De rerum natura  

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When atoms move straight down through the void by their own weight, they deflect a bit in space at a quite uncertain time and in uncertain places, just enough that you could say that their motion has changed. But if they were not in the habit of swerving, they would all fall straight down through the depths of the void, like drops of rain, and no collision would occur, nor would any blow be produced among the atoms. In that case, nature would never have produced anything. --De rerum natura describing clinamen, tr. from Brad Inwood, L. P. Gerson, (1994)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) is a 1st-century BC didactic poem by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius with the goal of explaining Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience. The poem, written in some 7,400 dactylic hexameters, is divided into six untitled books, and explores Epicurean physics through richly poetic language and metaphors. Lucretius presents the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna, "chance," and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.

Contents

Synopsis

Epicurus maintained that the unhappiness and degradation of humankind arose largely from the dread which they entertained of the power of the gods, from terror of their wrath, which was supposed to be displayed by the misfortunes inflicted in this life, and by the everlasting tortures which were the lot of the guilty in a future state, or where these feelings were not strongly developed, from a vague dread of gloom and misery after death. To remove these fears, and thus to establish tranquillity in the heart, was the purpose of his teaching. Thus the Gods, whose existence he did not deny, lived forevermore in the enjoyment of absolute peace, strangers to all the passions, desires, and fears, which agitate the human heart, totally indifferent to the world and its inhabitants, unmoved alike by their virtues and their crimes. To prove this position he called upon the atomism of Democritus, by which he sought to demonstrate that the material universe was formed not by a Supreme Being, but by the mixing of elemental particles which had existed from all eternity governed by certain simple laws. The task undertaken by Lucretius was to clearly state and fully develop these views in an attractive form; his work being an attempt to show that everything in nature can be explained by natural laws without the need for the intervention of divine beings.

Lucretius identifies the supernatural with the notion that the gods created our world or interfere with its operations in some way. He argues against fear of such gods by demonstrating through observations and argument that the operations of the world can be accounted for in terms of natural phenomena—the regular but purposeless motions and interactions of tiny atoms in empty space. Meanwhile, he argues against the fear of death by stating that death is the dissipation of a being's material mind. Lucretius uses the analogy of a vessel, stating that the physical body is the vessel that holds both the mind (mens) and spirit (anima) of a human being. Neither the mind nor spirit can survive independent of the body. Thus Lucretius states that once the vessel (the body) shatters (dies) its contents (mind and spirit) can no longer exist. So, as a simple ceasing-to-be, death can be neither good nor bad for this being. Being completely devoid of sensation and thought, a dead person cannot miss being alive. According to Lucretius, fear of death is a projection of terrors experienced in life, of pain that only a living (intact) mind can feel. Lucretius also puts forward the 'symmetry argument' against the fear of death. In it, he says that people who fear the prospect of eternal non-existence after death should think back to the eternity of non-existence before their birth, which they probably do not fear.

Contents

The poem consists of six untitled books, in dactylic hexameter. The first three books provide a fundamental account of being and nothingness, matter and space, the atoms and their movement, the infinity of the universe both as regards time and space, the regularity of reproduction (no prodigies, everything in its proper habitat), the nature of mind (animus, directing thought) and spirit (anima, sentience) as material bodily entities, and their mortality, since, according to Lucretius, they and their functions (consciousness, pain) end with the bodies that contain them and with which they are interwoven. The last three books give an atomic and materialist explanation of phenomena preoccupying human reflection, such as vision and the senses, sex and reproduction, natural forces and agriculture, the heavens, and disease.

First two books

The poem opens with an invocation to Venus, whom Lucretius addresses as an allegorical representation of the reproductive power, after which the business of the piece commences by an enunciation of the proposition on the nature and being of the gods, which leads to an invective against the gigantic monster superstition, and a thrilling picture of the horrors which attends its tyrannous sway. Then follows a lengthened elucidation of the axiom that nothing can be produced from nothing, and that nothing can be reduced to nothing ("Nil fieri ex nihilo, in nihilum nil posse reverti"); which is succeeded by a definition of the Ultimate Atoms, infinite in number, which, together with Void Space (Inane), infinite in extent, constitute the universe. The shape of these corpuscles, their properties, their movements, the laws under which they enter into combination and assume forms and qualities appreciable by the senses, with other preliminary matters on their nature and affections, together with a refutation of objections and opposing hypotheses, occupy the first two books.

Third book

In the third book, the general concepts proposed thus far are applied to demonstrate that the vital and intellectual principles, the Anima and Animus, are as much a part of us as are our limbs and members, but like those limbs and members have no distinct and independent existence, and that hence soul and body live and perish together; the argument being wound up by a magnificent exposure of the folly manifested in a dread of death, which will forever extinguish all feeling.

Fourth book

The fourth book is devoted to the theory of the senses, sight, hearing, taste, smell, of sleep and of dreams, ending with a disquisition upon love and sex.

Fifth book

The fifth book, generally regarded as the most finished and impressive, addresses the origin of the world and of all things that are therein, the movements of the heavenly bodies, the changing of the seasons, day and night, the rise and progress of humankind, society, political institutions, and the invention of the various arts and sciences which embellish and ennoble life.

Sixth book

The sixth book contains an explanation of some of the most striking natural appearances, especially thunder, lightning, hail, rain, snow, ice, cold, heat, wind, earthquakes, volcanoes, springs and localities noxious to animal life, which leads to a discourse upon diseases. This in its turn introduces an appalling description of the great pestilence which devastated Athens during the Peloponnesian War, and thus the book closes. The abrupt ending suggests that Lucretius had not finished fully editing the poem before his death.

Purpose

Lucretius wrote this epic poem to "Memmius", who may be Gaius Memmius, who in 58 BC was a praetor, a judicial official deciding controversies between citizens and the government. There are over a dozen references to "Memmius" scattered throughout the long poem in a variety of contexts in translation, such as "Memmius mine", "my Memmius", and "illustrious Memmius". According to Lucretius's frequent statements in his poem, the main purpose of the work was to free Gaius Memmius's mind of the supernatural and the fear of death—and to induct him into a state of ataraxia by expounding the philosophical system of Epicurus, whom Lucretius glorifies as the hero of his epic poem. Apparently, Lucretius's attempt was unsuccessful.

However, the purpose of the poem is subject to ongoing scholarly debate. Lucretius refers to Memmius by name four times in the first book, three times in the second, five in the fifth, and not at all in the third, fourth, or sixth books. In relation to this discrepancy in the frequency of Lucretius' reference to the apparent subject of his poem, Kannengiesse advances the theory that Lucretius wrote the first version of De rerum natura for the reader at large, and subsequently revised in order to write it for Memmius. However, Memmius' name is central to several critical verses in the poem, and this theory has therefore been largely discredited. Bruns and Brandt have set forth an alternative theory that Lucretius did at first write the poem with Memmius in mind, but that his enthusiasm for his patron cooled. Stearns suggests that this is because Memmius reneged on a promise to pay for a new school to be built on the site of the old Epicurean school. Memmius was also a tribune in 66, praetor in 58, governor of Bithynia in 57, and was a candidate for the consulship in 54 but was disqualified for bribery, and Stearns suggests that the warm relationship between patron and client may have cooled.

Manuscript history

Copies of the poem made it by chance into a few libraries in the 9th century before it was rediscovered in January 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini. The copy found by Poggio did not survive, but a copy of it by Poggio's friend, Niccolò de' Niccoli, did; it is kept today at the Laurentian Library in Florence ("Codex Laurentianus 35.30"). Machiavelli made a copy early in his life. Molière produced a verse translation which does not survive; John Evelyn translated the first book.

Notable figures who owned copies include Ben Jonson whose copy is held at the Houghton Library, Harvard; Thomas Jefferson owned at least five Latin editions and English, Italian and French translations. Montaigne's Essays contain almost a hundred quotes from De rerum natura.

The first printed edition of De rerum natura was produced in Brescia, Lombardy in 1473. Other printed editions followed soon after.

Lucretius' physics

Lucretius maintained that he could free humankind from fear of the gods by demonstrating that all things occur by natural causes without any intervention by the gods. Historians of science, however, have been critical of the limitations of his Epicurean approach to science, especially as it pertained to astronomical topics, which he relegated to the class of "unclear" objects.

Thus, he began his discussion by claiming that he would

explain by what forces nature steers the courses of the Sun and the journeyings of the Moon, so that we shall not suppose that they run their yearly races between heaven and earth of their own free will [i.e., are gods themselves] or that they are rolled round in furtherance of some divine plan....

However, when he set out to put this plan into practice, he limited himself to showing how one, or several different, naturalistic accounts could explain certain natural phenomena. He was unable to tell his readers how to determine which of these alternatives might be the true one.

Let us now take as our theme the cause of stellar movements.
  • First let us suppose that the great globe of the sky itself rotates....
  • There remains the alternative possibility that the sky as a whole is stationary while the shining constellations are in motion. This may happen
  • because swift currents of ether ... whirl round and round and roll their fires at large across the nocturnal regions of the sky. Or
  • an external current of air from some other quarter may whirl them along in their course. Or
  • they may swim of their own accord, each responsive to the call of its own food, and feed their fiery bodies in the broad pastures of the sky.
One of these causes must certainly operate in our world.... But to lay down which of them it is lies beyond the range of our stumbling progress.

Drawing on these, and other passages, William Stahl considered that "The anomalous and derivative character of the scientific portions of Lucretius' poem makes it reasonable to conclude that his significance should be judged as a poet, not as a scientist."

The swerve

Determinism appears to conflict with the concept of free will. Lucretius attempts to allow for free will in his physicalistic universe by postulating an indeterministic tendency for atoms to swerve randomly (clinamen). This indeterminacy, according to Lucretius, provides the "free will which livings things throughout the world have."

Responses

The earliest recorded verdict of Lucretius' work is by Cicero, who calls Lucretius's poetry "full of inspired brilliance, but also of great artistry". However, Cicero is elsewhere critical of Lucretius and the Epicureans, and disparaged them for their omission from their work of historical study.

Cornelius Nepos, in his Life Of Atticus, mentions Lucretius as one of the greatest poets of his times.

Ovid, in his Amores, writes: Carmina sublimis tunc sunt peritura Lucreti / exitio terras cum dabit una dies (which means "the verses of the sublime Lucretius will perish only when a day will bring the end of the world").

Vitruvius (in the De Architectura), Quintilian (in his Institutiones Oratoriae) and Statius (in the Silvae) also show great admiration for the De Rerum Natura.

Michel de Montaigne, in one of his Essays, On Books, lists Lucretius along with Virgil, Horace, and Catullus as his four top poets.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, notes Lucretius in "Southern Mail/ Night Flight" on page 20.

Lucretius has also had a marked influence upon modern philosophy, as perhaps the most complete expositor of Epicurean thought. His influence is especially notable in Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana, who praised Lucretius (along with Dante and Goethe) in his book 'Three Philosophical Poets.'

Later works

At the start of the 7th century, Isidore of Seville produced De natura rerum, a book of astronomy and natural history dedicated to the Visigothic king Sisebut. About a century later, Bede produced a work of the same title, partly based on Isidore's work but apparently ignorant of Lucretius' poem.

See also




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