Friday, November 11, 2011

Nothing comes from nothing

Reading the play King Lear I found a line that seemed interesting. It is the title of this post. I kept reading and was surprised to see it again. I decided to write a post about it but wanted to see if it appears anywhere else in the play and so I held off as I kept reading. Becoming impatient, I looked it up, and it appears only the two times I found it.

"KING LEAR: ..what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
CORDELIA: Nothing, my lord.
KING LEAR: Nothing?!
CORDELIA: Nothing.
KING LEAR: Nothing will come of nothing, speak again.

I was curious if this was a common idea in Shakespeare's time and I looked it up. Turns out the phrase, nothing comes of nothing (in latin "ex nihilo nihil fit"), was first talked about by the Greek philosopher Parmenides. It is an idea that continues today and is called the law of conservation of mass. That energy cannot be created or destroyed. It merely changes form. If you burn a piece of wood, the wood is not destroyed but is changed into heat, smoke, and ash. There were cool articles that were interesting, but a little beyond me about zero-energy universes and so on.

This quote of Lear's goes to the Bible. Where the more common translation of Genesis says "God created the earth". Other sources, like the Joseph Smith Translation, show that the Hebrew word which is commonly translated as "created" would be better translated as "organized", implying that the world and it's parts was organized from already existing matter.


Another line King Lear says that makes him seem more a philosopher than the senile grumpy old man he comes across as, comes as he is suffering in the storm. He looks at poor naked Edgar and says:

"Why, thou wert better in thy grave than to answer
with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies.
Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou
owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep
no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here's three on
's are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself:
unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare,
forked animal as thou art.
Off, off, you lendings!
come unbutton here."

Is man no more than this? It is a line that reminds me of Psalm 8:4, "What is man that thou art mindful of him." It is a humbling moment for Lear and he realizes, now outside of the comfort of his palace, how frail and sad man really is. Its a Siddhartha Gautama moment here! In reading about Lear's line I found this interesting quote from a well written article:

"When Lear sees Edgar’s cold, shivering, and “uncovered body,” he asks the eternal question “Is man no more than this?” (3.4.105). When Lear says that “The unaccomodated man is no more / but such a poor, bare, forked animal,” he is essentially saying that human beings, like their naked bodies, are pitiable creatures (3.4.109-110). Likewise, when he proceeds to strip of his garments, he is making the symbolic gesture that he is no better than Poor Tom; that is, he realizes that he, too, is pitiable. Lear’s recognition that his own body is pathetic, the literary critic Paul Jorgensen argues in his book Lear’s Self-Discovery, is Lear’s first insight."

Lear, the old senile downfallen king, and budding philosopher.

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