Humankind has walked the Earth largely unchallenged for millenia, but our current situation is a reminder that we are not the all-powerful, invincible species we think we are and, in fact, even the ancient Romans were aware of the pitfalls of “man” long before the likes of Greta Thunberg and other activists.
In this, my first post, I want to relay to you the thoughts of one ancient writer who considered how humankind had weakened over time, wishing for the return of a “Golden Age” where our species was strong. This author is Lucretius and inspiration for this blog post comes from his De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). Before I address the specifics of his writings, and his gripe with humankind, here is a very brief biography of Lucretius so you can familiarise yourself with him.
Born – c. 99 BC Died – c. 55 BC
Profession – Poet, Writer, Philosopher
Residence – Ancient Rome
So, with the pleasantries done and dusted, let’s talk about how deplorable we are as a species, shall we?
Lucretius’ concepts and ideas displayed in his works are fascinating and seem to hold more relevance during this pandemic than at any period since his works were published. His Book V reveals some thought provoking ideas that would have been groundbreaking during the Roman era; ideas of atoms and scientific answers to questions that were only previously solved with notions of divine powers. However, there is one point from Lucretius that I want to discuss in this article. The idea of a “Golden Age” preceding the era in which one lives now and his views on how humankind is diminishing instead of evolving.
The notion of a bygone era that appeared to be infinitely greater, grander and more prosperous is not new, and has been displayed by a plethora of ancient authors. It is of course still apparent today with that insufferable phrase “back in my day”. Do you hate when your parents talk about how life was “tougher” when they were younger, and that “you don’t know how good you’ve got it, kid”? Yeah, me too. Think of Lucretius as *that* parent. Lucretius’ thoughts on a time before his are focused on mankind itself and his disgust with how it finds itself in his day. Although, it is worth pointing out that, in my view at least, Lucretius is talking about a glory day where the divine ‘walked’ the Earth and not mortal men and women.
Here is a quick quote from Book V of his De Rerum Natura:
“For fire now rendered the their shivering bodies less able to endure the cold under the canopy of heaven; and love diminished their strength; and children with their blandishments easily subdued the ferocious tempers of their parents”
So for Lucretius, humans looking to adapt by making life easier in some way or another is actually hindering their potential, and our obsession with the way we feel has removed a layer of our armour. Fire has made us weak to the cold, love makes us weak in spirit and children force us to be passive and forgiving. Is there any truth to this? What have we done as modern humans that follows this trend, and can we relate?
Yes we can. For thousands of years we, as a species, have been deteriorating faster than a single Mum (or Dad, let’s be inclusive here) in Wetherspoon’s on a Friday night. We are divisive and judgemental in terms of race, sex, and body type. We start wars with other humans over land that is only owned by Mother Nature herself. We desecrate, destroy and decapitate nature’s most wonderful things and for what? A new road or railway, a palm oil dependent product or a taxidermy of a native African animal that serves no place on the mantelpiece of a poacher. I would therefore argue that we are, today, at our lowest and, like Lucretius, need to glance back at a Golden Age where we were not such bastards.
But such a time is difficult to come by. No matter which civilisation you are looking at, and no matter which time period you find yourself studying, I can almost guarantee you that there was a form of conflict or exploitation.
I think, deep down, us humans know that we are weak as a species. Our destructive mindset stems from our desperate struggle to try and prove to ourselves that we are in fact holders of some great power over nature and one another when, actually, we are incredibly expendable. Without modern humans Earth would thrive. I am writing this two months into the UK’s shambolic lockdown due to the emergence of the new coronavirus, and it is clear from multiple articles finding their way online that nature is thriving.
Check out these tweets/articles about nature reclaiming her place in our world and the reduction in carbon emissions:
Carbon Emissions in the UK – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-52113695
Recent Statistic for Northeastern USA – https://t.co/oNaZA1o3LQ
Isn’t it interesting that when we are forced to leave nature alone, even just for a short period of time, life begins to flourish again? Maybe this is all the proof we need to show we are a species in over our head. A species that resembles the very thing that forces us into our homes today – a virus. We are a virus that Earth is yet to shake but, clearly, she is trying her hardest. One day we shall succumb to nature’s power. Earthquakes, tsunamis, storms with driving rain and hurricanes all can, and will, render us dibilated. This has been evident since the times of the ancients, with earthquakes and volcanic eruptions wiping out large populations across the ancient world. In many ways then, Lucretius is correct, we are in fact weak as a species and cannot handle life on Earth without having to destroy our beautiful host.
And on that cheerful note, Happy Lockdown!