The Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 99 BC – c. 55 BC) is best known for his long, single six-part poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), which explains the chief tenets of Epicureanism – the philosophical system founded by the Greek thinker Epicurus (341 BC-270 BC) around 307 BC. As an Epicurean, Lucretius believed the world was made up of tiny atoms moving in a void and viewed life in terms of pleasure or pain, which represented good and evil, respectively. [Now on the surface, such a direct association of goodness with pleasure and of evil with pain might sound too crass. But “Epicurean hedonism”, Professor Robert Pogue Harrison of Stanford has pointed out in his 2008 book Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (I explored aspects of the volume in a post on October 1, 2016), is not the hedonism of the contemporary West. It is something denser and much more complex, even spiritual.]
Anyway, De rerum natura, as the Penguin edition states, is “a profound exploration of man’s relation to the earth, to the world and to the gods.” It influenced Latin poets Virgil (Eclogues and Georgics) and Horace (Odes and Epodes) who flourished during the reign of Caesar Augustus (63 BC–14 AD). The poem was lost during the Middle Ages. It was rediscovered in 1417 in a monastery in Germany by an Italian humanist called Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) and later, played a significant role in the scientific revolution.
Lucretius’s argument revolves around the demonstration that death must not make one fearful – for the soul is mortal. Furthermore, the knowledge that everything is governed by mechanical laws of nature and not by the arbitrary whims of a collection of deities must make an individual happy and peaceful.
Arthur Frederick Wells, Praelector in Classics at Oxford, has helpfully summarised the book in a Britannica entry:
Books I and II establish the main principles of the atomic universe, refute the rival theories of the pre-Socratic cosmic philosophers Heracleitus, Empedocles, and Anaxagoras, and covertly attack the Stoics, a school of moralists rivaling that of Epicurus. Book III demonstrates the atomic structure and mortality of the soul and ends with a triumphant sermon on the theme “Death is nothing to us.” Book IV describes the mechanics of sense perception, thought, and certain bodily functions and condemns sexual passion. Book V describes the creation and working of this world and the celestial bodies and the evolution of life and human society. Book VI explains remarkable phenomena of the earth and sky—in particular, thunder and lightning. The poem ends with a description of the plague at Athens, a sombre picture of death contrasting with that of spring and birth in the invocation to Venus, with which it opens.
Here I share two extracts from De rerum natura (translation by William Ellery Leonard). Even those who do not totally agree with Lucretius’s philosophy will admire his poetic fervour and his elegant reasoning.
The darkness of the mind can only be dispersed by nature and her law:
Wherefore, since Treasure, nor rank, nor glory of a reign Avail us naught for this our body, thus Reckon them likewise nothing for the mind: Save then perchance, when thou beholdest forth Thy legions swarming round the Field of Mars, Rousing a mimic warfare- either side Strengthened with large auxiliaries and horse, Alike equipped with arms, alike inspired; Or save when also thou beholdest forth Thy fleets to swarm, deploying down the sea: For then, by such bright circumstance abashed, Religion pales and flees thy mind; O then The fears of death leave heart so free of care. But if we note how all this pomp at last Is but a drollery and a mocking sport, And of a truth man's dread, with cares at heels, Dreads not these sounds of arms, these savage swords But among kings and lords of all the world Mingles undaunted, nor is overawed By gleam of gold nor by the splendour bright Of purple robe, canst thou then doubt that this Is aught, but power of thinking?- when, besides The whole of life but labours in the dark. For just as children tremble and fear all In the viewless dark, so even we at times Dread in the light so many things that be No whit more fearsome than what children feign, Shuddering, will be upon them in the dark. This terror then, this darkness of the mind, Not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light, Nor glittering arrows of morning can disperse, But only Nature's aspect and her law.
The stirring of atoms:
And of this fact (as I record it here) An image, a type goes on before our eyes Present each moment; for behold whenever The sun's light and the rays, let in, pour down Across dark halls of houses: thou wilt see The many mites in many a manner mixed Amid a void in the very light of the rays, And battling on, as in eternal strife, And in battalions contending without halt, In meetings, partings, harried up and down. From this thou mayest conjecture of what sort The ceaseless tossing of primordial seeds Amid the mightier void- at least so far As small affair can for a vaster serve, And by example put thee on the spoor Of knowledge. For this reason too 'tis fit Thou turn thy mind the more unto these bodies Which here are witnessed tumbling in the light: Namely, because such tumblings are a sign That motions also of the primal stuff Secret and viewless lurk beneath, behind. For thou wilt mark here many a speck, impelled By viewless blows, to change its little course, And beaten backwards to return again, Hither and thither in all directions round. Lo, all their shifting movement is of old, From the primeval atoms; for the same Primordial seeds of things first move of self, And then those bodies built of unions small And nearest, as it were, unto the powers Of the primeval atoms, are stirred up By impulse of those atoms' unseen blows, And these thereafter goad the next in size; Thus motion ascends from the primevals on, And stage by stage emerges to our sense, Until those objects also move which we Can mark in sunbeams, though it not appears What blows do urge them.
Featured: Detail from Peaches and Carafe of Water, Roman fresco, Archaeological Museum, Naples, Wikimedia Commons