20 August 2010

Lovecraft’s Philosophy

Today is the birthday of H. P. Lovecraft (20 August 1890).

To commemorate this day, I thought that I would quote a passage from S. T. Joshi’s “Introduction” to one of the many collections of Lovecraft stories that he has edited (The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, Penguin Classics, 1999). The passage describes Lovecraft’s metaphysical views (“mechanistic materialism”), and their connection to his fiction.

Lovecraft’s fiction must be understood in the context of the philosophical thought that he evolved over a lifetime of study and observation. The core of that thought – derived from readings of such ancient Geek philosophers as Democritus and Epicurus as well as from absorption of the discoveries of nineteenth-century physics, chemistry, and biology – is mechanistic materialism. This is the belief that the universe is a “mechanism” operating according to fixed laws (although these may not all be known to human beings), and that there can be no immaterial substance such as a soul or spirit. Such a view necessarily necessitates agnosticism or actual atheism, and Lovecraft was not slow in expressing his adherence to the latter:

“I certainly can’t see any sensible position to assume aside from that of complete scepticism tempered by a leaning toward that which existing evidence makes most probable. All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hair-splitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of rational evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist. The chances of theism’s truth being to my mind so microscopically small, I would be a pendant and a hypocrite to call myself anything else.” (SL IV.57)

In the mid-1920s Lovecraft was momentarily disturbed by the implications of Einstein’s relativity theory and Planck’s quantum theory, both of which were hailed by many as spelling the downfall of mechanistic materialism; but his later adherence to the materialism of Bertrand Russell, George Santayana, and others allowed him to reconcile the findings of modern astrophysics with his fundamental views.

However, does not Lovecraft’s philosophy contradict his stated motives for writing weird fiction, as enunciated in his essay “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” (1933)?

“I choose weird stories because they suit my inclinations best – one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.” (MW 113)

It is important not to be led astray here. Lovecraft is not renouncing his materialism by seeking an imaginative escape from it; indeed, it is precisely because he believes that “time, space, and natural law” are uniform, and that the human mind cannot defeat or confound them, that he seeks an imaginative escape from them.

Lovecraft’s philosophical position virtually necessitated the central conception in his aesthetic of the weird – the notion of cosmicism, or the suggestion of the vast gulfs of space and time and the resultant inconsequence of the human species.

(S.T. Joshi, “Introduction,” pp. xiv-xv)

I am not surprised at all that Lovecraft was influenced by Epicurean philosophy. The Epicureans thought that the universe was composed ultimately only of ‘atoms’. The gods were made of atoms like everything else (thus essentially ‘super aliens’, and not ‘supernatural’ creatures at all). Neither willing nor able to prevent evil or suffering, the gods dwelt in the vast empty spaces between worlds. Sounds rather Lovecraftian, no?

Of course, there are some important differences between the Epicureans’ conception of the gods and Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. The gods lived in a perfect state of complete tranquillity and happiness (ataraxiai) according to the Epicureans, a state that they thought that humans should strive to emulate. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones and Outer Gods … do not (or rather, whatever state they exist in is completely incomprehensible to us). And striving to emulate them invariably would render one mad, not tranquil!


  1. Excellent point about the Outer Gods being incomprehensible. That was, after all, where Lovecraft's personal sense of horror was derived.

    While HPL focused on the terror such unknowable things could evoke, I found the original RuneQuest (Chaosium's 2nd edition, at least) description of Gloranthan deities and gods as compelling. RQ's palate of emotional responses were broader than "just" horror as well. Upon absorbing the myth, one could sense (within the setting) Yelm and Orlanth's majesty while fighting over their Sky, the deep sense of calm Chalana-Arroy radiated, and completely different culture intimated by the various gods of Uz.

    Creating stat-blocks for deities and demigods (as the original AD&D did) would be giving into the percepts of mechanistic materialism. Bringing these sources of emotional reaction down into sets of numbers one could affect directly with lance, wand, and bow was something HPL would have found disagreeable, if only because doing so would short-circuit his efforts to share this terrific font.

    Nice article!

  2. Great 120th Birthday Presents to/from H. P. Lovecraft!

    Happy 120th. Birthday H.P.L.!

    Freebies released in celebration of H. P. Lovecraft's 120th. birthday on 20-August-2010, and to stir up excitement for the possible making of the Universal Studios 3D version of "At the Mountains of Madness" by Guillermo del Toro and James Cameron; and as a celebration by Will Hart of the 20th. anniversary of his being at Lovecraft's grave-side on his 100th. birthday.

    Released during the last few hours in MP3 Format on:
    (The audio companion to the CthulhuWho1 Flickr collections.)

    "Fungi from Yuggoth"
    H. P. Lovecraft's complete 36 sonnet set; in an all-new recording by William (Will) Hart; in single file, and multiple file versions. A dark poetry reading if there ever was one...

    "What If H. P. Lovecraft Had Lived Into The 1960's?"
    A 163 minute panel recording in six parts, of Professor Dirk W. Mosig, Professor Donald R. Burleson, J. Vernon Shea, Fritz Leiber, Jr., and S.T. Joshi at the 36th World Science Fiction Convention in Phoenix in 1978. A must-have for Lovecraftians!

    Plus, behind the scenes recordings including a live reading by Don Burleson of his darkly funny, "The Last Supper."

    And more audio goodies too!

    And there are now over 1200 Lovecraft, Cthulhu, and Providence related images for the taking at the CthulhuWho1 Flickr page at:
    (The image companion site to the http://cthulhuwho1.com audio site.)

    All of the above items (and more to come) were created in honor of H. P. Lovecraft; but since he’s not here with us, it’s up to you, and everyone you can share them with to enjoy them!

    Will Hart
    aka CthulhuWho1
    aka California Cthulhu


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who divides his time between Milwaukee and Toronto.