From the very start of the poem, and especially in the opening lines
of Book 3 (a ringing tribute to Epicurus), Lucretius makes it clear that his main purpose is not so much to display his own
talents as to render accurately in a suitably sublime style the glorious philosophy of his master:
O you who out of the
vast darkness were the first to raise
A shining light, illuminating the blessings of life,
O glory of the Grecian
race, it is you I follow,
Tracing in your clearly marked footprints my own firm steps,
Not as a contending rival,
but out of love, for I yearn to imitate you.
For why should the swallow vie with the swan?
Why should a young kid
on spindly limbs
Dare to match strides with a mighty steed? (3. 1-8.)
The poetry, Lucretius keeps reminding his readers, is secondary, a sugar
coating to sweeten Epicurus’ healing medicine. The Epicurean system is what is important, and the poet pledges all his
skill to presenting it as clearly, as faithfully, and as persuasively as possible. In his view nothing less than universal
enlightenment and the liberation of mankind is at stake.
Epicurus was born at Samos, an Athenian colony, in 341 BC. Reduced to its simplest
level, the goal of his teaching was to free humanity from needless cares and anxieties (especially the fear of death) . By
furnishing a complete explanation of the origin and structure of the universe, he sought to open men’s eyes to a true
understanding of their condition and liberate them from ignorant fears and superstitions. Though by all accounts he was a
voluminous writer, only a tiny fraction of his original output has survived, with the result that Lucretius’ poem has
served as one of the primary vehicles for conveying his thought.
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The Epicurean system consists of three linked components: Physics, Ethics,
and Canonic. These three elements are designed to be interdependent, each one supposedly uniting with and reinforcing the
other two. (To cite just one example, Epicurus’ physics supposedly validates both the existence of free will and the
fact that the soul disintegrates with the body, ideas that are crucial to Epicurean ethics. The canonic claims to validate
the authority and reliability of sensation, which in turn serves as a basis for Epicurean physical theories and ethical views
relating to pleasure and pain.) In actual fact, however, the three components are quite separable, and it is certainly possible,
for example, to accept Epicurus’ ethical doctrines while entirely denying his canonic teachings and physics.
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One of the great achievements of the scientific imagination, the Epicurean
cosmos is based on three fundamental principles: materialism, mechanism, and atomism. According to Epicurus the universe covers
an infinitude of space and consists entirely of matter and void. For the most part the philosopher upholds Democritus’ theory that all matter is composed of imperishable atoms, tiny indivisible
particles that can neither be created or destroyed. He also shares Democritus’ view that the atoms are infinite in number
and homogenous in substance, while differing in shape and size. However, whereas Democritus held that the number of atomic
sizes and shapes is infinite, Epicurus argued that their number, while large, is nevertheless finite. (As Lucretius notes,
if atoms could be any size, some would be visible, and possibly even immense.) As for atomic motion, Democritus had claimed
that the atoms move in straight lines in all directions and always in accordance with the iron laws of "necessity" (anangke).
Epicurus, on the other hand, contends that their natural motion is to travel straight downwards at a uniform high velocity.
At random and unpredictable moments, moreover, they deviate ever so slightly from their regular course, their resulting collisions
thus occurring not by strict necessity but always with some element of chance. This theory of atomic "swerve" or clinamen
is a crucial feature of the Epicurean world-view, providing (so Lucretius and other adherents believed) a firm physical foundation
supporting the existence of free will.
Armed with these basic principles, Epicurus is able to explain the universe
as an ongoing cosmic event – a never-ending binding and unbinding of atoms resulting in the gradual emergence of entire
new worlds and the gradual disintegration of old ones. Our world, our bodies, our minds are but atoms in motion. They did
not occur because of some purpose or final cause. Nor were they created by some god for our special use and benefit. They
simply happened, more or less randomly and entirely naturally, through the effective operation of immutable and eternal physical
Here it should be noted that Epicurus is a materialist, not an atheist.
Although he argues that not only our earth and all its life forms, but also all human civilizations and arts came into being
and evolved without any aid or sponsorship from the gods, he does not deny their existence. He merely denies that they have
any knowledge of or interest in human affairs. They live on immune to destruction in their perfectly compounded material bodies
in the serene and cloudless spaces between the worlds (intermundia), perfectly oblivious of human anxieties and cares.
Lucretius imagines that Epicurus rivaled them in their divine tranquility.
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The so-called canonic teachings of Epicurus (from the Greek kanon,
"rule") include his epistemological theories and especially his theories of sensation and perception. In certain respects,
these theories represent Epicurus’ thought at its most original and prescient – and in one or two instances at
its most fanciful and absurd.
The central principle of the canonic is that our sense data provide a
true and accurate picture of external reality. Sensation is the ultimate source and criterion of truth, and its testimony
is incontrovertible. Epicurus considered the reliability of the senses a bulwark of his philosophy, and Lucretius refers to
trust in sensation as a "holdfast," describing it as the only thing preventing our slide into the abyss of skepticism (4.
But if our sensory input is always true and dependable, how are we to
account for hallucinations, fantasies, dreams, delusions, and other forms of perceptual error? According to Epicurus, such
errors are always due to some higher mental process. They arise, for example, when we apply judgment or reasoning or some
confused product of memory to the actual data presented to us by sensation. As Lucretius remarks, we deceive ourselves because
we tend to "see some things with our mind that have not been seen by the senses":
For nothing is harder
than to distinguish the real things of sense
From those doubtful versions of them that the mind readily supplies. (4.
Epicurus’ theory of sensory perception is consistent with and follows
from his materialism and atomism. Like Democritus, he postulates that external objects send off emanations or "idols" (eidola)
of themselves that travel through the air and impinge upon our senses. In effect, these subtle atomic images or films imprint
themselves on the senses, leaving behind trace versions of the external world (auditory and olfactory as well as visual) that
can be apprehended and stored in memory. Once again, perceptual errors can occur in this process, but not because of any inherent
problem with sensation itself. Instead, mistakes arise due either to the contamination of the "idols" by other atoms or because
of the "false opinions" that we ourselves, through defects in our higher mental operations, introduce.
In short, unless it is distorted by some form of external "noise" or
by some processing error attributable to reason, all information conveyed through the senses is true. This is Epicurus’
core canonic teaching. Unfortunately, this belief in the infallibility of sense perception and the unreliability of logic
and reason led him and his followers (including Lucretius) into a number of strange conclusions – such as the absurd
claim that the sun, moon, and stars are exactly the size and shape that they appear to be to our naked eye. Thus (as
strict Epicurean doctrine would have it) the moon truly is a small, silver disc, the sun is a slightly larger golden
fire, and the stars are but tiny points of light.
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Epicurus’ ethics represents the true goal and raison d’etre
of his philosophical mission, the capstone atop the impressive (though hardly flawless) pillars of his physics and epistemology.
Like Socrates, he considered moral questions (What is virtue? What is happiness?) rather than cosmological speculations to
be the ultimate concerns of philosophical inquiry.
As mentioned earlier, it is possible to accept one component of the Epicurean
system without necessarily subscribing to the others. But from Epicurus’ (and Lucretius’) point of view, it is
the ethical component that is of vital importance.
As many commentators have noted, the term "Epicure" (in the sense of
a self-indulgent bon vivant or luxurious pleasure-seeker) is entirely out of place when applied to Epicureanism in general
and to its founder in particular. By all accounts, Epicurus’ own living habits were virtually Spartan, and it is said
that he attracted many of his disciples more by his solid character and agreeable temper than by his philosophical arguments.
His moral philosophy is a form of hedonism, meaning that it is a system based on the pursuit of pleasure (Gr. ‘ēdonewhich
it ,) identifies
as the greatest good. But Epicurean hedonism is hardly synonymous with sensual extravagance; nor is it a matter (in St. Paul’s
disparaging terms) of "let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die." It is instead a system that requires severe self-denial
and moral discipline. For Epicurus places a much greater emphasis on the avoidance of pain than on the pursuit of pleasure,
and he favors intellectual pleasures (which are long-lasting and never cloying) over physical ones (which are short-lived
and lead to excess). As for self-indulgence, he argued that it is better to abstain from coarse or trivial pleasures if they
prevent our enjoyment of richer, more satisfying ones.
In Epicurean ethics physical pain is the great enemy of happiness and
is to be avoided in almost all cases. Mental anguish is even more threatening and potentially debilitating. It follows that
the fear of death – and especially the superstitious belief in an after-life of eternal torment – can be particularly
devastating source of anxiety and take a terrible toll on humanity, which is why Epicurus sets out so determinedly to crush
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The Design of the Poem
De Rerum Natura is an epic in six books and is expertly
organized to provide both expository clarity as well as powerful narrative and lyric effects. In one respect, the poem represents
the unfolding of a complex philosophical argument, and in many places the poet is challenged to explain abstract and often
extremely prosaic technical material in a lucid and lively way. (At times during the poem he complains about the relative
poverty of Latin as a philosophical medium compared to the technical richness of Greek.) At the same time, he must be careful
not to overwhelm or upstage his philosophical presentation with a surplus of brilliant literary devices and gaudy stylistic
displays. The basic organization is as follows:
Book 1: The poem begins with a justly famous invocation to Venus (the
poet’s symbol for the forces of cohesion, integration, and creative energy in the universe). Presented as a kind of
life principle, the Lucretian Venus is associated with the figure of Love (Gr. philia, the unifying or binding) force in the philosophy of Empedocles, and also identified with her mythical role as Venus Genetrix, the patron
goddess and mother of the Roman people. In the remainder of the book the poet begins the work of explaining the Epicurean
system and refuting the systems of other philosophers. He starts by setting forth the major principles of Epicurean physics
and cosmology, including atomism, the infinity of the universe, and the existence of matter and void.
Book 2. This book begins with a lyric passage celebrating the "serene
sanctuaries" of philosophy and lamenting the condition of those poor human beings who struggle vainly outside its protective
walls. The poet explains atomic motion and shapes and argues that the atoms do not have secondary qualities (color, smell,
heat, moisture, etc.).
Book 3. After a glowing opening apostrophe to Epicurus ("O glory of the
Greeks!"), the poet proceeds with an extended explanation and proof of the materiality – and mortality – of the
mind and soul. This explanation culminates in the climactic declaration, "Nil igitur mors est ad nos. . ." ("Therefore
death is nothing to us."), a stark, simple statement which effectively epitomizes the main message and central doctrine of
Book 4. Following introductory verses on the art of didactic poetry,
this book begins with a full account of Epicurus’ theory of vision and sensation. It concludes with one of Lucretius’
greatest passages of verse, his famous (and caustic) analysis of the biology and psychology of sexual love.
Book 5. Lucretius begins this book with another tribute to the genius
of Epicurus, whose heroic intellectual achievements, it is argued, exceed even the twelve labors of Hercules. The remainder
of the book is devoted to a full account of Epicurean cosmology and sociology, with the poet explaining the stages of life
on earth and the origin and development of civilization. This book includes the remarkable passage (837-886) in which the
poet offers his own evolutionary hypothesis on the proliferation and extinction of life forms.
Book 6. Though partly unfinished, this book contains some of Lucretius’
greatest poetry, with effective technical explanations of meteorological and geologic phenomena and vivid descriptions of
thunderstorms, lightning, and volcanic eruptions. The poem closes with a horrifying account of the great plague of Athens
(430 BC), a grim reminder of universal mortality.
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Lucretius as a Philosopher
Critics universally recognize Lucretius as a major poet and the author
of one of the great classics of world literature. But in part because of his accepted role as a spokesperson for Epicureanism
rather than an originator, it has been more difficult to assess his merit as a philosopher.
In this respect, it is noteworthy that at least two important philosophers
have voiced strong support for Lucretius’ status as a philosophical innovator and original thinker. In 1884, while still
a young faculty member at the Blaise Pascal Lycee in Paris, the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) published an
edition of De Rerum Natura with notes, commentary, and an accompanying critical essay. Throughout this work, Bergson
commends Lucretius not only as a poet of genius, but also as an inspired and "singularly original" thinker. In particular,
he points out that in his view the poet’s instinctive grasp of the physical operations of nature and his comprehensive,
truly scientific world-view exceed anything found in the theories of Democritus and Epicurus.
The Spanish poet and Harvard philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952)
held a similarly high opinion of Lucretius’ power as a scientific thinker. Democritus and Epicurus, he argues, are mere
sketch artists who offer no more than bare hints and vague outlines of a thoroughly imagined and truly scientifically conceived
universe. It thus remained for the deeper, more visionary poet not just to flesh out their rough drafts in fine words, but
in essence to actually create and give body to the entire Epicurean system. In Santayana’s view, Epicurus was but a
supplier of half-baked ideas; it was Lucretius who was the true creator of scientific materialism and the real founder of
Hyperbole aside, what both Bergson and Santayana are pointing to is the
frequently underrated and misunderstood role of imagination in the production of almost all major systems of philosophy. Great
philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Kant and Nietzsche (and Bergson himself) have never been simply logic mills or thinking
machines, but bold thinkers with an imaginative "feel" for abstract reality. In this respect, even if we dismiss the assessments
of Bergson and Santayana as extravagant, we can still accept Lucretius as a bona fide philosopher and not just as a poetical
embellisher and interpreter.
Every philosopher has strengths and weaknesses; those of Lucretius are
conspicuous. In addition to his powerful imagination, his main strength (not surprisingly) is his verbal skill and force of
expression. He is one of the most quotable of philosophers, with a flair for striking images and tightly packed statements.
A few samples:
powerful is religion at persuading to evil." 1. 101.
"Hot fevers do not depart
your body more quickly
If you toss about on pictured tapestries or rich purple coverlets
Than if you lie sick under
a poor man’s blanket." 2. 34-36.
On life without philosophy:
is a struggle in the dark." 2. 54.
"After a while the life of a fool is hell on earth." 3. 1023.
On new truths:
"No fact is so obvious
that it does not at first produce wonder,
Nor so wonderful that it does not eventually yield to belief." 2. 1026-27.
"Such is the power of reason
to overcome inborn vices
That nothing prevents our living a life worthy of gods." 3. 321-22.
On the language of love:
"We say a foul,
dirty woman is ‘sweetly disordered,’
If she is green-eyed, we call her ‘my little Pallas’;
she’s flighty and tightly strung, she’s ‘a gazelle’;
A squat, dumpy dwarf is ‘a little sprite,’
While a hulking giantess is ‘divinely statuesque.’
If she stutters or lisps, she speaks ‘musically.’
If she’s dumb, she’s ‘modest’; and if she’s hot-tempered
And a chatterbox, she’s
‘a ball of fire.’
When she’s too skinny to live, she’s ‘svelte,’
‘delicate’ when she’s dying of consumption. . .
It would be wearisome to run through the whole list."
Of all Lucretius’ intellectual strengths, perhaps none is more
characteristic or stands out more impressively than his hard, clear commitment to naturalism. Throughout the poem he consistently
attacks supernatural explanations of phenomena and resists the temptation to give in to some form of natural religion or "scientific"
supernaturalism. The world, he argues, was not created by divine intelligence, nor is it imbued with any form of mind
or purpose. Instead, it must be understood as an entirely natural phenomenon, the outcome of a random (though statistically
inevitable and lawful) process. In short, whatever happens in the universe is not the product of design, but part of an ongoing
sequence of purely physical events.
Lucretius’ principle philosophical shortcoming is that not only
will he occasionally follow Epicurean doctrine to the point of absurdity (e.g., the supposedly tiny size of the sun and moon)
but he will also introduce logical fallacies or scientific errors of his own (such as his claim that the atoms travel faster
than light – 2. 144ff.). As Bergson points out, these howlers can usually be attributed to the defective method of ancient
science, which, because it did not require that hypotheses be confirmed by experimentation, allowed even the wildest conjectures
to pass as plausible truths. One further problem is that, for all his reliance on naturalistic explanations and his attempted
reduction of metaphysics to physics, Lucretius at times seems to back away, if only ever so slightly, from a purely materialist
world view. Indeed in his effusive descriptions of the creative power of nature, effectively symbolized by the figure of Venus,
he seems almost (like Bergson) to postulate an immaterial life-force surging through the universe and operating above or beyond
raw nature. To read this romantic streak into him is clearly a mistake. Lucretius remains a thorough-going naturalist. Yet
when his verse is in high gear, one almost gets the impression that somewhere inside this staunchly scientific, fiercely
anti-religious poet there is a romantic nature-worshipper screaming to get out.
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Influence and Legacy
Lucretius’ literary influence has been long-lasting and widespread,
especially among poets with epic ambitions or cosmological interests, from Virgil and Milton to Whitman and Wordsworth. Not
surprisingly, as one of the main proponents and principle sources of Epicurean thought, his philosophical influence has also
been considerable. The extent of his communication with and influence on his contemporaries, including other Epicurean writers,
is not known. What is known is that by the end of the first century A.D. De Rerum Natura was hardly read and its author
had already begun a long, slow descent into philosophical oblivion. It was not until the Renaissance, with the recovery of
lost Lucretian manuscripts, that a true revival of the poet became possible.
It is probably an exaggeration to say that the restoration and study
of Lucretius’ poem was crucial to the rise of Renaissance "new philosophy" and the birth of modern science. On the other
hand, one must not ignore its importance as a spur to innovative sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scientific thought and
cosmological speculation. Greek atomism and Lucretius’ account of the universe as an infinite, lawfully integrated whole
provided an important background stimulus not only for Newtonian science, but also (if only in a negative or contrary way)
for Spinoza’s pantheism and Leibniz’s monadology.
Lucretius’ influence on early modern thought is most directly visible
in the work of the French scientist and neo-Epicurean philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655). In 1649 Gassendi published
his Syntagma Philosophiae Epicuri, a theoretical refinement and elaboration of Epicurean science. A Catholic priest
with a remarkably independent mind, Gassendi seemingly had no problem reconciling his personal philosophical commitment to
atomism and materialism with his Christian beliefs in the immortality of the soul and the doctrine of divine providence.
Every modern reader of De Rerum Natura has been struck by the
extent to which Lucretius seems to have anticipated modern evolutionary theories in the fields of geology, biology, and sociology.
However, to acknowledge this connection is not to say that the poet deserves accredited status as some kind of scientific
"evolutionist" or pre-Darwinian precursor. It is merely to point out that, however we choose to define and evaluate its influence,
De Rerum Natura was from the 17th century onward a massive cultural presence and hence a ready source of
evolutionary ideas. The poem formed part of the cultural heritage and intellectual background of virtually every evolutionary
theorist in Europe from Lamarck to Herbert Spencer (whose hedonistic ethics also owed a debt to the poet) – including
(though he claimed never to have read Lucretius’ epic) Darwin himself.
Bergson’s early study of Lucretius obviously played an important
role in the foundation and development of his own philosophy. In 1907 Bergson published Creative Evolution, outlining
his bold, new vitalistic theory of evolution, in opposition to both the earlier vitalism of Lamarck and the naturalism of
Darwin, and Spencer. It is hard not to see in the French philosophers’ concept of the Úlan vital a powerful life
force akin to and strongly influenced by the immortal Venus of his great Latin predecessor. Bergson’s evolutionary philosophy
influenced the later "process" philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and the teleological scientific theories of
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), with the interesting result that it is possible to trace out a fairly direct, if unlikely,
line of descent from Greek atomism through the pagan anti-spiritualist Lucretius to the Catholic naturalist Gassendi and then
on, via the Jewish-Catholic Bergson, to the highly abstract theism of Whitehead and the "spiritualized" evolutionism of Father
Teilhard. That Lucretius’ ideas wound up two thousand years after his death influencing those of a godly British mathematical
theorist and a highly original and even eccentric French scientist-priest is remarkable testimony to their durability, adaptability,
and persuasive power.
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In conclusion, it seems fair to say that, far from being a mere conduit
for earlier Greek thought, the poet Titus Lucretius Carus was a bold innovator and original thinker who fully deserves the
appellation of philosopher. While his literary fame clearly (and properly) comes first, and although his philosophical reputation
is based largely (and again properly) on his role as one of the principle sources and prime exponents of Epicureanism, his
own ideas, especially his evolutionary theories and his entirely naturalistic explanation of all universal phenomena, have
exerted a long and important influence on western science and philosophy and should not be underestimated.
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The most authoritative manuscripts of De Rerum Natura are the
so-called O and Q codices in Leiden. Both date from the 9th century. Recently, however, scholars have deciphered a much older
and previously illegible manuscript, consisting of papyri discovered in Herculaneum and possibly dating from as early as the
first century AD. All other Lucretian manuscripts date from the 15th and 16th century and are based on the one (no longer
extant) discovered in a monastery by the Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini in 1417.
On the Nature of Things. W.H.D. Rouse, trans. Revised and edited by Martin F. Smith. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Bailey, C. ed. De Rerum Natura. 3 volumes
with commentary. Oxford, 1947.
Munro, H.A.J. (prose).
Latham, R.E. (prose). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin,
Humphries, Rolphe. (verse). Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1968.
Copley, Frank O. (verse). New York: Norton,
Critical and scholarly studies:
Bergson, Henri. Philosophy
of Poetry: The Genius of Lucretius. Wade Baskin, trans. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959.
Clay, D. Lucretius and Epicurus. Ithaca,
Jones, H. The Epicurean Tradition.
Kenney, E. J. Lucretius. Oxford, 1977.
Santayana, George. Three Philosophical
Poets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sikes, E.E. Lucretius: Poet and Philosopher.
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