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!