The way things are by Lucretius translated by Rolfe Humphries (1969)

I try to learn about the way things are
And set my findings down in Latin verse.

(Book IV, lines 968 and 969)

This is a hugely enjoyable translation of Lucretius’s epic poem De rerum natura which literally translates as ‘On the nature of things’. Fluent, full of force and vigour, it captures not only the argumentative, didactic nature of the poem but dresses it in consistently fine phrasing. It has an attractive variety of tones, from the lofty and heroic to the accessible and demotic, sometimes sounding like Milton:

Time brings everything
Little by little to the shores of light
By grace of art and reason, till we see
All things illuminate each other’s rise
Up to the pinnacles of loftiness.

(Book V, final lines, 1,453 to 1,457)

Sometimes technocratic and scientific:

We had better have some principle
In our discussion of celestial ways,
Under what system both the sun and moon
Wheel in their courses, and what impulse moves
Events on earth.

(Book I lines 130 to 135)

Sometimes like the guy sitting next to you at the bar:

I keep you waiting with my promises;
We’d best be getting on.

(Book V, lines 95 and 96)

Sometimes slipping in slangy phrases for the hell of it:

What once was too-much-feared becomes in time
The what-we-love-to-stomp-on.

(Book V, lines 1,140 and 1,141)

Titus Lucretius Carus

Lucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher who lived from about 99 to about 55 BC. Not much is known about him. His only known work is the philosophical poem De rerum natura, a didactic epic poem of some 7,500 lines, written entirely to promote the abstract philosophy of Epicureanism. No heroes, no gods, no battles, no epic speeches. Just 7,500 lines comprehensively describing Epicurus’s atomic materialism and his ‘scientific’, rationalist worldview.

The title is usually translated into English as On the Nature of Things. It is a mark of Rolfe Humphries’ attractive contrariness that he drops the almost universally used English title in favour of the slightly more confrontational and all-encompassing The ways things are. He himself in his preface describes this title as ‘simple, forthright, insistent, peremptory’. Peremptory. Nice word. Like so much else in his translation, it feels instantly right.

The various modern translations

In the past few months I’ve had bad experiences with both Oxford University Press and Penguin translations of Latin classics. I thought the Penguin translation of Sallust by A.J. Woodman was clotted, eccentric and misleading. But I also disliked the OUP translation of Caesar’s Gallic Wars by Carolyn Hammond, which I bought brand new but disliked her way with English in just the introduction before I’d even begun the text, so that I ended up abandoning her for the more fluent 1951 Penguin translation by S.A Handford (which also features a useful introduction by Jane Gardner, who comes over as intelligent and witty in a way Hammond simply isn’t).

Shopping around for an English translation of Lucretius, I was not impressed by the snippets of either the Penguin or OUP translations which are available on Amazon. It was only when I went further down the list and read the paragraph or so of Rolfe Humphries’ translation which is quoted in the sales blurb that I was immediately gripped and persuaded to cough up a tenner to buy it on the spot.

I knew an OUP edition would be festooned with notes, many of which would be insultingly obvious (Rome is the capital city of Italy, Julius Caesar was the great Roman general who blah blah blah). Humphries’ edition certainly has notes but only 18 pages of them tucked right at the very back of the text (there’s no list of names or index). And there’s no indication of them in the actual body text, no asterisks or superscript numbers to distract the reader, to make you continually stop and turn to the end notes section.

Instead the minimal annotation is part of Humphries’ strategy to hit you right between the eyes straightaway with the power and soaring eloquence of this epic poem, to present it as one continuous and overwhelming reading experience, without footling distractions and interruptions. Good call, very good call.

[Most epics are about heroes, myths and legends, from Homer and Virgil through Beowulf and Paradise Lost. Insofar as it is about the nature of the universe i.e. sees things on a vast scale, The way things are is comparable in scope and rhetoric with Paradise Lost and frequently reaches for a similar lofty tone, but unlike all those other epic poems it doesn’t have heroes and villains, gods and demons, in fact it has no human protagonists at all. In his introduction, Burton Feldman suggests the only protagonist is intelligence, the mind of man in quest of reality, seeking a detached lucid contemplation of the ways things are. On reflection I think that’s wrong. This description is more appropriate for Wordsworth’s epic poem on the growth and development of the poet’s mind, The Prelude. There’s a stronger case for arguing that the ‘hero’ of the poem is Epicurus, subject of no fewer than three sutained passages of inflated praise. But ultimately surely the protagonist of The way things are is the universe itself, or Lucretius’s materialistic conception of it. The ‘hero’ is the extraordinary world around us which he seeks to explain in solely rationalist, materialist way.]

Epicurus’s message of reassurance

It was a grind reading Cicero’s On the nature of the gods but one thing came over very clearly (mainly from the long, excellent introduction by J.M. Ross). That Epicurus’s philosophy was designed to allay anxiety and fear.

Epicurus identified two causes of stress and anxiety in human beings: fear of death and fear of the gods (meaning their irrational, unpredictable interventions in human lives so). So Epicurus devised a system of belief based on ‘atomic materialism’, on a view of the universe as consisting of an infinite number of atoms continually combining in orderly and predictable ways according to immutable laws, designed to banish those fears and anxieties forever.

If men could see this clearly, follow it
With proper reasoning, their minds would be
Free of great agony and fear

(Book III, lines 907-909)

Irrelevant though a 2,000 year old pseudo-scientific theory may initially sound, it has massive consequences and most of the poem is devoted to explaining Epicurus’s materialistic atomism (or atomistic materialism) and its implications.

Epicurus’s atomic theory

The central premise of Epicureanism is its atomic theory, which consists of two parts:

  1. Nothing comes of nothing.
  2. Nothing can be reduced to nothing.

The basic building blocks of nature are constant in quantity, uncreated and indestructible, for all intents and purposes, eternal. Therefore, everything in nature is generated from these elementary building blocks through natural processes, is generated, grows, thrives, decays, dies and decomposes into its constituent elements. But the sum total of matter in the universe remains fixed and unalterable.

Once we have seen that Nothing comes of nothing,
We shall perceive with greater clarity
What we are looking for, whence each thing comes,
How things are caused, and no ‘gods’ will’ about it!

It may sound trivial or peripheral, but what follows from this premise is that nature is filled from top to bottom with order and predictability. There cannot be wonders, freak incidents, arbitrary acts of god and so on. The unpredictable intervention of gods is abolished and replaced by a vision of a calm, ordered world acting according to natural laws and so – There is no need for stress and anxiety.

Because if no new matter can be created, if the universe is made of atoms combining into larger entities based on fixed and predictable laws, then two things follow.

Number One, There are no gods and they certainly do not suddenly interfere with human activities. In other words, nobody should be afraid of the wrath or revenge of the gods because in Epicurus’s mechanistic universe such a thing is nonsensical.

Holding this knowledge, you can’t help but see
That nature has no tyrants over her,
But always acts of her own will; she has
No part of any godhead whatsoever.

(Book II, lines 1,192 to 1,195)

And the second consequence is a purely mechanistic explanation of death. When we, or any living thing, dies, its body decomposes back into its constituent atoms. There is no state of death, there is no soul or spirit, and so there is no afterlife in which humans will be punished or rewarded. We will not experience death, because all the functioning of our bodies, including perception and thought, will all be over, with no spirit or soul lingering on.

Therefore: no need for ‘the silly, vain, ridiculous fear of gods’ (III, 982), no need to fear death, no need to fear punishment in some afterlife. Instead, we must live by the light of the mind and rational knowledge.

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation.

(Book I, lines 146 to 150)

Interestingly Lucretius likes this phrase so much that he repeats it verbatim at Book II, lines 57 to 61, at Book III, lines 118 to 112, and Book VI, lines 42 to 45. Like all good teachers he knows the essence of education is repetition.

Epicurus the god

The radicalness of this anti-religious materialist philosophy explains why, early in Book I, Lucretius praises Epicurus extravagantly. He lauds him as the man whose imagination ranged the lengths of the universe, penetrated into the secrets of its origin and nature, and returned to free the human race from bondage. One man alone, Epicurus, set us free by enquiring more deeply into the nature of things than any man before him and so springing ‘the tight-barred gates of Nature’s hold asunder’.

Epicureanism is as much as ‘religious’ experience as a rational philosophy and Lucretius’s references to Epicurus in the poem could almost be hymns to Christ from a Christian epic. They are full of more than awe, of reverence and almost worship. (Book I 66ff, Book II, Book III 1042, opening of Book V).

He was a god, a god indeed, who first
Found a new life-scheme, a system, a design
Now known as Wisdom or Philosophy…

He seems to us, by absolute right, a god
From whom, distributed through all the world,
Come those dear consolations of the mind,
That precious balm of spirit.

(Book V, lines 11 to 13 and 25 to 28)

Lucretius’s idolisation of Epicurus just about stops short of actual worship because Religion is the enemy. Organised religion is what keeps people in fear of the gods and makes their lives a misery. Epicurus’s aim was to liberate mankind from the oppression and wickedness into which Religious belief, superstition and fanatacism all too often lead it.

Religion the enemy of freedom

Lucretius loathes and detests organised Religion. It oppresses everyone, imposing ludicrous fictions and superstitions about divine intervention and divine punishment. Nonsense designed to oppress and quell the population.

I teach great things.
I try to loose men’s spirits from the ties,
Tight knotted, which religion binds around them.

(Book I, lines 930 to 932)

As a vivid example of the way Religion always stands with evil he gives the story of Agamemnon being told by soothsayers to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigeneia, to appease the gods, to calm the seas, so that the fleet of 1,000 Greek ships can sail from Greece to Troy. Could you conceive a worse example of the wicked behaviour religious belief can lead people into.

Too many times
Religion mothers crime and wickedness…
A mighty counsellor, Religion stood
With all that power for wickedness.

(Book I, lines 83 to 84 and 99 to 100)

Epicureanism and Stoicism in their social context

I need your full attention. Listen well!

(Book VI, line 916)

The notes to the book were written by Professor George Strodach. Like the notes in H.H. Scullard’s classic history of Republican Rome, Strodach’s notes are not the frequent little factoids you so often find in Penguin or OUP editions (Democritus was born in Thrace around 460 BC etc), but fewer in number and longer, amounting to interesting essays in their own right.

Among several really interesting points, he tells us that after Alexander the Great conquered the Greek city states in the late 4th century (320s BC) many of those city states decayed in power and influence and their citizens felt deprived of the civic framework which previously gave their lives meaning. To fill this void there arose two competing ‘salvation ideologies, Stoicism and Epicureanism. Each offered their devotees a meaningful way of life plus a rational and fully worked out account of the world as a whole. In both cases the worldview is the groundwork for ‘the therapy of dislocated and unhappy souls’. In each, the sick soul of the initiate must first of all learn the nature of reality before it can take steps towards leading the good life.

Lucretius’ long poem is by way of leading the novice step by step deeper into a worldview which, once adopted, is designed to help him or her conquer anxiety and achieve peace of mind by abandoning the chains of superstitious religious belief and coming to a full and complete understanding of the scientific, materialistic view of the way things are.

There’s no good life
No blessedness, without a mind made clear,
A spirit purged of error.

(Book V, lines 23 to 25)

Very didactic

Hence the poem’s extreme didacticism. It is not so much a long lecture (thought it often sounds like it) as a prolonged initiation into the worldview of the cult of Epicurus, addressed to one person, Lucretius’s sponsor Gaius Memmius, but designed to be used by anyone who can read.

Pay attention!…
Just remember this…

(Book II, lines 66 and 90)

Hence the didactic lecturing tone throughout, which tells the reader to listen up, pay attention, focus, remember what he said earlier, lays out a lesson plan, and then proceeds systematically from point to point.

I shall begin
With a discussion of the scheme of things
As it regards the heaven and powers above,
Then I shall state the origin of things,
The seeds from which nature creates all things,
Bids them increase and multiply; in turn,
How she resolves them to their elements
After their course is run.

(Book I, lines 54 to 57)

The poem is littered with reminders that it is one long argument, that Lucretius is making a case. He repeatedly tells Memmius to pay attention, to follow the thread of his argument, not to get distracted by common fears or misapprehensions, and takes time to rubbish the theories of rivals.

Now pay heed! I have more to say…

(Book III, line 136)

The poem amounts to a very long lecture.

If you know this,
It only takes a very little trouble
To learn the rest: the lessons, one by one,
Brighten each other, no dark night will keep you,
Pathless, astray, from ultimate vision and light,
All things illumined in each other’s radiance.

And it’s quite funny, the (fairly regular) moments when he insists that he’s told us the same thing over and over again, like a schoolteacher starting to be irritated by his pupils’ obtuseness:

  • I have said this many, many times already
  • I am almost tired of saying (III, 692)
  • as I have told you all too many times (IV, 673)
  • Be attentive now. (IV, 878)
  • I have said this over and over, many times. (IV, 1,210)
  • This I’ve said before (VI, 175)
  • Don’t be impatient. Listen! (VI, 244)
  • Remember/Never forget this! (VI, 653 to 654)
  • As I have said before… (VI, 770)
  • Once again/I hammer home this axiom… (VI, 938)

The good life

Contrary to popular belief the Epicureans did not promote a hedonistic life of pleasure. Their aim was negative: the good life is one which is, as far as possible, free from bodily pains and mental anxiety. They deprecated the competitive and acquisitive values so prevalent in first century BC Roman society:

The strife of wits, the wars for precedence,
The everlasting struggle, night and day
To win towards heights of wealth and power.

(Book II, lines 13 to 15)

What vanity!
To struggle towards the top, toward honour’s height
They made the way a foul and deadly road,
And when they reached the summit, down they came
Like thunderbolts, for Envy strikes men down
Like thunderbolts, into most loathsome Hell…
…let others sweat themselves
Into exhaustion, jamming that defile
They call ambition…

(Book V, lines 1,124 to 1,130 and 1,134 to 1,136)

Instead the Epicureans promoted withdrawal from all that and the spousal of extreme simplicity of living.

Whereas, if man would regulate his life
With proper wisdom, he would know that wealth,
The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
Serene, content with little.

(Book V, lines 1,117 to 1,120)

This much I think I can, and do, assert:
That our perverse vestigial native ways
Are small enough for reason to dispel
So that it lies within our power to live
Lives worthy of the gods.

This kind of life is challenging to achieve by yourself which is why the Epicureans were noted for setting up small communities of shared values. (See what I mean by the disarmingly open but powerful eloquence of Humphries’ style.)

If man would regulate his life
With proper wisdom, he would know that wealth,
The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
Serene, content with little.

(Book V, 1,118 to 1,121)

Shortcomings of Latin

Lucretius repeatedly points out that it is difficult to write about philosophy in Latin because it doesn’t have the words, the terminology or the traditions which have developed them, unlike the Greeks.

I know
New terms must be invented, since our tongue
Is poor and this material is new.

The poverty of our speech, our native tongue,
Makes it hard for me to say exactly how
These basic elements mingle…

(Book III, lines 293-295)

Interesting because this is the exact same point Cicero makes in the De rerum deorum. Cicero, in his books and letters made clear that his philosophical works as a whole have the aim of importing the best Greek thinking into Latin and, as part of the process, creating new Latin words or adapting old ones to translate the sophisticated philosophical terminology which the Greeks had spent centuries developing.

The really miraculous thing is that Humphries captures all this, or has written an English poem which is actually worth reading as poetry. ‘I

for your sake, Memmius,
Have wanted to explain the way things are
Turning the taste of honey into sound
As musical, as golden, so that I
May hold your mind with poetry, while you
Are learning all about that form, that pattern,
And see its usefulness.

(Book IV, lines 19 to 25)

Synopis

Book 1 (1,117 lines)

– Introduction

– hymn to Venus, metaphorical symbol of the creative urge in all life forms

– address to the poet’s patron, Memmius

– the two basic postulates of atomism, namely: nothing comes of nothing and the basic building blocks of the universe, atoms, cannot be destroyed

– the importance of void or space between atoms which allows movement

– everything else, all human history, even time itself, are by-products or accidents of the basic interplay of atoms and void

– on the characteristics of atoms

– a refutation of rival theories, of Heraclitus (all things are made of fire), Empedocles (set no limit to the smallness of things), the Stoics (who believe everything is made up of mixtures of the 4 elements) and Anaxagoras (who believed everything was made up of miniature versions of itself) – all comprehensively rubbished

– the infinity of matter and space

Book 2 (1,174 lines)

– the good life is living free from care, fear or anxiety

– varieties of atomic motion namely endless falling through infinite space; atoms travel faster than light

– the atomic swerve and its consequences i.e. it is a slight swerve in the endless downward fall of atoms through infinite space which begins the process of clustering and accumulation which leads to matter which leads, eventually, to the universe we see around us

– how free will is the result of a similar kind of ‘swerve’ in our mechanistic lives

– the conservation of energy

– the variety of atomic shapes and the effects of these on sensation

– atoms themselves have no secondary qualities such as colour, temperature and so on

– there is an infinite number of worlds, all formed purely mechanically i.e. no divine intervention required

– there are gods, as there are men, but they are serenely indifferent to us and our lives: in Epicurus’s worldview, the so-called gods are really just moral exemplars of lives lived with complete detachment, calm and peace (what the Greeks called ataraxia)

to think that gods
Have organised all things for the sake of men
Is nothing but a lot of foolishness. (II, 14-176)

– all things decay and our times are degraded since the golden age (‘The past was better, infinitely so’)

That all things, little by little, waste away
As time’s erosion crumbles them to doom.

Book III (1,094 lines)

– Epicurus as therapist of the soul – this passage, along with other hymns of praise to the great man scattered through the poem, make it clear that Epicurus was more than a philosopher but the founder of a cult whose devotees exalted him

– the fear of hell as the root cause of all human vices

– the material nature of mind and soul – their interaction and relation to the body – spirit is made of atoms like everything else, but much smaller than ‘body atoms’, and rarer, and finely intricated

– rebuttal of Democritus’s theory of how atoms of body and spirit interact (he thought they formed a chains of alternating body and spirit atoms)

– descriptions of bodily ailments (such as epilepsy) and mental ailments( such as fear or depression) as both showing the intimate link between body and spirit

– an extended passage arguing why the spirit or soul is intimately linked with the body so that when one dies, the other dies with it

– the soul is not immortal – therefore there is no ‘transmigration of souls’; a soul which was in someone else for their lifetime does not leave their body upon their death and enter that of the nearest newly-conceived foetus – he ridicules this belief by envisioning the souls waiting in a queue hovering around an egg about to be impregnated by a sperm and all vying to be the soul that enters the new life

– the soul is not immortal – being made of atoms it disintegrates like the body from the moment of death (in lines 417 to 820 Lucretius states no fewer than 26 proofs of the mortality of the soul: Strodach groups them into 1. proofs from the material make-up of the soul; proofs from diseases and their cures; 3. proofs from the parallelism of body and soul; 4. proofs from the various logical absurdities inherent in believing the soul could exist independently of the body)

– therefore, Death is nothing to us

– vivid descriptions of types of people and social situations (at funerals, at banquets) at which people’s wrong understanding of the way things are makes them miserable

Book IV (1,287 lines)

– the poet’s task is to teach

Because I teach great things, because I strive
To free the spirit, give the mind release
From the constrictions of religious fear…

(Book IV, lines 8 to 10)

– atomic images or films: these are like an invisible skin or film shed from the surfaces of all objects, very fine, passing through the air, through glass – this is his explanation of how sight and smell work, our senses detect these microscopic films of things which are passing through the air all around us

– all our sensations are caused by these atomic images

all knowledge is based on the senses; rejecting the evidence of the senses in favour of ideas and theories leads to nonsense, ‘a road to ruin’. Strodach calls this ‘extreme empiricism’ and contrast it with the two other ancient philosophies, Platonism which rejected the fragile knowledge of the senses and erected knowledge on the basis of maths and logic; and Scepticism, which said both mind and body can be wrong, so we have to go on probabilities and experience

– his explanations of sight, hearing and taste are colourful, imaginative, full of interesting examples, and completely wrong

– how we think, based on the theory of ‘images’ derived by the impression of atomic ‘skins’ through our senses; it seems wildly wrong, giving the impression that ‘thought’ is the almost accidental combination of these atomistic images in among the finer textured atoms of the mind

– a review of related topics of human experience, including movement, sleep and dreams, the latter produced when fragments of atomistic images are assembled by the perceiving mind when it is asleep, passive and undirected

– an extended passage ridiculing romantic love which moves on to theory about sex and reproduction, namely that the next generation are a mix of material from each parent, with a load of old wives’ tales about which position to adopt to get pregnant, and the sex or characteristics of offspring derive from the vigour and other characteristics of the parents. Lucretius tries to give a scientific explanation of the many aspects of sex and reproduction which, since he lacked all science, come over as folk myths. But he is a card carrying Epicurean and believes the whole point of life is to avoid anxiety, stress and discombobulation and so, logically enough, despises and ridicules sex and love.

Book V (1,457 lines)

– Epicurus as revealer of philosophical wisdom and healer

– the world is mortal, its origin is mechanical not divine

– astronomical questions

– the origin of vegetable, animal and human life

– an extended passage describing the rise of man from lying under bushes in a state of nature through the creation of tribes, then cities – the origin of civilisation, including the invention of kings and hierarchies, the discovery of fire, how to use metals and weave clothes, the invention of language and law and, alas, the development of Religion to awe and terrify ourselves with

This book is the longest and also the weakest, in that Lucretius reveals his woeful ignorance about a whole raft of scientific issues. He thinks the earth is at the centre of the universe and the moon, sun, planets and stars all circle round it. He thinks the earth is a flat surface and the moon and the sun disappear underneath it. He thinks the sun, moon and stars are moved by the wind. He thinks all animals and other life forms were given birth by the earth, and that maggots and worms are generated from soil. In her early days the earth gave birth to all kinds of life forms but this no longer happens because she is tired out. Lucretius is anti-evolutionary in the way he thinks animals and plants and man came into being with abilities fully formed (the eye, nose, hand) and only then found uses for them, rather than the modern view that even slight, rudimentary fingers, hands, sense of smell, taste, sight, would convey evolutionary advantage on their possessors which tend to encourage their development over successive generations.

I appreciate that Lucretius was trying his best to give an objective, rational and unsupernatural account of all aspects of reality. I understand that although his account of the origins of lightning and thunder may be wildly incorrect (clouds contain particles of fire) his aim was worthy and forward looking – to substitute a rational materialistic account for the absurdly anthropocentric, superstitious, god-fearing superstitions of his day, by which people thought lightning and thunder betokened the anger of the gods. He had very good intentions.

But these good intentions don’t stop the majority of his account from being ignorant tripe. Well intention and asking the right questions (what causes rain, what causes thunder, what is lightning, what is magnetism) and trying hard to devise rational answers to them. But wrong about almost everything.

Reading it makes you realise what enormous events the invention of the telescope and the microscope were, both around 1600, Galileo’s proof that the earth orbits round the sun a decade later, the discovery of the circulation of the blood in the 1620s, Newton’s theory of gravity in the 1680s, the discovery of electricity around 1800, the theory of evolution in the 1850s, the germ theory of the 1880s and, well, all of modern science.

Reading Lucretius, like reading all the ancients and medieval authors, is to engage with intelligent, learned, observant and sensitive people who knew absolutely nothing about how the world works, what causes natural phenomena, how living organisms came about and evolved, next to nothing about astronomy, geography, geology, biology, physics, chemistry or any of the natural sciences. Their appeal is their eloquence, the beauty of their language and the beguilingness of their fairy tales.

And of course, the scientific worldview is always provisional. It may turn out that everything we believe is wrong and about to be turned upside down by new discoveries and paradigm shifts., It’s happened before.

Book VI (1,286 lines)

– another hymn to Epicurus and his godlike wisdom

…he cleansed
Our hearts by words of truth; he put an end
To greed and fears; he showed the highest good
Toward which we all are aiming, showed the way…

(Book VI, lines 22 to 25)

– meteorology: thunder, lightning because the clouds contain gold and seeds of fire, waterspouts

– geological phenomena: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, clouds, rain, why the sea never overflows considering all the rivers running into it, the inundation of the Nile

– why noxious things oppress humanity; pigs hate perfume but love mud!

– four pages about magnetism, noticing and describing many aspects of it but completely wrong about what it is and how it works

– disease, plague and pestilence, which he thinks derive from motes and mist which is in the right ballpark

The odd thing about the entire poem is that it leads up, not to an inspiring vision of the Good Life lived free of anxiety in some ideal Epicurean community, but to a sustained and harrowing description of the great plague which devastated Athens during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC). For four pages the poet lays on detail after detail of the great plague, the symptoms, the horrible suffering and death, its spread, social breakdown, streets full of rotting corpses. And then – it just ends. Stops. Not quite in mid-sentence, but certainly in mid-flow.

The abruptness of this unexpected ending has led many commentators to speculate that Lucretius intended to write a seventh book, which would have been devoted to religion, theology, ethics and led up to the hymn to the Good Life everyone was expecting. I agree. Throughout the poem he is chatty, badgering the reader, telling us he’s embarking on a new subject, repeating things he’s said before, haranguing and nagging us. For the text to just end in the middle of describing men fighting over whose family members will be burned on funeral pyres is macabre and weird. Here are the very last lines:

Everyone in grief
Buried his own whatever way he could
Amid the general panic. Sudden need
And poverty persuaded men to use
Horrible makeshifts; howling, they would place
Their dead on pyres prepared for other men’
Apply the torches, maim and bleed and brawl
To keep the corpses from abandonment.

(Book VI, lines 1,279 to 1,286)

It must be unfinished.

Thoughts

1. The philosophy

I’m very attracted by Epicurus’s thought, as propounded here and in Cicero’s De natura deorum. After a long and sometimes troubled life I very much want to achieve a state of ataraxia i.e. freedom from mental disturbances. However, there seems to me a very big flaw at the heart of Epicureanism. One of the two cardinal fears addressed is fear of the gods, in the sense of fear of their arbitrary intervention in our lives unless we endlessly propitiate these angry entities with sacrifices and processions and whatnot. This fear of punishment and retribution is said to be one of the principle sources of anxiety in people.

Except that this isn’t really true. I live in a society, England, which in 2022 is predominantly godless. Real believers in actual gods are in a distinct minority. And yet mental illnesses, including depression and ‘generalised anxiety disorder’, are more prevalent than ever before, afflicting up to a quarter of the population annually.

It felt to me throughout the poem that accusing religious belief in gods as the principle or sole cause of anxiety and unhappiness is so wide of the mark as to make it useless. Even in a godless world, all humans are still susceptible to utterly random accidents, to a whole range of unfortunate blows, from being diagnosed with cancer to getting hit by a bus, losing your job, losing your house, losing your partner. We are vulnerable to thousands of incidents and accidents which could affect us very adversely and it is not at all irrational to be aware of them, and it is very hard indeed not to worry about them, particularly if you actually do lose your job, your house, your partner, your children, your parents etc.

The idea that human beings waste a lot of time in fear and anxiety and stress and worry is spot on. So the notion that removing this fear and anxiety and stress and worry would be a good thing is laudable. And Epicurus’s argument against the fear of death (death is the end of mind and body both; therefore it is pointless worrying about it because you won’t feel it; it is less than nothing) is still relevant, powerful and potentially helpful.

But the idea that you can alleviate anxiety do that by disproving the existence of ‘gods’ is, alas, completely irrelevant to the real causes of the problem, which have endured long after any ‘fear of the gods’ has evaporated and so is of no practical help at all. All Epicurus and Lucretius’s arguments in this area, fluent and enjoyable though they are, are of purely academic or historical interest. Sadly.

2. The poem

Cicero’s De rerum natura was a hard read because of the unrelentingness of the arguments, many of which seemed really stupid or petty. The way things are, on the contrary, is an amazingly enjoyable read because of the rhythm and pacing and phrasing of the poem.

Lucretius is just as argumentative as Cicero i.e. the poem is packed with arguments following pell mell one after the other (‘Moreover…one more point…furthermore…In addition…’) but this alternates with, or is embedded in, descriptions of human nature, of the world and people around us, and of the make-up of the universe, which are both attractive and interesting in themselves, and also provide a sense of rhythm, changes of subject and pace, to the poem.

Amazingly, although the subject matter is pretty mono-minded and Lucretius is banging on and on about essentially the same thing, the poem itself manages never to be monotonous. I kept reading and rereading entire pages just for the pleasure of the words and phrasing. This is one of the, if not the, most enjoyable classical text I’ve read. And a huge part of that is, I think, down to Humphries’s adeptness as a poet.

Comparison with the Penguin edition

As it happened, just after I finished reading the Humphries translation I came across the 2007 Penguin edition of the poem in a local charity shop and snapped it up for £2. It’s titled The Nature of Things and contains a translation by A.E. Stallings with an introduction and notes by Richard Jenkyns.

Textual apparatus

As you’d expect from Penguin, it’s a much more traditional layout, including not only the translation but an introduction, further reading, an explanation of the style and metre of the translation, 22 pages of factual notes at the end (exactly the kind of fussy, mostly distracting notes the Humphries edition avoids), and a glossary of names.

In addition it has two useful features: the text includes line numberings, given next to every tenth line. It’s a feature of the Humphries version that it’s kept as plain and stripped down as possible with no indication of lines except at the top of the page, so if you want to know which line you’re looking at you have to manually count from the top line downwards. Trivial but irritating.

The other handy thing about the Penguin edition is it gives each of the books a title, absent in the original and Humphries. Again, no biggy, but useful.

  • Book I – Matter and Void
  • Book II – The Dance of Atoms
  • Book III – Mortality and the Soul
  • Book IV – The Senses
  • Book V – Cosmos and Civilisation
  • Book VI – Weather and the Earth

New things I learned from Richard Jenkyns’ introduction were:

Epicurus’s own writings are austere and he was said to disapprove of poetry. Lucretius’s achievement, and what makes his poem so great, was the tremendous depth of lyric feeling he brought to the, potentially very dry, subject matter. He doesn’t just report Epicurus’s philosophy, he infuses it with passion, conviction and new levels of meaning.

This, for Jenkyns, explains a paradox which has bugged scholars, namely why a poem expounding a philosophy which is fiercely anti-religion, opens with a big Hymn to Venus. It’s because Venus is a metaphor for the underlying unity of everything which is implicit in Epicurus’s teaching that there is no spirit, no soul, nothing but atoms in various combinations and this means we are all united in the bounty of nature.

The opponents of Epicureanism commonly treated it as a dull, drab creed; Lucretius’ assertion is that, rightly apprehended, it is beautiful, majestic and inspiring. (p.xviii)

Lucretius’s was very influential on the leading poet of the next generation, Virgil, who assimilated his soaring tone.

The passages praising Epicurus are strategically place throughout the poem, much as invocations of the muses open key books in the traditional classical epic.

Jenkyns points out that Lucretius’s tone varies quite a bit, notable for much soaring rhetoric but also including invective and diatribe, knockabout abuse of rival philosophers, sometimes robustly humorous, sometimes sweetly domestic, sometimes focusing on random observations about everyday life, then soaring into speculation about the stars and the planets. But everything is driven by and reverts to, a tone of impassioned communication. He has seen the light and he is desperate to share it with everyone. It is an evangelical poem.

Stalling’s translation

Quite separate from Jenkyns’s introduction, Stalling gives a 5-page explanation of the thinking behind her translation. The obvious and overwhelming differences are that her version rhymes, and is in very long lines which she calls fourteeners. To be precise she decided to translate Lucretius’s Latin dactylic hexameters into English rhyming heptameters, where heptameter means a line having seven ‘feet’ or beats. What does that mean in practice? Well, count the number of beats in each of these lines. The first line is tricky so I’ve bolded the syllables I think need emphasising:

Life-stirring Venus, Mother of Aeneas and of Rome,
Pleasure of men and gods, you make all things beneath the dome
Of sliding constellations teem, you throng the fruited earth
And the ship-freighted sea – for every species comes to birth
Conceived through you, and rises forth and gazes on the light.
The winds flee from you, Goddess, your arrival puts to flight
The clouds of heaven. For you, the crafty earth contrives sweet flowers,
For you, the oceans laugh, the sky grows peaceful after showers…

(Book I, lines 1 to 8)

Stalling concedes that the standard form for translating foreign poetry is probably loose unrhymed pentameters, with five beats per line – exactly the metre Humphries uses:

Creatress, mother of the Roman line,
Dear Venus, joy of earth and joy of heaven,
All things that live below that heraldry
Of star and planet, whose processional
Moves ever slow and solemn over us,
All things conceived, all things that face the light
In their bright visit, the grain-bearing fields,
The marinered ocean, where the wind and cloud
Are quiet in your presence – all proclaim
Your gift, without which they are nothingness.

Clearly Humphries’ unrhymed pentameters have a much more light and airy feel. They also allow for snazzy phrasing – I like ‘marinered ocean’, a bit contrived, but still stylish. Or take Humphries’ opening of Book III:

O glory of the Greeks, the first to raise
The shining light out of tremendous dark
Illumining the blessings of our life
You are the one I follow. In your steps
I tread, not as a rival, but for love
Of your example. Does the swallow vie
With swans? Do wobbly-legged little goats
Compete in strength and speed with thoroughbreds?

Now Stalling:

You, who first amidst such thick gloom could raise up so bright
A lantern, bringing everything that’s good in life to light,
You I follow, Glory of the Greeks, and place my feet,
Within your footsteps. Not because I would compete
With you, but for the sake of love, because I long to follow
And long to emulate you. After all, why would a swallow
Strive with swans? How can a kid with legs that wobble catch
Up with the gallop of a horse? – the race would be no match.

Stalling makes the point that the heptameter has, since the early Renaissance, been associated with ballads and with narrative and so is suited to a long didactic poem. Arthur Golding used it in his 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and George Chapman in his 1611 translation of the Iliad. Stalling hopes the ‘old fashioned rhythm and ring’ of her fourteeners will, implicitly, convey ‘something of the archaic flavour of Lucretius’s Latin’ (p.xxvi).

OK, let’s look at the little passage which I noticed crops up no fewer than four times in the poem. Here’s Stalling’s version:

This dread, these shadows of the mind, must thus be swept away
Not by rays of the sun or by the brilliant beams of day,
But by observing Nature and her laws. And this will lay
The warp out for us – her first principle: that nothing’s brought
Forth by any supernatural power out of naught
.

(Book I, lines 146 to 153)

That use of ‘naught’ transports us back to the 1850s and Tennyson. It is consciously backward looking, in sound and meaning and connotation. I can see why: she’s following through on her stated aim of conveying the original archaism of the poem. But, on the whole, I just don’t like the effect. I prefer Humphries’ more modern-sounding diction.

Also, despite having much longer lines to play with, something about the rhythm and the requirement to rhyme each line paradoxically end up cramping Stalling’s ability to express things clearly and simply. Compare Humphries’ version of these same lines:

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation. So
Our starting point shall be this principle:
Nothing at all is ever born from nothing
By the gods’ will
.

‘Insight into nature’ and ‘systematic contemplation’ are so much more emphatic and precise than ‘by observing Nature and her laws’ which is bland, clichéd and flabby.

Humphries’ ‘Our starting point shall be this principle’ is a little stagey and rhetorical but has the advantage of being crystal clear. Whereas Stalling’s ‘And this will lay/The warp out for us – her first principle…’ is cramped and confusing. Distracted by the odd word ‘warp’, trying to visualise what it means in this context, means I miss the impact of this key element of Lucretius’s message.

In her translator’s note Stalling refers to earlier translations and has this to say about Humphries:

Rolfe Humphries’ brisk, blank verse translation The way things are (1969) often spurred me to greater vigour and concision. (p.xxviii)

Precisely. I think the Stalling is very capable, and it should be emphasised that the fourteeners really do bed down when you take them over the long haul. If you read just a few lines of this style it seems silly and old fashioned, but if you read a full page it makes sense and after several pages you really get into the swing. It is a good meter for rattling through an extended narrative.

But still. I’m glad I read the poem in the Humphries’ version. To use Stalling’s own phrase, it has ‘greater vigour and concision’. Humphries much more vividly conveys Lucretius’s urgency of tone, his compulsion to share the good news with us and set us free:

…all terrors of the mind
Vanish, are gone; the barriers of the world
Dissolve before me, and I see things happen
All through the void of empty space. I see
The gods majestic, and their calm abodes
Winds do not shake, nor clouds befoul nor snow
Violate with the knives of sleet and cold;
But there the sky is purest blue, the air
Is almost laughter in that radiance,
And nature satisfies their every need,
And nothing, nothing mars their peace of mind.

(Book III, lines 15 to 25)

I’m with him, I’m seeing the vision of the passionless gods with him, and I’m caught up in his impassioned repetition of ‘nothing, nothing‘. All of which, alas, is fogged and swaddled in the long fustian lines of Stalling’s version:

…The gods appear to me
Enthroned in all their holiness and their serenity,
And where they dwell, wind never lashes them, cloud never rains,
And snowfall white and crisp with biting frost never profanes.
The canopy of aether over them is always bright
And unbeclouded, lavishing the laughter of its light.
And there they want for nothing; every need, nature supplies;
And nothing ever ruffles their peace of mind. Contrariwise…

The key phrase about the gods’ peace of mind should conclude the line; instead it ends mid-line and is, as a result, muffled. Why? To make way for the rhyme, which in this case is supplied by another heavily archaic word ‘contrariwise’ which has the unintended effect of trivialising the preceding line.

Stalling’s translation is skilful, clever, immensely rhythmic, a fascinating experiment, but…no.

Online translations

Now let me extend my argument. I’ll try
To be as brief as possible, but listen!

(Book IV, lines 115 to 116)

There have been scores of translations of De rerum natura into English. An easy one to access on the internet is William Ellery Leonard’s 1916 verse translation. Compared to either Stalling or Humphries, it’s dire, but it’s free.


Roman reviews

Edvard Munch: love and angst @ the British Museum

The fin-de-siecle

The last decade of the 19th century is famous for its fin-de-siecle, decadent, dark imagery. In Imperial Britain this was epitomised by the decadent sexuality associated with the notorious trial of Oscar Wilde and the Yellow Book magazine and the pornographic prints of Aubrey Beardsley. In France there was a reaction against Impressionism which took many forms including the urban posters of Toulouse-Lautrec and the swarthy nudes of Paul Gauguin down in the South Seas. All were well-known and public artists, working in cosmopolitan cities which were the capitals of far-flung empires – London, Paris. They were famous and playing on large stages.

In the other countries of northern Europe, however, one of the most powerful artistic currents was Symbolism.

As the exhibition notes:

Symbolism was a literary and artistic movement that rejected representations of the external world for those of imagination and myth. Symbolists looked inwards in order to represent emotions and ideas.

In Belgium, north Germany and the Scandinavian countries, artists developed a wide range of techniques and styles, but tended to fixate on a handful of themes, namely sex and death. Death awaits with his scythe. Empty boats arrive at forbidding islands. Youths waste away from frustrated love. Beautiful young women turn out to be vampires.

Sex and death and anguish and despair, these are all much more personal, introverted, emotions. Wilde was a flamboyant public personality, Beardsley’s art was defiantly clear and elegant, both were immensely sophisticated and urban and cosmopolitan, confident doyens of the largest, richest city in the world.

Whereas much of the fin-de-siecle art from Belgium, Germany, Scandinavia was much darker, more personal. Of course they produced urban and sophisticated art as well – the 1890s is characterised by an explosion of diverse art movements – but there was also a big strand of empty lakes and immense dark pine forests and brooding skies and agonised artist-heroes.

Edvard Munch

Munch is slap bang in the middle of this social and cultural movement. His most famous work is The Scream, which was first made as a painting in 1893 and then turned into a lithograph in 1895 which was reproduced in French and British and American magazines and made his reputation.

The Scream is probably among the top ten most famous images produced by any artist anywhere, and has been parodied and lampooned and reproduced in every medium imaginable (pillow slips and duvet covers, posters, bags, t-shirts). It featured in an episode of The Simpsons, clinching its status as one of the world’s best known art icons. It’s up there with the Mona Lisa.

The Scream (1895) by Edvard Munch. Private Collection, Norway. Photo by Thomas Widerberg

Why? Why is it so powerful? Well:

  1. It is highly stylised and simplified – it barely looks like a human being at all, more like some kind of ghost or spirit of the woods.
  2. The rest of the landscape is drawn with harsh single lines, whose waviness seems to echo the long O of the protagonist’s mouth.
  3. Thus ‘primitiveness’ of the technique of wood carving – with its thick, heavy ‘crude’ lines – somehow echoes the primalness of the emotional state being described.

The exhibition

This exhibition brings together nearly 50 prints from Norway’s Munch Museum, making this the largest exhibition of Munch’s prints seen in the UK for 45 years.

It also includes sketches, photos and a few oil paintings, not least a big haunting portrait – The Sick Child – of his favourite sister, Johanne Sophie, who died of tuberculosis when she was just 13. These are set alongside works by French and German contemporaries, to present a powerful overview of Munch’s troubled personality, the artistic milieu he moved in, and his extraordinary ability to turn it into powerful images conveying intense, primal, human emotions.

Vampire II (1896) by Edvard Munch. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB, on loan to Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo

Claustrophobic

The exhibition is up in the top gallery in the Rotunda, a relatively small space, which was divided into smallish sections or rooms, the prints hung quite close together on the walls, and the place was packed, rammed, with silver-haired old ladies and gentleman. It was hard to move around. More than once I went to move on from studying a print and found I couldn’t move, with people studying the next-door prints blocking me to left and right and a shuffle of pedestrians blocking any backward movement. Imagine the Tube at rush hour. It was like that.

Possibly, in fact, a good atmosphere to savour Munch’s work. Trapped, claustrophobic, slightly hysterical. it forced me to look up at the quotes from his letters or diaries which have been liberally printed up on the exhibition walls. Just reading these immediately gives you a sense of where Munch was coming from, his personality and the motivation for his art.

For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. (1908)

I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted – and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there, trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature. (22 January 1892)

The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.

All art, like music, must be created with one’s lifeblood – Art is one’s lifeblood. (1890)

I would not cast off my illness, because there’s much in my art that I owe it.

We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want… an art that arrests and engages. An art of one’s innermost heart.

Sexual anxiety

There’s plenty more where this came from. The exhibition gives a lot of biographical detail about his early life, describing the Norwegian capital of Kristiana, how it was connected to the rest of Europe by sea routes, how it was a small provincial town whose every aspect was dominated by the stiflingly respectable Lutheran church, but how young Edvard was attracted to its small bohemian, artistic set of poets and writers and artists, how he conceived a massive sequence of works about love and sex and death which he titled The Frieze of Life –

The Frieze is intended as a poem about life, about love and about death. (1918)

How he travelled to Paris and to Berlin and scandalised respectable opinion with the exhibitions he held there, but created a stir and won admirers for the stark, elemental quality of his woodcuts and prints. (The exhibition includes a map of Europe showing Munch’s extensive travels during the 1890s and 1900s, along with a selection of Munch’s personal postcards and maps.)

We are told Munch was born and brought up in a fiercely religious and conservative bourgeois family which was horrified when he fell in with Kristiania’s bohemian layabouts. These bohos practiced sexual promiscuousness, had numerous affairs, and so were plagued by jealousy and infidelity and fights – all exacerbated by the way they drank too much, far too much.

It seemed obvious to me that Munch’s anxiety was caused by the crashing conflict between his extremely repressed bourgeois upbringing and the chaotic and promiscuous circles he moved in as a young man. On the one hand was a young man’s desire and lust, on the other were all the authority figures in his culture (and inside his head) saying even looking at a woman with lust in his heart would lead to instant damnation.

The scores of images he made of women as vampires and weird gothic presences and looming succubi emerging from the shadows, represent a repeated attempt to confront the epicentre of that clash – sex, embodied – for a heterosexual young man – by sexualised young women. They attracted him like a drug, like heroin – but all these compulsive thoughts about them triggered the terror of physical disease – the appalling ravages of syphilis for which there was no cure – along with the certainty of eternal damnation – and all these led to anxious, almost hysterical thoughts, about the only way out, the only way to resolve the endless nightmare of anxiety – and that was release and escape into death, the death which he had seen at such close quarters in the deaths of his beloved mother and sister from tuberculosis.

The obsessiveness of his sexual thoughts, and their violent clash with orthodox Christianity, is most evident in the hugely controversial Madonna, an obviously erotic image to which he blasphemously misapplies the title of the chaste Mother of God. And, when you look closely, you realise that those are sperm swimming round the outside of the frame, and a miserable looking foetus squatting at the bottom left. Sex versus Religion! It’s amazing he wasn’t arrested for blasphemy and public indecency. In fact his 1892 exhibition in Berlin so scandalised respectable opinion that it was shut down after just a week.

Madonna (1895/1902) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

So Munch’s vampire women aren’t real women, of course they’re not. They are depictions of male anxiety about women, namely the irreconcilable conflict between the demanding, drug-addiction-level lust many young, testosterone-fueled men experience, whether they want to or not – and the multiplicity of feelings of shame about having such strong pornographic feelings and experiences, and regret at handling relationships with women badly, and anxiety that you are a failure, as a man and as a decent human being, and terror that – if there is a God – you are going straight to hell for all eternity.

Plus, as the wall labels indicate, there really was a lot of heavy drinking in his circle and by him personally, which led to chaotic lifestyles among the bohemian set, and Munch became a clinical alcoholic. And this addiction – to alcohol – will, of course, have exacerbated all the psychological problems described above.

Exposure to so many of Munch’s prints – alongside detailed explanations of how he made them, the Norwegian and north European tradition they stem from, and so on – really rubs in the fact that he was a great master of the form. It’s not just the Scream. Lots of the other prints have the same archetypal, primitive power, and the exhibition brings it out by setting Munch’s work beside prime examples by other leading printmakers of the time, in France and Germany (many of which are themselves worth paying the price of admission to see).

The subtle prints

It tends to be the extreme images we are attracted to – the Scream, the Madonna, the numerous vampire women, the worrying image of a pubescent girl sitting on a bed. But some decades ago we crossed a threshold into being able to accept all kinds of erotic and extreme images, so these no longer scandalise and thrill us in the same way they did their initial viewers, although they still provide powerful visual experiences.

But having had a first go around the exhibition taking in these greatest hits, I slowly came to realise there was another layer or area of his work, which is – in a word – more subtle. If the most obvious and impactful of his images are about stress and anxiety mounting to open hysteria – there were also plenty of images which were far more restrained. In which – to point out an obvious difference – the women are wearing clothes.

Instead of vampire women whose kisses are turning into bites, these tend to be of fully dressed, utterly ‘respectable’ late-nineteenth century types, set outdoors, in open air situations where… somehow, through the placing and composition of the figures, a more subtle sense of aloneness and isolation is conveyed. They capture the mood of a couple who are, for some reason, not communicating, each isolated in their brooding thoughts.

The Lonely Ones (1899) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

Like the complex ways relationships between the sexes fail, become blocked and painful in the plays of Munch’s fellow Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen. (Munch, as a leading artist of the day, was acquainted with both Ibsen and the younger playwright, Strindberg. It crosses my mind that if Munch’s more hysterical images can be compared to the highly strung characters in a Strindberg play, the more subdued and unhappy images in some way parallel Ibsen’s couples.)

Having processed the extreme images of vampire women, sex and death in my first go round, on this second pass I warmed to these less blatant images.

I noticed that the naked women images are almost always indoors (as, I suppose, naked women mostly had to be, in his day). But that the more ‘respectable’ and subtle images were all set outside, and often by primal landscapes – namely The Lake and the Forest – the kind of primeval landscape we all associate with Scandinavia and which really was available right on Kristiana’s doorstep.

The exhibition ends with a set of prints which perform variations on his characteristically hunched, half-abstract human figures – characteristically, showing one man and one woman – but in this series hauntingly isolated, leaning on each other – or against each other – in something which doesn’t look at all sensual but more like the survival techniques of characters from a play by Samuel Becket.

Towards the Forest II (1897/1915) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

Less striking than the vampires and naked women and girls, I thought these strange, half-abstract, ‘lost souls in the landscape’ images had a kind of purity and haunting quality all their own.

Breakdown and rebirth

It comes as no surprise to learn that in 1908 Munch had a nervous breakdown. His anxiety, compounded by excessive drinking and sometimes fighting, had become acute, and he was experiencing hallucinations and persecution mania. He entered a clinic and underwent a comprehensive detoxification which lasted nearly eight months.

When he left, he was a new man. Well, new-ish. His work became more colourful and less pessimistic and the wider public of Kristiania for the first time began to appreciate his work. Critics were supportive. His paintings sold. Museums started to buy his back catalogue. His life improved in all measurable ways. But in a textbook case of the artist who needs his anxieties and neuroses to produce great works, everything he carved and painted from then on – portraits of rich friends, of the farm he bought, murals for factories – lacked the intensity and archetypal power of his early years.

Years later all that storm and stress and hysteria seemed so distant as almost to be inexplicable.It is typical that, decades later, he told the story of how his famous painting, Vampire II, got its title. He himself had simply titled it Love and Pain. Pretty boring, eh? But Munch’s friend, the critic Stanisław Przybyszewski, and clearly a man with a flair for publicity, described it as ‘a man who has become submissive, and on his neck a biting vampire’s face.’ And, looking back, Munch comments:

It was the time of Ibsen, and if people were really bent on revelling in symbolist eeriness and calling the idyll ‘Vampire’ – why not?

A man in remission from alcoholism and mental illness, the older Munch can be forgiven for not wanting to revive unhappy memories, and for wanting to palm off the idea for lurid titles onto his friends. But the prints themselves, and all his early writings, don’t lie. The later work is interesting and decorative – but it is the unhappy period covered by this exhibition which produced the intense and troubled works which seem to take you right into the heart of the tortured human condition.

Older, wiser and sober – Munch among his paintings at the end of his life

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Irrationality: The Enemy Within by Stuart Sutherland (1992)

The only way to substantiate a belief is to try to disprove it.
(Irrationality: The Enemy Within, page 48)

Sutherland was 65 when he wrote this book, and nearing the end of a prestigious career in psychology research. His aim was to lay out, in 23 themed chapters, all the psychological and sociological research data from hundreds of experiments, which show just how vulnerable the human mind is to a plethora of unconscious biases, prejudices, errors, mistakes, misinterpretations and so on – the whole panoply of ways in which supposedly ‘rational’ human beings can end up making grotesque mistakes.

By the end of the book, Sutherland claims to have defined and demonstrated over 100 distinct cognitive errors humans are prone to (p.309).

I first read this book in 2000 and it made a big impact on me because I didn’t really know that this entire area of study existed, and had certainly never read such a compendium of sociology and psychology experiments before.

I found the naming of the various errors particularly powerful. They reminded me of the lists of weird and wonderful Christian heresies I was familiar with from years of of reading early Christians history. And, after all, the two have a lot in common, both being lists of ‘errors’ which the human mind can make as it falls short of a) orthodox theology and b) optimally rational thinking, the great shibboleths of the Middle Ages and of the Modern World, respectively.

Rereading Irrationality now, 20 years later, after having brought up two children, and worked in big government departments, I am a lot less shocked and amazed. I have witnessed at first hand the utter irrationality of small and medium-sized children; and I have seen so many examples of corporate conformity, the avoidance of embarrassment, unwillingness to speak up, deferral to authority, and general mismanagement in the civil service that, upon rereading the book, hardly any of it came as a surprise.

But to have all these errors so carefully named and defined and worked through in a structured way, with so many experiments giving such vivid proof of how useless humans are at even basic logic, was still very enjoyable.

What is rationality?

You can’t define irrationality without first defining what you mean by rationality:

Rational thinking is most likely to lead to the conclusion that is correct, given the information available at the time (with the obvious rider that, as new information comes to light, you should be prepared to change your mind).

Rational action is that which is most likely to achieve your goals. But in order to achieve this, you have to have clearly defined goals. Not only that but, since most people have multiple goals, you must clearly prioritise your goals.

Few people think hard about their goals and even fewer think hard about the many possible consequences of their actions. (p.129)

Cognitive biases contrasted with logical fallacies

Before proceeding it’s important to point out that there is a wholly separate subject of logical fallacies. As part of his Philosophy A-Level my son was given a useful handout with a list of about fifty logical fallacies i.e. errors in thinking. But logical fallacies are not the same as cognitive biases.

A logical fallacy stems from an error in a logical argument; it is specific and easy to identify and correct. Cognitive bias derives from deep-rooted, thought-processing errors which themselves stem from problems with memory, attention, self-awareness, mental strategy and other mental mistakes.

Cognitive biases are, in most cases, far harder to acknowledge and often very difficult to correct.

Fundamentals of irrationality

1. Innumeracy One of the largest causes of all irrational behaviour is that people by and large don’t understand statistics or maths. Thus most people are not intellectually equipped to understand the most reliable type of information available to human beings – data in the form of numbers. Instead they tend to make decisions based on a wide range of faulty and irrational psychological biases.

2. Physiology People are often influenced by physiological factors. Apart from obvious ones like tiredness or hunger, which are universally known to affect people’s cognitive abilities, there are also a) drives (direct and primal) like hunger, thirst, sex, and b) emotions (powerful but sometimes controllable) like love, jealousy, fear and – especially relevant – embarrassment, specifically, the acute reluctance to acknowledge limits to your own knowledge or that you’ve made a mistake.

At a more disruptive level, people might be alcoholics, drug addicts, or prey to a range of other obsessive behaviours, not to mention suffering from a wide range of mental illnesses or conditions which undermine any attempt at rational decision-making, such as stress, anxiety or, at the other end of the spectrum, depression and loss of interest.

3. The functional limits of consciousness Numerous experiments have shown that human beings have a limited capacity to process information. Given that people rarely have a) a sufficient understanding of the relevant statistical data to begin with, and b) lack the RAM capacity to process all the data required to make the optimum decision, it is no surprise that most of us fall back on all manner of more limited, non-statistical biases and prejudices when it comes to making decisions.

The wish to feel good The world is threatening, dangerous and competitive. Humans want to feel safe, secure, calm, and in control. This is fair enough, but it does mean that people have a way of blocking out any kind of information which threatens them. Most people irrationally believe that they are cleverer than they in fact are, are qualified in areas of activity of knowledge where they aren’t, people stick to bad decisions for fear of being embarrassed or humiliated, and for the same reason reject new evidence which contradicts their position.

Named types of error and bias

Jumping to conclusions

Sutherland tricks the reader on page one, by asking a series of questions and then pointing out that, if you tried to answer about half of them, you are a fool since the questions didn’t contain enough information to arrive at any sort of solution. Jumping to conclusions before we have enough evidence is a basic and universal error. One way round this is to habitually use a pen and paper to set out the pros and cons of any decision, which also helps highlight areas where you realise you don’t have enough information.

The availability error

All the evidence is that the conscious mind can only hold a small number of data or impressions at any one time (near the end of the book, Sutherland claims the maximum is seven items, p.319). Many errors are due to people reaching for the most available explanation, using the first thing that comes to mind, and not taking the time to investigate further and make a proper, rational survey of the information.

Many experiments show that you can unconsciously bias people by planting ideas, words or images in their minds which then directly affect decisions they take hours later about supposedly unconnected issues.

Studies show that doctors who have seen a run of a certain condition among their patients become more likely to diagnose it in new patients, who don’t have it. Because the erroneous diagnosis is more ‘available’.

The news media is hard-wired to publicise shocking and startling stories which leads to the permanent misleading of the reading public. One tourist eaten by a shark in Australia eclipses the fact that you are far more likely to die in a car crash than be eaten by a shark.

Thus ‘availability’ is also affected by impact or prominence. Experimenters read out a list of men and women to two groups without telling them that there are exactly 25 men and 25 women, and asked them to guess the ratio of the sexes. If the list included some famous men, the group was influenced to think there were more men, if the list included famous women, the group thought there are more women than men. The prominence effect.

The entire advertising industry is based on the availability error in the way it invents straplines, catchphrases and jingles designed to pop to the front of your mind when you consider any type of product, making those products – in other words – super available.

I liked the attribution of the well-known fact that retailers price goods at just under the nearest pound, to the availability error. Most of us find £5.95 much more attractive than £6. It’s because we only process the initial 5, the first digit. It is more available.

Numerous studies have shown that the availability error is hugely increased under stress. Under stressful situations – in an accident – people fixate on the first solution that comes to mind and refuse to budge.

The primacy effect

First impressions. Interviewers make up their minds about a candidate for a job in the first minute of an interview and then spend the rest of the time collecting data to confirm that first impression.

The anchor effect

In picking a number people tend to choose one close to any number they’ve recently been presented with. Two groups were asked to estimate whether the population of Turkey was a) bigger than 5 million b) less than 65 million, and what it was. The group who’d had 5 million planted in their mind hovered around 15 million, the group who’d had 65 million hovered around 35 million. They were both wrong. It is 80 million.

The halo effect

People extrapolate the nature of the whole from just one quality e.g. in tests, people think attractive people must be above average in personality and intelligence although, of course, there is no reason why they should be. Hence this error’s alternative name, the ‘physical attractiveness stereotype’. The halo effect is fundamental to advertising, which seeks to associate images of beautiful men, women, smiling children, sunlit countryside etc with the product being marketed.

The existence of the halo effect and primacy effect are both reasons why interviews are a poor way to assess candidates for jobs or places.

The devil effect

Opposite of the above: extrapolating from negative appearances to the whole. This is why it’s important to dress smartly for an interview or court appearance, it really does influence people. In an experiment examiners were given identical answers, but some in terrible handwriting, some in beautifully clear handwriting. The samples with clear handwriting consistently scored higher marks, despite the identical factual content of the scripts.

Illusory correlation

People find links between disparate phenomena which simply don’t exist, thus:

  • people exaggerate the qualities of people or things which stand out from their environments
  • people associate rare qualities with rare things

This explains a good deal of racial prejudice: a) immigrants stand out b) a handful of immigrants commit egregious behaviour – therefore it is a classic example of illusory correlation to associate the two. What is missing is taking into account all the negative examples i.e. the millions of immigrants who make no egregious behaviour and whose inclusion would give you a more accurate statistical picture. Pay attention to negative cases.

Stereotypes

  1. People tend to notice anything which supports their existing opinions.
  2. We notice the actions of ‘minorities’ much more than the actions of the invisible majority.

Projection

People project onto neutral phenomena, patterns and meanings they are familiar with or which bolster their beliefs. This is compounded by –

Obstinacy

Sticking to personal opinions (often made in haste / first impressions / despite all evidence to the contrary) aka The boomerang effect When someone’s opinions are challenged, they just become more obstinate about it. Aka Belief persistence. Aka pig-headedness. And this is axacerbated by –

Group think

People associate with others like themselves, which makes them feel safe by a) confirming their beliefs and b) letting them hide in a crowd. Experiments have shown how people in self-supporting groups are liable to become more extreme in their views. Also – and I’ve seen this myself – groups will take decisions that almost everyone in the group, as individuals, know to be wrong – but no-one is prepared to risk the embarrassment or humiliation of pointing it out. The Emperor’s New Clothes. Groups are more likely to make irrational decisions than individuals are.

Confirmation bias

The tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. In an experiment people were read out a series of statements about a named person, who had a stated profession and then two adjectives describing them, one that you’d expect, the other less predictable. ‘Carol, a librarian, is attractive and serious’. When asked to do a quiz at the end of the session, participants showed a marked tendency to remember the expected adjective, and forget the unexpected one. Everyone remembered that the air stewardess was ‘attractive’ but remembered the librarian for being ‘serious’.

We remember what we expect to hear. (p.76)

Or: we remember what we remember in line with pre-existing habits of thought, values etc.

We marry people who share our opinions, we have friends with people who share our opinions, we agree with everyone in our circle on Facebook.

Self-serving biases

When things go well, people take the credit, when things go badly, people blame external circumstances.

Avoiding embarrassment

People obey, especially in a group situation, bad orders because they don’t want to stick out. People go along with bad decisions because they don’t want to stick out. People don’t want to admit they’ve made a mistake, in front of others, or even to themselves.

Avoiding humiliation

People are reluctant to admit mistakes in front of others. And rather than make a mistake in front of others, people would rather keep quiet and say nothing (in a meeting situation) or do nothing, if everyone else is doing nothing (in an action situation). Both of these avoidances feed into –

Obedience

The Milgram experiment proved that people will carry out any kind of atrocity for an authoritative man in a white coat. All of his students agreed to inflict life-threatening levels of electric shock on the victim, supposedly wired up in the next door room and emitting blood curdling (faked) screams of pain. 72% of Senior House Officers wouldn’t question the decision of a consultant, even if they thought he was wrong.

Conformity

Everyone else is saying or doing it, so you say or do it so as not to stick out / risk ridicule.

Obedience is behaving in a way ordered by an authority figure. Conformity is behaving in a way dictated by your peers.

The wrong length lines experiment

You’re put in a room with half a dozen stooges, and shown a piece of card with a line on it and then another piece of card with three lines of different length on it, and asked which of the lines on card B is the same length as the line on card A. To your amazement, everyone else in the room chooses a line which is obviously wildly wrong. In experiments up to 75% of people in this situation go along with the crowd and choose the line which they are sure, can see and know is wrong – because everyone else did.

Sunk costs fallacy

The belief that you have to continue wasting time and money on a project because you’ve invested x amount of time and money to date. Or ‘throwing good money after bad’.

Sutherland keeps cycling round the same nexus of issues, which is that people jump to conclusions – based on availability, stereotypes, the halo and anchor effects – and then refuse to change their minds, twisting existing evidence to suit them, ignoring contradictory evidence.

Misplaced consistency & distorting the evidence

Nobody likes to admit (especially to themselves) that they are wrong. Nobody likes to admit (especially to themselves) that they are useless at taking decisions.

Our inability to acknowledge our own errors even to ourselves is one of the most fundamental causes of irrationality. (p.100)

And so:

  • people consistently avoid exposing themselves to evidence that might disprove their beliefs
  • on being faced with evidence that disproves their beliefs, they ignore it
  • or they twist new evidence so as to confirm to their existing beliefs
  • people selectively remember their own experiences, or misremember the evidence they were using at the time, in order to validate their current decisions and beliefs
  • people will go to great lengths to protect their self-esteem

Sutherland says the best cleanser / solution / strategy to fixed and obstinate ideas is:

  1. to make the time to gather as much evidence as possible and
  2. to try to disprove your own position.

The best solution will be the one you have tried to demolish with all the evidence you have and still remains standing.

People tend to seek confirmation of their current hypothesis, whereas they should be trying to disconfirm it. (p.138)

Fundamental attribution error

Ascribing other people’s behaviour to their character or disposition rather than to their situation. Subjects in an experiment watched two people holding an informal quiz: the first person made up questions (based on what he knew) and asked the second person who, naturally enough, hardly got any of them right. Observers consistently credited the quizzer with higher intelligence than the answerer, completely ignoring the in-built bias of the situation, and instead ascribing the difference to character.

We are quick to personalise and blame in a bid to turn others into monolithic entities which we can then define and control – this saves time and effort, and makes us feel safer and secure – whereas the evidence is that all people are capable of a wide range of behaviours depending on the context and situation.

Once you’ve pigeon-holed someone, you will tend to notice aspects of their behaviour which confirm your view – confirmation bias and/or illusory correlation and a version of the halo/devil effect. One attribute colours your view of a more complex whole.

Actor-Observer Bias

Variation on the above: when we screw up we find all kinds of reasons in the situation to exonerate ourselves: we performed badly because we’re ill, jet-lagged, grandma died, reasons that are external to us. If someone else screws up, it is because they just are thick, lazy, useless. I.e. we think of ourselves as complex entities subject to multiple influences, and others as monolithic types.

False Consensus Effect

Over-confidence that other people think and feel like us, that our beliefs and values are the norm – in my view one of the profound cultural errors of our time.

It is a variation of the ever-present Availability Error because when we stop to think about any value or belief we will tend to conjure up images of our family and friends, maybe workmates, the guys we went to college with, and so on: in other words, the people available to memory – simply ignoring the fact that these people are a drop in the ocean of the 65 million people in the UK. See Facebubble.

The False Consensus Effect reassures us that we are normal, our values are the values, we’re the normal ones: it’s everyone else who is wrong, deluded, racist, sexist, whatever we don’t approve of.

Elsewhere, I’ve discovered some commentators naming this the Liberal fallacy:

For liberals, the correctness of their opinions – on universal health care, on Sarah Palin, on gay marriage – is self-evident. Anyone who has tried to argue the merits of such issues with liberals will surely recognize this attitude. Liberals are pleased with themselves for thinking the way they do. In their view, the way they think is the way all right-thinking people should think. Thus, ‘the liberal fallacy’: Liberals imagine that everyone should share their opinions, and if others do not, there is something wrong with them. On matters of books and movies, they may give an inch, but if people have contrary opinions on political and social matters, it follows that the fault is with the others. (Commentary magazine)

Self-Serving Bias

People tend to give themselves credit for successes but lay the blame for failures on outside causes. If the project is a success, it was all due to my hard work and leadership. If it’s a failure, it’s due to circumstances beyond my control, other people not pulling their weight etc.

Preserving one’s self-esteem 

These three errors are all aspects of preserving our self-esteem. You can see why this has an important evolutionary and psychological purpose. In order to live, we must believe in ourselves, our purposes and capacities, believe our values are normal and correct, believe we make a difference, that our efforts bring results. No doubt it is a necessary belief and a collapse of confidence and self-belief can lead to depression and possibly despair. But that doesn’t make it true.

People should learn the difference between having self-belief to motivate themselves, and developing the techniques to gather the full range of evidence – including the evidence against your own opinions and beliefs – which will enable them to make correct decisions.

Representative error

People estimate the likelihood of an event by comparing it to an existing prototype / stereotype that already exists in our minds. Our prototype is what we think is the most relevant or typical example of a particular event or object. This often happens around notions of randomness: people have a notion of what randomness should look like i.e. utterly scrambled. But in fact plenty of random events or sequences arrange themselves into patterns we find meaningful. So we dismiss them as not really random.  I.e. we have judged them against our preconception of what random ought to look like.

Ask a selection of people which of these three sets of six coin tosses where H stands for heads, T for tails is random.

  1. TTTTTT
  2. TTTHHH
  3. THHTTH

Most people will choose 3 because it feels random. But of course all three are equally likely or unlikely.

Hindsight

In numerous experiments people have been asked to predict the outcome of an event, then after the event questioned about their predictions. Most people forget their inaccurate predictions and misremember that they were accurate.

Overconfidence

Most professionals have been shown to overvalue their expertise i.e. exaggerate their success rates.


Statistics

A problem with Irrationality and with John Allen Paulos’s book about Innumeracy is that they mix up cognitive biases and statistics, Now, statistics is a completely separate and distinct area from errors of thought and cognitive biases. You can imagine someone who avoids all of the cognitive and psychological errors named above, but still makes howlers when it comes to statistics simply because they’re not very good at it.

This is because the twin areas of Probability and Statistics are absolutely fraught with difficulty. Either you have been taught the correct techniques, and understand them, and practice them regularly (and both books demonstrate that even experts make terrible mistakes in the handling of statistics and probability) or, like most of us, you have not and do not.

As Sutherland points out, most people’s knowledge of statistics is non-existent. Since we live in a society whose public discourse i.e. politics, is ever more dominated by statistics, there is a simple conclusion: most of us have little or no understanding of the principles and values which underpin modern society.

Errors in estimating probability or misunderstanding samples, opinion polls and so on, are probably a big part of irrationality, but I felt that they are so distinct from the psychological biases discussed above, that they almost require a separate volume, or a separate ‘part’ of this volume.

Briefly, common statistical mistakes are:

  • too small a sample size
  • biased sample
  • not understanding that any combination of probabilities is less likely than either on their own, which requires an understanding of base rate or a priori probability
  • the law of large numbers – the more a probabilistic event takes place, the more likely the result will move towards the theoretical probability
  • be aware of the law of regression to the mean
  • be aware of the law of large numbers

Gambling

My suggestion that mistakes in handling statistics are not really the same as unconscious cognitive biases, applies even more to the world of gambling. Gambling is a highly specialised and advanced form of probability applied to games. The subject has been pored over by very clever people for centuries. It’s not a question of a few general principles, this is a vast, book-length subject in its own right. A practical point that emerges from Sutherland’s examples is:

  • always work out the expected value of a bet i.e. the amount to be won times the probability of winning it

The two-by-two box

It’s taken me some time to understand this principle which is given in both Paulos and Sutherland.

When two elements with a yes/no result are combined, people tend to look at the most striking correlation and fixate on it. The only way to avoid the false conclusions that follow from that is to draw a 2 x 2 box and work through the figures.

Here is a table of 1,000 women who had a mammogram because their doctors thought they had symptoms of breast cancer.

Women with cancer Women with no cancer Total
Women with positive mammography 74 110 184
Women with negative mammography 6 810 816
80 920 1000

Bearing in mind that a conditional probability is saying that if X and Y are linked, then the chances of X, if Y, are so and so – i.e. the probability of X is conditional on the probability of Y – this table allows us to work out the following conditional probabilities:

1. The probability of getting a positive mammogram or test result, if you do actually have cancer, is 74 out of 80 = .92 (out of the 80 women with cancer, 74 were picked up by the test)

2. The probability of getting a negative mammogram or test result and not having cancer, is 810 out of 920 = .88

3. The probability of having cancer if you test positive, is 74 out of 184 = .40

4. The probability of having cancer if you test negative, is 6 out of 816 = .01

So 92% of women of women with cancer were picked up by the test. BUT Sutherland quotes a study which showed that a shocking 95% of doctors thought that this figure – 92% – was also the probability of a patient who tested positive having the disease. By far the majority of US doctors thought that, if you tested positive, you had a 92% chance of having cancer. They fixated on the 92% figure and transposed it from one outcome to the other, confusing the two. But this is wrong. The probability of a woman testing positive actually having cancer is given in conclusion 3: 74 out of 184 = 40%. This is because 110 out of the total 184 women tested positive, but did not have cancer.

So if a woman tested positive for breast cancer, the chances of her actually having it are 40%, not 92%. Quite a big difference (and quite an indictment of the test, by the way). And yet 95% of doctors thought that if a woman tested positive she had a 92% likelihood of having cancer.

Sutherland goes on to quote a long list of other situations where doctors and others have comprehensively misinterpreted the results of studies like this, with sometimes very negative consequences.

The moral of the story is if you want to determine whether one event is associated with another, never attempt to keep the co-occurrence of events in your head. It’s just too complicated. Maintain a written tally of the four possible outcomes and refer to these.


Deep causes

Sutherland concludes the book by speculating that all the hundred or so types of irrationality he has documented can be attributed to five fundamental causes:

  1. Evolution We evolved to make snap decisions, we are brilliant at processing visual information and responding before we’re even aware of it. Conscious thought is slower, and the conscious application of statistics, probability, regression analysis and so on, is slowest of all. Most people never acquire it.
  2. Brain structure As soon as we start perceiving, learning and remembering the world around us our brain cells make connections. The more the experience is repeated, the stronger the connections become. Routines and ruts form, which are hard to budge.
  3. Heuristics Everyone develops mental short-cuts, techniques to help make quick decisions. Not many people bother with the laborious statistical techniques for assessing relative benefits which Sutherland describes.
  4. Failure to use elementary probability and elementary statistics Ignorance is another way of describing this, mass ignorance. Sutherland (being an academic) blames the education system. I, being a pessimist, attribute it to basic human nature. Lots of people just are lazy, lots of people just are stupid, lots of people just are incurious.
  5. Self-serving bias In countless ways people are self-centred, overvalue their judgement and intelligence, overvalue the beliefs of their in-group, refuse to accept it when they’re wrong, refuse to make a fool of themselves in front of others by confessing error or pointing out errors in others (especially the boss) and so on.

I would add two more:

Suggestibility

Humans are just tremendously suggestible. Say a bunch of positive words to test subjects, then ask them questions on an unrelated topic: they’ll answer positively. Take a different representative sample of subjects and run a bunch of negative words past them, then ask them the same unrelated questions, and their answers will be measurably more negative. Everyone is easily suggestible.

Ask subjects how they get a party started and they will talk and behave in an extrovert manner to the questioner. Ask them how they cope with feeling shy and ill at ease at parties, and they will tend to act shy and speak quieter. Same people, but their thought patterns have been completely determined by the questions asked: the initial terms or anchor defines the ensuing conversation.

In one experiment a set of subjects were shown one photo of a car crash. Half were asked to describe what they think happened when one car hit another; the other half were asked to describe what they thought happened when one car smashed into the other. The ones given the word ‘smashed’ gave much more melodramatic accounts. Followed up a week later, the subjects were asked to describe what they remembered of the photo. The subjects given the word ‘hit’ fairly accurately described it, whereas the subjects given the word ‘smashed’ invented all kinds of details, like a sea of broken glass around the vehicles which simply wasn’t there, which their imaginations had invented, all at the prompting of one word.

Many of the experiments Sutherland quotes demonstrate what you might call higher-level biases: but underlying many of them is this simple-or-garden observation: that people are tremendously easily swayed, by both external and internal causes, away from the line of cold logic.

Anthropomorphism 

Another big underlying cause is anthropomorphism, namely the attribution of human characteristics to objects, events, chances, odds and so on. In other words, people really struggle to accept the high incidence of random accidents. Almost everyone attributes a purpose or intention to almost everything that happens. This means our perceptions of almost everything in life are skewed from the start.

During the war Londoners devised innumerable theories about the pattern of German bombing. After the war, when Luftwaffe records were analysed, it showed the bombing was more or less at random.

The human desire to make sense of things – to see patterns where none exists or to concoct theories… can lead people badly astray. (p.267)

Suspending judgement is about the last thing people are capable of. People are extremely uneasy if things are left unexplained. Most people rush to judgement like water into a sinking ship.

Cures

  • keep an open mind
  • reach a conclusion only after reviewing all the possible evidence
  • it is a sign of strength to change one’s mind
  • seek out evidence which disproves your beliefs
  • do not ignore or distort evidence which disproves your beliefs
  • never make decisions in a hurry or under stress
  • where the evidence points to no obvious decision, don’t take one
  • learn basic statistics and probability
  • substitute mathematical methods (cost-benefit analysis, regression analysis, utility theory) for intuition and subjective judgement

Comments on the book

Out of date

Irrationality was first published in 1992 and this makes the book dated in several ways (maybe this is why the first paperback edition was published by upmarket mass publisher Penguin, whereas the most recent edition was published by the considerably more niche publisher, Pinter & Martin).

In the chapter about irrational business behaviour Sutherland quotes quite a few examples from the 1970s and the oil crisis of 1974. These and other examples – such as the long passage about how inefficient the civil service was in the early 1970s – feel incredibly dated now.

And the whole thing was conceived, researched and written before there was an internet or any of the digital technology we take for granted nowadays. Can’t help wondering whether the digital age has solved, or merely added to the long list of biases, prejudices and faulty thinking which Sutherland catalogues, and what errors of reason have emerged specific to our fabulous digital technology.

On the other hand, out of date though the book in many ways is, it’s surprising to see how some hot button issues haven’t changed at all. In the passage about the Prisoners’ Dilemma, Sutherland takes as a real life example the problem the nations of the world were having in 1992 in agreeing to cut back carbon dioxide emissions. Sound familiar? He states that the single biggest factor undermining international co-operation against climate change was America’s refusal to sign global treaties to limit global warming. In 1992! Plus ça change.

Grumpy

The books also has passages where Sutherland gives his personal opinions about things and some of these sound more like the grousing of a grumpy old man than anything based on evidence.

Thus Sutherland whole-heartedly disapproves of ‘American’ health fads, dismisses health foods as masochistic fashion and is particularly scathing about jogging.

He thinks ‘fashion’ in any sphere of life is ludicrously irrational. He is dismissive of doctors as a profession, who he accuses of rejecting statistical evidence, refusing to share information with patients, and wildly over-estimating their own diagnostic abilities.

Sutherland thinks the publishers of learned scientific journals are more interested in making money out of scientists than in ‘forwarding the progress of science’ (p.185).

He thinks the higher average pay that university graduates tend to get is unrelated to their attendance at university and more to do with having well connected middle- and upper-middle-class parents, and thus considers the efforts of successive Education Secretaries to introduce student loans to be unscientific and innumerate (p.186).

Surprisingly, he criticises Which consumer magazine for using too small samples in its testing (p.215).

In an extended passage he summarises Leslie Chapman’s blistering (and very out of date) critique of the civil service, Your Disobedient Servant published in 1978 (pp.69-75).

Sutherland really has it in for psychoanalysis, which he accuses of all sorts of irrational thinking such as projecting, false association, refusal to investigate negative instances, failing to take into account the likelihood that the patient would have improved anyway, and so on. Half-way through the book he gives a thumbnail summary:

Self-deceit exists on a massive scale: Freud was right about that. Where he went wrong was in attributing it all to the libido, the underlying sex drive. (p.197)

In other words, the book is liberally sprinkled with Sutherland’s own grumpy personal opinions, which sometimes risk giving it a crankish feel.

Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain

Neither this nor John Allen Paulos’s books take into account the obvious fact that lots of people are, how shall we put it, of low educational achievement. They begin with poor genetic material, are raised in families where no-one cares about education, are let down by poor schools, and are excluded or otherwise demotivated by the whole educational experience, with the result that :

  • the average reading age in the UK is 9
  • about one in five Britons (over ten million) are functionally illiterate, and probably about the same rate innumerate

His book, like all books of this type, is targeted at a relatively small proportion of the population, the well-educated professional classes. Most people aren’t like that. You want proof? Trump. Brexit. Boris Johnson landslide.

Trying to keep those pesky cognitive errors at bay (in fact The Witch by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)

Trying to keep those cognitive errors at bay (otherwise known as The Witch by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)


Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

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