He found he had drifted extra muros, both figuratively as well as literally, and only now rediscovered a connection with his feet encountering soft, uneven grass instead of crackling, raked gravel. The wind had become more playful too (or irritating, depending on one’s mood), plucking at his gown and thinning hair, jocularly casting fine grains of sand into his eyes. What larks! The crumbling headland and open sea vista beyond, dotted by crazily swaying fishing boat sails; sundry gulls of indistinguishable species following each little vessel, riotously bickering over mankind’s rejects as they rode the invisible roller coaster of swooping thermals. Behind him the geometrically regular, proudly classical villa and gardens; in front the disorganised, devil-take-you logic of Nature, the great goddess herself. She who cared neither for the artificiality of his attempts to impose a scholar’s order on the universe, nor for the theatrically fake designer chaos of libertine Baiae. She who delighted only in wind and waves. He couldn’t help but worship her, this most inscrutably potent of all divinities. Nature’s cruel indifference her most powerfully attractive attribute.
It came to him then, the association of ideas, the lupae, Baiae, all those unseemly thoughts of the unrestrained and the uninhibited; all the brutal beauties of cliff tops and open sea, all of Nature’s unruly rule, its delicious lure, its dangers and delights. She was behind it all, of course, it could be none other: Venus, goddess of sensuality, of physicality; She was the unifying principle. It had not been an uncaused cause, after all, that sudden influx of lust and longing in his head, rather a simple progression from one idea to the next: the struggles of crafting his magnum opus, the statue in his parent’s villa, the servant girl in the garden, the arrogant sensuousness of his patron, the fleshpots of the pleasure beach. No, She was behind it all. She had always been there, just beneath the intellectual crust, a boiling, blistering eruption waiting to explode, liable at any time to burst through the thin skin of his book learning and obliterate all his hard-won equanimity. Venus, his first love and his nemesis.
A conundrum he wasn’t going to solve on such a balmy day. Better to walk, take in the view, breathe in what everyone even today still thinks of as ‘bracing’ sea air, but which is almost certainly the tang of dimethyl sulphide, an irritant produced by bacteria that thrive along coastlines. Even so – and such a prosaic explanation notwithstanding – its effects were (and are) undeniably restorative. So breathe it all in, inhale-exhale, that’s it. Maybe even hum a little tune. Watch the bees amid the heather, ever-industrious, never resting; then decide not to emulate them, at least not on this particular afternoon. If only his mind could stop circling, bee-like, from topic to topic, if only he could achieve stillness. Epicurus had taught him the tranquil man troubles neither himself nor others; evidently, this buzzing brain of his had yet to assimilate that lesson.
Strange that he was often at his most serene when working the hardest: straining perhaps over his heavily thumbed Empedocles, seeking to make sense of that oddball Pythagorean precursor, whose beautifully elegant Greek hexameters spoke so movingly of utter nonsense – the transmigration of souls, the evils of eating meat, the denial of death. It had been his task to produce a Latin equivalent, to become a Roman Empedocles insofar as beauties of language and felicity of expression were concerned, while at the same time rebutting and refuting the ancient’s absurdities, elucidating instead the eternal truths of Epicurus – the atomic cosmos, the mortal nature of bodies and souls, the true nature of the universe. It was all very exhilarating, this forging of a new native vocabulary, building on and – yes, no false modesty here – surpassing all his predecessors. Future ages would remember Empedocles only as a footnote to his work. All other poets, all other philosophers likewise. His really was to be the last word, his the maximum opus.
Not hubris, not really. True, he took no account of his contemporaries, paid no heed to anything even that post-dated the Master’s divinely inspired work. Why should he? Could anything the Master had to say be bettered? Had anyone in fact been able successfully either to improve on or challenge Epicurus’ glorious pronouncements? No. Simply no. Why, then, should he – our most enthusiastic of all poetical-philosopher-disciples – bother to refute them or even engage with them? For he had the fount and ultimate source, he had the precious books Epicurus had left behind. (Complete and unabridged, as they say, which is more than posterity would ever see.) He needed nothing more for his grand project. Not Ennius, not the Stoics, not the Old Academicians nor the New ones, not the Skeptics or the Platonists, not Atticus or Cicero, not even Empedocles, beautiful stylist though he was and worthy of imitation for that alone. Epicurus was his Alpha and Omega.
On days like this, in this free-floating mood of self-analytical honesty, he couldn’t deny there were debits too. It was a lonely path he had chosen: he was as solitary in his work as he was on this hillside right now, not another human being to be seen in any direction, not counting the miniature sails wallowing out there in the bay, for he could scarcely distinguish even the darker hulls beneath the sailcloth, let alone any minuscule figures on deck. A metaphor for his writing habits. All self-imposed. Neither his incredibly patient wife nor his delightful little daughters could persuade him to relinquish this course. Sometimes pleasures need to be sacrificed and pains willingly endured in order to attain even greater pleasures; that’s what Epicurus told him, and that’s what he clung to. But it was hard, most especially on idle afternoons. The urge came upon him now to return to his family, to celebrate them, to take his fill of their love.
But his feet carried him onwards notwithstanding, through the thickening heather, stepping unconsciously over hidden rocks, crunching a rejected egg from a skylark’s nest, kicking the husk of a discarded snake’s skin – possibly a ratsnake, more likely an adder – unwittingly squashing the nest of a wolf spider, being bitten on the ankle by a mosquito (he would not notice that for a few minutes). Moving forwards, towards the headland and further from civilisation, closer to Nature herself, the omnipresent goddess. Prickling, tactile sensations across his flesh, the outside world interacting with his inner soul, his spirit, his anima – more proof (if he needed it, which he didn’t) of the atomic, entirely material nature of that internal soul-stuff: it responded to each external stimulus. In our language, the reactions of receptors in the somatosensory system, specifically mechanoreceptors, thermoreceptors, pain receptors, proprioceptors. In our poet’s Epicurean understanding, the distribution of super-fine sensory atoms throughout the body; it was all laid out quite straightforwardly in Epicurus’ On Nature, in his considered opinion the most magnificent, all-encompassing treatise ever written, a work whose explanatory power surpassed every other. But in both, the workings of a physical system that communicates sensations – along the spinal cord and ultimately to the parietal lobe of the brain (so we say) – to the animus, the rational centre, located in the chest according to Epicurus, for that is where we feel most strongly the risings and fallings of emotion, the tightness of pain, the expansiveness of joy. But in both a bodily mechanism, no need to posit something other, some extra kind of non-physical stuff, certainly a vast error to suppose something that survived the body’s demise.
Look ahead, gentle prophet of benevolent materialism, look beyond the cliffs and sea and horizon, look further – but shield your eyes, for you will be disappointed. Two thousand years of chasing phantoms in the dark, a ghost hunt in the cogs of the machine, a useless quest for the non-existent. Across the centuries philosophers and theologians, gasping under the suffocating shadow of Plato, insisting that there must be something where there is nothing. And in their wake, the religious leaders, those good shepherds, with their superstitious fictions to terrify their flocks into submission – obey us or your immortal soul will go to Hell. Never mind that you had long since given us an alternative, your positively joyous affirmation of our mortality, body and soul. We knew nothing of that, so yes we obeyed, for what alternative was there? The books of Epicurus condemned and reviled; the great poem of liberation that you have given your labour and your life to achieve lost for generations.
Look still further, to the here and now after the fortuitous rediscovery of your book (so nearly lost for ever), after the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, to a time when educated people in the most prosperous countries on the planet will look you in the eye and swear that the earth is flat and that Armstrong and Aldrin fronted the greatest hoax in history; that the world is 6,000 years old, that evolution is ‘just a theory’, and that AIDS is God’s punishment for sexual deviancy. And why stop there – if we’re concerned with evidence and rationality, that is – why not add the millions upon millions who refuse vaccinations for their children or take homeopathic remedies or read horoscopes in their daily newspaper? You know who you are, it’s all harmless you say: but have you ever stopped to consider the harm – that every time you take another sugar pill or tell a friend that she is behaving like a typical Sagittarius you contribute to the aggregate of World Stupidity? And don’t even get me started on vaccinations; just take a moment to be thankful that you don’t have Polio. What would our poet think of you lot? Were all his lectures for nothing, or is it never too late, can you still be saved? Would he despair or would he be cheered that his poem even now ignites fierce debate, that it angers as many as it pleases, that the quiet voice of rational discourse can still be heard even as the bellowing crowd roars its superstitious fears?
His voice, his enthusiasm, his passion. Perhaps that’s what we need now – for the champions of the scientific method, of evidence-based enquiry, of rational decision-making to be as passionately vociferous as the cranks, the conspiracy theorists, the anti-vaxxers, the flat-earthers, the naturopaths and homeopaths, the colonic irrigators and detoxifiers, the ear-candlers and food-faddists, and all those other victims – willing, credulous or simply unscrupulous – of magical thinking. O poet of atoms and void, of the joys of mortality, scourge of all superstitions, we need you now more than ever.
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