Darwin, Lucretius, and End Times Hysteria

Regarding doomsday today, December 21, 2012, the calamity has already arrived: the comet hit in 1859 when Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species.

I’m referring, of course, to the death of God.

Since the Italian Renaissance and Anglo-French Enlightenment, God has been slowly receding as a serious intellectual proposition, and Darwin’s discovery of the theory of evolution by natural selection is obviously emblematic of this. People sense it, and it makes them defensive. Now they hunker down.

End times anxiety is a symptom. Nothing could be more comforting than to believe the world will die in accordance with a prophecy (for it would be the sign that another world–a spirit realm–actually exists). People can imagine themselves repenting, dying, and going to heaven after an apocalypse, but they cannot fathom what it might mean if no gods exist at all.

That’s the truly disturbing thought.

Unfortunately, the truth that science has brought us to is the atomism of Lucretius. Lucretius is the ancient oracle who has been proved largely correct, not the Mayan calendar or the Bible. We live, wrote the Roman poet, in a world of atoms and void and nothing else (no spooks; no devils; no gods). And those atoms come together contingently, break apart contingently, and have done this, essentially, forever. Given enough time and chance, you’ll sometimes get exactly what you see around you today. There is no over-arching plan to the universe’s particular existence; no rhyme or reason.

Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt (see video below), in his new book, The Swerve, tells us the story of how Lucretius’s poem, On the Nature of Things, was lost and rediscovered in a German monastery by an Italian at the time of the Italian Renaissance–and what that has meant for the world.

Essentially, Greenblatt argues that Lucretius proved to be a Pandora’s box unleashed on the European psyche, ultimately bringing, through his atomism, the scientific revolution (and a consequent plague of secularism and atheism upon the world).

Thus combining Lucretius with Darwin, we arrive at intolerable news, and it is what contemporary people are fleeing from and stockpiling their food, weapons, and religious insularity against. The modern rediscovery of Lucretius’s atomism and his theory of deep time combined with Darwin’s theory of evolution have deeply infected the consciousness of people. These ideas, because they are so plausibly supported by science, give religious believers a bad conscience. It makes them want God to blow up the world to demonstrate that he has been in control all along; that there has always been someone at the steering wheel; that there is a plan.

But Lucretius and Darwin whisper in our collective ears: There is no plan. We are on our own.

When today, December 21, comes and goes without event, people will be back at square one, fiercely clenching their eyes from the truth that science has, since the Renaissance, gradually brought us all inescapably up against: the world goes, not by a comforting providence, but by contingent and fluctuating power relations–by atoms rustling in the void–and you can’t escape making decisions in this harsh game; this universal and unceasing bloodsport. Nobody can live your peculiar contingencies of existence for you, or tell you what you ought to do, exactly, about them.

That’s the end of the world. It’s T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. After the gnosis brought by Lucretius and Darwin has arrived, nobody is going to pick up the pieces on our behalf and carry us forward. The milk has been spilled.

This is why Friedrich Nietzsche is important. He’s the philosopher of Lucretius and Darwin; the philosopher who tried to digest the implications of contingency and evolution fully.

And Albert Camus is important as well. Once we’ve got the lowdown on how the world really seems to go, should we commit suicide? Rebel? (Rebel against what, exactly? Can we imagine, with Camus, Sisyphus happy?)

The Bible and the Mayan calendar simply cannot help us here (unless we mean to retreat into comforting fantasies; to go back to sleep). To be awake in the world and deal with it directly, better to read Nietzsche and Camus’ The Plague, because the plague is here.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Darwin, Lucretius, and End Times Hysteria

  1. It does not matter that there is only now, tomorrow does not need yesterday.
    It does not matter if we thrive in the dream of the Brahma if the dream is all that there is.
    It does not matter the thoughts of other worlds, the grave will keep its secrets.
    It does not matter that I think about thinking. I think, therefore I am. As long as I think, I am. Until I stop thinking, I am. When I stop thinking, I am not. When I am not, my thoughts will not matter.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Well, you sound like Epicurus (Lucretius was his follower). But the problem here is what Philip Larkin called the lading list. Contra Epicurus, Larkin argues (in one of his poems) that death is not nothing to us because we all have a list of things we wish to deliver into the future, and when we reach death we can no longer deliver that lading list to its destination. The knowledge of this when we are alive causes us psychological pain (that we will leave at our death a lading list of goals not completed).


      • What Larkin suggests is that we assume some purpose of life (the lading of goals). I do not make such an assumption. When I am done, I am done and I have delivered as much as I can. Fear of future regret is a waste of now. That I am in this now means that the millions of possible deaths that I did not suffer have caused me no more harm than the one that will eventually find its mark. To live in fear or anticipation of death is to waste life. Living is the only purpose for life.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Well, you have a good attitude. It’s deserving of emulation.


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