Very little is known about the author Lucretius, whose full name was Titus Lucretius Carus. De Rerum Natura (DRN) [On the Nature of Things] likely was his only work. Later Christian authors, hostile to Lucretius’s views on religion and his statements about the death of the soul, invented some fantastic stories about him, according to which he composed his work DRN in a delirium, poisoned by a love potion administered by his wife. Driven to distraction, he committed suicide. Modern authors discard these stories as untruths.
Lucretius lived during turbulent times. Caesar was engaged in his conquest of Gaul, and the Roman army was slowly turning into an army of mercenaries more loyal to generals than to the Roman people. The Social Wars had greatly weakened popular representation, and the people of Rome had lost all power or say in their own government. Soon, civil war would break out and emperors would rule Rome as conquests, confiscations, slave revolts, crucifixions, political conspiracies, and murders increased in number. Lucretius favored a withdrawal from public life and preferred quiet observation. In his scheme, it is the fear of death and of the gods that leads individuals to desire wealth and power beyond what is required for a peaceful and happy life.
Work and Philosophy
Lucretius gave himself the difficult task of expounding the ideas of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE) in the form of a didactic poem in Latin hexameters, “On the Nature of Things.” Epicurus’s influence is felt throughout DRN. Most of this author’s works are lost, but his arguments outlined in his DRN have survived in the writings of others. Epicurus and his followers argued that humans should have one goal in life: happiness (i.e., absence of fear and want). Knowledge of the physical world and a theory of knowledge (epistemology, i.e., how we know what we know) were aids to achieving happiness. The Epicurean philosophers believed that all life on the earth was made up of matter, with atoms (“things which cannot be split”) being the smallest constituents. Thus, anything that happens in the world has a natural cause that can be revealed by a thorough investigation.
As is customary in didactic poetry, the author addresses a friend (Memmius) and, through the friend, addresses the reader. The poem is divided into six parts, or books, and its total length is 7,415 lines. During Roman times, philosophy included what we would now call “science”—the knowledge of natural phenomena, the gods, life, death, religion, human societies, animals, the stars, inanimate matter, and so on. Lucretius (and his contemporary Cicero) refashioned the Latin language to accommodate the abstract concepts developed by the Greek philosophers of nature. For Lucretius, poetry was the medium of choice: there was a centuries-old tradition of didactic poetry at his time, both Greek and Latin. Moreover, poetry appeals to the senses and thus conveys abstract concepts more easily. As Lucretius phrased it, a poet is like a doctor who smears honey around the rim of the cup that so a child will take his bitter medication.
The poem begins with an allegorical invocation of the goddess Venus, the goddess of love, the beginnings of life, and the mother of the founding father of Rome, Aeneas. It ends with a vivid description of the Plague of Athens taken from Thucydides’s The Peloponnesian War. Life is a cycle of birth and destruction, of rise and fall. A true understanding of Epicurus teaches us to accept such cycles and to not add to our agony by fear of an afterlife.
In Books II and V, Lucretius argued that the world came into existence by itself—the happy joining of the right atoms at the right time—and that slowly the primeval mud brought forth first grasses and then smaller animals, birds, larger animals, and finally humans. But the earth, the skies, the stars, the sun, the moon, and the oceans all are made of perishable materials and will also die one day. The earth gave birth to everything, but it also represents a shared grave.
Space is infinite, and particles move in all directions; therefore, it is very likely that combinations of atoms like the earth, including humans and animals, also occur elsewhere.
Lucretius’s materialistic approach to the world denied the influence of the gods on human life; the gods exist, but because their goal (happiness) is similar to that of humans, they do not need human prayer and sacrifices. The gods also did not have anything to do with the creation of the world. The gods live forever, but the human soul dies when the body dies; thus, fear of the gods (for example, punishment for sins) is useless. Fear of death is useless too because all sensation stops at death. Lucretius’s argument that human reason could explain the universe without having recourse to divine intervention was suppressed for nearly 1,700 years until the philosophers of the Enlightenment came to the same conclusion: “Little by little time teases out all discovery, and Reason (Ratio) brings it out into the regions of light.” Lucretius’s poem played no small role in this revival, although authors of the Enlightenment were conflicted about his ethics and views on religion as opposed to his views on science and progress. Important authors include Gassendi, Montaigne, Dryden, the Cardinal de Polignac (“Anti-Lucretius: Or, on God and Nature” a poem in which he attacked Gassendi, Hobbes, Newton, and Locke), Helvetius, Holbach, Diderot, and Voltaire (“Letter of Memmius to Cicero”), among many others.
Inherent in Lucretius’s (and the other Epicureans’) understanding of the world as a material construct is his explanation of human societies introduced at the end of Book V. This part of DRN has often been mentioned as one of the first manifestations of evolutionary thought and is thus highlighted in many works that tell the story of anthropology’s first beginnings, even though it is discussed in only 700 verses. Lucretius’s explanation of the stepwise development of human societies follows logically from his main point that everything has a natural cause. Lucretius pointed out that we have no empirical evidence of the world’s first beginnings, but analogy (and metaphor) can provide us with a fair idea. At first, humans lived like animals—sleeping by night, hunting by day. Just as animals have different cries for different emotions, so did humans, and eventually these sounds developed into a shared language. Life was short and violent; on the other hand, humans did not die in foolish wars or drown at sea in pursuit of wealth.
Sometimes they starved and died; today, humans die of overeating. Every so often, humans poisoned themselves by accidentally eating the wrong thing; today, they actively poison each other. Gradually, humans learned to live in huts, to make fires, to be kind to each other, to be monogamous, and to care for their children because it is right to care for the weak. Next came kings and the parceling out of land, followed by “the invention of property and the discovery of gold.” Today, the rich rule rather than the deserving or the beautiful; those in charge now violate “the mutual compact of social life,” a concept taken nearly verbatim from Epicurus. Throughout his DRN, Lucretius condemned greed, politics, and romantic love, all evidence of human folly and irrationality. In Book V, the poet came very close to satire when he showed that material and technological progress and comfort have not made humans any happier. Early life on the earth, although crude, was used as a foil for modern corruption.
Epicurus’s recipe for human happiness was reviled by later Christian authors, especially because of his attacks on religio and mortality of the soul. It was mainly the doing of later authors that gave “Epicurean” its current meaning of a hedonistic approach to life. The original doctrine recommended moderation or nearly asceticism; a glass of water served to slake thirst as well as the most expensive wine.
- Gale, M. R. (2001). Lucretius and the didactic epic. London: Bristol Classical Press.
- Johnson, W. R. (2000). Lucretius and the modern world. London: Duckworth.
- (1969). On the nature of things (M. F. Smith, Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
- Sedley, D. (1998). Lucretius and the transformation of Greek wisdom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.