Friday, April 25, 2014

De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius

A great work of philosophy; too bad it’s a poem
De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) was written by Roman philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus in the first century BC. It is a lengthy poem, divided into six books. Lucretius was a proponent of the Epicurean school of thought which originated in Athens a couple centuries earlier. In this work, he comprehensively outlines his Epicurean conception of physics, metaphysics, epistemology, and the natural sciences.

Lucretius was a brilliant thinker, and many of his ideas will strike modern readers as shockingly prescient for having been written two millennia ago. He saw that all matter is made up of atoms, which he often refers to as “seeds”. The universe is composed of only matter and void, which are in constant movement and ever-changing, mixing and mingling to create the myriad forms of objects. By asserting that the quantity of “seeds” remains constant, Lucretius presages the law of conservation of matter and energy. He scoffs at an anthropocentric worldview and envisions an infinite universe in which man is but an accidental, insignificant occupant. Mind or soul does not exist outside of matter. Thus Lucretius’s view of the universe resembles the monism of Spinoza, rather than the dualism of Plato (in which the world is comprised of two separate substances, matter and spirit). In fact, Lucretius covers a lot of the same metaphysical ground that Spinoza would cover in his 1677 book The Ethics, but while Spinoza expresses his ideas in the form of Euclidean theorems, Lucretius’s text is penned in dactylic hexameters.

Alas, poetic verse is not the best medium with which to express these ideas. Poetry requires that Lucretius use ten times more words than necessary to say what he wishes to say, and each sentence is written in a jumbled syntax that must be deciphered before it can be comprehended. The result is a quite tedious experience for today’s reader. Occasionally one stumbles upon a beautifully quotable evocation of natural beauty, but mostly the verse is about as dull as sitting through a science lecture delivered in an unfamiliar dialect. My review is based on the 1916 public domain translation by William Ellery Leonard, so perhaps a sizeable portion of the blame should rest on his shoulders.

Perhaps the most valuable purpose On the Nature of Things can serve today is that of an inspirational text for freethinkers. Lucretius is an outspoken opponent of religion and superstition who advocates the exercise of reason in all man’s endeavors. A life lived under the untruths of religion is a life lived in fear, while true happiness can be found in the investigation and appreciation of the natural universe. It’s gratifying to know that over 2,000 years ago this man had the guts to speak out against the irrational beliefs of his time. If only mankind had listened to Lucretius then, instead of venturing down the road of Plato’s dualism, we could have saved ourselves a lot of wasted time spent fearing the spirit world. Lucretius devotes much of this poem to explaining how natural phenomena are the result of physical processes and not the will of Zeus. Though 21st-century readers will admire his scientific diligence, they’re still likely to be bored by lengthy, semi-accurate explanations of the workings of thunder, lightning, volcanoes, earthquakes, and the like.

On the Nature of Things is not a book for casual readers. Only serious students of philosophy should take it on, and to such readers I would strongly suggest seeking out a prose translation.

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