Contagion

“God is not to be feared, death is not a risk. It is easy to procure what is good, while what is bad is easy to endure” (Epicurean ‘Four-fold Remedy’).

Under the media menu of this site, you can find a link to a song that my friend Andy and I wrote (under the band name ‘Misanthrophile’) and the accompanying video I created for it. The lyrics to “Contagion” are in Latin. The lines I used are from the poem “On the Nature of Things” (De Rerum Natura), penned by the Roman poet Lucretius (94 BC – 55 BC). Lucretius was an ardent admirer of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who lived and taught in Athens roughly 250 years before the poet’s death. In light of his deep respect for Epicurus, Lucretius composed his 7400-line poem to expound the philosopher’s doctrines.

Epicurus bust. Wikipedia.

At the core of this philosophy was the secular, mechanistic view of the universe known as ‘atomism’. In particular, Epicurus (and Lucretius) argued that all that really exists are an infinite number of tiny atoms moving around empty space at random, colliding with each other and forming all the visible stuff and events that we experience in the world according to fixed natural laws.

The idea here is even more relevant to life today than it might seem. Lucretius’ overall intention, as that of his predecessor, is that a rational understanding of why things happen in the world as they do will remove our fear of the gods and of death, thus allowing us to attain true peace and happiness in life.

The human soul, for instance, being purely physical in nature and subject to natural laws, must die along with the body. As a result, Lucretius insists, we can experience no sensation at all after death. Death will be for us just like what it was like before we were born: absolutely nothing.

As for god, a perfect divine being must be content with its existence. This means that god can have no needs, desires, emotions, or worries. God would therefore have no reason to interfere with the workings of nature or human beings. This knowledge, in turn, should free us from the anxiety that comes from our efforts to worship god correctly and to live a righteous life – all in order to avoid everlasting punishment after death.

This is Epicureanism in a nutshell. Now, the lines I have used for ‘Contagion’ can be found at the end of the final book of Lucretius’ poem (book six). There, the poet describes in gory detail the horrific plague that devastated the population of ancient Athens during the Peloponnesian War (430 BC).

So how does this graphic plague narrative fit in with Lucretius’ mission to explain the mechanics of the universe and dispel our fear of the gods and of death? Keep in mind that Lucretius is attempting to explain the nature of things. This includes everything that might exist or take place around us: e.g., the earth, sky, stars, animals, humans, the soul, civilization, the gods, hallucinations, the seasons, meteorological phenomena, and supposed miracles.

The basic idea is that nothing comes-to-be from nothing or perishes into nothing, as if by supernatural agency. All things change, come-to-be, and perish because of the combination and separation of atoms, and all according to the immutable laws of nature. Not even god can influence or interrupt this natural flow of cause and effect.

Consequently, the various imperfections of the world must also have specific causes, especially the countless disasters that afflict humanity, seemingly for no reason, or in the eyes of believers, because of god’s wrath. For instance, Lucretius offers a natural rather than supernatural explanation of lightning, which was often seen to strike even the temples of the gods. Similarly, he explains volcanoes and earthquakes as the result of natural processes underneath the earth’s surface.

It is within this context that Lucretius turns to the plague. He reminds us that world was not made for us. Disease, he says, has a physical cause in the combinations of various types of atoms which accumulate and upset the balance of health. He also discusses what we know today as infection and contagion, as well as the influence of climate as a factor in the spread of disease.

Plague in an Ancient City, Michael Sweerts. Wikigallery.org.

As mentioned, Lucretius’ description of the plague’s symptoms is graphic. In addition to the lines that I have translated above, the poet describes anxiety, incessant retching, convulsions, and exhaustion. The sufferer’s body was cold to the touch, but the inside burned to the bone. Medicine was useless. Some people jumped into streams and wells in a futile effort to quench their constant thirst. Delirium and hallucination set in. Breathing was nearly impossible, and sweating profuse. Putrid blood flowed through the nose. After nine days of agony, along with uncontrollable twitching, coughing, and tissue deterioration, the victims would finally die.

The plague also had severe social consequences. Unburied corpses littered the streets. As soon as people got sick, they fell into frenzied despair. Ironically, many committed suicide. Those who dreaded death most refused to tend to the sick. But they too succumbed, as did those who tried to help the victims. Lucretius also describes parents stretched out over dead children, and dying children clinging to the bodies of dead parents.

Finally, and most relevantly, the temples and shrines of the gods were filled with corpses. Lucretius emphasizes how little believers’ reverence and worship of the gods mattered in the end. The entire nation was in terror, and lawlessness ensued. Some families even began to use other people’s pyres to burn their own dead, which often led to disputes and bloodshed.

Lucretius’ tragic picture of the Athenian plague shows us humankind at the mercy of natural forces beyond the power of their own knowledge, science, and religious customs. It depicts the inevitable suffering that human beings face in a world that was not made for them. Ironically, the power that comes from knowledge of the atomistic structure of the universe reveals the painful fact of our ultimate powerlessness within a hostile world. Most of all, the narrative strongly suggests that god does not care a bit about the welfare of human beings.


The occurrence of extreme, senseless suffering is not restricted to the ancient world. We need only turn our thoughts to the recent disaster in Nepal. We have all seen the clichéd memes on social networking sites expressing prayers for the victims and survivors of the earthquake. Such responses make even less sense than the disaster itself. If god has the power and will to alleviate human suffering, then why would he wait until enough people asked him to do so?

As my mother used to say, “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.” Nature is a cruel killer who indiscriminately attacks young and old, innocent and guilty, rich and poor, healthy and sick. Consider yourself lucky if you get through life without experiencing serious suffering, sickness, or misery. Only deluded, narcissistic fools would consider it a divine blessing granted specifically to them… and why? Just because they had gained divine favor by praying, kneeling, or chanting in the prescribed manner? So Jesus says: “Clasp those hands real tight, and get down on your knees, or I won’t help those little children I allowed to be crushed by falling debris!” Do I understand that right?

The specific function of a mind is to think — to figure things out according to common sense and reason. So what does reason say about all this suffering? Either god doesn’t know about it, doesn’t care about it, can’t stop it, or doesn’t exist. Those are the only options. Of course you could simply ignore the rational workings of your mind and cling to faith — convince yourself that god was ‘ready for’ the victims of the plague or the earthquake, or whatever other disaster.

You could convince yourself that the suffering all makes sense in god’s mind, but not ours. (Of course, leave out the part about how our own tiny, limited minds could know even that much.) Reassure yourself that despite the victims’ unspeakable suffering, it is all part of the plan of a god who loves them very much. But this is not love. Most of us had unquestionably loving parents who would never allow us to suffer in such ways if they had any say in the matter. Whatever was at work behind the scenes during the Athenian plague or the Nepal earthquake, it is not what any sane person would recognize as ‘love’.

I often say that faith is a mental illness. Of course, this metaphor is meant to be provocative. But the similarity between faith and delusion is striking. Faith is a matter of stubbornly denying whatever conflicts with one’s beliefs regardless of reason and common sense. An adult who goes through life refusing to accept conclusions that contradict what they simply feel to be true no matter how strong the contrary evidence is a person who is not using his or her mind in a healthy, sane manner.

Lucretius’ point is that a rational view of the universe allows us to see an event as horrific as the plague as far less of an illness than religion. Religion and the fear of death that inspires it are the real contagion.

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.