Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Nature of Things

The gulf between those who believe in souls and those who do not is the widest conceptual gulf I have encountered. It is really very difficult for us to understand each other. There isn't any middle ground: nobody believes in half a soul, or an intermittent soul. It's all or nothing.

You can go along happily in conversation for a long time, thinking you're having a meeting of the minds: then suddenly the ground drops from under you, and you realize that all your apparent agreement was a mirage. You haven't really understood each other. You weren't talking about the same thing.

Reading Lucretius, at long last, having found a translation I like, and I find him easy and comfortable, We're on the same side of that gulf. We think that our personhoods are chance constellations, shapes made up by dreaming shepherds out of random stars. Some philosophical problems become easier, some become harder, when you think that. But they all become different.

Nothing can emerge from nothing, says Lucretius, and Nature does not render anything to naught.

It can be a terrifying thought. Lear quotes Lucretius. Nothing will come of nothing, he says, Speak again. To Shakespeare, a world without souls is a deadly transactional world of quid pro quos, where all love is conditional and everything is bought with something else. I don't think he was right about that: but Shakespeare is not a man to dismiss lightly. Not at my time of life.


Jo from Ireland said...

This is interesting. I never considered that dialogue to be related to soul - more Lear's demand for flattery and professions of love, which he intended to respond to with material reward.

Do souls come into it? The origin of the quote would suggest so, but what a strange perversion of it.

Dale said...

I don't think Lear means to foreground Lucretius, but I think in Shakespeare's mind this is where Lucretius's materialism ends up. Demanding evidence and rewards for things that can't actually be measured, things that actually do appear out of nothing by divine fiat. So that Lear is speaking from a materialist point of view and naturally uses materialist language.