Evan Leach's Reviews > The Way Things Are: The De Rerum Natura

The Way Things Are by Titus Lucretius Carus
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Apr 17, 12

bookshelves: roman-literature, poetry, ancient-literature, philosophy, epic-poetry
Read in June, 2011

The De Rerum Natura is the sole surviving work of Lucretius, a Roman poet writing in the 1st century BC. The book summarizes and explains the principles of Epicureanism, a philosophy founded by the Greek philosopher Epicurus around 300 BC. Epicureanism emphasized that while gods existed, they did not interfere in human affairs, and free will instead of fate governed people’s lives. Epicurus also rejected the existence of an afterlife, believed in a rudimentary kind of atomism, and argued that the pursuit of pleasure was the most important goal in life. This focus on pleasure led critics of Epicurus to characterize his philosophy (often unfairly) as a kind of irresponsible, hedonistic creed that was against the best interests of society.

Lucretius’ poem, presented as a long letter to a man named Memmius, aims to convert its recipient to the Epicurean way. Lucretius adopts two main strategies. First, he effectively skewers traditional explanations for natural phenomena based off of mythology and legend. Now Lucretius was writing in the first century BC, not the ninth. The Greeks had been poking holes in the logic of mythology for centuries, and Lucretius is taking aim at low-hanging fruit by setting out to explain that creation was not in fact contingent on Zeus cutting Cronus’s balls off and volcanoes in Sicily are not explained by giant fire breathing monsters chained beneath a mountain. But his arguments are logical and very clever at times, and enjoyable to read. Second, Lucretius attempts to provide a better explanation for “the way things are” using the atomic principles of epicureanism. This stuff is less effective. Lucretius’ explanations are usually closer than mythology’s to the truths we know today, but he obviously did not have the benefits of modern technology and was flying by the seat of his pants a bit. Nobody in the modern world should read this book for its scientific knowledge. Also, atomic theories had been kicked around for a couple hundred years by Lucretius’s time, so he doesn’t get major originality points here either.

The De Rerum Natura is probably the oldest “must read” Roman text, in the sense that it makes virtually every shortlist of the Roman classics. I would recommend it to any reader interested in Latin literature for a few reasons. Epicureanism was a big-time philosophical wave in the last century of the republic, and this book does an excellent job in describing its tenets. Also, while I wouldn’t put Lucretius in Virgil or Ovid’s class, aesthetically the poem is well put together and pleasant to read. Most of all, I enjoyed this poem’s enlightened attitude towards the world and its dogged determination to tear down superstition wherever it could. It cheers the human spirit to think how Lucretius and his successors fought and clawed to drag their unwilling societies that much closer to the light of reason and all that good stuff. Progress! Of course, Lucretius’s accomplishments were kind of short lived: just a few short decades after his death, the Roman Republic was no more and reason was largely out to lunch for the next 1500 years. But I guess you can’t win ‘em all.

We’re left with an odd poem that doesn’t have any real characters and nothing in the way of plot. It’s basically a versification of a largely forgotten belief system, and its scientific forays seem well-intentioned at best and silly at worst. But for all that, there is a lot to enjoy here. I read the Rolfe Humphries translation, which was excellent, and I’ll leave you with a quote from him. “It is poetry without illusions: sober and manly, a Roman poem republican in its modesty and imperial in its domains and claims.” 4 stars, highly recommended for readers interested in the history of philosophy or Roman literature.
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message 1: by Ryan (new)

Ryan Fascinating. :)


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