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Having conformed their atoms to the needs of their system, the Epicureans proceeded to explain how the universe was formed; how from the boundless mass of matter, heaven, and earth, and ocean, sun and moon, rose in nice order. The atoms, so we are told, “jostling about of their own accord, in infinite modes, were often brought together confusedly, irregularly, and to no purpose, but at length they successfully coalesced ; at least, such of them as were thrown together suddenly became, in succession, the beginnings of great things—as earth, and air, and sea, and heaven.” With magnificent breadth of conception, and often with genuine scientific insight, Lucretius, following the guidance of Epicurus, has described how, in obedience to mechanical laws, from atoms of "solid singleness,” inorganic matter assumed its various forms and organic nature passed through its manifold stages; what living creatures issued from the earth; how speech was invented; how society originated and governments were instituted; how civilisation commenced ; and in what ways religion gained an entry into men's hearts. He thoroughly appreciated the significance of the doctrine of evolution in the system of materialism. The development theory has been ingeniously improved at many particular points in recent times, but it has not been widened in range. It was just as comprehensive in the hands of Lucre
tius as it is in those of Herbert Spencer. Its aim and method are still the same; its problems are the same; its principles of solution are the same; the solutions themselves are often the same. I state this as a fact, not as a reproach; for I do not object to the development theory in itself, but only to it in association with atheism. Atheism has done much to discredit it; it has contributed nothing to the proof of atheism.
The Epicurean materialists refused to recognise anywhere the traces of a creative or governing Intelligence. The mechanical explanation which they gave of the formation of things seemed to them to preclude the view that aught was effected by Divine power or wisdom. Like their successors in modern times, they regarded efficient causes as incompatible with final causes; and, like them also, they dwelt in confirmation of their opinion on the alleged defects of nature, blaming the arrangements of the heavens and the earth with the same vehemence and narrowness which have become so familiar to us of late. And yet they were not unwilling to admit the existence of the gods worshipped by the people, if conceived of as only a sort of etherealised men, utterly unconnected with the world and its affairs. “Beware,” says Epicurus, “of attributing the revolutions of the heaven, and eclipses, and the rising and setting of stars, either to the original contrivance or con
tinued regulation of a Divine Being. For business, and cares, and anger, and benevolence, are not accordant with happiness, but arise from weakness, and fear, and dependence on others.” The Epicureans, in fact, conceived of the gods as ideal Epicureans — as beings serenely happy, without care, occupation, or sorrow.
To belief in the immortality of the soul they offered strenuous opposition. It was one of the prime recommendations of materialism in their eyes, that it supplied them with arms to combat this belief. They laboured to prove the soul material in order that they might infer it to be mortal, and with such diligence that scarcely a plausible argument seems to have escaped them. They could not, they felt, emancipate men from fear of future retribution otherwise than by persuading them that there was no future to fear—that death was an eternal sleep. Therefore they taught that “the nature of the mind cannot come into being alone without the body, nor exist far away from sinews and blood;" that “death concerns us not a jot, since the nature of the mind is proved to be mortal ;” that “death is nothing to us, for that which is dissolved is devoid of sensation, and that which is devoid of sensation is nothing to us.” All the consolation which Lucretius can offer to the heart shrinking at the prospect of death, is the reflection that it will escape the ills of life.
“But thy dear home shall never greet thee more !
One envious hour of these invalued joys
It is strange that a thoughtful mind — that a susceptible heart—that a man of poetic genius, could for a moment have deluded himself with the fancy that humanity was to be comforted in its sorrows, or strengthened for its duties, by a notion like this. No human being can be profited by being told that he will die as the brute dieth; that death will free him from pain and fear only by robbing him of all joy and love. But such is the only gospel which materialism has to offer. The system of which the first word is, In the beginning there was nothing except space and atoms, has for its last word, Eternal Death; as the system of which the first word is, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, has for its last word, Eternal Life. What man who has a mind to think can hesitate to choose between Eternal Reason and Eternal Unreason? What man who has a heart to feel can hesitate to choose between Eternal Life and Eternal Death ?1
Yet there are those who hesitate to choose ; and there are those who choose wrongly. Much may be said in excuse of those who thus doubted and erred in pagan Greece and Rome. The only religions with which they were acquainted gave the most inconsistent and perverted views, both of Deity and of the world to come. If men in their abhorrence of these religions unhappily rejected all religion, we must pity them even more than we condemn them. But we live in a later and more favoured age, when God has been clearly revealed in the beauty of holiness and love, and when life and immortality have been brought to light. A higher good than the greatest of Greek or Roman sages ever longed for has been placed within the reach of the humblest, the poorest, the least instructed. The way has been made plain by which we may be freed from fear of death, and from fear of all that lies beyond death. We can have no excuse for preferring death to life. Eternal death ought to be no bribe to us. Light has come into the world. Let us not be among those who choose darkness rather than light.