SCIENCE, MATH AND POETRY

When a philosopher’s science fails to be precise, we call it poetry.

The impulse towards science in ancient times—when few scientific facts were available—ancient cosmogonies, for example, becomes, in retrospect, a kind of poetry by default.

Plato, whose cosmology was the late dialogue, the Timaeus, is often called a poet. It’s not that Plato was a poet so much as he was a scientist who had to rely on a great deal of amazing guessing.

Is poetry really the guess-work of the scientist?

The world—which is born and dies, and which resides below Plato’s eternal Forms—is God’s unique and mutable poem.

Plato’s Forms are God’s truth—or what might be called the poet’s plan.

So Plato’s great theme: The eternal Forms are real and belong to science. The world doesn’t belong to poetry, because the world is already a default poem,  but for the world and the poet to exist, the poet must think like a scientist.  

The planning impulse of the cosmogonist writes the poem to make it more than a mere reflection of the accidents of the world.

We could say it was easier, or more natural for the scientist to be a poet in Plato’s day—precisely because science required so much guess-work.  The scientist needed to be a poet, needed to have imagination, and speculate, in order to make sense of a world belonging to our ancient ancestors’ dimly primitive understanding of it.

Do we believe the world is still a mystery? In that case, guessing and dreaming—not just in poetry, but in what could be called poetic science, is still necessary.

Here, in a masterpiece of classical scholarship—Plato’s Cosmology, by Francis Cornford (1935)—we find the following, and note how Cornford describes the cosmology of Lucretius, all the rage at the moment because of Professor Stephen Greenblatt’s prize-winning bestseller, The Swerve:

The Timaeus is a poem, no less than the De rerum natura of Lucretius, and indeed more so in certain respects. Both poets are concerned, in the first instance, with our practical attitude towards the world—what we should make of our life there and how face the prospect of death. Lucretius believed that atoms and void are the ultimately real things of which everything that exists is built. Plato denied reality to what is commonly called matter; his real things are the Forms, and the bodies we touch and see are not built of Forms, nor are the Forms in them. Accordingly, for Lucretius reality is in the world of sensible things and he can offer statements about its nature which claim to be literally true; for Plato that whole world is an image, not the substance. You cannot, by taking visible things to pieces, ever arrive at any parts more real than the whole you started with. The perfection of microscopic vision can bring you no nearer to the truth, for the truth is not at the further end of your microscope. To find reality you would do better to shut your eyes and think.

There are two senses in which the Timaeus is a ‘myth’ or ‘story.’ One we have already considered: no account of the material world can ever amount to an exact and self-consistent statement of unchangeable truth. In the second place, the cosmology is cast in the form of a cosmogony, a ‘story’ of events spread out in time. Plato chooses to describe the universe, not by taking it to pieces in an analysis, but by constructing it and making it grow under our eyes. Earlier cosmogonies had been of the evolutionary type, suggesting a birth and growth of the world, due to some spontaneous force of life in Nature, or, as in Atomism, to the blind and undesigned collision of lifeless atoms. Such a story was, to Plato, very far from being like the truth. So he introduced, for the first time in Greek philosophy, the alternative scheme of creation by a divine artificer, according to which the world is like a work of art designed with a purpose.

The Atomists’ belief in innumerable worlds, some always coming into existence, others passing away, was an inference from their assertion of a strictly infinite void partly occupied by an illimitable number of atoms in motion. It was probable, they argued, that world-forming vortices would arise at any number of different places. Granted that our world is finite, that there is unlimited space outside its boundary, and that there are materials left over, from which other worlds might be formed, why should there not be any number of copies of the same model?  The world, according to Plato, is finite.

Francis Cornford rocks.  Re-discover him, people.

The poet is like God, a “divine artificer.”  And the divine focuses on one perfect, finite universe, not an imperfect bunch, based on vague limitlessness.

If we think of Plato as the ancient artificer, Dante, the artificer of the middle ages, and Poe as the great modern artificer, this might be a good time to quote from Poe’s cosmology, Eureka:

Let us begin, then, at once with the merest of words, “Infinity.” This, like “God,” “spirit,” and some other expressions of which the equivalents exist in nearly all languages, is by no means the expression of an idea—but an effort at one.

And what an “effort” it is to imagine the entire universe!  Surely it makes writing a poem easier!  Or not.

Infinity is one of the important ideas for Poe, because like his great predecessor, Plato, a finite universe is the scientifically perfect universe Poe imagines; the infinite universe simply cannot work as our one unique universe of tangible lawfulness—and to read Eureka is to understand this fully, as Poe tirelessly makes crystal clear in his great theme of simplicity and oneness throughout the work.

Like Plato, Poe sees invisible creator and visible creation as two very distinct parts of the universe.  And on it goes, the parts, the number, and how they fit together and impact each other in revolutions, orbits, luminosity, and gravitation, over time; all that challenges the cosmologist cannot help but inspire the poet in the most profound manner imaginable.  Here is Poe, toward the end of his prose poem, Eureka, echoing Plato as he warns the reader not to confuse all-important “symmetry” in the world with its more important place in idea

It is, perhaps, in no little degree, however, our propensity for the continuous—for the analogical—in the present case more particularly for the symmetrical—which has been leading us astray. And, in fact, the sense of the symmetrical is an instinct which may be depended on with an almost blindfold reliance. It is the poetical essence of the Universe—of the Universe which, in the supremeness of its symmetry, is but the most sublime of poems. Now symmetry and consistency are convertible terms: —thus Poetry and Truth are one. A thing is consistent in the ratio of its truth—true in the ratio of its consistency. A perfect consistency, I repeat, can be nothing but an absolute truth. We may take it for granted, then, that Man cannot long or widely err, if he suffer himself to be guided by his poetical, which I have maintained to be his truthful, in being his symmetrical, instinct. He must have a care, however, lest, in pursuing too heedlessly the superficial symmetry of forms and motions, he leave out of sight the really essential symmetry of the principles which determine and control them.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, belonging to that certain tribe of thinkers who could not follow Poe’s genius in its journey beyond the country village, once said that “consistency was the hobgoblin of little minds,” but Emerson surely had a more fragile consistency in mind.

Poe was no village realist.  Poe was truly the idealist heir of Plato.  From Eureka:

The wonderfully complex laws of revolution here described, however, are not to be understood as obtaining in our system alone. They everywhere prevail where Attraction prevails. They control the Universe of Stars. Every shining speck in the firmament is, no doubt, a luminous sun, resembling our own, at least in its general features, and having in attendance upon it a greater or less number of planets, greater or less, whose still lingering luminosity is not sufficient to render them visible to us at so vast a distance, but which, nevertheless, revolve, moon-attended, about their starry centers, in obedience to the principles just detailed—in obedience to the three omniprevalent laws of revolution—the three immortal laws guessed by the imaginative Kepler, and but subsequently demonstrated and accounted for by the patient and mathematical Newton. Among a tribe of philosophers who pride themselves excessively upon matter-of-fact, it is far too fashionable to sneer at all speculation under the comprehensive sobriquet, “guess-work.”  The point to be considered is, who guesses.  In guessing with Plato, we spend our time to better purpose, now and then, than in hearkening to a demonstration by Alcmaeon.

The poet, to broaden the definition of poetry, is, like Plato and Poe, one who speculates—in the consistent spirit of one who imagines the universe, or, like a good cook, tells you exactly how God made the pie.

LIBERALISM: AN INFINITE NUMBER OF ATOMS MOVING RANDOMLY THROUGH SPACE

How the World Became Modern—and Stephen Greenblatt Won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize

Stephen Greenblat’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011) can be usefully compared to Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka (1848).

Greenblatt celebrates modernity, and what can be called modern liberalism, in an ancient text, Lucretius’s On The Nature of Things (1st century), rediscovered by a pope’s secretary during the Renaissance—an era also celebrated by Greenblatt for its love of “beauty,” “pleasure” and “curiosity.”

The Swerve is your typical ‘science/philosophy/literature-for-the-layperson’ sort of book, the kind that wins prizes and dominates high-brow sections of bookstores; the language and message are simple:

The stuff of the universe, Lucretius proposed, is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space. 

There is no master of plan, no divine architecht, no intelligent design.

In a universe so constituted, Lucretius argued, there is no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place, no reason to set humans apart from all other animals, no hope of bribing or appeasing the gods, no place for religious fanaticism, no call for ascetic self-denial, no justification for dreams of limitless power or perfect security, no rationale for wars of conquest or self-aggrandizement, no possibility of triumphing over nature, no escape from the constant making and unmaking and remaking of forms.

What human beings can and should do, he wrote, is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things  they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world.

I marveled—I continue to marvel—that these perceptions were fully articulated in a work written more than two thousand years ago.  The line between this work and modernity is not direct: nothing is ever so simple.

Laid out for us in a nice, tidy package, Greenblatt informs us of the enlightened, ‘There’s no Santa Claus,’ scientific view of Lucretius which we modern, secular, intellectuals ought to call our own. 

Or should we? 

Should the modern view really be about following historical mankind’s long and winding “line” to modernity?   

If so, this begs the question: what is this holy grail of modernity, anyway?  Is it a slow waking up to atheism and pleasure?

Is Greenblatt giving us real wisdom, real science?

Or is The Swerve destined to disappear in a few years to make way for the next tome in the multi-billion dollar, science-for-the-lay-person, book industry?

The science-for-the-lay-person book is ubiquitous in our day, but we wonder whether its popularity is because it’s informative in a truly meaningful way, or rather because its food is illusionary, and it mass-feeds an increasingly empty need.

What if modernity, as Greenblatt and others use the term, is nothing but today’s prejudices?

What if what we call ‘the modern’ is merely wrong playing out now?

Are we certain that a world controlled by atheists, for instance, will be a better world than one controlled by priests? 

And what does this question have to do with whether there is an afterlife, or not, or whether one believes in an afterlife, or not? 

Or whether the universe is “an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space,” or a reflection (to whom?) of an “intelligent design?”

If, as a mortal on this earth, one ‘puts one’s eggs’ in the basket of today, or the basket of next year, or the basket of a thousand years from now, does it matter, finally, whether one is an atheist, or not?  Isn’t this a more practical matter of one’s personality?

Can any of us, no matter what our science, religion, or philosophy, escape momento mori?   

And who is better equipped to escape it?  A severely depressed pessimist?  Or a happy-go-lucky optimist?  And who is to say which personality happens to be the Protestant, the Jew, the Catholic, the Buddhist, the Hindu, the Muslim, or the atheist?  And which matters more?  The religion—or the personality?  We think the personality does. 

Is it the only valid, modern, scientific view, then, to think modernity, liberalism, progress, and enlightenment equal a movement through history away from all the major religions towards the holy grail of atheism, and the acceptance of “an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space?”  Can this ever be demonstrated to anyone’s satisfaction? 

Greenblatt certainly thinks so:

I marveled—I continue to marvel—that these perceptions were fully articulated in a work written more than two thousand years ago.  The line between this work and modernity…

Greenblatt “marvels” that what he calls “modernity” is not modern (not such a marvel if we rip the shroud from that word, modern).  Note also how Greenblatt registers with surety “the line between this work and modernity” (modernity, Greenblatt’s holy grail: a blithe “infinite number of random atoms”). 

Greenblatt continues:

The line between this work and modernity is not direct: nothing is ever so simple. There were innumerable forgettings, disappearances, recoveries, dismissals, distortions, challenges, transformations, and renewed forgettings. And yet the vital conneciton is there. Hidden behind the worldview I recognize as my own is an ancient poem, a poem once lost, apparently irrevocably, and then found.

The worldview I recognize as my own…  And why is this Greenblatt’s worldview?  Is it for all-important scientific reasons?  Or for the vaguely fashionable idea that Greenblatt considers himself, and this worldview, “modern?” 

Greenblatt traces the progress of the Lucretian, modern worldview:

When it returned to full circulation after a millennium, much of what the work said about a universe formed out of the clash of atoms in an infinite void seemed absurd. But those very things that first were deemed both impious and nonsensical turned out to be the basis for the contemporary rational understanding of the entire world.

What is at stake is not only the startling recognition of key elements of modernity in antiquity, though it is certainly worth reminding ourselves that Greek and Roman classics, largely displaced from our curriculum, have in fact definitively shaped modern consciousness.

More surprising, perhaps, is the sense, driven home by every page of On The Nature of Things, that the scientific vision of the world—a vision of atoms randomly moving in an infinite universe—was in its origins imbued with a poet’s sense of wonder. 

The Swerve is not a scientific work; Greenblatt is not interested in presenting any thing resembling a unified view of how the universe might actually work. 

Cosmogonies which rival and far surpass On The Nature of Things, most notably, Plato’s Timaeus and Poe’s Eureka, earn not a single mention in Greenblatt’s book.  The omission is glaring, since Poe’s Eureka is Lucretian to its very core (only far more accurate due to scientific advances made during two millennia) and Plato’s Timaeus is edifyingly and powerfully logical in the way it describes the underlying micro and cosmological forces of the universe in a purely scientific manner.

Greenblatt’s attempt to convey Lucretius’s wisdom in a general way fails, as well. Greenblatt has Lucretius renouncing war and rejecting “triumphing over nature.”  But nature, ‘red in tooth and claw,’ is the basis of war.  So how can one conform to nature and also be against war?  By presenting a laundry list of anti-religious points, Greenblatt is only fighting a religious war of his own, fueled by the very ignorance “modernity” supposedly exists to refute.  If “atoms randomly moving in an infinite universe” is the basis of Lucretius’ “vision,” why should this (or any other arrangement) make any difference to Hitler, Stalin, or Mao?  It’s never clear how “atoms” which are “random” have anything to do with those evils (both accidental and otherwise) which Greenblatt’s “modernity” (secular, wise, liberal, etc) is supposedly equipped to overcome as we travel in history towards this Lucretian vision of “modernity.”

The point here is not to argue with Professor Greenblatt’s politics, but to ask: What does a belief in “a universe formed out of the clash of atoms in an infinite void” have to do with reason, science, or modernity?

Greenblatt uses the word “infinite” in describing the Lucretian universe, whether he is talking of an “infinite number of atoms” or an “infinite void.”  And this is indeed how Lucretius described the universe: infinite.

Poe’s Eureka, a prose poem of imaginative force, argues that no atom could move if there were an infinite number of atoms. Gravity, the force which holds the universe together, is, as Poe points out, nothing less than every atom attracting every other atom—the consolidating principle of attraction, the basis of all the orbits; all the moons, planets, suns and stars, the very spheres themselves; all entropy; all centrifugal, all centripedal, movement;  all rectilinear, all deviatory movement in the universe. Is the universe “infinite?”  Here’s what Eureka says: 

Grant the abstract tendency of any one atom to any one other as the inevitable result of diffusion from the normal Unity:–or, what is the same thing, admit any given atom as proposing to move in any given direction—it is clear that, since there is an infinity of atoms on all sides of the atom proposing to move, it never can actually move toward the satisfaction of its tendency in the direction given, on account of a precisely equal and counterbalancing tendency in the direction diametrically opposite. In other words, exactly as many tendencies to Unity are behind the hesitating atom as before it; for it is mere folly to say that one infinite line is longer or shorter than another infinite line, or that one infinite number is greater or less than another number that is infinite. Thus the atom in question must remain stationary forever. Under the impossible circumstances which we have been merely endeavoring to conceive for argument’s sake, there could have been no aggregation of Matter—no stars—no worlds—nothing but a perpetually atomic and inconsequential Universe. In fact, view it as we will, the whole idea of unlimited Matter is not only untenable, but impossible and preposterous.

One cannot step into the river of Eureka without drowning in its one idea: the original Unity—of Nothing (since the True Unity has no Relation and thus no Matter) exploding into the Many (a finite, and finally discontinued explosion, in order ‘to work’ most simply—always the m.o. of the Creator, the Deity, the Design) which leads to the Great Return Back to the Original Unity (manifested as the Ubiquitous Law of Gravity)—returning, gravitationally, not to a place but to unity itself which gives rise to the Great Counter-force: Electricity (and its various attributes: Luminosity, Electro-Magnetism, Thought)—the Force of Resistance or Repulsion which makes Gravity’s Great Return back to the Original Unity tortured, lengthy, yet inevitable.

Greenblatt’s “enlightened” enthusiasm for “infinite atoms” cannot help but strike the reader of Eureka as slack—Greenblatt’s  The Swerve is modestly attempting partial historical observations; Poe’s Eureka is focused and ambitious in the extreme and is perhaps the most remarkable essay/prose poem ever produced by an American; yet we cannot help but note that Greenblatt is anxious to celebrate the details of a cosmogony he is quick to imbue with “modern” significance for the lay reader, yet the details of which are scientifically lax, in direct ratio to the intensity of its anti-religious, anti-human, anti-design philosophy. 

Poe was no religious fanatic; Poe admired Epicurus and believed in the truism that the end of life is pleasure (happiness).  There is nothing religious, per se, about Eureka, and it did offend the church in Poe’s day, even as some secular purists in our day might blanch at Eureka’s “intelligent design.” The belief—by certain ancient Greeks and Romans—in an atomistic universe, as opposed to a universe ruled by colorful gods, would certainly have been approved by Poe, and in this spirit, Greenblatt’s cheerleading for Lucretius is indeed heart-warming. 

But Greenblatt is presenting the entirety of an ancient text, with all its scientific errors, as an easy model for what he calls “modernity,” and also a model for a certain kind of political philosophy of which he (Greenblatt) approves—a political philosophy not perfect in itself, and far from perfect in its false link to a less than perfect science.

After reading The Swerve, the swerve one needs to make is towards Eureka.

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