The author of one of the strangest and most impressive poetic works in history was born sometime around 99 or 95 B.C. The exact date is uncertain; but we are lucky to know even this morsel of information. Titus Lucretius Carus remains one of the most elusive poets of antiquity. He was an Epicurean, and this philosophy was not exactly congenial to the Roman character.
One gets the impression that there was a conspiracy of silence about him, that he may have been some grand embarrassment that needed to be hidden from view.
The centuries certainly conspired to bury his work, and he was almost completely forgotten in the Middle Ages; had the Renaissance humanist Poggio Bracciolini not found him moldering on a monastery shelf, he might have been entirely obliterated from history.
But Epicureanism deserves a fair hearing in these pages. We have spoken of Stoicism and Platonism; let us turn to this much misunderstood and maligned philosophy.
Lucretius was a sensitive soul, intimately attuned to the abundance of nature’s beauty, and the mysteries of her ways. Like Virgil after him, who wrote so movingly of the natural world in his Georgics, Lucretius substituted love of nature for the love of an omnipresent Deity. There were few things that escaped his fascinated eyes: the sounds of running water, the chirping of birds, the stillness of the night, and the rolling crashes of thunder. He was intoxicated with Existence herself, and thus qualifies as a natural mystic.
In his day, the official religion did not hold much attraction for men of the upper classes (to which he almost certainly belonged). Instead, most men satisfied themselves with adherence to one of the philosophical schools. Failing this, they could abandon themselves to superstition, fortune-tellers, and ritualism.
This environment inclined the sensitive young Lucretius to skepticism. At some point, he discovered the writings of Epicurus, and these fired his mind with the force of a revelation. Finally, he thought, he had found the answers to his questions.
His skepticism thus became transformed into atheistic materialism. He resolved to do something that no one had attempted (or has since): to convert rigorous philosophical doctrines into verse form. He would call his poem De Rerum Natura, or “On the Nature of Things.” It is one of those unclassifiable glories of Western literature.
The poem is frankly atheistic and materialistic. The gods, if they even exist at all, are so remote and unconcerned with the affairs of men that they might as well be imaginary. No one but a fool could believe otherwise. Their worship promotes far more evils than good. As he says (I.101):
Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum
Which means, religion has been able to persuade men of many evils. The laws of nature are all that matters: and instead of chasing down the gods, we should seek to know how the universe operates. He thought he had found his creed in materialism: nothing exists outside of matter, and the laws governing matter are the only meaningful laws.
But what is matter? Atoms, atoms, and more atoms. Their shape, size, direction, swerving motions, and agitations are the foundations of all that we can see or perceive. Outside of atoms, nothing exists. Lucretius gets startlingly specific about atoms, for someone coming before the age of modern experimental science. He notes that atoms have constituent parts (called minima), and their movements (called declinationes or declinations) are the real breath of Creation.
Our senses are the results of interactions with these mysterious atoms; they strike the body constantly and give rise to touch, smell, hearing, and other sensory experiences. Life exists for a time, and then is replaced by other life. The soul is not immortal, and neither is it any kind of “spiritual” entity.
Death to Lucretius is not such a bad thing. It is part of the natural chain of life, or the movement of the universe, and we err in grieving too much for the departed. All of life, and all things, are bound up with this inexorable process of growth, fruition, maturity, decay, and death. And then the process begins anew.
He even offers us a rudimentary theory of social organization and development. Man in his state of nature originally came together for protection and security. He learned how to harness fire, and how to cultivate the earth; and from these discoveries, others proceeded. Soon cities and states flowered, and then empires; but even those things could not be seen as permanent. They too would eventually fall into decay, to be replaced by something else.
But before dying, an old civilization or life-form would pass on its torch to the next one, like a runner in a race:
Augescunt aliae gentes, aliae minuuntur,
Inque brevi spatio mutantur saecla animantum
Et quasi cursores vitai lampada tradunt.
Which means: Some species increase, others decrease, and in a short space of eras the living forms are changed and, like runners, pass on the torch of life.
Even the earth and the universe itself sees this unending process. The mountains crumble, rivers dry up or change course, and creation then comes anew. Nothing can escape the endless cycle of birth and death.
There is much in Lucretius’s incredible poem to be admired. He deliberately used an archaic type of Latin phraseology for his poem, and this gives it an authority and resonance that is unfortunately lost on the reader in translation. His science is incredibly modern; we only marvel at how much the ancients were able to deduce just from observation, rather than experiment.
He is paraphrasing Democritus and Empedocles, of course, but still took considerable genius to turn scientific speculation into sonorous verse. No one, we may note, has ever attempted to turn Einstein’s or Newton’s laws into verse.
And yet the final result is a feeling of pervasive gloom, at least to this reader. The author Stephen Greenblatt, in his excellent study of Lucretius The Swerve, describes how he was able to find peace of mind and solace in De Rerum Natura in dealing with some personal tragedies.
I respect this, of course, but for me there is little comfort or charm in being told that nothing exists but atoms and the void, and that the world is an endless cycle of death and rebirth. I prefer the idealism of Plato, and the practical ethical counsel of the Stoics.
Even Lucretius, ironically, was unable to use his philosophy to escape his own depression. According to St. Jerome, he died by his own hand at the age of forty-four. Some have called into question Jerome’s account as being biased, and this may be true; but I find it credible.
Man needs inspiration, nobility, and conviction. Epicureanism, taken to its logical conclusions, can lend itself to abuses by those who seek physical pleasures to the exclusion of all else, as a tonic to the inevitable death that is to come. While this may not have been Lucretius’s or Epicurus’s intention, it is still a sentiment that seems to creep into discussions of Epicurean philosophy.
It is difficult to inspire a man to great things when we can only tell him that he is a meaningless collection of atoms; that this life is a purposeless pantomime of birth and death, signifying nothing; and that we will all eventually vanish into dust.
Nevertheless, this is a great poem, and an incredible achievement for one mind. For at least here is an attempt to grapple with the physical realities of the universe, rather than a meek collection of pretty verses hiding behind the comfort of inherited wisdom.
And in the end, when all is said and done, courage is what ultimately matters.
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