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New Left Review 79, January-February 2013

christopher johnson


Lévi-Strauss’s Philosophy of History

For the old order always passes, thrust out by the new, and the one has to be made afresh from the other . . . and so, no less than you, those that went before have passed away, and will continue to’. These lines from Lucretius, from which the epigraph to Tristes Tropiques is drawn—Nec minus ergo ante haec quam tu cecidere, cadentque—could be said to sum up Lévi-Strauss’s attitude to history. [1] Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 3:969, Cambridge, ma and London 1975, p. 265. In his philosophical poem about the nature of the universe, Lucretius refers to a world in perpetual change and movement. According to Lucretian physics, atoms fall, swerve, collide and amalgamate to constitute the objects of the phenomenal world, which in turn exist, persist and finally disintegrate, rejoining the infinite cataract of atoms. In the Lucretian universe, human existence and experience are both relative—epiphenomena of the physical world—and transitory (like the physical world). Moreover, the essential tendency of human affairs, like that of atoms, is downward: the world is in decline, and human history itself participates in a kind of universal decadence. [2] See Michel Serres, La Naissance de la physique dans le texte de Lucrèce, Paris 1977.

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Christopher Johnson, ‘All Played Out?’, NLR 79: £3

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