An Infinite Number of Monkeys

I'm currently reading On the Nature of Things by the Greek philosopher-poet Lucretius, and having a rough go of it. It's certainly not a difficult read, and it's not a very long book. It's just that I've never seen such beautiful language wasted on such ugly ideas. For example, Lucretius writes:

For of truth
Neither by counsel did the primal germs
'Stablish themselves, as by keen act of mind,
Each in its proper place; nor did they make,
Forsooth, a compact how each germ should move;
But since, being many and changed in many modes
Along the All, they're driven abroad and vexed
By blow on blow, even from all time of old,
They thus at last, after attempting all
The kinds of motion and conjoining, come
Into those great arrangements out of which
This sum of things established is create

This selection, which appears near the end of the first book, appears to be the thesis for the entire work. The gods, if they are there, are apathetic and did not create the world. Religion is the great and wicked monster, which man must defeat. The universe we inhabit exists purely by the chance result of infinite primal germs (what we would call atoms) in an infinite void given an infinite amount of time. Sound familiar? If so, then it is only because, in the words of Solomon, "there is nothing new under the sun."

The thing that makes reading this so frustrating is that Lucretius is to Richard Dawkins as Shakespeare is to Tom Clancy. And because of this, his style is greatly at odds with his content. Going back to Shakespeare as an example, let's say that an infinite number of monkeys pounding on an infinite number of typewriters given an infinite amount of time will eventually, by chance, type the complete works of Shakespeare. In fact, let's go a step farther and say that this has happened. If this is the case then Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? has no more value than n.34h7u8eaji;laev gc;e p[dzu jawpo8u. It would be ridiculous to call the first beautiful and the second ugly. Both are the result of random chance with no design or purpose. In a universe formed this way, there would be no reason to value a planet like Earth, full of life, above a planet like Mars, rocky and barren. There would be no reason to value life over death; both are merely specific and chance arrangements of atoms. And, ultimately, there would be no reason to value truth, whatever that is, above falsehood. So why does it bother Lucretius so much that many people live in fear of dread religion? The soul itself is merely a chance arrangement of "primal germs." Self-awareness is but a random and fleeting illusion.

And yet Lucretius feels the need to pour out his (material) soul in the service of this great work. He writes his lavish and beautiful hymn to the Void and to the Atoms. And frankly, the Void and the Atoms don't give a damn.

Comments