Thoughts on The Nature of Things by Lucretius

De rerum natura by Lucretius

As seems to be the norm as of late, I have arrived at the final day of the month and am about to put forth some thoughts on my current classic read. For September I delved into Lucretius and his study, The Nature of Things. This is an epic poem delivered in six volumes and is essentially a classical account of the material universe.

Not. Light. Reading.

I thought Milton was tough but Titus Lucretius Carus repeatedly left me with eyes crossed and hand reaching for the encyclopedia. Never mind the countless meanderings down historic paths I took while seeking explanations for various bits of commentary. My grasp of natural history is slightly better than the average guy on the street corner but nowhere near broad enough to have a clue what Lucretius was rambling on about orating about half the time.

I do love Roman names. Nothing sounds quite as formal as a good old-fashioned Latin moniker. Lucretius had a lot going for him, he was a popular guy according to records from the time. People appreciated his poetry and enjoyed his public speaking. He was born in 99BC and according to the official record only lived till 55BC (remember we’re counting backwards here), passing away at a relatively youthful forty-four. Seems pretty young, even for then.

The Nature of Things is interesting reading, especially when you put it into the context of place and time. I’d like to claim I read it in Latin but that echoing laughter you hear is my secondary school teacher. Ahem. The poem (which is written in the typically numerically complex didactic form – which I’m not even going to pretend to talk about anymore), is an ambitious effort to argue that human nature is a product of natural phenomena resulting from organic action rather than a theologic origin to the universe.

Which a long-winded circuitous way of saying he was trying to convince someone to come in from the dark side. Depending on whose translation you read, there was a movement at the time encouraging a more sedate and less hedonistic approach to living. Lucretius appears to have been a proponent of this idea, using the works of Epicurus to expound on the dangers of too much partying. I liken it to an early prohibition effort and I’ll take a stab and make a guess that it was about as effective as America’s twentieth century attempt. At any rate, according to the experts Lucretius’ efforts didn’t work, Memmius was not convinced the natural world resulted from organic chaos but was the ordered result of supernatural intervention and he went on carousing and drinking and indulging himself in political peccadilloes. Again there seems to be a parallel to today’s world.

A lot of folks were taken up with this controversial subject back in the day. Except we’re still fussing about it now, so I guess much hasn’t really changed. As with any older work, the more you know about the timeframe, setting, and current events of the period in which it was produced – the more sense it makes. I was repeatedly struck by how wide the chasm of my knowledge. Thus…a lot of explanatory research became necessary.

As with most classics, wonderful resources for study abound. I found Martin Smith’s insights  to be particularly entertaining since he speaks of Lucretius and his contemporaries as though he just finished having a cup of coffee at the corner cafe in their company. He also spoke quite knowledgeably about social and political intrigues of the time and backed up his conclusions with solid research and reasonable assumption…unlike some pseudo-scholars (who shall remain nameless so I can’t be sued), who apparently tapped into the ether and spoke directly to the ancients because I still have no explanation for how they could possibly know what they claimed. Charlatans.

Epicurus in the marble.

I gather from reading the support materials of several translations that Lucretius was by no means the only fellow interested in his philosophical position and I found my investigation of Epicurean philosophy to be interesting (digression ahead alert!). If you’re interested in reading more about this very interesting man, then this site dedicated to Epicurus of Samos is just waiting for your clickity finger. Since we’re being all Latin in our language too, allow me to issue caveat emptor and just say that there IS a difference between epicurean and epicurean. One has to do with the philosophical outlook on the natural world and the other has more to do with enjoying a luxurious repast. Just so we’re all clear, they appear to be related. Perhaps Epicurus hosted lavish dinner parties while expounding on his thoughts? 

The point is, Lucretius wasn’t the only person trying to make an argument about a natural origin to everything, including human behavior, but since he was the guy who wrote it down (remember, he was using that inordinately difficult poetic formula), and put it out for consumption, he’s the one we remember. Memmius, (remember him?), was the intended recipient of the argument, and although he remained unswayed by Lucretius’ efforts, others were smitten and succumbed. Enough so that several translations of his work found their way into various collections where they sat and stewed for centuries. Fortunately for us one of these documents survived in a collection of the library in Florence until the fifteenth century where an avid reader stumbled across the poem. Next thing you know…epicureanism burst back onto the scene and created a new flurry of impassioned oratory (I might have simplified things just a bit here).

Pretty impressive for an argument written 1500 years previously, eh? Obviously this is a subject we aren’t done discussing. If that doesn’t get you cranked up, then check out this article about the Lucretian Swerve from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and you’ll get a sense of what an impact Lucretius continues to deliver.  The Nature of Things is worth a look. Check it out. Here’s a link to a free downloadable version via Project Gutenberg translated by William Ellery Leonard, but I preferred this translation by Martin Ferguson Smith. Go on and leap off the cliff…you know you want to.

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  1. #1 by Ali Dent on November 5, 2012 - 7:41 am

    What a nice post. I enjoy reading your book posts. The way you research and share always leads me to want to read the books you read.

    • #2 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on November 9, 2012 - 8:11 am

      Thanks Ali. I just realized I completely missed October. An entire month! I’ve been busy but this is crazy. I may not get to post another literary reaction until December, so then I’ll get caught up. I have enjoyed reading some meaty works. Thanks for offering the reading challenge as encouragement. Now when I watch that stupid zombie show on television – I feel like I’m balancing things with some classic literature! =)

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