History of Literature






Latin poet and philosopher
in full Titus Lucretius Carus
flourished 1st century bc

Latin poet and philosopher known for his single, long poem, De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things). The poem is the fullest extant statement of the physical theory of the Greek philosopher Epicurus; it also alludes to his ethical and logical doctrines.

Apart from Lucretius’ poem almost nothing is known about him. What little evidence there is, is quite inconclusive. Jerome, a leading Latin Church Father, in his chronicle for the year 94 bc (or possibly 96 or 93 bc), stated that Lucretius was born in that year and that years afterward a love potion drove him insane; and in lucid intervals having written some books, which Cicero afterward emended, he killed himself in his 44th year (51 or 50 bc). Aelius Donatus, a grammarian and teacher of rhetoric, in his “Life” of Virgil noticed that Virgil put on the toga virilis (the toga of an adult) in his 17th year, on his birthday (i.e., 54 or 53 bc), and that Lucretius died that same day. But Donatus contradicted himself by stating that the consuls that year were the same as in the year of Virgil’s birth (i.e., Crassus and Pompey, in 55 bc). This last date seems partly confirmed by a sentence in Cicero’s reply to his brother in 54 bc (Ad Quintum fratrem 2, 9, 3), which suggests that Lucretius was already dead and also that Cicero may have been involved in the publication of his poem: “The poems of Lucretius are as you write in your letter—they have many highlights of genius, yet also much artistry.” Excepting the single mention in Cicero, the only contemporary who named Lucretius was a Roman historian, Cornelius Nepos (Atticus 12, 4), in the phrase “after the death of Lucretius and Catullus,” and the only contemporary whom Lucretius named was one Memmius, to whom he dedicated his poem, probably Gaius Memmius (son-in-law of Sulla, praetor of 58 bc, and patron of Catullus and Gaius Helvius Cinna), for whose friendship Lucretius “hopes.”

De rerum natura.
The title of Lucretius’ work translates that of the chief work of Epicurus, Peri physeōs (On Nature), as also of the didactic epic of Empedocles, a pluralist philosopher of nature, of whom Lucretius spoke with admiration only less than that with which he praised his master Epicurus.

Lucretius distributed his argument into six books, beginning each with a highly polished introduction. Books I and II established the main principles of the atomic universe, refuted the rival theories of the pre-Socratic cosmic philosophers Heracleitus, Empedocles, and Anaxagoras, and covertly attacked the Stoics, a school of moralists rivaling that of Epicurus. Book III demonstrated the atomic structure and mortality of the soul and ended with a triumphant sermon on the theme “Death is nothing to us.” Book IV described the mechanics of sense perception, thought, and certain bodily functions and condemned sexual passion. Book V described the creation and working of this world and the celestial bodies and the evolution of life and human society. Book VI explained 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 opened.

Argument of the poem.
The argument in outline is as follows:

1. No thing is either created out of or reducible to nothing. The universe has an infinite extent of empty space (or void) and an infinite number of irreducible particles of matter (or atoms)—though their kinds are finite. Atoms differ only in shape, size, and weight and are impenetrably hard, changeless, everlasting, the limit of physical division. They are made up of inseparable minimal parts, or units. Larger atoms have more such parts, but even the larger are minute. All atoms would have moved everlastingly downward in infinite space and never have collided to form atomic systems had they not swerved at times to a minimal degree. To these indeterminate swerves is due the creation of an infinite plurality of worlds; they also interrupt the causal chain and so make room for free will. All things are ultimately systems of moving atoms, separated by greater or smaller intervals of void, which cohere more or less according to their shapes. All systems are divisible and therefore perishable (except the gods), and all change is explainable in terms of the addition, subtraction, or rearrangement of changeless atoms.

2. The soul is made of exceedingly fine atoms and has two connected parts: the anima distributed throughout the body, which is the cause of sensation, and the animus in the breast, the central consciousness. The soul is born and grows with the body, and at death it is dissipated like “smoke.”

3. Though the gods exist, they neither made nor manipulate the world. As systems of exceedingly fine atoms, they live remote, unconcerned with human affairs, examples to men of the ideal life of perfect happiness (absence of mental fear, emotional turmoil, and bodily pain).

4. Men know by sense perception and argue by reason according to certain rules. Though the senses are infallible, reason can make false inferences. Objects can be seen because they discharge from their surface representative films, which strike the eye just as smells strike the nose. Separate atoms are in principle imperceptible, having no dischargeable parts. The senses perceive the properties and accidents of bodies; reason infers the atoms and the void, which exists to explain the perceived movement of bodies.

5. Men naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain. Their aim should be so to conduct their lives that they get, on balance, the maximum of pleasure and the minimum of pain. They will succeed in this only if they are able, through philosophy, to overcome the fear of death and of the gods.

Literary qualities of the poem.
The linguistic style and spirit of the poem are notable. The problem of Lucretius was to render the bald and abstract Greek prose of Epicurus into Latin hexameters at a time when Latin had no philosophic vocabulary. He succeeded by applying common words to a technical use. Thus, he used concilium (“assembly of people”) for a “system of atoms” and primordia (“first weavings”) for the “atoms” that make up the texture of things. When necessary, he invented words. In poetic diction and style he was in debt to the older Latin poets, especially to Quintus Ennius, the father of Roman poetry. He freely used alliteration and assonance, solemn and often metrically convenient archaic forms, and old constructions. He formed expressive compound adjectives of a sort rejected by Augustan taste—e.g., “the light-sleeping hearts of dogs,” “forest-breaking winds.” He imitated or echoed Homer; the dramatists Aeschylus and Euripides; Callimachus, a poet and critic; the historian Thucydides; and the physician Hippocrates. His hexameters stand halfway between those of Ennius, who introduced the metre into Latin, and Virgil, who perfected it. There is also some incoherence of rhythm, as well as harsh elisions and examples of unusual prosody.

The influence of Lucretius on Virgil was pervasive, especially in Virgil’s Georgics; and it is in clear allusion to Lucretius that Virgil wrote “Happy is the man who can read the causes of things” (Georgics II, 490).

Lucretius spoke in austere compassion for the ignorant, unhappy human race. His moral fervour expressed itself in gratitude to Epicurus and in hatred of the seers who inculcated religious fears by threats of eternal punishment after death, of the Etruscan soothsayers with their lore of thunder and lightning, of the false philosophers—Stoics with their belief in divine providence or Platonists and Pythagoreans who taught the transmigration of immortal souls. The first appearance of religio in the poem is as a monster that thrusts its fearful head from the regions of the sky. Epicurus, not intimidated by these spectres, had ranged beyond the “flaming ramparts of the world” through the infinite universe, broken into the citadel of nature, and brought back in triumph the knowledge of what can and what cannot be, of that “deep-set boundary stone” that divides the separate properties of things, the real from the not real. And “so religion is crushed beneath our feet and his [Epicurus’] victory lifts us to the skies.”

Arthur Frederick Wells


Title page to 1743 edition of On the Nature
of the Universe in Six Books by Lucretius
Carus, 99-55 B.C.



Type of work: Didactic epic
Author: Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus, с 98 В.С.-55 B.C.)
First transcribed: First century B.C.


On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura) is justly renowned as the greatest poetic monument of Epicurean philosophy. It is outstanding both as a scientific explanation of the poet's atomic theory and as a fine poem. Vergil himself was much influenced by Lucretius' dactylic hexameter verse, and echoes passages of On the Nature of Things in the Georgics, a didactic epic modeled on Lucretius' poem, and in the Aeneid.
Lucretius, following his master Epicurus' doctrine, believed that fear of the gods and fear of death were the greatest obstacles to peace of mind, the object of Epicurean philosophy. He felt that he could dispel these unfounded terrors by explaining the workings of the universe and showing that phenomena interpreted as signs from the deities were simply natural happenings. His scientific speculations were based on Democritus' atomic theory and Epicurus' interpretation of it. Lucretius outlined the fundamental laws of this system in the first book of his poem.
According to Lucretius, everything is composed of small "first bodies," tiny particles made up of a few "minima" or "least parts" which cannot be separated. These "first bodies," atoms, are solid, indestructible, and of infinite number. They are mixed with void to make objects of greater hardness or softness, strength or weakness.
Lucretius "proves" these assertions by calling upon the reader's reason and his observation of nature, pointing out absurdities that might come about if his point were not true. For example, he substantiates his statement that nothing can be created from nothing by saying, "For if things came to being from nothing, every kind might be born from all things, nought would need a seed. First men might arise from the sea, and from the land the race of scaly creatures, and birds burst forth from the sky." These proofs, which may fill fifty or one hundred lines of poetry, are often unconvincing, but they reveal the author's knowledge of nature and his imaginative gifts.
The universe is infinite in the Epicurean system. Lucretius would ask a man who believed it finite, "If one were to run on to the end . . . and throw a flying dart, would you have it that that dart. . . goes on whither it is sped and flies afar, or do you think that something can check and bar its way?" He ridicules the Stoic theory that all things press toward a center, for the universe, being infinite, can have no center. Lucretius is, of course, denying the law of gravity. He often contradicts what science has since proved true, but he is remarkably accurate for his time.
Book 2 opens with a poetic description of the pleasure of standing apart from the confusion and conflicts of life: "Nothing is more gladdening than to dwell in the calm high places, firmly embattled on the heights by the teaching of the wise, whence you can look down on others, and see them wandering hither and thither." Lucretius is providing this teaching by continuing his discussion of atoms, which he says move continuously downward like dusty particles in a sunbeam. They have a form of free will and can swerve to unite with each other to form objects. Lucretius adds that if the atoms could not will motion for themselves, there would be no explanation for the ability of animals to move voluntarily.
The poet outlines other properties of atoms in the latter part of the second book: they are colorless, insensible, and of a variety of shapes which determine properties of the objects the atoms compose. Sweet honey contains round, smooth particles; bitter wormwood, hooked atoms.
While Lucretius scorns superstitious fear of the gods, he worships the creative force of nature, personified as Venus in the invocation of book 1. Nature controls the unending cycle of creation and destruction. There are gods, but they dwell in their tranquil homes in space, unconcerned for the fate of men.
A passage in praise of Epicurus precedes book 3, the book of the soul. Lucretius says that fear of death arises from superstitions about the soul's afterlife in Hades. This fear is foolish, for the soul is, like the body, mortal. The poet describes the soul as the life force in the body, composed of very fine particles which disperse into the air when the body dies. Since man will neither know nor feel anything when his soul has dissolved, fear of death is unnecessary.
A man should not regret leaving life, even if it has been full and rich. He should die as "a guest sated with the banquet of life and with calm mind embrace ... a rest that knows no care." If existence has been painful, then an end to it should be welcome.
The introductory lines of book 4 express Lucretius' desire to make philosophy more palatable to his readers by presenting it in poetry. His task is a new one: "I traverse the distant haunts of the Pierides (the Muses), never trodden before by the foot of man."
The poet begins this book on sensation with an explanation of idols, the films of atoms which float from the surfaces of objects and make sense perception possible. Men see because idols touch their eyes, taste the bitter salt air because idols of hooked atoms reach their tongues. Idols become blunted when they travel a long distance, causing men to see far-off square towers as round.
Lucretius blames the misconceptions arising from visual phenomena like refraction and perspective on men's reason, not their senses, for accuracy of sense perception is an important part of his theory: "Unless they [the reports of the senses] are true, all reason, too, becomes false."
A second eulogy of Epicurus introduces the fifth book, for some readers the most interesting of all. In it Lucretius discusses the creation of the world and the development of human civilization. Earth was created by a chance conjunction of atoms, which squeezed out sun, moon, and stars as they gathered together to form land. The world, which is constantly disintegrating and being rebuilt, is still young, for human history does not go back beyond the Theban and Trojan wars.
The poet gives several explanations for the motion of stars, the causes of night, and eclipses. Since proof can come only from the senses, any theory which does not contradict perception is possible.
Lucretius presents the curious idea that the first animals were born from wombs rooted in the earth. Monsters were created, but only strong animals and those useful to man could survive. A delightful picture of primitive man, a hardy creature living on nuts and berries and living in caves, follows. Lucretius describes the process of civilization as men united for protection, learned to talk, use metals, weave, and wage war. Problems arose for them with the discovery of wealth and property, breeding envy and discord. It was at this point that Epicurus taught men the highest good, to free them from their cares.
The sixth book continues the explanation of natural phenomena which inspired men to fear the gods: thunder, lightning, clouds, rain, earthquakes. Lucretius rambles over a great many subjects, giving several explanations for many of them. He concludes the poem with a vivid description of the plague of Athens, modeled on Thu-cydides' account.



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