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On the Nature of Things

From Academic Kids

Not to be confused with The Nature of Things, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation television show about natural science.

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In his epic poem, the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius argued (among many things) that everything in the universe is composed of tiny atoms moving about in an infinite void, rather than being the creation of deities as was common belief.

On the Nature of Things is a first century BC epic poem by Lucretius that grandly proclaims the reality of man's role in a universe without a god to help him along. 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.

Contents

Seeing with compassion

Lucretius's 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 (Latin: Dē rērum nātūrā) is Lucretius's 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.

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's view is labeled as atomism.)
  • Man's 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 men.
  • 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.
    • Mankind went through a savage beginning, and there has been noticeable improvement in skill and ability, but even this world will pass away.
  • Men 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.
  • Men 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.

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 men 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 courtesy the Gutenberg e-text project. [1] (http://ibiblio.org/gutenberg/etext97/natng10.txt)

Whilst 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.

What draws men to religion?

Lucretius has compassion for those men who do not understand the mechanisms of the universe that gave them birth. He felt these ignorant and unfortunate men 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.

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.


References

  • E-text of On the Nature of Things [2] (http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/785)
  • Summary of On the Nature of Things, by section [3] (http://www.mcgoodwin.net/pages/otherbooks/tlc_rerumnatura.html)
  • Analysis of Lucretius's "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 [4] (http://www.leeds.ac.uk/classics/lics/discussion/2002dp1.pdf)
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