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Is Nature Continuous or Discrete? How the Atomist Error Was Born

Thomas Nail
University of Denver


Image result for lucretius

The modern idea that nature is discrete originated in Ancient Greek atomism. Leucippus, Democritus and Epicurus all argued that nature was composed of what they called ἄτομος (átomos) or ‘indivisible individuals’. Nature was, for them, the totality of discrete atoms in motion. There was no creator god, no immortality of the soul, and nothing static (except for the immutable internal nature of the atoms themselves). Nature was atomic matter in motion and complex composition – no more, no less.

Despite its historical influence, however, atomism was eventually all but wiped out by Platonism, Aristotelianism and the Christian tradition that followed throughout the Middle Ages. Plato told his followers to destroy Democritus’ books whenever they found them, and later the Christian tradition made good on this demand. Today, nothing but a few short letters from Epicurus remain.

Atomism was not finished, however. It reemerged in 1417, when an Italian book-hunter named Poggio Bracciolini discovered a copy of an ancient poem in a remote monastery: De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), written by Lucretius (c. 99-55 BCE), a Roman poet heavily influenced by Epicurus. This book-length philosophical poem in epic verse puts forward the most detailed and systematic account of ancient materialism that we’ve been fortunate enough to inherit. In it, Lucretius advances a breathtakingly bold theory on foundational issues in everything from physics to ethics, aesthetics, history, meteorology and religion. Against the wishes and best efforts of the Christian church, Bracciolini managed to get it into print, and it soon circulated across Europe. (more…)

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The Barbarism of the Migrant

Thomas Nail
University of Denver

Significant portions of the population of the United States believe that immigrants are naturally inferior. The attitude is not new. In fact, the idea of a natural political inferiority was invented in the ancient world, though it has repeated itself again and again throughout history—hence the persistence of the term ‘barbarian.’ Originally used to classify those beyond the pale of ancient Greek and Roman society, ‘barbarian’ has since been redeployed throughout all of history to designate one’s cultural and political enemies as ‘naturally inferior.’ From the nineteenth-century French bourgeoisie who called the migrant peasants in Paris ‘savage barbarians’ to the Nazi propaganda that described migrant Jews as ‘uncivilized oriental barbarians,’ the perceived inferiority of migrant groups relative to political centers has proven to be an enduring source of antagonism.

The recent slurs against Mexican migrants to the United States on the presidential campaign stage retreads this familiar ground. Mexican immigrants are perceived by many in the United States (including the government) to have a negative impact on those states. It is for this same reason that the entry of barbarians in the Greek polis, Roman Empire, and even in ancient Sumer was carefully restricted. In the United States, and in the ancient empires, large military-style walls were built and guarded to control the movement of undesirable foreigners into the community. The reasons for the undesirability of their respective foreign populations vary in each society, yet all these powers are associated with massive wall projects.

Significant portions of American and ancient societies also found these populations of foreigners undesirable because they would have a negative impact on the ‘culture’ of the host country—yet barbarians were also required as manual laborers to support that culture. In part, it is the language of the immigrant’s culture that is perceived as inferior or incompatible to the host’s language. This matches Aristotle’s first key characteristic of barbarism: the inability to speak the language of the political center. Anti-immigrant discourse in the United States is filled with rhetoric about Mexican immigrants who cannot or ‘refuse to’ learn English and whose populations are changing the ‘American way of life.’ Both contemporary and ancient societies believed that these immigrations were not benign but constituted a political and military ‘invasion’ that required a military response, thus the walls, deportations, and military operations.

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