LUCRETIUS: On the Nature of Things [Books I-II]

LUCRETIUS: On the Nature of Things [Books I-II]

Book I

  • “Lucretius invokes Venus as the great cause of production. He dedicates his work to Memmius; praises Epicurus, whose doctrine he follows; vindicates his subject from the charge of impiety; exposes the emptiness of the religious system of his day, and the fictions of the poets; and introduces, not without allusions to the difficulties to be overcome, the great arguments of which he proposes to treat. Entering upon his subject, he shows, first, that nothing can proceed from nothing, and that nothing can return to nothing. Secondly, that there are certain minute corpuscles, which, though imperceptible to our senses, are conceivable in our minds, and from which all things originate. Thirdly, that there is vacuum or empty space. Fourthly, that there is nothing in the universe but body and space, and that all other things which are said ‘to be’, are only adjuncts or events, properties or accidents of body and space; a necessary adjunct is that which can never be separated and disjoined from its body without a disunion attended with destruction to that body [weight of stone, heat of fire]; accidents are things whose coming and going affect a subject but leave him uninjured [poverty, riches, liberty, war]; events are whatever has been done to men or bodies.  He proceeds to demonstrate that the primary corpuscles, or elements of things, are perfectly solid, indivisible, and eternal. He refutes those who had held other opinions, as Heraclitus, who said that fire was the origin of things; and others, who had maintained the same of air, water, and earth. He attacks Empedocles, who said that the universe was compounded of the four elements, and Anaxagoras, who advocated the homoeomeria – that all things contained instances of other things, only to a lesser degree; for example, a tree contained small amounts of fire, but it predominantly contained little particles of trees. He then contends that the universe is boundless, that atoms are infinite in number, and that space must be unlimited. Lastly, he refutes those who think that there is a center of things, to which heavy bodies tend downwards, and light bodies upwards; and concludes with a praise of philosophy, which assists mankind to penetrate the mysteries of nature.”

“Mars, the lord of arms, who controls the cruel tasks of war, often flings himself upon thy lap, vanquished by the eternal wound of love. [Aeterno vulnere amoris]”

“I shall proceed to discourse to thee of the whole system of heaven and the gods, and unfold to thee the first principles of all things.”

“Exempt from all pain, exempt from perils, all-sufficient in its own resources, and needing nothing from us, the gods are neither propitiated by services from the good, nor affected with anger against the bad.”

“When the life of men lay foully groveling before our eyes, crushed beneath the weight of religion, Epicurus was the first to raise mortal eyes against her. He was the first to break the close bars of nature’s portals, and traversed the whole immensity of space in mind and thought. Epicurus’ victory over Religion sets us on a level with Heaven.”

“When she saw her father stand sorrowing before the altars, and the attendant priests concealing the knife, and her countrymen shedding tears at the sight of her, she, dumb with fear, dropping on her knees sank to earth. Raised by the hands of men, and trembling, she was led to the altar to fall a sad victim to her father’s immolating hand so a successful and fortunate voyage might be granted to the fleet. To such evil could Religion persuade mankind.”

“Nothing is ever divinely generated from nothing, and nothing can be produced from nothing. All things are done without the agency of the gods.”

“All things are enlarged and nourished from their own specific matter.”

“Those who fear punishment after death confound their enjoyments in the present life. If they had knowledge of the true nature of things after death, they would be free to enjoy life. Lucretius describes the nature of the soul so that men can enjoy life, but, as Voltaire wrote, the vain attempts of men to discuss the nature of the soul and the after life are like men born blind discussing the nature of light.”

“There is only bodies and space. There is no third thing. Time is not a thing. No one has been able to conceive of time as anything other than progressive motion and quiet rest. This is an interesting interpretation of Time. I believe that there is a general consensus today that Time acts as a fourth dimension, but I haven’t studied the topic enough to make any conclusions regarding the topic.”

After reading the first book, I am struck by the similarities between Lucretius’ ideas and modern Physical theories. Much of Lucretius’ theories are consistent with modern explanations of the physical world. This is very impressive considering that Lucretius wrote during a time period in which his society had no knowledge of the Americas or the position of earth relative to the universe itself. I wonder how he was able to formulate these notions. Was it from pure experience? Was he able to derive these conclusions through pure reason? And if so, does that imply that the universe is logically necessary? Or perhaps he was divinely inspired. I am certain that Lucretius would chuckle at that thought. I think Lucretius invokes Venus at the beginning of the poem because it was the stylistic thing to do at that time, but not because he believed Venus inspired him with the ability to write the poem. After all, he explicitly states that the gods do not take part in the affairs of men.

Book II

  • “Having exhorted Memmius to the study of philosophy, Lucretius proceeds to treat of the properties of atoms, of which the first is motion, which they owe either to their own weight or the impulse of other atoms. Atoms are borne downwards, as being heavy, and when solid atoms come in collision, they must necessarily rebound; some unite with others; those that unite closely, form bodies hard and dense; those that combine more loosely, thin and subtle substances. Some do not coalesce, but wander continually through space, impelling and agitating other atoms. He attacks those who deny the Epicurean doctrine of atoms, and refuse to admit that this unchangeable order of things is maintained without a divine providence. Atoms in their course downwards decline a little from the right line. Were they not to decline, nothing would be produced, and there could be no free agency in animals when produced. Atoms are still borne on in the same way in which they have moved from all eternity; nor is this assertion to be disputed because all things seem at rest. The second remarkable property of atoms is figure; how greatly they differ in this is shown by the vast majority of things produced from them. Some atoms are rough and jagged, others smooth and round; some produce bitter and some sweet, some hard and some soft bodies. But the figures of atoms are not infinite, though the number of each figure is infinite. Shows that compound bodies contain atoms of different figures, and alludes to the natural history of the earth, and the fabulous history of Cybele [the Earth as mother of the gods and beasts]. Atoms have not those qualities which we call sensible qualities, as color, taste, heat, cold, etc., though they generate bodies having those qualities. The infinite number of atoms, moving through the infinite of space, composes infinite worlds, which are sometimes increased by atoms being added, and sometimes diminished and dissolved by the separation and departure of atoms; just as, before our eyes, plants and animals grow up, decline, and perish.”

“It is agreeable to see from what evils thou thyself art free.”

“Nothing is sweeter than to occupy the well-defended serene heights raised by the learning of the wise, from whence thou may look down upon others, and see them straying in all directions, wandering about to find the best path of life; contending in intellectual power, vying with each other in nobleness of birth, and striving by excessive labor, night and day, to rise to the highest power, and to obtain the government of affairs.”

“The world was by no means made for us by divine power.”

“The wails which infants raise when they come forth to view the regions of light are mixed with funeral lamentations.”

“There is nothing so great and admirable at which all men do not by degrees less and less wonder.”

In the opening paragraphs of book 2, Lucretius praises philosophy because of its capacity to remove the fears and cares of men; removal of fear and anxiety is the first step to attaining happiness. The second step is to obtain the very few things that banish pain and bestow plenty of pleasures, and this can only be achieved through Reason. He says that the contemplation of the highest wisdom places a man above his peers who are straying in all directions to find the best path of life, and vying with one another to attain the most power. He also says that men do not require riches to be happy; the man who lies underneath a tree, near a river, with no wealth gratifies his senses with pleasure.

This description reminded me of Marlowe’s poem, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” In the poem, a shepherd tries to persuade his love to live with him in fields and enjoy the pleasures of nature. He isn’t rich, but promises to make her various luxuries from things found in nature. The poem reinforces Lucretius argument that one can be happy, though poor; and that one does not require traditional luxuries to be happy. Walter Raleigh’s response to Marlowe’s poem is fascinating. The speaker in the poem does not refute Lucretius claim that one can be happy without fineries, but the speaker considers men to be liars, and joy to have an expiration date.

Lucretius discussion of free-will also merits mention. He states that atoms naturally swerve at indeterminate points of time and space, thus breaking the law of causation. If this did not happen, then there could be no free-will because everything would be determined by the laws of causation. He argues that the delay between the opening of the gates at a horse race and the movement of the horses demonstrates that the commencement of motion is produced in the mind, after which the limbs of the body are set into motion; i.e. the horse sees the gates open, it decides to run, it sends its decision to run from its mind to the limbs of its body, the limbs of the body commence motion. A hard determinist might argue that the mind does not exist, and that the ‘decision’ is merely atoms being set in motion by a long line of causation; i.e. the atoms of light strike the eye of the horse, setting in motion atoms in the brain of the horse that commence the motion of other atoms in the limbs of the horse. And this chain of causation is inevitable.

The Nature of Things (Penguin Classics)

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2 thoughts on “LUCRETIUS: On the Nature of Things [Books I-II]”

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