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The Philosophy and Life of Lucretius

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

The Life of Lucretius

The Life of Lucretius

Lucretius died over 2,000 years ago, but he is still influential in philosophy today, particularly as the main transmitter of Epicurean philosophy. Lucretius was an Epicurean poet known for his only surviving work, De Rerum Natura. His work is one of the most valuable surviving sources on Epicurean philosophy, particularly Epicurean physics.

To fear death, then, is foolish, since death is the final and complete annihilation of personal identity, the ultimate release from pain and anxiety.

— Lucretius

The Life of Lucretius

Titus Lucretius Carus, known by Lucretius, was a Roman poet and philosopher. Unfortunately, very little is known about his life—only a few things can be gleaned from his own work and from references by others. He was born in the 90s BC, probably to an aristocratic family. He was well-educated, with thorough studies of Latin, Greek, philosophy, and poetry. Lucretius’s books of poetry are dedicated to Gaius Memmius, a wealthy orator and poet. This suggests that Gaius may have been Lucretius’s patron. Lucretius also seems to have been connected to a network of other philosophers.

Cicero described his works as having “many highlights of genius, and also much artistry” and was likely involved in editing and published De Rerum Natura. Saint Jerome, a Christian thinker living in the fourth and fifth centuries, wrote that Lucretius drank a love potion that drove him insane, eventually leading to his death by suicide around the year 50 BC. There is little reason to believe Jerome’s story, written centuries after Lucretius’s death and likely biased by an anti-Epicurean view, but it does seem that Lucretius died at a relatively young age between 40 and 50.

Biography

  • Name: Titus Lucretius Carus
  • Age: 44 (99 BCE Pompeii–55 BCE Rome)
  • Profession: Roman Poet/Epicurean/Materialist Philosopher
  • Main work: De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things)

Your life is death already, though you live and see,

Except that half your time

You waste in sleep, and the other half you snore

With eyes wide open, forever seeing dreams,

Forever in panic, forever lacking wit.

— Lucretius, "The Way of Things"

Lucretius - De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things)

Lucretius - De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things)

The Philosophy of Lucretius

Lucretius has only one surviving work, De Rerum Natura, usually translated to On the Nature of Things. The work consists of six books of poetry, and you can read about it in more detail in our article on De Rerum Natura. The main topics his work covers are the structure of the universe, atoms as the building block of the universe, the soul, and death. One of the most important themes of Lucretius’s philosophy is a denunciation of the fear of death, a key pillar of Epicurean philosophy.

Epicurus and Lucretius

Lucretius did not live at the same time as Epicurus, but he was a student of Epicurean philosophy. During Lucretius’s lifetime, there was a major school of Epicurean thought being taught by the philosopher Philomedus, and Lucretius may have been a part of this circle.

Outside of Philomedus’s group in Naples, Epicurean was one of the most popular (but still controversial) philosophies for Romans. Very few of Epicurus’s writings survive today, but Lucretius and his contemporaries would have had access to many more. Lucretius was likely reading many of Epicurus’s own texts and based De rerum natura on them.

The art of living well and the art of dying well are one.

— Epicurus

Lucretius’s Contributions to Epicureanism

Because so few of Epicurus’s own writings have survived to the modern era, Lucretius’s work is one of the most valuable sources that can teach us about Epicurean philosophy. It is thanks to Lucretius that we know the Epicurean view of the universe: that all things are built of atoms and void, that atoms are indivisible and indestructible, and that change in the universe comes from the swerve of atoms through space.

Lucretius also details what an ideal Epicurean life looks like: a modest lifestyle, satisfying simple desires, and tranquility. Without the work of Lucretius, many of these ideas would have been lost to time. It is lucky that De Rerum Natura survived at all. Although it was popular during the classical period, many copies did not survive.

It was copied by Carolingian monks in the Middle Ages and again by Poggio Bracciolini, an early modern humanist who found a copy of the manuscript in a German monastery in 1417. Bracciolini copied the manuscript, leading to its spread and a new wave of popularity in the early modern period. Without the work of Lucretius, Epicurean philosophy might be little known and would certainly be less well understood today.

If the world is the product of nothing but natural forces and natural law, divine intervention is impossible.

— Lucretius

Further Reading

  • Clay, Diskin. Lucretius and Epicurus. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983.
  • Gale, Monica, editor. Lucretius. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • 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 and Company, 2011.
  • Hadzsits, George Depue. Lucretius and his Influence. New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1935.
  • Masson, John. Lucretius: Epicurean and Poet New York: Dutton, 1907.
  • Sedley, David. “
  • Wells, Arthur Frederick. “

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on October 29, 2020:

thank you for the comments!

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on October 28, 2020:

Very interesting. I never paid much attention to this fellow. Clearly good contributions.

Liz Westwood from UK on October 28, 2020:

This is an interesting article. It takes me back to the days of proof reading my daughter's essays when she studied philosophy.