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Lucretius: On the Nature of Things

I'm Sam. I have a serious interest in practical philosophy and related topics. Mostly Epicureanism, stoicism, skepticism, rationalism.

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De rerum natura, or On the Nature of Things, is a philosophic book of poetry written during the first century BC and is the most famous surviving work of Epicureanism. The book was written by Lucretius Carus, a Roman philosopher. It contains six books of Epicurean philosophy, which are outlined below.

Who Was Lucretius?

In the fourth century AD, St. Jerome summarized what he knew about Lucretius: “The poet Titus Lucretius was born. He was driven mad by a love-potion and, having composed in the intervals of his insanity several books which Cicero afterwards corrected, committed suicide in his forty-fourth year.” Unfortunately, aside from this brief mention, we have little surviving information about the life of Lucretius. Historians estimate that he was born around 94 BC and died in about 55 BC. It seems that he was educated in Rome but then likely lived in a country estate. He was a writer and a philosopher in the school of Epicurus, who had lived three centuries earlier.

On the Nature of Things

Lucretius’s only surviving work is De rerum natura, usually translated into English as On the Nature of Things. Lucretius’s title itself is a Latin translation of the Greek title of Epicurus’s chief work, Peri physeos, or On Nature. Sadly, this work by Epicurus, as is the case with the vast majority of his work, did not survive into the modern era.

On the Nature of Things draws heavily on Epicurus’s ideas, translating them from Greek into Latin and putting them into his own poetic voice. It is therefore the best source we have for the ideas of classical Epicurean philosophy. On the Nature of Things is a book-length poem, written in hexameters and divided into six books, each of which addresses a major topic within Epicurean philosophy.

Book One

Book One of On the Nature of Things begins with an ode to Venus, praising new birth and spring. Then, the core of the chapter establishes a key principle of the Epicurean worldview: the universe is made up of atoms. The Epicurean atomic theory proposes that everything is made up of ether void (space) or atoms. This was a highly controversial theory in both Epicurus’s and Lucretius’s day, and Lucretius spends part of this book defending his atomic theory against other philosophers. To be fair our world is also not really made up of atoms. The atomic model is not more than a representational model of the physical universe up to a certain level of magnification. Modern science dives much deeper than atoms and ends up with no matter at all.

Book Two

Continuing on from Book One, Book Two describes the composition of physical bodies. All objects, including humans, are made up of the same atoms and void. This book then addresses the famous “swerve” of Epicurean atomic theory. Following Epicurus, Lucretius believed that change and growth in the universe come from the movement of atoms through the void. This movement is due to an innate motion of atoms. Rather than moving in a uniform, predetermined way, atoms move randomly, swerving as they fall through space. It is this swerve that causes collision and change.

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Book Three

In Book Three, Lucretius starts off by praising Epicurus. He then transitions from abstract atomic theory to its implications for an ethical life. Because everything consists of atoms and void, the body and soul are also made of the same material. The soul, made up of atoms, dissolves and is reused just like everything else at death. This fundamental belief leads to the Epicurean tetrapharmakon, or “Four-Fold Remedy”:

  1. Do not fear the gods
  2. Do not fear death
  3. What is good is easy to get
  4. What is difficult is easy to survive

These four principles form the core of Epicurean philosophy. First, freedom from unnecessary fear allows you to live a happy life. Next, focusing on simple needs enables you to live a balanced life, free from pain. And finding joy in simplicity and the mind helps you to live through difficulties, such as illness. Book Three ends with a sermon on the theme of not fearing death, including the famous statement, “Death is nothing to us.”

Book Four

Book Four is devoted to the body, including the senses, bodily functions, and physical desire. Lucretius acknowledges that people can gain pleasure from intercourse and is willing to allow moderate amounts within marriage. However, he condemns sexual passion and excessive sexual behavior as actions that bring more pain than happiness. He believes that overly passionate romantic love is also dangerous, as it causes people to lose sight of their health, fortune, reputation, and virtue.

Book Five

In Book Five, Lucretius zooms out to Epicurean cosmology. He argues that the world was not created by the gods, but by the combination of atoms. He also believes that the world, like all other physical matter, will eventually be destroyed. Although Epicurean philosophy does not deny the existence of gods, it holds that they do not control or much care about humans or the mortal world. This book then transitions to talking about the structure of human society. He views his current society as an evolution from more primitive man, as people make pacts to live together in shared civilizations.

Book Six

Book Six starts with a eulogy of Epicurus. It then deals with various disasters that cause fear. Lucretius starts with natural phenomena: thunder and lightning, whirlwinds, water spouts, storm clouds, rain, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and flooding. He also discusses pestilences and plagues. These phenomena are not punishments from the gods, but natural occurrences. On the Nature of Things ends with a description of the plague at Athens and, just as it began with spring and birth, ends with death.

Transmission of On the Nature of Things

In the classical period, many philosophers viewed Epicureanism with suspicion. Early Christians criticized On the Nature of Thing and Epicurean thought more generally as atheistic. We can perhaps read Jerome’s accusation that Lucretius went mad from drinking a love potion as slander born out of this antagonism. It was, however, copied and read during the classical period and in the Early Middle Ages, when Carolingian monks copied out large numbers of classical manuscripts.

On the Nature of Things was largely forgotten in the Central Middle Ages, until the early fifteenth century, when a book collector named Poggio Bracciolini found a copy in a German monastery. He was very interested in the work and copied and circulated it. Lucretius’s work fit well within a Renaissance trend of reading classical literature and philosophy. It became popular, although always remained controversial – today, over fifty manuscripts of On the Nature of Things survive from the fifteenth century, suggesting that there were originally many more. Through the transition from manuscripts to printed books and beyond, Lucretius’s work has remained well-read and brought Epicurean philosophy to the modern day.

Further Reading

  • Gale, Monica. Lucretius: ‘De Rerum Natura’ V. Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 2008.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.
  • “On the Nature of Things: Work by Lucretius.” Encyclopedia Brtinnica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/On-the-Nature-of-Things-by-Lucretius
  • Purinton, Jeffrey. “Epicurus on ‘Free Volition’ and the Atomic Swerve.” Phronesis 44 (1999): 253-299.
  • Sedley, David. “Lucretius.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. October 17, 2018. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lucretius/.
  • Smith, Martin, translator. On the Nature of Things. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

© 2020 Sam Shepards

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