On the Nature of Things

On the Nature of Things

"On the Nature of Things" (Latin: "De rerum natura") is a first century BC poem by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius with the goal of explaining Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience. The poem is divided into six books, and concentrates heavily on Epicurean physics. It deals with the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The poem grandly proclaims the reality of our role in a universe which is ruled by chance, with no interference from gods. It is a statement of personal responsibility in a world in which everyone is driven by hungers and passions with which they were born and do not understand.


Literally, the title translates as "On the Nature of Things". The title is sometimes translated as "On the Nature of the Universe", perhaps in order to reflect the scale of its subject matter. Lucretius' view is austere, but nevertheless he points out that a few enlightened individuals can escape periodically from their own hungers and passions and look down with compassion on poor humanity, including themselves, who are on average ignorant, unhappy, and yearning for something better than what they see around them. Personal responsibility then consists of speaking and living personal truth.

Accordingly, "On the Nature of Things" is Lucretius' personal statement of truth to an ignorant audience. He hopes that someone will hear, understand, and pass on a seed of truth to help improve the world.

From a scientific perspective, Lucretius' argument that the visible motion of small particles reveals the impact of atoms anticipates Einstein's quantitative analysis of Brownian motion, which was pivotal in the modern acceptance of the reality of atoms.


The poem opens with a magnificent invocation to Venus, whom he addresses as an allegorical representation of the reproductive power, after which the business of the piece commences by an enunciation of the great proposition on the nature and being of the gods, which leads to a grand invective against the gigantic monster religion, and a thrilling picture of the horrors which attends its tyrannous sway. Then follows a lengthened elucidation of the axiom that nothing can be produced from nothing, and that nothing can be reduced to nothing ("Nil fieri ex nihilo, in nihilum nil posse reverti"); which is succeeded by a definition of the Ultimate Atoms, infinite in number, which, together with Void Space ("Inane"), infinite in extent, constitute the universe. The shape of these corpuscules, their properties, their movements, the laws under which they enter into combination and assume forms and qualities appreciable by the senses, with other preliminary matters on their nature and affections, together with a refutation of objections and opposing hypotheses, occupy the first two books.

In the third book, the general truths thus established are applied to demonstrate that the vital and intellectual principles, the "Anima" and "Animus", are as much a part of us as are our limbs and members, but like those limbs and members have no distinct and independent existence, and that hence soul and body live and perish together; the argument being wound up by a magnificent exposure of the folly manifested in a dread of death, which will for ever extinguish all feeling.

The fourth book - perhaps the most ingenious of the whole - is devoted to the theory of the senses, sight, hearing, taste, smell, of sleep and of dreams, ending with a disquisition upon love and sex.

The fifth book, generally regarded as the most finished and impressive, treats of the origin of the world and of all things that are therein, of the movements of the heavenly bodies, of the changes of the seasons, of day and night, of the rise and progress of humankind, of society, and of political institutions, and of the invention of the various arts and sciences which embellish and ennoble life.

The sixth book comprehends an explanation of some of the most striking natural appearances, especially thunder, lightning, hail, rain, snow, ice, cold, heat, wind, earthquakes, volcanoes, springs and localities noxious to animal life, which leads to a discourse upon diseases. This in its turn introduces an appalling description of the great pestilence which devastated Athens during the Peloponnesian war, and thus the book closes. The termination being somewhat abrupt, suggests that Lucretius had not finished fully editing the poem before his death.


The poem consists of the following main arguments.

* Substance is eternal.
** Atoms move in an infinite void.
** The universe is all atoms and void, nothing else. (Hence, Lucretius' view is labeled as atomism.)

* The human soul consists of minute atoms that dissipate into smoke when a person dies.
** Gods exist, but they did not start the universe, and they have no concern for humans.

* Likely there are other worlds in the universe much like this one, likewise composed of changing combinations of atoms.
** Being mere shifting combinations of atoms, this world and the other worlds are not eternal.
** The other worlds out there are not controlled by gods any more than this one.

* The forms of life in this world and in the other worlds change, increasing in power for a time and then losing power to other forms.
** Humankind went through a savage beginning, and there has been noticeable improvement in skill and ability, but even this world will pass away.

* People know by either the senses or by reason.
** Senses are dependable.
** Reason infers underlying explanations, but reason can reach false inferences. Hence, inferences must be continually verified against the senses.
** (Compare to Plato, who believed that senses could be fooled and reason was reliable.)

* The senses perceive the macroscopic collisions and interactions of bodies.
** But reason infers the atoms and the void to explain what the senses perceive.

* People avoid pain and seek what gives them pleasure.
** The average person then is driven to maximize pleasure while avoiding pain.

* People are born with two big vulnerabilities for hurt, the fear of gods and the fear of death.
** But the gods will not hurt you, and death is easy when life is gone.
** When you are gone, the atoms in your soul and the atoms in your body will still be here making up something else, a rock, a lake, or a flower.

The swerve

The problem that arises from an entirely deterministic and materialistic account of reality is free will. Lucretius maintains that the free will is possible through the random tendency for atoms to swerve (Latin: clinamen).

Lucretius's skepticism

Lucretius maintained that he could free humankind from fear of the gods by demonstrating that all things occur by natural causes without any intervention by the gods. Historians of science, however, have been critical of the limitations of his Epicurean approach to science, especially as it pertained to astronomical topics, which he relegated to the class of "unclear" objects. (Lloyd 1973, p. 26; Stahl 1962, pp. 81-3)

Thus, he began his discussion by claiming that he would

:explain by what forces nature steers the courses of the Sun and the journeyings of the Moon, so that we shall not suppose that they run their yearly races between heaven and earth of their own free will [i.e., are gods themselves] or that they are rolled round in furtherance of some divine plan.... (V, 76-81)

However, when he set out to put this plan into practice, he limited himself to showing how one, or several different, naturalistic accounts could explain certain natural phenomena. He was unable to tell his readers how to determine which of these alternatives might be the true one. (Alioto 1987, p. 97)

:Let us now take as our theme the cause of stellar movements.:*First let us suppose that the great globe of the sky itself rotates....:*There remains the alternative possibility that the sky as a whole is stationary while the shining constellations are in motion. This may happen ::*because swift currents of ether ... whirl round and round and roll their fires at large across the nocturnal regions of the sky. Or ::*an external current of air from some other quarter may whirl them along in their course. Or ::*they may swim of their own accord, each responsive to the call of its own food, and feed their fiery bodies in the broad pastures of the sky. :One of these causes must certainly operate in our world.... But to lay down which of them it is lies beyond the range of our stumbling progress. (V, 510-533)

Drawing on these, and other passages, William Stahl considered that "The anomalous and derivative character of the scientific portions of Lucretius' poem makes it reasonable to conclude that his significance should be judged as a poet, not as a scientist." (Stahl 1962, p. 83)

Characters in the drama

There are several characters in the drama of this epic poem. Epicurus is a teacher who passed to Lucretius the light of understanding. The character Religion is a monster that attacks people from the sky and seeks to destroy truth. Epicurus wins against Religion because he explains to the comprehending person the vast and infinite universe, and brings a sudden realisation of what can be and what cannot be. This sudden understanding of the underlying atoms, void, and possible interactions of the universe will free individuals from the inherited fears of gods and of death.

Here are the words of Lucretius translated to English by William Ellery Leonard and provided by courtesy of the Gutenberg e-text project. [http://ibiblio.org/gutenberg/etext97/natng10.txt]

:While human kind:Throughout the lands lay miserably crushed:Before all eyes beneath Religion--who:Would show her head along the region skies,:Glowering on mortals with her hideous face--:A Greek [Epicurus] it was who first opposing dared:Raise mortal eyes that terror to withstand,:Whom nor the fame of Gods nor lightning's stroke:Nor threatening thunder of the ominous sky:Abashed; but rather chafed to angry zest:His dauntless heart to be the first to rend:The crossbars at the gates of Nature old.:And thus his will and hardy wisdom won;:And forward thus he fared afar, beyond:The flaming ramparts of the world, until:He wandered the unmeasurable All.:Whence he to us, a conqueror, reports:What things can rise to being, what cannot,:And by what law to each its scope prescribed,:Its boundary stone that clings so deep in Time.:Wherefore Religion now is under foot,:And us his victory now exalts to heaven. (I, 62-79)

What draws people to religion?

Lucretius has compassion for those people who do not understand the mechanisms of the universe that gave them birth. He felt these ignorant and unfortunate people need religion to explain where they came from, why good things sometimes occur, and what could possibly shield them from the misfortunes they see fall upon others.

:Nor [is this the place] to pursue the atoms one by one,:To see the law whereby each thing goes on.:But some men, ignorant of matter, think,:Opposing this, that not without the gods,:In such adjustment to our human ways,:Can nature change the seasons of the years,:And bring to birth the grains and all of else:To which divine Delight, the guide of life,:Persuades mortality and leads it on,:That, through her artful blandishments of love,:It propagate the generations still,:Lest humankind should perish. When they feign:That gods have stablished all things but for man,:They seem in all ways mightily to lapse:From reason's truth: for ev'n if ne'er I knew:What seeds primordial are, yet would I dare:This to affirm, ev'n from deep judgment based:Upon the ways and conduct of the skies--:This to maintain by many a fact besides--:That in no wise the nature of the world:For us was builded by a power divine--:So great the faults it stands encumbered with::The which, dear Memmius, later on, for thee:We will clear up. Now as to what remains:Concerning motions we'll unfold our thought. (II, 167-183)

Lucretius wrote this epic poem to "Memmius", who may be the Gaius Memmius who in 58 BC was a praetor, a judicial official deciding controversies between citizens and between citizens and the government. There are over a dozen references to "Memmius" scattered throughout the long poem in a variety of contexts in translation, such as "Memmius mine", "my Memmius", and "illustrious Memmius". Apparently, Lucretius wrote On the Nature of Things in an attempt to convert Gaius Memmius to atomism, but was unsuccessful.

ee also

* Lucretius

External links

*Project Gutenberg e-text of " [http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=785 On The Nature Of Things] "
*Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Lucretius, with extensive discussion of " [http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lucretius/#4 On the Nature of Things] "


* Alioto, Anthony M. "A History of Western Science". Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1987. ISBN 0-13-392390-8
* Lloyd, G. E. R. "Greek Science after Aristotle". New York: W. W. Norton, 1973. ISBN 0-393-04371-1
*"Lucretius The Way Things Are: The De Rerum Natura", translation by Rolfe Humphries, Indiana University Press 1968, ISBN 0-253-20125-X
* Stahl, William. "Roman Science". Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1962.
* E-text of "On the Nature of Things" [http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/785]
* Summary of "On the Nature of Things," by section [http://www.mcgoodwin.net/pages/otherbooks/tlc_rerumnatura.html]
* Analysis of Lucretius' "conversion" challenge in terms of designing a "meme" that would compete with the surrounding memes of creationism; "as doctors sweeten bitter medicine with honey", so Lucretius sweetened the conversion pill as poetry [http://www.leeds.ac.uk/classics/lics/discussion/2002dp1.pdf]



*Lucretius. "On the Nature of Things: De rerum natura". Anthony M. Esolen, transl. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Pr., 1995. ISBN 0-8018-5055-X
*"Lucretius the Way Things Are: The De Rerum Natura". Rolfe Humphries, transl. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1968. ISBN 0-253-20125-X.
*Lucretius. "On the Nature of the Universe". R. E. Latham, transl. London: Penguin Books, 1994. ISBN 0-14-044610-9.
*Lucretius. "On the Nature of Things" (Loeb Classical Library No. 181). W. H. Rouse, transl., rev. by M. F. Smith. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Pr., 1992, reprint with revisions of the 1924 edition. ISBN 0-674-99200-8.
*Lucretius. "On the Nature of Things" (Hackett Classics Series). Martin Ferguson Smith, transl. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing Co., 2001. ISBN 0-87220-587-8. (Reviewed at [http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2002/2002-02-08.html] ; responses to the review at [http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2002/2002-03-09.html] )


*Brown, P. Michael (ed.). "Lucretius", De Rerum Natura III. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1997. ISBN 0-85668-694-8 (hb). ISBN 0-85668-695-6 (pb). (Reviewed at [http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/1998/1998-11-06.html] )
*Campbell, Gordon. "Lucretius on Creation and Evolution: A Commentary on "De Rerum Natura" Book Five, Lines 772-1104". Oxford: Oxford Univ. Pr., 2003. ISBN 0-19-926396-5. (Reviewed at [http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2004/2004-06-26.html] )

: [http://www.ircps.org/publications/aestimatio/pdf/2005-12-02_Holmes.pdf#search=%22campbell%20gordon%20lucretius%20meme%22 Link to a sympathetic review] of Campbell's book. At page 160, the reviewer concludes the following. "Lucretius on Creation and Evolution" offers a bold and sophisticated attempt to come to terms with Lucretius' arguments on evolution in the spirit of the poem's most ambitious commentators. It deserves not only consultation but active perusal. I could not agree more with Campbell's commitment to putting Lucretius and Epicureanism into conversation with the present and with our own attempts to figure out where humans belong in a world of chance and impersonal necessity."

*Fowler, Don. "Lucretius on Atomic Motion: A Commentary on "De Rerum Natura", Book Two, Lines 1-332". Oxford: Oxford Univ. Pr., 2002. ISBN 0-19-924358-1. (Reviewed at [http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2003/2003-07-28.html] )
*Gale,Monica R. "Lucretius and the Didactic Epic". London: Bristol Classical Pr., 2001. ISBN 1-85399-557-6 (Reviewed at [http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2002/2002-03-42.html] )
*Johnson, W.R. "Lucretius and the Modern World". London: Duckworth, 2000. ISBN 0-7156-2882-8. (Reviewed at [http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2001/2001-01-17.html] )
*Kennedy, Duncan F. "Rethinking Reality: Lucretius and the Textualization of Nature". Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Pr., 2002. ISBN 0-472-11288-0. (Reviewed at [http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2002/2002-12-09.html] )
*Sedley, David. "Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom". Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1998. ISBN 0-521-57032-8. (Reviewed at [http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/1999/1999-10-29.html] )

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