Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Lucretius and Monsters: Between Bergson and Canguilhem

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Lucretius and Monsters: Between Bergson and Canguilhem

Article excerpt

1. Between Bergson and Canguilhem

The issue of monsters, far from being a simple or marginal curiosity within Lucretius' theoretical system, is one of its pivotal concepts; different interpretations of it are likely to lead towards very different understandings of the overall meaning of the system itself. The question about the place and the theoretical function of the monster in Lucretius' philosophy is strictly-if only imperceptibly, at least prima facie-tied up with a series of other questions on the relation of the monster with other notions such as form, foedera naturae, necessity and chance.

The texts at our disposal do not allow a simple and unequivocal answer to the challenges posed by this conceptual figure. For this reason, it is useful to approach the problem via the two opposed interpretations by Bergon and Canguilhem. It is in the tension between such interpretations that the meaning of Lucretius' materialism and determinism can be found.

Bergson's study on Lucretius belongs to the period when he was teaching philosophy at the Lycée Blaise-Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand. It is a very simple introduction to the language and thought of Lucretius, written for high school students, but at the same time has some interesting ideas. In it Bergson emphasizes the originality of the philosophy of Lucretius compared to Epicurus: "the poet, through apparently insignificant additions, especially through the tone that he gives to the phrase, renews the thought of his teacher, or rather provokes a whole new feeling in our souls."1 If Epicurus "seems to have not loved nature" in the sense that he rejects science merely as knowledge of natural phenomena, but considers it only "a weapon against superstition," he finds an entirely different approach by Lucretius:

What . . . struck Lucretius about Democritus' doctrine, seen through the filter of the philosophy of Epicurus, is exactly what Epicurus gave little importance to: the imperturbable fixity of the laws of nature. If today, if from time immemorial nothing else exists other than atoms and combinations of atoms and displacements of atoms, if these atoms move in eternal and ineluctable motion, then it is inevitable that fixed and immutable laws preside at birth, at the development and decay of things, that the closed circle of fatality tightens and compresses from every side. In light of what Lucretius believes to be the essential idea of Epicureanism, beneath the infinitely varied phenomena of apparently capricious nature, he sees atoms that move in very specific directions, immutable laws that work uniformly.2

The originality of Lucretius' position would then consist in having returned to the philosophy of Epicurus a great and poetic idea, already developed by Democritus, mildly supported by Epicurus, and in any case new in Rome: "the eternal fixity of the laws of nature."3

According to Bergson, this idea led Lucretius to perceive and predict "what modern science could only formalize with a clear demonstration,"4 including atomic theory, "which after twenty centuries of trial and error chemistry could only return to,"5 and, almost en passant, Darwinian theory:

It would be easy to show-he writes-as on other points, for example on the question of the origin of living beings; Lucretius had something like a premonition [a eu comme un pressentiment] of the great theories of our time. More than once the analogy between the ideas presented in the fifth book and those of the great naturalist Darwin have been observed. We can only report this similarity and not insist on it, as today the theory of evolution is still only a hypothesis.6

In the proceedings of a conference dedicated to the thought of Maupertuis, Canguilhem refers precisely to this Bergsonian interpretation, criticizing it as a paradigmatic error. According to Canguilhem, Bergson would have fallen into the error of considering Lucretius as a precursor of Darwin, without understanding the Lucretian problematic. …

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