Chapter 5: The View from Above
Two thousand years after our poet watched his warship in the bay, another ship spread its sails. Voyager 1 cruises alone in interstellar space now, the first man-made object ever to break the boundary of our little solar system. He would have approved, our philosophic poet, no, actually he would have loved it. The idea of mankind sending part of its intellect across the heavens, that iconoclastic urge to see so much further than anyone before had even dared to imagine, the daring imagination indeed to encompass the whole universe within our understanding. To remove the shackles of tradition, of received wisdom, of superstition, and realise ourselves as cosmic beings. It was, in essence, the very project Epicurus had undertaken when he set forth his boundless understanding of the cosmos and our place within it, when he raised his eyes and his mind above the mundane and returned with a greater, more profound awareness. That was what had so galvanised our poet’s imagination. He writes of his philosophical master in godlike terms, extolling him for being the first to break through the flaming walls of the world and voyage with his mind across the immensity of all. Epicurus as the first interstellar voyager.
hunc igitur terrorem animi tenebrasque necessest
non radii solis neque lucida tela diei
discutiant sed Naturae species ratioque.
‘This terror overshadowing our minds is not dispelled by radiant sunshine or the glittering shafts of day, but rather by a rational understanding of Nature’s laws.’ That was the message Epicurus brought back. That, still, is the message Voyager 1 carries; never mind the golden record or the plaque inscribed with pictures of earthlings, its easiest-to-comprehend message is the mission itself: a voyage of scientific discovery and ever-expanding knowledge. We are a species, it declares, who have taken Epicurus’ lessons to heart.
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He took a turn around the pond. Little concentric ripples all across its shiny surface indicated a busy afternoon of feeding going on. A bad afternoon to be a mosquito. What did our philosophical fish think, he wondered, as they gulped down another morsel, about the narrow boundary of their own watery existence? Confined in their modest rectangular universe did they dream of the air and sky? Did they look up and see him and marvel at a world beyond theirs? Probably not. Probably they were not even aware that their own world was so limited. Just like us, then, he thought. How many of us become conscious of our own limits? The birds above must look down and pity us: poor, creeping, constrained terrestrial creatures, ever bound to the earth. Only Daedalus and Icarus had tried to escape, and look how that ended. He thought of the tidal pools down in the cove at the base of the cliffs. All those islands of ocean life filled with swimming, bustling little creatures going about their ever-so-important business, ever so preoccupied that they forget the ocean altogether. But the tide has not forgotten, and soon it will be back to reclaim them.
Is that how it is for us? Epicurus certainly thought so. He reminded us that though we spend our lives splashing frenetically about our self-imposed pools, we were born to swim free in the cosmic ocean. If only we could stop being so afraid and strike out boldly into the deep. But fear paralyses us. Fear of the unknown. Daedalus and Icarus a parable told by those who want us to keep our feet on the ground. The priests tell us that only the gods can know what lies beyond, that it is hubris for mere man to seek such knowledge. But the priests and their kind are just fish trapped in their pond. Their fantastic tales of heaven just devices to reinforce our fear and keep the rest of us trapped too. What is knowable and what is unknown, two separate universes, they say, never to be united. Blasphemy to attempt it. Be afraid, the gods will punish you if you attempt to swim too far, fly too high. Epicurus said: no, it is all one universe, one continuous and knowable creation comprehensible by man’s intellect. Yes you can understand, you can have greater knowledge. And when you do, then fear falls away. Those supernatural tales finally revealed as nothing but the fantasies of ignorance. Swim, fly, voyage to the stars and discover your oneness with the whole.
It was exhilarating. He still felt it, delighted to communicate it in his poem, this revelatory understanding. As a child he had been afraid of the gods, those remote, impassive statues grandly enthroned in the great temples, inaccessible to all but the priests. The priests and their horrible sacrifices, ever garlanding their gods with blood and the stench of death. As if a perfect being cared to be offered the stinking entrails of a chicken or the reeking fat of a pig. The very idea astonished him now, made him slightly queasy at the credulity of it all. There were even sects in Rome, odd foreign sects to be sure, who thought the gods cared what we ate and drank. Astonishing what tales we tell each other to keep us isolated in our little ponds.
He had seen with his own eyes, not more than a few weeks ago now (if you can belive such a thing), the frenzied followers of Cybele screaming and dancing through the streets of Rome – yes Rome, the greatest, most civilised city in the world – lifting their bright robes and – another unspeakable horror in the name of religion – castrating themselves with wicked curved blades, laughing as they did so, leaving vile bloodied parcels of precious flesh in the gutter to be snatched up by dogs and rats. On they ran through the forum then up and up the steps to the Palatine, leaving a trail of blood and disgust in their wake. And so to their incongrously elegant temple with its lovely classical proportions and foliate Corinthian capitals standing unabashed above the city, daring the citizens below to find fault with its rituals. There they danced and shrieked out what passed among them for songs, abasing themselves before the statue of the crowned goddess and the mysterious black stone that passed for her heart. A black stone that had fallen in blazing fire from the heavens, they said. A sign from the gods.
Utter nonsense. Vile, mean superstition. That stones can and do fall from the skies is clear, of course, from the testimony of witnesses and the evidence of impacts and physical remains. But you see the deceit, don’t you, the great trick religion always plays upon our intelligence? What is inexplicable must therefore be supernatural. Because we cannot certainly explain the origin of these stones, religion insists we invoke the gods. Always the gods, or spirits, or ghosts or magic. Don’t even bother to look for a physical mechanism, don’t bother even to suspend judgement until more evidence can be gathereed. No, it must be gods. What else could it possibly be? That’s the trick, the sleight of hand that religious conjurors continually use to deceive and mislead. To distract our attention from the idea that perhaps this world and the events within it might be explicable and knowable without recourse to any supernatural forces at all. They just hate that idea. But Epicurus knew. At a stroke he had revealed the true ugliness of the self-castrating zealots: not their physical mutilation, but the wilful deformation and subjugation of their minds to blind superstition and bigotry.
He took a deep breath, inhaling lavender and chamomile and that ever-present salty tang of the sea. Once again he felt grateful to be here, far away from the city and its fetid miasma of ignorance. It helped provide perspective, which is what so many people lacked. The narrow view, the constrained thinking, the failure to swim beyond our own tiny borders, the fear of the cosmic ocean. Fear actively fostered by religion.
But religion gives purpose to our lives, they say. Without religion men lack morality and meaning, life would be empty and futile, they say. He snorted. Epicurus had dealt with that. He too had dealt with that, the whole force of his great poem was to answer that old chestnut. To attain a permanent tranquillity right here on earth, to live a life worthy of the gods without empty desire and free from fear. That was the whole point.
And what did they mean by meaning anyway? A subjective sense of contributing positively, becoming engaged in a worthwhile project, ‘making a difference’? Uncontroversial, banal even. Or did they mean an existential quest for a purpose in life, which not coincidentally usually involves invoking spirituality and religious faith to achieve it? But where is the meaning in a world of nothing but atoms and void? The atoms do not have purpose. It is a hard truth, but truth nonetheless, that no matter how far and wide we cast our gaze we find no evidence that the gods are involved in our lives or in the wider universe. He was the last person to denigrate a sense of transcendent wonder at the beauties of nature, for he knew the feeling well, felt it deeply. It just seemed misleading to confuse such subjective judgements with the objective reality of atoms and void. A rational answer to the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’ is to ask in turn why something beyond life is apparently required. Life itself is the greatest good, not something external to it.
We only get a few trips round the sun. ‘We are born once and cannot be born twice,’ said Epicurus. ‘Life is consumed by procrastination, and each of us dies without providing leisure for himself.’ Stop putting it off, in other words. Happiness is available here and now. Don’t look for some god to provide it, certainly don’t expect it after death. Do it now.
Timely advice, he thought. Time for a leisurely walk round the garden.
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[Go to Chapter 5, Part 2]