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Lucretius on the Nature of Things

Titus Lucretius Carus (1st Century BC)

It’s not easy to read The Nature of Things by Lucretius. Not only does he attempt to summarize the philosophy of Epicurus and the science knowledge of his day (40-55 BC), but he did in in rhymed couplets, which in this edition are translated as heptameter (“fourteeners”).

Not to worry: If you press on, you will get the gist of what Lucretius writes, and you will encounter some great passages such as this one on the role of the gods in life:

If you possess a firm grasp of these tenets, you will see
That Nature, rid of harsh taskmasters, all at once is free,
And everything she does, does on her own, so that gods play
No part. For by the holy hearts of gods, who while away
Their tranquil immortality in peace!—who can hold sway
Over the measureless universe? Who is there who can keep
Hold of the reins that curb the power of the fathomless deep?
Who can juggle all the heavens? And with celestial flame
Warm worlds to fruitfulness? And be all places at the same
Time for all eternity, to cast a shadow under
Dark banks of clouds, or quake a clear sky with the clap of thunder?
What god would send down lightning to rend his own shrines asunder?
Or withdraw to rage in desert wastes, and there let those bolts fly
That often slay the innocent and pass the guilty by?

It is a far different world than hours. Instead of the Periodical Table of the Elements, Lucretius had earth, wind, air, and fire. You can see him bending in obscure directions to explain such phenomena as magnetism, thunder, earthquakes, and plagues. Yet one could not help but admire the ingenuity of an astute observer who had no notion of Newtonian Physics, let alone Quantum Physics, yet tried his hardest to explain what he saw.