It is interesting that the pagan philosopher Lucretius, a Roman living in the early Christian era, had a better understanding of human nature than did any of the writers of the Bible. Lucretius wrote De Rerum Natura, usually translated On the Nature of Things, although I sometimes wonder if a better translation might not be On the Backside of Nature. Ha. It is a long poem about what Lucretius thought was everything. All about matter (he said everything was made from particles), every aspect of science, and the entire history of the world, ending with the Plague of Athens (which leads historians to believe that he died before finishing the poem). As is any work from two millennia ago that attempts to be scientific, it has some howling mistakes, but was a pretty good try. In later essays I will tell you more about this remarkable work, even though I find it difficult to read. But for now I would like to focus on his theory of the origins of human society.
Lucretius described prehistoric men in Book Five. He said they were stronger than modern men, “of larger bones and heavier frame” (Book Five, line 927), their strength not sapped by exposure to heat or cold, and without agriculture. They would sleep at night under blankets of leaves. Night did not frighten them. They lived off of wild fruits and seeds, which, it so happened, were bigger than modern wild fruits and seeds. They slaked their thirst from streams and springs, which Lucretius poetically described (“living water…Laved the moist rocks…O’er the green moss it trickled…”). They hadn’t figured out how to use fire or make clothes from animal skins. In addition, each man looked out for himself, unconcerned about the common good: “Whate’er chance offered unto each he took, well schooled to live and thrive each for himself alone.” Not only that, but they made reckless love: men and women either chose their lovers or else men would fight for women—or sometimes buy their love by giving them “arbute berries, acorns, [or] gathered pears.” They hunted wild animals with clubs or by throwing rocks at them. The certainty of death did not frighten them; in fact, if they knew they were going to die, they would drink poison.
Then, said Lucretius, humans began to get soft when they formed families and started living in huts and forming pacts with neighbors. They had primitive languages, at first just imitating the sounds of things, in a manner not entirely different from the way animals (including mythic Molossian hounds) communicate by making different sounds for different meanings. Then, humans received the gift of fire not from a god but from nature, and once they had it, they could cook and soften their foods.
The next step was when humans with the best ideas began to persuade other humans to follow them, and begin to live together in cities, which led toward civilization but also toward oppression; in particular, whoever had the most gold had the most power, regardless of the fact that other people were smarter or lovelier. Lucretius notes that true happiness is to be found in “simple modesty with heart content; For where a little is, there is no lack” (lines 1124-1125), but civilization glorified the rich. Within and between nations, men fought one another for gain: “So it is now, and evermore shall be” (line 1138).
So kings did fall, and all the ancient pride
Of lordly thrones and haughty scepters lay
O’erturned in lowly dust; and stained with blood
The glorious diadem of kingly heads
Beneath the feet of swarming mobs…
(lines 1139-1143). Sounds like the poem Ozymandias, doesn’t it? Only Lucretius wrote this almost two millennia earlier than Shelley. But in some cases, Lucretius said, people “might of their own accord submit themselves to regulations” (lines 1152-1153), allowing the rule of law to create peace rather than having constant war. Men grew weary of a life of violence, he said.
Next Lucretius explains the origin of religion. It began with dreams, in which people saw great and powerful beings. It was not a big stretch to attribute to these gods the origin and operation of the heavens and the Earth. It almost sounds like Lucretius was an atheist—not only because, throughout his poem, he attributes everything that happens in the natural world to particles, but also because in Book Five he wrote, “O hapless human kind, when unto gods such deeds it hath assigned…” (lines 1194-1195). He describes religious practices, such as sacrificing beasts at altars, with scarcely-concealed disdain. It is far better, Lucretius says, “To view all things with heart and mind at peace” (line 1206). Lucretius implies that it is pretty stupid to believe that lightning bolts and storms at sea are caused by angry gods; so if you are caught out in one, you may get lucky or you may not, but don’t bother with supplications to the gods.
To finish out Book Five, Lucretius writes about the history of metallurgy, then of war, culminating in the use of elephants as fighting machines. He speculated in lines 1343-1345 that things might have gone differently on some other world. He said men, not women, made the technological advances and invented agriculture. Then he ends his discourse on the history of civilization with the intention of the flute. Isn’t that nice?
Very well. From our modern viewpoint, Lucretius’ history of humankind is pretty weird, especially the part about men buying love from prehistoric whores by offering them arbute berries (genus Arbutus, family Ericaceae). Where the heck did he get that idea?
But remember that Lucretius was working from a position of having absolutely no data about human prehistory. The only other cultural groups of whom he knew, such as the Etruscans and Gauls, were not substantially different from Romans prior to civilization. (Gauls were, we must remember, an agricultural society that replaced previous tribes in what is now France at least six thousand years before Lucretius wrote.) Lucretius had no information about primitive people. (Do we? The supposedly primitive Amazonian tribes are actually the remnants of a collapsed Amazonian civilization.) As Lucretius wrote, the bones of Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal and the cave paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet were hiding, completely unknown, in European caves. So he resorted to speculation. It was either that or not write anything at all.
But, against all odds, Lucretius’ picture of human prehistory and history is not too different from our modern understanding, and strikingly different from Genesis. Genesis does not even recognize a prehistoric phase of human history: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were already completely modern, had the capacity for language, and within one generation their children had the ability to raise crops and livestock. Today we understand that the human body has, indeed, evolved to be more gracile largely because of the invention of cooking and of society. According to Richard Wrangham’s “cooking hypothesis,” cooking allowed more protein for the evolutionary expansion of the brain. And most paleoanthropologists understand that, since primitive humans fought with weapons or, sometimes, figured out ways to not fight, their canine teeth evolved to be smaller. That is, we have bigger brains and smaller teeth because of cooking and cooperation—which is exactly what Lucretius said two thousand years ago. And Lucretius explained how religion evolved. He didn’t quite get it right—his version omits the role of sexual selection in the origin of religion—but at least he understood that it evolved, which Genesis says nothing about. In Genesis, religion began because God walked around in the Garden of Eden and chatted with Adam and Eve. And Lucretius had the same disdain for religious practices that most modern scientists have.
There you have it. With regard to the origin of humans, and of human society, the ancient Roman philosopher Lucretius was more correct than even a figurative interpretation of Genesis.