces cracked, fingers blunted, backs bent. Unremitting hard work. He would like to have believed in the dignity of it all, in the noble rewards of honest physical exertion, but the evidence of his senses supplied ample refutation. Empirical data the foundation of all knowledge, which was of course the Master’s basic doctrine. Yet in his mind beyond the multitude of discrete, individual experiences he stubbornly perceived an idea of the ideal, the essence, the eternal Form of the Beautiful. Just an accidental quality of concrete instances, the philosopher in him insisted; whence this transcendent concept of Beauty, the poet wondered.
It was all very annoying. So many questions. The kind that poets delight in posing, the kind that philosophers never seem able to answer to anyone’s satisfaction, least of all their own. What is beauty, what is truth, what is love? Poets glibly enquire, their open-ended verses sparkling with superficial profundity as they meander across fanciful meadows of the imagination, conveniently avoiding (so hard-working philosophers never tire of observing) those thorny thickets of the mind through which underappreciated thinkers labour to cut a path from ignorance to enlightenment.
But – an unavoidable conclusion, unpalatable from both a poetical and a logical point of view – sometimes the two must coexist. As some of the more philosophically inclined versifiers have dimly intuited and many of the more imaginative logicians have definitively calculated, it is at least theoretically possible that from time to time one and the same corporeal collection of contingent spatially contiguous atomic clusters could be described as being simultaneously poet and philosopher. An especially infelicitous concurrence, to be sure, yet one that also turns out to be demonstrably necessary in an infinite universe.
And so it was that this particular poetical-philosophical (or philosophical-poetical, depending on how you look at it) personification of the universe’s inexorable logical processes burped discreetly into his napkin and reached for another honey cake from the platter. Just one more and then he’d stop. Honest. The philosopher in him insisted still: nothing in the world but atoms and void. Atoms the foundation of all. A demonstrable axiom. If he squinted his eyes and inclined his head towards the sun whose fractured beams danced through the leaves of the pergola he liked to fancy he could see the timeless invisible motions behind his eyelids. A mere whimsy of course. One could talk about motes of dust dancing or particles of smoke from the candle scattering, but those were just analogies. The atoms themselves by definition must be smaller than the smallest visible thing, for anything visible could always be divided, destroyed, disassembled into something smaller still.
Likewise void is axiomatic, for any absence of solid matter must by definition be vacuum. And if there were no such thing – if there were by contrast a plenary, a fullness of matter – there could demonstrably be no movement. Reductio ad absurdum. Imagine that pond over there packed, simply crammed, full of fish, fish designed for swimming, fish struggling to swim, but hemmed in so tightly together that even the minutest space was occupied by the sleek body of a fish. And with all those fish forced together how could any single fish move from one place to another? How, indeed, could there even be such a thing as a pond that consisted of nothing but fish? Just as fish need water, so atoms require void. Obvious.
Equally obvious: whatever is must consist of something; whatever is not must be void. Nothing else remains to be said. Poverty, riches, freedom, servitude, war, peace, and all other such abstract concepts (poets take note: beauty, truth, love … ) cannot be a third type of existence, cannot be something independent of atomic motions in a vacuum. All speculation about them is therefore quite useless. Another of Epicurus’ inspired detritus-clearing doctrines. Argue all you like about the epistemological status of forms, essences, universals, of the numinous and transcendent. Futile. What changes in the real world as a result of your deliberations? Nothing. All you need is the plain, simple, transparently clear evidence of your own senses. It all comes down to atoms and void.
The poet in him insisted still: the goddess was real – in multitudinous ways that surpassed the mere mundane – in ways that refused reduction to the empirical. There are more ways of knowing about the world – intuition, feeling – inarticulate ways – knowledge expressed through art, music, poetry. Philosophers and their logical fishes be damned. He saw his goddess in the grey-green white-flecked seas on an overcast autumnal day; he saw her in the cheerful flocks of geese honking encouragement to each other as they passed overhead, silhouetted in precise formation against a crystal sky; he saw her in the crazy wandering flight of the bees bumbling carelessly among the white flowering vines of the pergola – all the natural world spoke to him of the goddess. The women of his memory were part of her too. The first stirrings of adolescent lust for his family’s domestic maid; a furtive kiss, an indelicate touch; warm blushing cheeks, burning loins; the agonising pleasure of flesh against flesh. Venus in all these. Venus in the chaste adoration of nature, in the all-consuming pain of physical desire. The philosopher had it all the wrong way round. Venus did not arise from a succession of similarities, the goddess was not a mental construct created from observation of concrete instances. No, she was the Prime Mover. Love comes first. Love brought the world into being. A matter of poetical necessity. Obvious.
The sparse remains of his lunch awaited their potential fate – stoically, for the decision lay not in their hands – either to be consumed with what little was left in the decanter, or to be removed and … well, if he were being entirely candid, he did not actually know what happened next. Did the servants eat his leftovers, did they discard them, burn them, feed the birds with them, donate them to beggars in the street? Perhaps he should make some effort to find out. In the meantime he washed down the last crumbs of sweet cake with a last mouthful of sweet wine and mused upon the palette-cleansing properties of a boiled egg.
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[Go to Chapter 2, Part 1]