Lucretius – The Nature of Things

lucretius

Lucretius (c. 99 BC – c. 55 BC), a Roman philosopher and poet, conveys Epicureanism through this epic didactic poem of 7400 lines.  De Rerum Natura  covers the broad spectrum of philosophy and science purported by atomists like Epicurus whom the author holds as “glory of the Greeks” for his remarkable intellect and confidence in the scientific method.[1]The salient message in all six books of the poem is that we should exercise reason over faith in our approach to life and the universe, both of which Lucretius tackles in a grounded and logical manner. Having not previously read texts by the ancient philosophers I cannot discern the extent to which Lucretius offers original material but I can, in light of what we know now, be taken aback by his adamant assertion on the existence of atoms despite the lack of actual evidence. Without the latter it would seem a difficult opinion to argue but he impressively draws from everyday experiences to establish the hypothesis of atoms as opposed to the popular view that everything was constituted of the four elements wind, fire, earth and water.

The first two books were by far the most engaging as Lucretius describes atomic theory, the nature of the universe and the “void”, which we now call a vacuum. He quite correctly attributes characteristics of atoms by comparing them to letters in words. He purports that atoms are the building blocks of the universe and that the abundance of different matter is a result of the multitude of possible combinations just like there are words from a single alphabet. He also claims that “the number of the different shapes of atoms has a limit” which holds true in the confined extent to which atoms can bond to other atoms.[2]As this was my first encounter with Epicurean and atomist philosopher it was a shock to hear such modern concepts from a Roman writer. In the midst of fragrant religiosity these atheists applied reason to everyday life to understand the world objectively. It is evident that truth and reality was what these ancients sought, rather than what felt good or was easy to believe. It is even more remarkable that such a mind could translate these thoughts into eloquent and colourful poetry, “so incrementally time brings all things within our sight, And reason lifts them up into the boundaries of light”.[3]  He continues with ceaseless metaphors and mellifluous language combined with the digestible dactylic hexameter to fulfil his purpose of bringing Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience.

What mystified many contemporaries to Epicurus right down to Lucretius was, in fact, transparent to Epicurean philosophy that discerns the root cause of volcanic eruptions, sought natural explanations for earthquakes and attempted to solve the puzzle of the sun and moon appearing and disappearing. Despite the errors in execution of this method such as suggesting the sun and moon were extinguished then born again over and over, the fact that Lucretius attributes this to a comprehensible phenomenon and not a supernatural motive attests to the brilliance and resilience of his mind when he general public thought otherwise. I sympathised with his struggles to understand natural processes like the water cycle, gravity and the nervous system, all of which he tried to explain, but the lack of evidence and modern equipment as well as his mother tongue, denied him the correct explanations he sought. However, some reasoning such as “by nature all weights have a downward pull” skirt the borders of gravity, other observations decry the action of light, “nature makes it that all images return, bounced back along an angle equal to the angle of attack” and others show acknowledgement of genetics, “parents carry elemental seeds inside – many and various, mingled many ways – their bodies hide seeds that are handed, parent to child, all down the family tree”.[4][5][6]

It is not just the examination of natural processes which Lucretius addresses as some portion each book discusses human nature. It is in the first book that he denounces religion as a detriment to mankind, “so potent was religion in persuading to do wrong”, and a hindrance to civilisation, “it is religion that breeds Wickedness and that has given rise to wrongful deeds”.[7][8] He identifies the attraction of religious beliefs as a natural tendency that we seek any explanation rather than no explanation indiscriminate of its validity. Throughout the poem Lucretius displays an acute awareness for psychology, hinting at schadenfreude, “How sweet it is to watch from dry land when the storm-winds roil A mighty ocean’s waters and see another’s bitter toil – Not because you relish someone else’s misery – Rather it’s sweet to know from what misfortunes you are free”.[9]This is one of the most notable passages in which Lucretius’ use of language makes the subject much more enjoyable than a perfunctory tone, without losing any precision. It is this element of The Nature of Things which has given rise to its fame, inspiring other notable ancients like Cicero and Ovid.

Naturally the author approaches the topic of death, which he ascribes a mortal value to not only mankind, but everything in the universe such as the earth and the stars. Some lines could be seen as quite negative, “life is one long labour in the dark”, if it weren’t for the reconciliation when he speaks for nature by telling the reader that a life well lead should not be mourned but, “like a banquet guest, who’s drunk life to the lees, depart you dolt, and go to peaceful rest, your mind at ease”.[10] He then balances this with advice for those in regret of a poorly led life by questioning why would they want to extend it.[11] This ruthless objectivity seems counter-productive in a piece attempting to woo the Roman society. The sheer length of the poem also added to this  but perhaps this is only negative to a modern reader, who, in regarding many natural events as rather apparent, finds a long appropriation of them tedious. It is, nevertheless, a monolithic piece of intellect displayed by the author and of Epicurean philosophy that testifies to the talent of its followers. The translation by Stalling was generally to a high level although some of the rhyming couplets were forced and strained, but the Herculean task to keep to such a template throughout the poem is admirable. Stalling allows for an insightful read with helpful references to fully capture what Lucretius intended.

[1] Lucretius, The Nature of Things, (Penguin Classics, 2007), trans. A. E. Stallings, p. 72.

[2] Ibid., p. 50.

[3] Ibid., p. 195.

[4] Ibid., p. 207.

[5] Ibid., p. 116.

[6] Ibid., p. 144.

[7] Ibid., p. 6.

[8] Ibid., p. 5.

[9] Ibid., p. 36.

[10] Ibid., p. 100.

[11] Ibid.

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