Key Passages in Lucretius On Images: The Impact of Images Directly On The Mind

  • I really wanted to post this along with the discussion we had several weeks ago on the nature of images, but I can no longer find a good place. Perhaps at some point I can find the right place and insert a link to this post.


    For present purposes, of course the topic of images is primarily treated in Book 4 of Lucretius.


    The precise purpose of this post, however, is to highlight the second part of Book 4 where Lucretius moves past his initial introduction of images being perceived by the eyes, and returns to images to discuss how they can impact the mind DIRECTLY - meaning, without going through the eyes. This would clearly be relevant to DeWitt's discussion of the mind as a "suprasensory mechanism" that perceives images directly, and of course of relevance to the issue of receiving images of the gods, though that does not seem to be the focus here.


    There are many aspects of this that are fascinating, including the place it appears in the text, right after a discussion of lions fearing cocks, and right before he turns to the one of the even more fascinating sections that appears to bear directly on "evolution." For now, however, here is the part on images affecting the mind directly:





  • We will be discussing this excerpt in the Lucretius Today podcast to be recorded on February 14, so if anyone has any comments on this passage we have plenty of time to discuss and incorporate into that episode.

  • Cassius

    Changed the title of the thread from “Key Passages in Lucretius On Images and Their Impact Directly On The Mind” to “Key Passages in Lucretius On Images: The Impact of Images Directly On The Mind”.
  • I'm going to say up front that, according to modern physics and science, our brains do not receive images/films/eidōlon like a radio receives radio waves.

    However...

    The fact that we can just sit by ourselves in a room and imagine centaurs, invent new machines, recollect deceased relatives, enjoy past pleasures, and so on, is - colloquially speaking - magical.

    Also the fact that you can speak or write to me, and your actions can make images appear in my mind is - colloquially speaking - magical.

    So, this wondrous property of the Cosmos required a physical, non-divine, and more importantly a non-teleologic explanation by Epicurus.

    There is no way the ancients could have known about neurons or brain anatomy. I don't slight them for that one bit. They had observation and analogy to work with. That's all. They even used to think the seat of the mind was in the area of the heart because that's where you "feel" strong emotion ("My heart ached thinking about it"). From their perspective, that was plausible.

    So how could the mind perceive concepts and "visualize" images, even in sleep?? How do we sense physical things? We touch them. Well, how would we see things? Images must be touching our eyes from outside. How does our mind perceive images, even while sleeping? They must be being touched by similar images from outside. Just as the eyes are not flashlights (sorry, anachronism alert) scanning the environment to see, so our minds can't be sending out beams of thought to think. They must be being touched by something from outside them. It must be very fine eidōlon! That's it! Likewise, with this explanation we don't need gods placing concepts in our minds. We receive extremely fine eidōlon from outside.

    This seems to address the need for plausible explanations by the Epicureans. Does it explain the phenomenon well enough? Yes. Does it only use atoms and void in its explanation? Yep. Does it align with the precept that the gods don't interfere in the cosmos! Check. Okay, we're good to go.

  • P.S. In a way, our minds do pick up intangible images from the air in the sense that, if we're listening or reading, nothing tangible (i.e., too fine to touch) passes from your mind to mine for me to perceive concepts in my mind...

    BUT to be clear, I'm not implying our minds are receivers of fine images composed of infinitesimally small atoms directly into our psychē and that's how we envision dragons and relive past events...

    ALTHOUGH we do know that electromagnetic waves can have an impact on behavior of applied in specific manners to our heads/brains...

    BUT that is NOT what Epicurus had in mind (oops, no pun intended).

  • I agree with what you are saying Don and as you probably expect, I would go further. I am not prepared to say that some versions of the mechanisms described by Lucretius are impossible, especially since I am far from comfortable that I even understand what he is saying. I do not think it is productive to try to lock down his descriptions with more detail than our scanty texts allow us to be sure of, and I think the best way to deal with them is always first to try to understand where he is coming from before we decide whether he is wrong or right.


    So when you say "our brains do not receive images/films/eidōlon like a radio receives radio waves" I can completely agree - our brain is not a radio receiver and we are not going to be able to tune into to a local radio station without mechanical assistance. But that doesn't mean that next year new scientists aren't going to be able to rig new experiments and determine that there are currently-unknown waves that can stimulate our minds directly, and so my own position at present is basically what you are saying - that this theory represents a non-supernatural way of explaining phenomena that are even today difficult to understand, and that we should make of it what we will.


    I am firmly convinced that nothing has changed in human nature since Epicurus and Lucretius first articulated this theory, so they would have faced the same issues of testing and observation of how it works that we do today -- and they would have had the same experiential results that we have - that the receipt of information in this way is not a way to communicate with gods or to reliably organize our daily efforts to live our lives happily. Whatever Epicurus thought about the theory, he was dealing with the exact same facts and human nature that we are dealing with today, so he would not have had facts which are not available to us to flesh out the theory any more than we can today.


    All of which leads me to conclude that to the extent Epicurus thought this aspect of his philosophy was important it appears to have had a very specific and limited role, so I would not assign any more importance to it today than he did then.

  • Whatever Epicurus thought about the theory, he was dealing with the exact same facts and human nature that we are dealing with today, so he would not have had facts which are not available to us to flesh out the theory any more than we can today.

    Point taken on human nature, but we do have access to additional facts on the workings of the human body at a much finer level detail (down to the molecular and atomic level) than any ancient person had access to.