LUCRETIUS: On the Nature of Things [Book IV]

Book IV

  • “Lucretius treats of the images of Epicurus, by which the senses are excited. He shows that images of exquisite subtlety are emitted from the surfaces of objects, which are for the most part unseen, but which are observed when reflected from a mirror or any smooth surface. Besides these images detached from bodies, there are others spontaneously generated in the air. He demonstrates that vision is produced by the impact of images on the eyes. He then solves various questions relating to images in mirrors, and to light and shade. He shows that the senses may be trusted, though some would question their evidence; and that false opinions arise from false reasoning about the testimony of the senses. Proceeding to the other senses, he asserts that voice and sounds are of a corporeal substance, and discourses on the nature and formation of the voice. Speaks of the diffusion, reverberation, and penetration of sounds. Treats of taste and odor, and their diversities. Shows that the imagination and thought are produced by means of images, which penetrate the body through the senses. Explains the nature of dreams, and why man thinks of that on which he wishes to think. Shows how we are often deceived by images. Proceeds to prove that the organs of the body were produced before the use of them was discovered; that they were not designed for use, but that it was found out, after they were formed, that they could be used. That motion in animals arose from the motions of images. He then speaks more fully of sleep and dreams, of which he suggests various causes. Of love, desire, and their influence.”

“Easier far those toils to shun than, when thy foot once slides, to break the entangling meshes and be free.”

In the beginning of this book, Lucretius argues that each physical body emits a very thin layer of its entire body. This is similar to snakes shedding their skin. These emissions are the visual images which we see. This is an interesting notion, though flawed. If I remember correctly, we see an image when light enters our eye where it is processed into an image.

It is frightening how much I do not know about the nature of the world. I “know” that there are rational explanations for phenomena such as sight, electricity, gravity, etc. – I have even learned them at one point in my life – but I could not explain them satisfactorily to a man like Lucretius without appealing to a Physics textbook, or Wikipedia. I think that the majority of mankind is in the same condition as I am. Unless one is a physics teacher, the precise process by which we see is not practical to know.

Who is in a better position: Lucretius, who doesn’t know the correct method by which a human being sees image but can form a persuasive argument, or modern man, who knows that there is an explanation but can’t articulate it without doing research? I think that modern man’s awareness that an explanation exists for nearly every physical phenomena has greatly hindered creativity and ingenuity. Instead of independently investigating the nature of things, we merely research the “correct” answers and then reiterate those explanations. We have become mere automatons. I think there is value in an independent and creative attempt to explain the nature of things. I don’t think one gains as much by researching the “correct” answer, and internalizing it; by doing this, one is merely a receptacle of information, an automaton, a non-thinking agent, rather than a ‘creator’.

Lucretius makes a very interesting comparison between the focusing of the eyes on a specific object and the focusing of the mind on a specific object. The eye must focus on an object in order to discern it; all other objects within the peripheral vision of the eyes appear blurred and undistinguishable – these objects are ignored and uncomprehended. Similarly, the mind focuses on specific objects or thoughts that cross through its senses; and thus we only regard a very limited amount of the ideas that cross our mind. While we are focusing on one idea, are we neglecting a better one?

Lucretius writes that one should not mistake the use of an object with its objective purpose. For example, he writes that the tongue was not formed so that we can talk. The tongue existed before speech. We recognized that we could use the tongue to speak, and thus speech is invented. A more modern example includes reading glasses and the nose. The nose was not formed to support reading glasses. The nose existed before reading glasses. We recognized that we could use the nose to support reading glasses; and thus reading glasses were invented. To summarize this argument: things are formed randomly, and give knowledge of their utility afterwards.

At the end of this book, Lucretius describes the nature of erotic love in beautiful poetic language, but then exhorts the reader to avoid it, and turn to worthier pursuits. He writes that erotic love inevitably becomes grief; but one can still enjoy the pleasures of the nobler kind of love, though one shuns lust.

He writes that it is far easier to avoid lust than to escape from its grasp. But once in the clutches of lust, one can escape by contemplating the defects of the beloved; for the lover often does not see these defects because his passion blinds him and bestows nonexistent charms and attractions on the beloved instead.

The Nature of Things (Penguin Classics)

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6 thoughts on “LUCRETIUS: On the Nature of Things [Book IV]”

  1. Referencing your comment:
    “I think that modern man’s awareness that an explanation exists for nearly every physical phenomena has greatly hindered creativity and ingenuity. Instead of independently investigating the nature of things, we merely research the “correct” answers and then reiterate those explanations. We have become mere automatons. I think there is value in an independent and creative attempt to explain the nature of things. I don’t think one gains as much by researching the “correct” answer, and internalizing it; by doing this, one is merely a receptacle of information, an automaton, a non-thinking agent, rather than a ‘creator’.”
    Do you think there exists a method of combining the definiteness of a “correct” answer and the creativity of developing our own? Could that be the essence of critical thinking? I think, probably. Critical thinking is taking the facts and earnestly asking “Does this make sense? Could there be another explanation?” I agree with you about creativity, however, without some basis of fact, perception merely becomes religion.

    1. Thanks for your response!

      I entirely agree that without external validation in the form of truth/fact, any creative perception of reality becomes merely a matter of faith/religion. But I think that we rely too much on facts that are readily available to us in a quick Google search. We are losing the capacity for critical and creative thinking because we merely accept what is written in a book – whether that be a religious text or a scientific paper. Some very intelligent people of the modern age are replacing one dogma – religion – with another – science. They are not trying to investigate the nature of reality, but merely relying on others to tell them what is Truth. Granted, scientists often have cold hard facts to support their arguments and religious prophets often do not. But I still think that we would benefit from the process of trying to develop our own argument before considering the works of other people.

      On another matter, I noticed that you are an “edgy existentialist.” I am very interested in reading your opinions about some of the major existential philosophers: Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus, Dostoevsky, etc. To begin, what do you think of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence?

      We can continue this conversation through email if you wish. It might be more convenient. My email is orwell1627@yahoo.com

  2. What a great blog! I’m a big fan of Lucretius, especially Book IV and the discussion of erotic love. He’s a lot more tolerant of it than his master Epicurus, who thought that it was preferable to avoid eros entirely.

  3. I enjoyed your thoughts about “On the Nature of Things”… it’s one of my favorites. Have you read “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt? He weaves an interesting tale about the resurfacing of Lucretius’ manuscript and the Renaissance. Thanks for the like.

    1. No, I have not read the book, but I did watch several interviews and lectures given by Greenblatt on YouTube when I was performing research into the background of Lucretius’ brilliant poem. It’s frightening to consider how the poem was almost lost forever.

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