100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 42

 

 

Lucretius’ DE RERUM NATURA

 

 If we try to reduce to some logical form the passionate disorder of Lucretius’ argument, his initial thesis lies in a famous line:

 

Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum—

 

“to so many evils religion has persuaded men.” He tells the story of Iphigenia in AuIis, of countless human sacrifices, of hecatombs offered to gods conceived in the image of man’s greed; he recalls the terror of simplicity and youth lost in a jungle of vengeful deities, the fear of lightning and thunder, of death and Hell, and the subterranean horrors pictured in Etruscan art and Oriental mysteries. He reproaches humankind for preferring sacrificial ritual to philosophical understanding:

 

    O miserable race of men, to impute to the gods such acts as these, and such bitter wrath! What sorrow did men [through such creeds] prepare for themselves, what wounds for us, what tears for our children! For piety lies not in being often seen turning a veiled head to stones, nor in approaching every altar, nor in lying prostrate . . . before the temples of the gods, nor in sprinkling altars with the blood of beasts . . . but rather in being able to look upon all things with a mind at peace.Lucretius

 

    There are gods, says Lucretius, but they dwell far off in happy isolation from the thought or cares of men. There, “beyond the flaming ramparts of the world” (extra flammantia moenia mundi), beyond the reach of our sacrifices and prayers, they live like followers of Epicurus, shunning worldly affairs, content with the contemplation of beauty and the practices of friendship and peace. They are not the authors of creation, nor the causes of events; who would be so unfair as to charge them with the wastefulness, the disorder, the sufferings, and the injustices of earthly life? No, this infinite universe of many worlds is self-contained; it has no law outside itself; nature does everything of her own accord. “For who is strong enough to rule the sum of things, to hold in hand the mighty bridle of the unfathomable deep?—who to turn all the heavens around at once . . . to shake the serene sky with thunder, to launch the lightning that often shatters temples, and cast the bolt that slays the innocent and passes the guilty by?” The only god is Law; and the truest worship, as well as the only peace, lies in learning that Law and loving it. “This terror and gloom of the mind must be dispelled not by the sun’s rays . . . but by the aspect and law of nature.”

    And so, “touching with the honey of the Muses” the rough materialism of Democritus, Lucretius proclaims as his basic theorem that “nothing exists but atoms and the void” i.e. matter and space. He proceeds at once to a cardinal principle (and assumption) of modem science—that the quantity of matter and motion in the world never varies; no thing arises out of nothing, and destruction is only a change of form. The atoms are indestructible, unchangeable, solid, resilient, soundless, odorless, tasteless, colorless, and infinite. They interpenetrate one another to produce endless combinations and qualities; and they move without cease in the seeming stillness of motionless things.

 

    For often on a hill . . . woolly sheep go creeping wherever the dew-sparkling grass tempts them, and the well-fed lambs play and butt their heads in sport; yet in the distance all these are blurred together and seem but a whiteness resting on a green hill. Sometimes great armies cover wide fields in maneuvers mimicking war; the brilliant bronze of their shields illumines the countryside and is mirrored in the sky; the ground trembles and thunders under their marching feet and their galloping steeds; and the mountains, buffeted by the sound, hurl it back to the very stars: and yet there is a place on the peaks from which these armies appear to be motionless, a little brightness resting on the plain.

 

The atoms* have parts—minima, or “least things”—each minimum being solid, indivisible, ultimate. Perhaps because of the different arrangement of these parts, the atoms vary in size and shape, and so make possible the refreshing diversity of nature. The atoms do not move in straight or uniform lines; there is in their motion an incalculable “declination” or deviation, an elemental spontaneity that runs through all things and culminates in man’s free will.

    All was once formless; but the gradual assortment of the moving atoms by their size and shape produced—without design—air, fire, water, and earth, and out of these the sun and moon, the planets and stars. In the infinity of space, new worlds are ever being born, and old worlds are wasting away. The stars are fires set in the ring of ether (a mist of thinnest atoms) that surrounds each planetary system; this cosmic wall of fire constitutes the “flaming ramparts of the world.” A portion of the primeval mist broke off from the mass, revolved separately, and cooled to form the earth. Earthquakes are not the growling of deities, but the expansion of subterranean gases and streams. Thunder and lightning are not the voice and breath of a god, but natural results of condensed and clashing clouds. Rain is not the mercy of Jove, but the return to earth of moisture evaporated from it by the sun.

    Life does not differ essentially from other matter; it is a product of moving atoms that are individually dead. As the universe took form by the inherent laws of matter, so the earth produced by a purely natural selection all the species and organs of life.

 

    Nothing arises in the body in order that we may use it, but what arises brings forth its own use. . . . It was no design of the atoms that led them to arrange themselves in order with keen intelligence . . . but because many atoms in infinite time have moved and met in all manner of ways, trying all combinations. . . . Hence arose the beginnings of great things . . . and the generations of living creatures. . . . Many were the monsters that the earth tried to make: . . . some without feet, and others without hands or mouth or face, or with limbs bound to their frames. . . . It was in vain; nature denied them growth, nor could they find food or join in the way of love. . . . Many kinds of animals must have perished then, unable to forge the chain of procreation . . . for those to which nature gave no [protective] qualities lay at the mercy of others, and were soon destroyed.

 

    Mind (animus) is an organ precisely like feet or eyes; it is, like them, a tool or function of that soul (anima) or vital breath that is spread as a very fine matter throughout the body, and animates every part. Upon the highly sensitive atoms that form the mind fall the images or films that perpetually emanate from the surfaces of things; this is the source of sensation. Particles coming from objects and striking tongue or palate, nostrils, ears, eyes, or skin cause taste, smell, hearing, sight, and touch; all senses are forms of touch. The senses are the final test of truth; if they seem to err, it is only through misinterpretation, and only another sense can correct them. Reason cannot be the test of truth, for reason depends upon experience i.e. sensation.

    The soul is neither spiritual nor immortal. It could not move the body unless it too was corporeal; it grows and ages with the body; it is affected like the body by disease, medicine, or wine; its atoms are apparently dispersed when the body dies. Soul without body would be senseless, meaningless; of what use would soul be without organs of touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight? Life is given us not in freehold but on loan, and for so long as we can make use of it. When we have exhausted our powers, we should leave the table of life as graciously as a grateful guest rising from a feast. Death itself is not terrible; only our fears of the hereafter make it so. However, there is no hereafter. Hell is here in the suffering that comes from ignorance, passion, pugnacity, and greed; heaven is here in the sapientum templa serena—“the serene temples of the wise.”

    Virtue lies not in the fear of the gods, nor in the timid shunning of pleasure; it lies in the harmonious operation of senses and faculties guided by reason. “Some men wear out their lives for the sake of a statue and fame”; but “the real wealth of man is to live simply with a mind at peace” (vivere parce aequo animo). Better than living stiffly in gilded halls is “to lie in groups upon the soft grass beside a rivulet and under tall trees,” or to hear gentle music, or lose one’s ego in the love and care of our children. Marriage is good, but passionate love is a madness that strips the mind of clarity and reason. “If one is wounded by the shafts of Venus—whether it be a boy with girlish limbs who launches the shaft or a woman radiating love from her whole body—he is drawn toward the source of the blow, and longs to unite.” No marriage and no society can find a sound basis in such erotic befuddlement.

    As Lucretius, exhausting his passions on philosophy, finds no room for romantic love, so he rejects the romantic anthropology of Greek Rousseauians who had glorified primitive life. Men were hardier then, to be sure; but they dwelt in caves without fire, they mated without marriage, killed without law, and died of starvation as frequently as people in civilization die of overeating. How civilization developed, Lucretius tells in a pretty summary of ancient anthropology. Social organization gave man the power to survive animals far stronger than himself. He discovered fire from the friction of leaves and boughs, developed language from gestures, and learned song from the birds; he tamed animals for his use, and himself with marriage and law; he tilled the soil, wove clothing, molded metals into tools; he observed the heavens, measured time, and learned navigation; he improved the art of killing, conquered the weak, and built cities and states. History is a procession of states and civilizations rising, prospering, decaying, dying; but each in turn transmits the civilizing heritage of customs, morals, and arts; “like runners in a race they hand on the lamps of life” (et quasi cursores vitai lampada tradunt).

    All things that grow decay: organs, organisms, families, states, races, planets, stars; only the atoms never die. The forces of destruction in a vast diastole and systole of life and death balance the forces of creation and development. In nature, there is evil as well as good; suffering, even unmerited, comes to every life, and dissolution dogs the steps of every evolution. Our earth itself is dying: earthquakes are breaking it up. The land is becoming exhausted, rains and rivers erode it, and carry even the mountains at last into the sea. Someday our whole stellar system will suffer a like mortality; “the walls of the sky will be stormed on every side, and will collapse into a crumbling ruin.” But the very moment of mortality betrays the invincible vitality of the world. “The wailing of the newborn infant is mingled with the dirge sung for the dead.” New systems form, new stars and planets, another earth, and fresher life. Evolution begins again.

* Lucretius never uses this word, but calls his primordial particles primordia, elementa, or semina (seeds).

Ed. Note: Modern science would term these “minimum” quarks and leptons.

Cf. the “indeterminacy” ascribed to the electrons by some physicists of our time.

Looking back over this “most marvelous performance in all antique literature,” we may first recognize its shortcomings: the chaos of its contents, left unrevised by the poet’s early death; the repetition of phrases, lines, whole passages; the conception of sun, moon, and stars as no larger than we see them; the inability of the system to explain how dead atoms became life and consciousness; the insensitiveness to the insights, consolations, inspirations, and moving poetry of faith, and the moral and social functions of religion. But how light these faults are in the scale against the brave attempt at a rational interpretation of the universe, of history, of religion, of disease;* the picture of nature as a world of law, in which matter and motion are never diminished or increased; the grandeur of the theme and the nobility of its treatment; the sustained power of imagination that feels everywhere “the majesty of things,” and lifts the visions of Empedocles, the science of Democritus, and the ethics of Epicurus into some of the loftiest poetry that any age has known. Here was a language still rough and immature, almost devoid as yet of philosophical or scientific terms; Lucretius does not merely create a new vocabulary, he forces the old speech into new channels of rhythm and grace; and, while molding the hexameter into an unequaled masculinity of power, reaches now and then the mellow tenderness and fluency of Virgil. The sustained vitality of his poem shows Lucretius as one who amid all sufferings and disappointments enjoyed and exhausted life almost from birth to death.   


* “There are many seeds of things that support our life; and on the other hand there must be many flying about that make for disease and death.”

 

How did he die? Church Father Jerome reports that “Lucretius was driven mad by a love philter, after he had written several books. . . . He died by his own hand in his forty-fourth year.” The story is uncorroborated, and has been much doubted; no saint could be trusted to give an objective account ofLucretius. Some critics have found support for the story in the unnatural tension of the poem, its poorly organized contents, and its sudden end; but one need not be a Lucretius to be excitable, disorderly, or dead.

    Like Euripides, Lucretius is a modern; his thought and feeling are more congenial to our time than to the century before Christ. Horace and Virgil were deeply influenced by him in their youth, and recall him without name in many a lordly phrase; but the attempt of Augustus to restore the old faith made it unwise for these imperial protégés to express too openly their admiration and their debt. The Epicurean philosophy was as unsuited to the Roman mind as epicurean practices suited Roman taste in the age of Lucretius.* Rome wanted a metaphysic that would exalt mystic powers rather than natural law; an ethic that would make a virile and martial people rather than humanitarian lovers of quiet and peace; and a political philosophy that, like those of Virgil and Horace, would justify Rome’s imperial mastery. In the resurrection of faith after Seneca, Lucretius was almost forgotten. Not till Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered him in 1417 did he begin to influence European thought. A physician of Verona, Girolamo Fracastoro (1483-1553) took from the poet the theory of disease as due to noxious “seeds” (semina) floating in the air; and in 1647 Gassendi revived the atomic philosophy. Voltaire read the De Rerum Natura devotedly, and agreed with Ovid that its rebel verses would last as long as the earth.

    In the endless struggle of East and West, of “tender-minded” and consoling faiths vs. a “tough-minded” and materialistic science, Lucretius waged alone the most vigorous battle of his time. He is, of course, the greatest of philosophical poets. In him, as in Catullus and Cicero, Latin literature came of age, and leadership in letters passed at last from Greece to Rome.


* The words Epicurean and Stoic will be used here as meaning a believer in the metaphysics and ethics of Epicurus, or of Zeno; epicurean and stoic as meaning one who practices, or avoids, soft living and sensual indulgence.