Posts Tagged ‘Epicurus’

Lucretius: On the Nature of Things

September 21, 2018

On the Nature of Things
T. Lucretius Carus
Translated from the Latin by Ronald Melville
(Oxford, 1997) [c.55 BC]
xxxviii + 275 p. Second reading.

\; \; \; \;  \; \;  \; My purpose is
With the sweet voice of Pierian song
To expound my doctrine and as it were to touch it
With the delicious honey of the Muses;
So in this way perchance my poetry
Can hold your mind, while you attempt to grasp
The nature of the world, and understand
The great design and pattern of its making.”
(I, 943-50)

Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura is one of the great epic poems of the ancient world, and, as is claimed in this volume’s introduction, “perhaps the greatest didactic poem ever written in any language”. It is a work plump with fascinating scientific theories, and one with interesting and influential philosophical ideas also; it is, arguably, the latter that account for much of its continuing appeal.

We know little about the author, and the securest dating of the poem derives from a reference to it in a letter of Cicero; it was probably first published in around 55 BC.

The poem consists of about 7400 lines of Latin hexameter, and is divided into six books. The overall argument of the poem is to present and defend the natural philosophy of the Epicurean philosophical school.

Lucretius’ basic metaphysical principles and atomistic physics are described in the first two books; the middle books are devoted to the human person, soul and body; and the final two treat the development of human societies before culminating in an ambitious (if, alas, mostly wrong) naturalistic account of dramatic natural phenomena like lightning, earthquakes, volcanoes, and disease.

Lucretius is famous for his spirited and resourceful defence of atomism. The idea is not original with him — that honour is usually bestowed upon the Greek Democritus, of course — but he presents it seasoned “with the delicious honey of the Muses”, a sweetener intended to help the medicine go down. For him, atoms are small, indivisible, infinite in number, eternal, and indestructible. From these characteristics he derives two overarching metaphysical principles which govern all that follows. The first is that atoms do not come into being:

“We start then from her [nature’s] first great principle
That nothing ever by divine power comes from nothing.”
(I, 148-9)

and the second is that they do not pass out of being:

\; \; \; \;  \; \;  \; nature
Resolves all things back into their elements
And never reduces anything to nothing.”
(I, 215-7)

Thus the picture he presents us with is that of a world composed of an infinite number (though a finite variety) of indestructible material bits in motion. These bits, he argues (against Aristotle), are surrounded by a void. The existence of this void he rather deftly deduces from the fact of translational motion, for if there were no void it would be impossible for atoms to move from one place to another, their being impeded by the presence of other atoms. And these two categories, atoms and the void, exhaust his ontology:

“…apart from void and matter no third substance
Can remain to be numbered in the sum of things,
Neither one that falls within the range of senses
Nor one that mind can grasp by reasoning.”
(I, 445-7)

Thus for Lucretius, as for his intellectual descendants, such things as mathematical objects, moral principles, and immaterial souls have no reality.

Atoms move about, bumping into one another and combining in new ways to make new things. He uses a nice metaphor to describe this process, one particularly apt for use by a poet writing poetry:

“Moreover in my verse it matters much
How letters are arranged and linked with others.
The same denote sky, sea, land, rivers, sun,
The same denote crops, trees, and animals,
And, if not all, by far the greater part
Are alike; but the position decides the meaning.
So with real things, when the combination of their atoms,
Their motions, order, forms, shapes, and positions
Are changed, the thing itself must change.”
(II, 1013-21)

Because he believes that the number of atoms is infinite, and that this process has been taking place for infinite time, he does not shrink from the conclusion that our world itself came to be out of just such chance encounters:

“The seeds of things
In random and spontaneous collision
In countless ways clashed, heedless, purposeless, in vain
Until at last such particles combined
As suddenly united could become
The origins always of mighty things,
Of earth, sky, sea, and breeds of living creatures.”
(II, 1058-62)

Thus, step by haphazard step, the world around us has taken shape. Perhaps the most famous section of the poem, in Book V, is that in which he traces for us the slow development of the world from its origins to the establishment of early civilizations: the production of animals, the origins of speech, the discovery of fire, the origin of religion (which he, oddly, considering his other principles, attributes to apparently genuine visions of the gods), the beginnings of metallurgy and agriculture, the advent of music, and the building of cities. The atomic theory he puts to use in a variety of creative ways: to explain sense perception, and the laws of optics, for instance. It is interesting that this broadly evolutionary view of history does not include any conception of the evolution of life; for Lucretius, animal species are distinct and unchanging (V, c.920).

By the same reasoning which leads us to view our world in this way, we conclude that other worlds, too, have and will come to be. Moreover, turning the coin over, they will eventually fall apart again, just as our world one day will:

“So death rightly comes, when by constant flow
All things are thinned, and all things, struck from without
By an increasing hail of blows, succumb;
Since at the end great age finds food to fail,
And without ceasing bodies from outside
Beating on things subdue them and destroy them.
So shall the ramparts of the mighty world
Themselves be stormed and into crumbling ruin
(II, 1139-47)

The naturalness with which his minimalist ontology — atoms and the void alone — leads to this final, whimpering destruction of all that the we know and love accounts for his dousing it with “the delicious honey of the Muses”, even if, perhaps, we doubt that we could be wholly convinced to part with our inheritance even for so sweet-seeming a mess of pottage.

As with many of his modern descendants Lucretius’ forthrightness about the ultimate fate of everything is paired with a strange lacuna. He is quite explicit that his ultimate purpose in writing this poem — his moral purpose — is to provide peace of mind, to teach his reader the art of “being undisturbed”. He aims at this in part by providing naturalistic explanations for unusual and frightening natural phenomena, so as to free the minds of his readers from the anxiety induced when they are experienced as signs of divine displeasure,

“Proceeding to set free the minds of men
Bound by the tight knots of religion.”
(IV, 7-8)

And Lucretius, following “the first who dared / Raise mortal eyes against” religion — namely, Epicurus, the hero of his tale — understands that a central part of achieving this peace of mind must be coming to peace with death. He therefore argues at length, in Book III, that the Epicurean universe in which only atoms and the void exist is necessarily one in which:

“… we may be certain that in death
There is nothing to fear, that he who does not exist
Cannot feel pain”
(III, 866-8)

There is a dignity in this paradoxical conviction that the way to avoid losing all is to definitively lose all, that the creature’s fear can be overcome by its accepting its total self-destruction, fear and all. Perhaps we are impressed by the vision of a philosopher who attends quietly to truth even as the world around him is consumed in a great conflagration. We may feel the persuasive power of Lucretius’ belief that

“True piety is for a man to have the power
To contemplate the world with quiet mind.”
(V, 1199-1200)

If we do feel that persuasive power, we ought to honour it, on the likelihood that there is some good in it. And Lucretius puts our good will to the test when he yields no quarter to those who, though not fearing death, wish nonetheless to extend their lives for as long as possible, for what difference, he argues, could longevity possibly make?

“Live though you may through all ages that you wish,
No less that eternal death will still await,
And no less long a time will be no more
He who today from light his exit made
Than he who perished months and years ago.”
(III, 1090-4)

Perhaps we respond to this detachment by doubling-down on our admiration: here is a man who truly wears his metaphysical hairshirt with Roman fortitude. Or perhaps we doubt that a philosophy that can so readily relativize the value of life is worth our uncritical adherence. The shelter, after all, which the Epicurean seeks from the metaphysical black hole that devours his world is his own interior life: his untroubled mind, his calmness in the face of disorder, his contemplation of truth. Yet do these things survive the destruction that lays all else to waste? Not in the long run — Lucretius tells us that much — but in the short? Now? It is here, I think, that the armour is pierced most effectively. The Epicurean moral universe, like our less systematic but substantially similar reigning view today, is underpinned by the presumed reality of human freedom, which imparts to all the Epicurean virtues a nobility and even a reality they cannot otherwise possess. There is no virtue in patience if one is not free to be impatient — indeed, there is no virtue of patience if there are only atoms and the void. Likewise for courage, and for prudence, and for all the virtues, and for the very notion of virtue as a moral quality, and for moral qualities tout court. Take his mandorla of freedom from him and you take all; yet his own principles do just that.

Famously, Epicurus, and Lucretius after him, tries to save human freedom in his system by introducing “the swerve” — an apparently random motion which atoms make from time to time to prevent the universe’s being deterministic:

“While atoms move by their own weight straight down
Through the empty void, at quite uncertain times
And uncertain places they swerve slightly from their course.”
(II, 217-9)

But this was feeble, being both arbitrary and inadequate to the purpose.

We therefore find, I think, that the Epicurean materialist metaphysics, like the modern one, consumes the metaphysician, leaving no-one to live out his moral ideal. We are left only with random motion and ultimate dissolution. And this, I think, even by Epicurean standards would be a counsel of despair.


I enjoyed re-reading this poem, which I first read at least 20 years ago. In the Roman reading project in which I am presently engaged it was my first sustained dose of Roman philosophy — just Greek philosophy at second hand, admittedly, but who among us can do better? — and I found a good deal to engage with. It is true that the very notion of a great poem about natural science seems slightly quixotic, rather like singing a Mass in honour of, say, Charles Darwin. But one soon forgets this genre-busting aspect, and falls into enjoyment of the poem on its own terms.

The translation of Ronald Melville I found good apart from the title (“On the Nature of the Universe”), which might well be a more fitting translation of De Rerum Natura on some grounds, but to which I nonetheless prefer the traditional English title (“On the Nature of Things”). I do harbour a regret that I didn’t splurge for Anthony Esolen’s translation, not least because I expect his commentary would have been superior to that found in this Oxford edition. But this, admittedly, is speculation, and I suppose that, in a Lucretian spirit, I could moderate my regret by meditating on the Epicurean counsel that, whatever translation I chose, “eternal death will still await”.