Study Guide

Lucretius

Lucretius Essay - Critical Essays

Lucretius

Introduction

Lucretius c. 99-94 b.c.-55 b.c.

(Full name Titus Lucretius Carus) Latin poet and philosopher.

Lucretius was the ancient World's most influential Epicurean, surpassing Epicurus himself through the force and persuasion of his poetry. Lucretius's revitalization of Epicureanism is laid out in the six-book poem De rerum natura (c. 58 b.c.; The Nature of Things), an assault on the ignorance and superstition of the Roman society of his time. In it, Lucretius expounds on the theory of atomism and its impact on the question of free will; explains why there is nothing to fear in death; rails against romantic love; and describes various aspects of the world and its phenomena. It influenced Vergil, Ovid, Cicero, and later many Renaissance authors. De rerum natura is the earliest known example of Latin hexameter verse and is studied avidly by scholars.

Biographical Information

Almost nothing is known about the life of Lucretius. His birth date is thought to fall between 99 and 94 b.c. Although he is typically considered as having been born in Rome, Louise Adams Holland has recently proposed that Lucretius was probably from Transpadane, north of Rome. Some scholars believe he came from the aristocratic Lucretian line, while others cite the name Carus as evidence that he was a freedman. Lucretius lived during a time of revolution and civil war. While many Romans found solace in religion, he instead turned to science and followed the teachings of Epicurus, who died in 271 b.c. The historian Jerome preserved the rumor that Lucretius's wife gave him a love potion that made him insane. Legend has it that his life ended in suicide.

Major Works

De rerum natura is the only known work by Lucretius. It is addressed to Gaius Memmius, a politician whose relation to Lucretius is a source of controversy among critics. Although apparently directed to Memmius, critics agree that De rerum natura is actually written to make the case for rationalism to all of its potential readers, and that Memmius serves chiefly as a stylistic device. The 7500-line poem, which bears some characteristics of an epic, is divided into six books. The first volume explains that religion controls man through fear—unlike science, which concerns itself with facts. Lucretius describes the properties of atoms and the nature of the universe, which is made of atoms and void, stretching to infinity. The second book explains that the differences in things can be accounted for by differences in the properties of the atoms of which they are composed. He describes atoms as colorless, indestructible, and swerving in their paths. He also posits the existence of other worlds than our own, but in which the same laws of science apply. Book Three deals with the soul, which Lucretius states is part of the body and also made of atoms. In this volume he includes his famous arguments against fearing death: while alive we do not suffer death, and when dead we feel nothing. One does not fear the eternity that precedes one's birth and thus one should not fear the eternity that will follow one's death. He also argues that focusing on death prevents us from being happy in the present. Book Four is devoted mostly to Lucretius's theory about the senses and how we perceive, but also warns against romantic love and the destruction it can cause. In the fifth book, Lucretius provides a history of the world back to creation and up through civilization, including the creation of language, music, metalworking, and farming. The final volume starts with a long speech about Epicurus, and then criticizes religion. Lucretius explains that there are no gods concerned with the welfare of humans, that nature is responsible for all that we experience. He ends De rerum natura with an account of the plague that afflicted Athens in 430 b.c. Its abrupt ending initially led some scholars to believe the work incomplete, but this view is no longer commonly held, and the finale is now considered an effective stylistic decision.

Critical Reception

Lucretius was appreciated as an author in his lifetime and influenced the works of other poets. Although his views ran counter to the more popular beliefs of Aristotle and Plato, his impassioned, accomplished verses encouraged some to turn away from mythology and the supernatural. As Stoicism, Neoplatonism, and then Christianity flourished in the following centuries, however, De rerum natura, with its strongly anti-religious sentiments and emphasis on reason, nature, and science, lost all influence on the public. It was not until the Renaissance that the work, surviving in only one manuscript, was rediscovered, studied, and again appreciated. Its success in modern times is attested to by numerous recent translations. Today's critics are unanimous in the view that, as a proponent of Epicureanism, Lucretius bettered Epicurus himself. Lucretius is credited with taking the somewhat dry text of Epicurus and animating it through poetry. But scholars, including Alban D. Winspear, point out that Lucretius was not hesitant to expand or substantially alter Epicureanism where he thought appropriate, and that he has not received enough notice for his originality. While many critics provide overviews of the work and analyses of its structure, others narrow their focus on particular elements. In the matter of genre, both Harold Donohue and Monica Gale contend that De rerum natura is best understood as an epic of sorts. Jesús M. Montserrat and Luis Navarro, on the other hand. find much to admire in Lucretius's approach to the examination of natural phenomena—for instance, in his study of the water cycle. Mieke H. Koenen, too, finds merit in Lucretius's explanation of hearing. One of the principal themes of De rerum natura is death and the senselessness of fearing it. Frederik Kaufman takes issue with the logic of Lucretius's famous symmetry of time argument, but Charles Segal examines some less famous passages to clarify the poet's stance. Scholars have long argued over whether the poem's ending is actually in a finished state. Timothy J. Stover describes the enormity of the plague that devastated Athens and the brilliance of Lucretius in using it in his final chapter for teaching purposes. B. Farrington offers extremely high praise of Lucretius, calling his mastery of the atomism of Democritus “an intellectual achievement of the same kind as mastering Newton's Principia.” He writes that Lucretius is “an epic poet of world stature and his place is with Dante [Alighieri] and [John] Milton.”

Principal Works

De rerum natura (epic) c. 58 B.C.

Lucretius: De Rerum Natura (translated by Cyril Bailey) 1922

The Way Things Are: The “De Rerum Natura” (translated by Rolfe Humphries) 1968

The Nature of Things (translated by Frank O. Copley) 1977

On the Nature of the Universe (translated by R. E. Latham) 1994

On the Nature of Things: De rerum natura (translated by Anthony M. Esolen) 1995

On the Nature of Things (translated by John Selby Watson) 1998

On the Nature of the Universe (translated by Ronald Melville) 1999

Criticism

Henri Bergson (essay date 1884)

SOURCE: Bergson, Henri. “The Originality of Lucretius as a Philosopher.” In The Philosophy of Poetry: The Genius of Lucretius, edited and translated by Wade Baskin, pp. 65-83. Nedw York: Philosophical Library, 1959.

[In the following excerpt, originally written in 1884, Bergson contends that Lucretius's study and love of nature and its laws helped to make his writings more poetic than those of either Democritus or Epicurus.]

Epicurus borrowed most of his doctrine from the atomists and from the Cyrenaic school.

Atomism, one of the most profound philosophical systems developed in antiquity, was first expounded by Leucippus and his disciple,...

(The entire section is 3867 words.)

Robert Allison (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: Allison, Robert. “Introduction.” In Lucretius: On the Nature of Things, pp. vii-xxxii. London: Hatchards, 1925.

[In the following excerpt, Allison describes the early circumstances of Lucretius, the factors that led him to become a devoted follower of Epicurus, and Lucretius's views on nature and the human race.]

Of Titus Lucretius Carus, one of the world's great poets, we know hardly anything. One of the maxims which his beloved Master, Epicurus, impressed upon his followers was, ‘Hide thyself, and pass through life unknown’; and so successfully has his pupil followed his advice, that no details of his life and works have come down to us. Although the...

(The entire section is 6632 words.)

Richard Minadeo (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Minadeo, Richard. “The Great Design.” In The Lyre of Science: Form and Meaning in Lucretius's “De Rerum Natura,” pp. 31-54. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969.

[In the following excerpt, Minadeo attempts to explain the meaning of De rerum natura largely through study of its design and structure.]

The biographical tradition on Titus Lucretius Carus is meager indeed, and those notices that are at all striking are both late in source and so compromising as to seem the work of a master ironist. As the result of a love potion, the tradition runs, the poet went insane, composed De Rerum Natura during intervals of lucidity and ultimately...

(The entire section is 13250 words.)

James H. Nichols, Jr. (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Nichols, Jr., James H. “Conclusion: Lucretius and Modernity.” In Epicurean Political Philosophy: The “De rerum natura” of Lucretius, pp. 179-210. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976.

[In the following excerpt, Nichols examines elements of Lucretius's thought present in the works of Thomas Hobbes, Charles-Louis Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.]

Of the Stoics, those famous rivals of the Epicureans, Nietzsche has written:

“According to nature” you want to live? O you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are! Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure,...

(The entire section is 8629 words.)

John D. Minyard (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Minyard, John D. “Lucretius and the Late Republic.” In Lucretius and the Late Republic, pp. 1-70. Amsterdam: E. J. Brill, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, Minyard analyzes the De rerum natura and discusses the tactics Lucretius employed in the work to demonstrate to readers the failure of old world views and the superiority of Epicureanism.]

1. ROMAN INTELLECTUAL HISTORY

The history of human values is the history of changing notions about truth and reality, however analytically inarticulate those notions may have been. So, the history of values at Rome is a function of the changes in Roman ideas about reality and truth, is,...

(The entire section is 20737 words.)

Jesús M. Montserrat and Luis Navarro (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Montserrat, Jesús M. and Luis Navarro. “The Water Cycle in Lucretius.”Centaurus 34, no. 4 (1991): 289-308.

[In the following essay, Montserrat and Navarro examine Lucretius's explanation of the water cycle and praise his use of plain language.]

1. INTRODUCTION

The lack of research work on ancient meteorology in the history of science has already become traditional.1 It is our purpose to contribute to changing this tradition, since we find it inappropriate from the historical point of view. First of all, meteorology constitutes an important part of the ancient works devoted to the study of the natural world, at least in...

(The entire section is 7757 words.)

S. Georgia Nugent (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Nugent, S. Georgia. “Mater Matters: The Female in Lucretius's De Rerum Natura.Colby Quarterly, 30, no. 3 (September 1994): 179-205.

[In the following essay, Nugent surveys various representations of women in the De rerum natura.]

Epic poetry celebrates the creation of a certain kind of self.1 That creation will often—but not always—be directed toward, tested through, and damaged or destroyed by war. Always, it will be male. This is not to say that females do not appear on the epic stage; they may even appear in the guise of heroic warrior—there is Camilla, there is Atalanta.2 But each such figure is anomalous; the...

(The entire section is 13155 words.)

Anthony M. Esolen (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Esolen, Anthony M. “Introduction.” In Lucretius: “On the Nature of Things: De rerum natura,” edited and translated by Anthony M. Esolen. pp. 1-21. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Esolen explains that Lucretius wrote the De rerum natura to fight superstition. He also examines Lucretius's influence on Vergil, Cicero, Horace, and other writers.]

LUCRETIUS'S MILIEU

We know little about Titus Lucretius Carus. He was probably born in the early first century b.c., with 99 and 95 the limits of possibility. The year 55 is usually given for his death. Saint Jerome, following a...

(The entire section is 8520 words.)

Frederik Kaufman (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Kaufman, Frederik. “Death and Deprivation; Or, Why Lucretius's Symmetry Argument Fails.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 74, no. 2 (June 1996): 305-12.

[In the following essay, Kaufman rejects Lucretius's argument of symmetry between the times of pre-life and post-death because the former does not fulfill deprivation requirements.]

Assuming that death is the permanent extinction of conscious personal existence, the natural reaction to one's impending death is dismay. Under normal conditions, our death is seen as a dreadful thing, a great evil to be avoided. But a number of philosophers, including, perhaps most famously, Epicurus, have challenged the...

(The entire section is 5036 words.)