Lucretius Contra Heidegger

It has become de rigueur in the last century, the last philosophical century, to approach thought via a limit-concept, and our philosophies are marked by the tropes of this finitude. In short, thought is tragic; or put slightly differently, thought is Heideggerian. Tragic since the ultimate horizon of thought and being are found in the human. The question that arises in this paper is whether the next philosophical century is possible. Is a non-tragic thought possible? Or put slightly differently, is it possible for a thought to exist that does not simply reject the previous conditions of thought but instead pushes these conditions to their most radical conclusion?

The difficulty that arises is from where a non-tragic thought could find its bearings. Tragic thought does not simply affect the current position of philosophy, but instead transforms the entire history of philosophy, through Heidegger’s appropriation of ancient thought through his studies from Parmenides to Aristotle up through Augustine. What is needed, then, is a position within the stream of philosophy that is not already appropriated by the tragic moment in thought. It is the wager of this paper that that position is the one occupied by Titus Lucretius Carus, and his magnificent De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things ). Lucretius is, quite simply, unthinkable from the perspective of tragic thought, from Heidegger’s thought, and thus remains an obscure figure in the history of philosophy, at best. More importantly, Lucretius continually runs ahead of Heidegger and thus he appears to be beyond the tragic era. What Lucretius’ philosophy provides is the possibility to re-think the tropes of thought that have been brought forth by the tragic century and thus, allows for the beginning of a non-tragic thought.

Ultimately, tragic thought operates via a particular relationship between philosophy and science; it is an assertion that science must take philosophy as its condition. This point is made explicitly in Heidegger’s earliest work, whether philosophy is seen as a fundamental ontology versus science’s regional ontology or philosophy as critical science with science as positive science. In his lecture course on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Heidegger states,

…whereas the physicist defines what he understands by motion and circumscribes what place and time mean—whereby he relies in part on ordinary concepts—still, however, he does not make motion’s way of being a theme of his investigation. Rather he examines only certain movements. The physicist does not inquire into the ownmost inner possibility of time, but rather uses time as that with respect to which he measures motion…The scientific methods have been developed precisely in order to explore beings. But they are not suited for examining the being of these beings. If this is to happen, then what we need is not to objectify a being, e.g., the existing nature as a whole, but the ontological constitution of nature or the being of that which exists as historical.

In the course the previous year, Heidegger states, “…the other sciences, mathematics, physics, history, philology, linguistics, do not begin by asking what is mathematics (etc.); instead they just set about their work, they plunge into their subject matter…In the very essence of all these sciences, in the fact that they are positive sciences, versus philosophy, which we call the critical science.” For Heidegger, science is only capable of dealing with beings but is incapable of understandings its own foundations in being. Philosophy, on the other hand, is capable of providing this foundation via its role as fundamental ontology. In short, science remains lacking, existing only as a possible philosophy at best.

But what is the effect on science from this approach? At the surface level, this requirement is little more than a version of the Kantian transcendental, a search for the conditions of possibility for any science. But what must be recognized, and this is the contention of this paper, is that this seemingly innocuous requirement is a poison pill and that science’s acceptance of philosophy as its condition is nothing short of the destruction of science itself, and the casting of philosophy into the sea of idealism. Why is this the case?

Heidegger begins by asserting the necessity of science’s acceptance of philosophy as its condition, pointing to antiquity for proof of this relationship. He then adds that what philosophy, as the “freest possibility of human existence” provides is the “most original and necessary relationship” to being. But since Heidegger’s understanding of being is its openness, its givenness, or its manifestation, then he has affirmed himself within the lineage of Kant, and thus, science, with its condition set by philosophy, loses its ability to touch the real, the reality indifferent to dasein or the human. But such a loss cannot be overcome by science and so results in science’s utter destruction. Being, for Heidegger, cannot be separated from its relationship to the human, imagined as dasein, and thus remains a humanistic idealism masquerading as a radical philosophy.

But what if the relationship is reversed? What if science becomes the condition of a philosophical thought? It is already in Plato where this understanding of philosophy is put into practice. Mathematics and specifically its non-empirical status serves as the student’s, and our own, path from becoming to being. It is mathematics that sets itself against doxa, against the endless assertion of one’s opinion and perspective. Let us look at Plato’s Republic Book 7:
Think a little and you will see that what has preceded will supply the answer; for if simple unity could be adequately perceived by the sight or by any other sense, then, as we were saying in the case of the finger, there would be nothing to attract towards being; but when there is some contradiction always present, and one is the reverse of one and involves the conception of plurality, then thought begins to be aroused within us, and the soul perplexed and wanting to arrive at a decision asks ‘What is absolute unity?’ This is the way in which the study of the one has a power of drawing and converting the mind to the contemplation of true being.

What then of Lucretius, this obscure Latin poet philosopher? The insight is Michel Serres’, found in his extended study on Lucretius, The Birth of the Physics . Serres rejects the notion that ancient atomism, specifically Lucretius’, is naïve or non-mathematical. Instead, he asserts that Lucretius’ most fundamental insight, the swerve of the clinamen, operates via a specific dialogue with the mathematics of Archimedes, specifically the proto-calculus of infinitesimals. “Not only did the atom have to be born by way of the treatment of curved elements, in the irrational and differential, or by way of the indefinitely divisible…This is because the angle of contingency may not be subdivided: it is demonstrably minimal. It is null, but without the lines which form it overlaying one another.” Let us look to Lucretius’ actual text to see this for ourselves.

It begins with the laminar flow, the gravitational descent of atoms in the perfect parallel order, then “at absolutely unpredictable times” the atom swerves off its path, slightly, by “only an infinitesimal degree,” a deviation of the smallest possible angle. And thus the lines of the laminar flow become spirals, at utterly incomprehensible moments since they are moments without witness or givenness, as the clinamen begins to wobble, order is broken, the void is joined by the reality of the atom. Atom meets atom, eventually, as the spiral forms a cone and force of gravity is transferred via an encounter. As Althusser will say in his rediscovery of the secret history of materialism: “it is clear that the encounter creates nothing of the reality of the world, which is nothing but agglomerated atoms, but that it confers their reality upon atoms themselves, which without swerve and encounter, would be nothing but abstract elements…” The swerve of the clinamen, long dismissed as “puerile” or a “most monstrous absurdity” or worse yet, used to introduce free will, should be seen as the most basic mathematized thought of a temporality without givenness.

We should pause here just to note the radical difference between this mathematical beginning and the other ancient model that has received so much attention in our tragic era, namely the one discovered in Plato’s Timeaus. The point is not primarily a question on the value of chaos versus order, although this certainly plays a role, but instead the relationship between the world and the human. In Plato, the world is placed into order by the demiurge because of its moral purity, which is to say, because of the coming human soul that the demiurge is preparing. Whereas in Lucretius, the human, the product of the random combination of atoms, is ill-suited for the world, since it exists without reason, and is incapable of forming itself as dominion. Lucretius’ approach is thoroughly scientific; Plato is unable to break from the doxa of Greek religion. To paraphrase Lautréamont, “he who knows and appreciates (mathematics) no longer wants the goods of the earth and is satisfied with (its) magical delights…(the demiurge) only offers (Plato) illusions and moral phantasmagoria.”

What, then, is the effect of such a reversal of the basic relation between science and philosophy? What becomes of the tropes of finitude that we philosophers have been unable to operate without? Let us look at two of these tropes, death of the mortal man and death of the immortal god, and how these are transformed in Lucretius’ philosophy. Heidegger, in the Beitrage, writes, “The uniqueness of death in human Da-sein belongs to the most originary determination of Da-sein, namely to be en-owned by be-ing itself in order to ground its truth (openness of self-sheltering). What is most non-ordinary in all of beings is opened up within death’s non-ordinariness and uniqueness, namely be-ing itself, which holds sway as estranging.” Or in Being and Time, we are presented with “With death, Dasein stands before itself in its ownmost potentiality-of-being. In this possibility, Da-sein is concerned about its being-in-the-world absolutely…As the end of Da-sein, death is the ownmost nonrelation, certain, and as such, indefinite and not to be bypassed possibility of Da-sein. ” In short, death is an event since it pronounces the highest possibility of Dasein and with this, death displays the ultimately groundedness of Da-sein as the ab-ground, the abyss. Death reveals the truth of being to Dasein; this truth being the original givenness of the world, or what Heidegger comes to call the “other beginning.” This other beginning is not the material conditions for a world but instead the ultimate human centeredness, or Dasein centeredness if you prefer, of being itself.

This being said, there is a remarkably different approach to death in the work of Lucretius. He states, “Death, then, is nothing to us and does not affect us in the least, now that the nature of the mind is understood to be mortal.” The most important difference between the tragic approach and Lucretius’ is that Lucretius robs death of its status of the singularity. Death, according to Lucretius, is a property of the body, as it is a property of all bodies. A property according to Lucretius “is what cannot under any circumstances be severed and separated from a body without the divorce involving destruction.” Death then is a property of all bodies, save one, the atom. Humans die, but so do plants and planets. Heidegger magnifies the importance of death since the revealedness of being is directly correlated to Dasein. No such relationship is presupposed by Lucretius, since his mathematics has presented him with the possibility of a thought without human witnesses. Mathematics is, after all, “an instance of stellar and warlike inhumanity.” We should be wary of making the mistake of supposing that Lucretius’ view on death is an historical curiosity, and mere replication of the zeitgeist of Roman philosophy, a masculine warrior’s response to the inevitable. While it is true the Stoics dismissed death as a concern, they also offered themselves an escape clause via their insistence that the gods would honor their triumphs. Lucretius, as will discuss in the next section has no such clause.

What then of the death of the immortal god? The death of God or, to use Heidegger’s later formulation, the fleeing of the Last God is the condition of possibility for world. “The last god has its essential swaying within the hint, the onset and staying-away of the arrival as well as the flight of the gods who have been…In such essential swaying of the hint, be-ing itself comes to fullness. Fullness is preparedness for becoming a fruit and a gifting…Here the innermost finitude of be-ing reveals itself: in the hint of the last god.” Once again we return to the centrality of the human, Da-sein. The fleeing of the Gods reveals be-ing as gift, whether delivered or delayed, it makes no difference. Heidegger has asserted the impossibility of any thought beyond the manifestation of world to Dasein, and tragic thought receives its trope. This position is not unique to Heidegger and is found both before his explicit creation of tragic thought and in those tragic thinkers who have carried in his wake. We can, for instance, see this beginnings of this approach to God’s absence in the sorrow of Nietzsche’s madman, who wonders what humanity will do now that it as lost its greatest treasure. Also, we have a more recent contribution to this thought in the work of Simon Critchley, specifically his newest book Infinitely Demanding. In this work, Critchley locates the motivating force of philosophy itself in the disappointment that the philosopher feels in losing God. What we get in all three of these thinkers is the arrival of Aristotle’s tragic hero, the great man who has suffered a reversal of fortune.

Lucretius, on the other hand, commits the unforgivable sin of rejecting God at its premises, and therefore God’s death as logically impossible. There is simply no role preserved for the gods in Lucretius’ philosophy, since the beginning of the reality occurs via mathematics or physics rather than divine commandment. “For it is inherent in the very nature of the gods that they should enjoy immortal life in perfect peace, far removed and separated from our world; free from all distress, free from peril, fully self-sufficient, independent of us, they are not influenced by worthy conduct nor touched by anger.” It is simply logically impossible that the gods are here in our world or were ever here. To say otherwise to assert the importance of the human and its perspective, but humanity has never been a hero, is not touched by destiny, and therefore, lacks the fortune that vanity perceives.

What is important is to see that these tropes of tragic thought were not selected at random; instead they are the central coordinates of tragic thought itself. The traditional relationship in western philosophy between humanity and God has focused on the “great chain of being,” with the immortal god seating comfortable at the top, well above mortal humans. But the death of god has brought about a collapse of this chain. What has been missed by tragic thought is effect that this event has on the rest of the chain. We have been told repeatedly the loss of God solidifies our finite position, and has engendered disappointment, etc. But the dyad of immortal/mortal can only be maintained so long as the point of comparison, here infinity, survives. The ultimately effect of the loss of God is not the absolutizing of the finitude of be-ing, but instead the infinitizing of reality itself. Much has been made by Alain Badiou of Georg Cantor’s discovery of infinity as number, but we can already see the idea of numbered infinity at play in Lucretius. From a distance the sheep bleed into one another and appear as a mass of white upon the hill, moving as one, and as it is with the sheep, it is with atoms. Once again, it is Archimedes and his Sand Reckoner, which provide the first hints at the infinite, not as divine, but as number.

One possibility that confronts us is to assume that non-tragic thought is simply the opposite of tragic thought. This would be a mistake. Non-tragic thought is tragic thought taken to its most extreme possibility, which is the full embrace of finitude. Contrary to the approach of contemporary thought, human finitude does not operate as a limit to thought but instead allows thought to get beyond the human perspective; the radical acceptance of finitude makes it possible that, to quote Ray Brassier, “Philosophy should be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem.”

As we have already discussed, Heidegger sees death as the ultimately potentiality of Dasein. The failure that Heidegger succumbs to is the inability to fully embrace this potentiality for all possible Dasein. Heidegger touches twice on this possibility but abandons the path both times to return to the singular death of a particular Dasein. The analysis of the being-toward-death of Dasein begins as the death of others. This first path is found to be limited since “in dying, it becomes evident that death is ontologically constituted by mineness and existence.” And so, although “every Dasein must itself actually take dying upon itself…”, Heidegger fails to truly grasp the “every” of finitude, and continues to think death only as a singular occurrence of a singular Dasein. When Heidegger does approach the concept of death in the collective, it is only in relation to the “the they.” But the “the they” can only think the death of the generic Dasein, “one dies”; and thus, “the they” fails to grasp the real occurrence of death for themselves.

The problem for Heideggerian thought is that commits a similar error. If “the they” cannot think its own death, Heidegger cannot get beyond his own death, which is the death of a specific Dasein. The proper procedure would be the combination of both approaches to death, that is, the recognition that one does indeed die, but also that this one is always a specific one, a Dasein. Thus we fully accept the possibility that “every Dasein” will die, not someday, but at the specific point of extinction, at the arrival of the stellar explosion. This extinction, which is first properly thought by Lucretius, is the absolute exhaustion of the human given.

Now the aged plowsman shakes his head and time after time sighs that his hard labor has all come to nothing…His gloomy sentiments are echoed by the planter of the old and shriveled vine who deplores the tendency of the times…Only he fails to grasp that all things gradually decay and head for the reef of destruction, exhausted by long lapse of time.

From the thought of the absolute finitude of all possible Dasein we arrive at the possible thought of a thinking beyond the existence of Dasein, a point when “the earth be confounded with the sea, and the sea with the sky.” And as we can now think the beyond of Dasein, we can also think the before of Dasein. Through a radical embracing of finitude, a radicality absent from Heidegger and his followers, thought is severed from the limits of humanity and becomes thoroughly inhuman.

Ultimately, tragic thought, in general, and Heidegger’s thought, in particular, remains little more than elaborate and hyper-stylized astrology. In Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, he calls into question Kant’s relationship to his so-called “Copernican revolution” and instead, asserts that what critical and, most importantly for us, post-critical philosophy represents is a “Ptolemaic counter-revolution.” If Galileo’s great insight was to expel humans from the center of reality, then it was Kant’s greatness that returned us to our place. We can even see in Ptolemy the desire to supplement the science of astronomy with a proper metaphysical outlook, so as to understand the effects of the “ambients.” And thus we today are the inheritors of a thought that places the cosmos back in orbit around us, a thought that can only be tragic since it assumes that the movements of the planets are forever tied to the whims and desires of the human ego. Therefore, non-tragic thought is that thought that is willing to go all the way to the end and accept the utter meaninglessness of our very existence and in so doing re-affirm philosophy’s materialist binding to science.


~ by stellarcartographies on June 3, 2008.

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