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Lucretius Defines Mind

Lucretius Defines Mind

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


May 27, 2022

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In order to continue with my investigations of Artificial Intelligence (AI), I am looking into historical understandings of the mind. Mind is also one of the great ideas, so obviously there has been a lot of research, discussion, and theorizing about what it is, where it is located, and how it functions. For today’s blog, I simply focus on Lucretius. In The Way Things Are (or On the Nature of Things), Lucretius discusses the interaction between mind and body, and mind and spirit. Therefore, I feel that Lucretius is as good a place to begin as any. The following quotes are not all that he has to say about the mind, but they begin a discussion from which the idea can grow. (Also, the page numbers refer to the Great Books volume 11, translated by Rolfe Humphries, for your convenience.)

After introducing the divide between mind and body, and mind and spirit, Lucretius invites us to learn “what moves the mind” (51B). He proposes that gossamer images move seamlessly through the mind, combining, uniting, mixing, changing, all at the whim of the mind. Images, it seems, move inside of and cause movement within the mind. So, as we think about a thing, it changes with our participation. Somehow, ideas evolve with and in the mind. Somehow, our minds control and manipulate even poorly understood images. And somehow, we develop these thin images into essences, granting more detail and dimension as we go. Lucretius wonders, “We might begin by asking first of all/ Why mind as soon as it takes a notion thinks/ Whatever it wants to right away” (52A). He explains that no mind is sharp enough to see all of the image at once, so it must focus on one thing at a time (52A).

Next, Lucretius demonstrates how walking is an act of will, an act which begins with thought. He writes, “I say that the first step, before we take/ A step at all, is that into our mind/ An image comes of walking, strikes the mind,/ Creates volition; no man ever starts/ To act before the mind foresees its will” (53A). According to Lucretius, then, walking can happen only once there is the thought to walk, and then the will to walk follows. Mind, therefore, controls all action.

Lucretius also states that “The minds of men/ Continue in their dreams the great pursuits/ Of daytime hours” (54B). In other words, what holds our attention during the day will likely enter our dreams as well. The curious ability of external things to enter our internal subconscious is never explained, but is assumed. Lucretius further explains that while we are awake, we have the ability to control our focus. We choose to focus attention. In his mind, this is a skill to be enhanced and practiced.

Finally, despite the way that the physical world interacts with mind, Lucretius understands that bodies do not last forever. He reiterates the notion that being fully participates with nature. Bodies age and change, as do ideas and nature. The following quotes further develop this idea.

“We sense that body and mind are born together;/ Together mature, together age.” (35B)

“Mind, we see,/ Like body, can be cured by medicine,/ A fact which proves the life of mind is mortal.” (36A)

“[A]ssume/ Spirits make bodies for themselves to enter,/ You still will have to tell us how they do it,/ And there’s no answer to that one. Therefore, spirits/ Don’t make themselves bodies and limbs, and do not/ Creep into frames already formed, wherein/ They’d find themselves, oh, most uncomfortable,/ In quarters least commodious and convenient.” (38B-39A)

“So, when we cease to be, and body and soul,/ Which joined to make us one, have gone their ways,/ Their separate ways, nothing at all can shake/ Our feelings, not if earth were mixed with sea/ Or sea with sky. Perhaps the mind or spirit,/ After its separation from our body,/ Has some sensation; what is that to us? / Nothing at all, for what we knew of being,/ Essence, identity, oneness, was derived/ From body’s union with spirit, so, if time,/ After our death, should some day reunite/ All of our present particles, bring them back/ To where they now reside, give us once more/ The light of life, this still would have no meaning/ For us, with our self-recollection gone./ As we are now, we lack all memory/ Of what we were before, suffer no wound/ From those old days. Look back on all that space/ Of time’s immensity, consider well/ What infinite combinations there have been/ In matter’s ways and groupings. How easy, then,/ For human beings to believe we are/ Compounded of the very selfsame motes,/ Arranged exactly in the selfsame ways/ As once we were, our long-ago, our now/ Being identical. And yet we keep/ No memory of that once-upon-a-time,/ Nor can we call it back; somewhere between/ A break occurred, and all our atoms went/ Wandering here and there and far away/ From our sensations. If there lies ahead/ Tough luck for any man, he must be there,/ Himself, to feel its evil, but since death/ Removes this chance, and by injunction stops/ All rioting of woes against our state,/ We may be reassured that in our death/ We have not cause for fear, we cannot be/ Wretched in nonexistence. Death alone/ Has immortality, and takes away/ Our mortal life. It does not matter a bit/ If we once lived before.” (40A)

In The Way Things Are, Lucretius begins a dialogue about the mind. What is the mind? How do we participate with it or it with us? Are all minds alike in the sense that they control ideas, attention, and focus? Does action stem from will which stems from thought?

Check back on this blog in upcoming months for more topics related to Artificial Intelligence.

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