Bruce's Reviews > On the Nature of Things

On the Nature of Things by Titus Lucretius Carus
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Apr 12, 2012

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Read in April, 2012

Lucretius wrote this explication and celebration of Epicureanism in the first century BCE. The text was lost for many years but apparently rediscovered during the Renaissance, and it has been influential ever since. There is probably no translation from the Latin that perfectly combines the poetic beauty and the philosophical insights of the original, although there have been many attempts to do so. I was particularly interested during this reading in having as clear a delineation of Lucretius’ arguments as possible, and so I chose the translation (with notes) by Martin Ferguson Smith. I discovered, in fact, that Smith was able to write surprisingly poetically, with alliteration and creative metaphors as well as pleasing meter, despite the prose format.

The work is divided into six books, each addressing different topics. Lucretius appeals to the Muses for help and refers on occasion to the gods, but it is clear that he views them as being removed from the realm or concerns of the world and humanity, uninterested in and inattentive to them. In Book I, Lucretius outlines his theory of atomism, basing all of material existence on the presence of indivisible particles in a surrounding and interpenetrating void. His ideas are prescient, and if the theory cannot truly be described as a scientific one, it at least can be classified as a natural philosophy that he uses in subsequent books to develop a cosmology and anthropology. In Book II he further describes the motions and characteristics of atoms, their shapes and functioning, and he posits the evanescence of all material objects, including the earth and celestial bodies themselves. Book III describes the soul, comprised of both mind and spirit, that is limited to the existence of the body, having no existence apart from or subsequent to the latter, and in this book, the most interesting to me, he discusses death and why there is no reason to fear it. Any kind of personal afterlife is rejected. In Book IV Lucretius explains thought and sensation as well as various vital functions such as locomotion, sleep, nourishment, sex, and the like. He moves on in Book V to discuss the formation of the earth and astronomical phenomena, the beginnings of life on earth, and the development of civilization. Finally, in Book VI, he talks about meteorological phenomena and plagues, ending rather abruptly – was the work truly finished, or did Lucretius die before completing it?

The work is interesting on several levels. It allows a view into an important philosophical tradition of the Greco-Latin period, Epicurianism, and it allows the reader to gain insights into how this particular philosophical school contrasted with other intellectual strains of the times. It is also interesting as a description of natural philosophical thinking that formed the background for subsequent more rigorous scientific reasoning. I found myself most interested in the portions of the work addressing philosophical issues of relevance to humankind in whatever era, including death and meaning in life. There are admittedly parts of the treatise that are less interesting, and many parts of Lucretius’ cosmology can now be seen as fanciful and scientifically not only implausible but obviously incorrect. Nonetheless, the work is well worth reading and is not so lengthy as to be tedious. It is an important work, the rediscovery of which several hundred years ago was fortunate.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Martha (new)

Martha Bruce, I'm assuming you read De Rerum after having read the Swerve. What did you think? Was Greenblatt on the right track?

Bruce You are correct, although I had read De Rerum a number of times over the years in other translations. I think that Greenblatt was fair in his assessment of the work, presenting a balanced exposition and evaluation.

David Sarkies Great review. I never realised that it had been lost until the Renaissance. Maybe it was one of the reasons that spurred modern scientific enquiry.

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