Biography (Encyclopedia of the Ancient World)
Almost nothing is known about Lucretius (loo-KREE-shuhs). What little is known is contradictory and largely mythical, apart from the fact that he was a Roman poet who composed in epic Latin verse the monumental poem De rerum natura (c. 60 b.c.e.; On the Nature of Things, 1682). This explained the entire philosophical system of Epicurus, whom Lucretius praises as a savior rescuing humankind from superstition and fear, especially fear of death and divine anger. Cicero praised the poem, which still survives, as a work of art and genius.
On the Nature of Things is the most important and extensive treatise on Epicurean philosophy to survive, thanks largely to the brilliant poetic talent of Lucretius. It had a significant impact in the ancient world (particularly on Vergil) both as poetry and as philosophy. Rediscovered in 1417, it had an enormous influence on Renaissance rationalism and the scientific revolution. Among other things, it gave the idea of the social contract to English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and of atomism to French scientist and philosopher Pierre Gassendi and British scientist Robert Boyle.
Bailey, Cyril. “Late Republican Poetry.” In Fifty Years (and Twelve) of Classical Scholarship, edited by Maurice Platnauer. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1968. This article discusses Lucretius with special emphasis on editions and translations of his poem, possible sources, textual criticism, and Lucretian thought, philosophy, and natural science.
Dalzell, Alexander. The Criticism of Didactic Poetry: Essays on Lucretius, Virgil, and Ovid. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. Explores how Lucretius used poetic forms to express his philosophical views.
Donohue, Harold. The Song of the Swan: Lucretius and the Influence of Callimachus. New...
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Biography (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Article abstract: Lucretius synthesized primary tenets of Greek Epicureanism and atomism and offered a rational, nontheological explanation for the constituents of the universe; he did this in Latin hexameter verse and developed a philosophical vocabulary for the task.
It is much easier to show why most of what has been written about the life of Titus Lucretius Carus is incorrect, doubtful, or malicious than it is to arrive at a reliable account. Relatively little can be deduced from his poem, and there are no substantive contemporary references to him. Consequently, too much credence has been given to the jumbled biographical note written by Saint Jerome, which itself was derived from an unreliable account by the Roman historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus. Saint Jerome miscalculates Lucretius’s dates of birth and death; also, it is unlikely that Lucretius was driven insane by a love potion and wrote On the Nature of Things during periods of lucidity. The latter story seems to have arisen from Lucretius’s treatment of love in section 4 of the poem.
Several details of Lucretius’s early life can, however, be inferred with relative certainty. His name is a strange combination that implies both servile (Carus) and noble origins (from the kinship grouping Gens Lucretia), but he was likely closer to the middle class of his contemporary Cicero. Though Cicero himself did not emend Lucretius’s poetry, as Saint Jerome reports, it is likely that his brother Quintus Cicero oversaw its publication. Like Cicero, Lucretius appears to have evinced an early interest in philosophy, influenced by the Alexandrian movement, though his own poetry has an old Roman spirit reflecting his readings of Quintus Ennius. Cicero thought that Lucretius had the “genius” of Ennius and the “art” of the Alexandrians.
Lucretius lived through the turmoil caused by the civil war between aristocrat Lucius Cornelius Sulla and populist Gaius Marius as well as the conspiracy of Lucius Sergius Catilina. He also witnessed the consequent decline of Roman republican government. Perhaps this political uncertainty directed him to the comfortable philosophy of Epicurus, which held that the goal of human existence should be a life of calm pleasure tempered by morality and culture. The atomism of Democritus and Leucippus, which held that the material universe could be understood as random combinations of minute particles (atomoi), provided a rational and scientific means of explaining the cosmos and avoiding what Lucretius came to see as the sterile superstitions of religion.
In all, the impressions one has of Lucretius at this early stage in his life are of a young man of good background and a good education who is eager not for the political arena or personal advancement but to explain the world in a reasonable way to Romans with similar education who would read his verse. In addition, he aimed to make living in that rationally explained world as pleasant an experience as possible.
One can only guess how Lucretius lived during the years he was writing On the Nature of Things from its dedication to Gaius Memmius. Memmius held the office of praetor in 58 b.c.e. and fancied himself a poet, primarily of erotic verse in the style of Catullus. Memmius’s shady political dealings eventually caught up with him, and he was driven into exile; nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that Lucretius received some financial support from him. Memmius figures less importantly in the body of the poem, however, and his name is used in places only for metrical convenience.
Details of the poem show the kind of atmosphere Lucretius wished to escape, essentially that of his own city in the final years of the republic. The world is filled with gloom, war, and decay. The poet wishes to stand on a hill, far removed from wickedness and ambition, and watch the waste and destruction. Passages such as these reveal a man who yearned for tranquil anonymity. Other writers, such as Cicero, would find themselves propelled into a political maelstrom that would ultimately destroy them; Lucretius was determined to avoid this fate.
The times in which Lucretius lived cried out for reasonableness. Educated Romans saw the obvious conflict between their elaborate mythology and their religion, which glorified deities who did everything from seducing women to causing mildew. Even so, Rome continued to fill the various priestly colleges, to take auspices as a means of determining favorable outcomes, and to celebrate public games in honor of these very deities. A century later, Rome would deify its emperors, partly to shift its religious observances to personalities who were incontestably real and partly to curb the spread of imported cults such as Mithraism and what came to be known as Christianity.
Lucretius had solved this problem, for himself at least, and outlined his position on religion in On the Nature of Things. The creative force...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry)
Other Literary Forms
Lucretius is remembered only for On the Nature of Things.
Lucretius wrote a single poem, not intended for public performance. The poem, On the Nature of Things, consists of the exposition of a philosophical system in exalted and ornate language and of an exhortation to follow that system and attain happiness.
Little is known about the life of Titus Lucretius Carus. Apart from the date of his birth, his literary activity, a curious statement concerning the publication of his poem, a possibly spurious anecdote of his intermittent insanity and possible suicide, and the date of his death, little else has survived. Modern scholars have argued against Lucretius’s insanity by appealing to the intellectual stability and range, the subtlety, complexity, and orderliness of On the Nature of Things. The poem, while it does not solve the problem of Lucretius’s insanity, does give some valuable insights into the history and personality of its author. On the Nature of Things shows that Lucretius was a scholar, and his knowledge of works such as the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.) glows throughout his poem. He uses the story of Iphigenia to make the central point of his poem, which is the elimination of dangerous superstition. Lucretius was familiar with ancient science, Thucydides, Epicurus, and Empedocles, as well as early Roman authors. There are echoes of Quintus Ennius, the one Roman poet whom Lucretius praises by name, as a kindred rationalist in religion.
Lucretius’s poem reveals his extensive knowledge, which in turn indicates his aristocratic, moneyed, cultured background. Like many other Roman youths in the same financial circumstances, he probably journeyed to Athens and so was introduced to science. Although the poem holds clues concerning Lucretius’s library, as well as his literary habits, education, and social status, these assumptions can never be taken at face value.
In keeping with the allegation of insanity, Lucretius is said to have died by his own hand. According to another legend, followed by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his Lucretius (1868), Lucretius’s wife killed him with a love potion. This notion has nothing to support it, and there is no evidence that Lucretius even had a wife.
Any discussion of the On the Nature of Things inevitably involves an explanation of the philosophical system which is its topic. The system is Epicurean, and Lucretius is, in fact, the chief authority of that system. Epicurus followed the atomistic theory, proposed by Leucippus. The philosopher Democritus worked out the theory, and through Epicurus it reached Lucretius. Like Epicurus, Lucretius cared for physical speculations only insofar as they might help man to live a happy life. Democritus made it his main goal to seek causes; he would prefer, he said, to discover a true cause than to possess the kingdom of Persia. Epicurus and Lucretius were satisfied if they were convinced that something was the result of a number of possible causes, so long as these would not interfere with the happy life.
Epicurus held that both this and innumerable other universes, which he supposed to exist, are the result of chance conglomerations of atoms. These atoms are of all shapes but are very minute and fall eternally through space. As they fall, they swerve in an erratic way, making their motions unpredictable. Nothing is immaterial, although some things such as the soul are the result of the combinations of comparatively few and very fine, mobile atoms. As all things are, therefore, accidental compounds, all things are capable of dissolution. The two exceptions to this are the atoms themselves, which are too small to be broken into anything smaller, and the void, which, being nothing, cannot be injured. Man, therefore, has nothing to fear from death, which is mere dissolution followed by complete absence of consciousness. Man’s one good is pleasure, yet this is not to be found in overindulgence of physical desires, which results in a surplus of pain, not of pleasure. The right course is to satisfy the physical needs in the simplest ways (hunger for example, by a reasonable amount of plain food) and to concentrate on gratifying and pleasing the mind. There is no need to disturb the mind with ambition, desire, or fear of death. The good Epicurean will live a quiet life and withhold himself from public employment and from all that would mar his tranquillity. He should devote much time to philosophic reflection and study. Such is the Epicurean system, which Lucretius set forth with much eloquence.
On the Nature of Things
On the Nature of Things is divided into six books. After a hauntingly beautiful address to Venus, Lucretius gives as his aim the release of men from fear by means of a philosophy which delivers humankind from the impieties of superstition. After laying down the fundamental principle that nothing can come from nothing or pass into nothing, book 1 then proceeds to state the atomic theory of matter as understood by the Epicureans.
After an introduction in praise of philosophy, book 2 continues the subject and states the doctrine of “swerve.” Book 3, which begins with praise of Epicurus, explains the nature of the soul. There are two parts of man: the animus or mens, which is situated in the chest, and with which man thinks and feels, and the anima or soul, which is dispersed throughout the body. Both the animus and the anima are composed of several sorts of minute atoms and both are mortal, passing out of the body and dispersing at death. Death, therefore, is not to be dreaded. The legendary tortures of the other world are nothing more than allegories of the woes which beset the foolish in this life.
The fact that book 4 has no introduction is one of many indications that the work never received final revision. It explains the Epicurean theory of perception and from this it passes to a discussion of sexual passion, explained as the effect of external stimuli acting on a system already suffering from an internal disturbance. Recognition of the purely physical nature of sexual passion and of the nonsupernatural causes of such conditions as barrenness will guard against the miseries of extravagant lovers and of the superstitious. Book 5, again having for its prologue an eloquent praise of Epicurus, is one of the most interesting of the poem. It gives the Epicurean theory of the history of the universe and of man. The universe is neither perfect, everlasting, nor divinely governed, and it will have an end as surely as it had a beginning. All of its phenomena, such as sunrise and sunset, have perfectly natural explanations. Book 6, clearly the least finished of all, progresses, after another tribute to Epicurus, to a somewhat miscellaneous series of discussions—first of celestial and meteoric phenomena, then of the curiosities on the surface of the earth (Mount Etna, the flooding of the Nile, and so on). Finally, the book moves on to the causes of disease, which are said to be largely the result of unwholesome or even unfamiliar air that is driven from one part of the surface of the earth to another. The poem concludes with Lucretius’s rendering in verse of Thucydides’ account of the plague at Athens.
Style and Language
Stylistically, Lucretius, the most Roman in character (honest, fearless, austere, orderly) of the Roman poets except perhaps for Ennius, is as an artist the most Greek. He has many traits associated with Hellenism. His science is Hellenistic and his didactic poems, full of learned lore, were much the fashion from Alexandrian times forward.
The excellence of the On the Nature of Things is principally of two sorts: first, in the command of the language, and second, in the eloquence of the passages of moral reflection and the descriptions of nature. Lucretius lived at a time when the Latin speech with which he was most familiar was the idiom of the Ciceronian Age. It was a clean and straight medium, more refined than the earlier language of Cato the Censor, but still natural and direct, retaining many expressions drawn from the law, the market, and the political arena.
It was during the Ciceronian Age that the literary force known as Alexandrianism made itself strongly felt in Roman poetry. Lucretius, however, was not attracted to Alexandrianism. At any rate, he did not imitate its wearying niceties of phrase and its emphasis on form. His deep although latent patriotism may have made him averse to a style so clearly foreign. Perhaps his own energetic nature craved a more energetic mode of expression. Because he was a devoted pupil of Epicurus, Lucretius may have believed that an intense preoccupation with the minutiae of style was unworthy of a poet who sought to free men from the haunting terror of death. Whatever the reason, Lucretius turned, rather, to the past, and there found a congenial model. He followed in the footsteps of Ennius; consequently, archaism is the most notable mark of Lucretius’s style and diction.
By virtue of its dignity and energy, the older Latin speech seemed to be an appropriate medium through which Lucretius could proclaim Epicurus. Lucretius did not, however, imitate without discretion and taste, nor did he attempt to recapture the style and diction of a century before. For the most part, Lucretius avoided the extreme characteristics of Ennius’s language: its uncouthness and grotesqueness. Lucretius’s position in the history of Latin poetic style and diction is intermediate and transitional. Adopting the best...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
The Roman philosophical poet Titus Lucretius Carus, known as Lucretius (lew-KREE-shuhs), was a disciple of Epicurus (c. 342-270 b.c.e.), who taught that pleasure is the only good and the aim of all morality, but Lucretius insisted that a life of pleasure must be founded on honor, prudence, and justice. All that is known about Lucretius as a man are some forty words in Jerome’s Chronica eusebii, which, under the year 94 b.c.e., declares: “Titus Lucretius the poet is born. Rendered insane by a love potion, he wrote some books which Cicero afterward amended and he later killed himself by his own hand in his forty-fourth year.” The exact day of his death can be...
(The entire section is 276 words.)