The staying power of On the Nature of Things is unquestionable. The work has been, over the centuries, both widely influential on the greatest writers and widely reviled. Quickly dubbed atheistic by early Christian fathers, the book continued to provoke negative reactions from Catholic theologians for nearly a millennium.
Rediscovered during the Renaissance, the work became an oft-quoted source of inspiration for figures as diverse as Giordano Bruno in Italy, Michel de Montaigne in France, and Edmund Spenser in England. British poets John Evelyn and John Dryden translated passages into English; Voltaire found it valuable in his attacks on the Catholic Church. The figure of Lucretius, the skeptical scientist struggling to resolve the seemingly random qualities of the natural world with humankind’s insistent belief in a controlling deity, served as the source of one of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s finest dramatic monologues. In the twentieth century, the work found its devotees as well, including noted philosopher Henri Bergson.
Critics of Lucretius most often focus on three major aspects of On the Nature of Things: his investigation of scientific phenomena, his approach to religious issues, and his poetic skills. For the first two, the poet has been alternatively valued and vilified; for the last, however, he has been universally hailed as a master of language, technique, and vision. At the heart of this lengthy analysis of the ways the universe works is a human message that transcends the centuries and speaks to people of all times. Lucretius displays, in his long poem about atoms and gods who are born of the fears and hopes of humans, an appreciation of both humankind and nature that reminds one of the best works of the Romantics.
Often overlooked, especially by those who read On the Nature of Things in translation, is Lucretius’s contribution to his native Latin. The Latin of the first century b.c.e. was rough and direct (especially when compared to the more sophisticated Greek); hence, Lucretius lacked an adequate vocabulary for philosophic or scientific discussion. The self-imposed demand to transmit his ideas about religion and philosophy in verse rather than prose made his task even more difficult (many words simply would not fit into hexameters, the meter of choice for most serious Latin poetry); hence, his accomplishment is even more significant. The resultant work displays the passion of a sincerely religious man, the scientific insight of a studied practitioner, and the mastery of language characteristic of the most accomplished literary artists; many consider it the finest didactic poem in any language.
On the Nature of Things is also renowned as the greatest poetic monument of Epicurean philosophy. It is outstanding both as a scientific explanation of the poet’s atomic theory and as a fine poem. Vergil was much influenced by Lucretius’s verse, and he echoes passages of On the Nature of Things in the Georgics (36-29 b.c.e.), a didactic epic modeled on Lucretius’s poem, and in the Aeneid (30-19 b.c.e.).
Lucretius, following his master Epicurus’s doctrine, believed that fear of the gods and fear of death were the greatest obstacles to peace of mind, the object of Epicurean philosophy. He considers that he could dispel these unfounded terrors by explaining the workings of the universe and showing that phenomena interpreted as signs from the deities were simply natural happenings. His goal in On the Nature of Things is thus to explain natural events and to expound thereby on Epicurean philosophy.
Lucretius’s scientific speculations are based on Democritus’s atomic theory and Epicurus’s interpretation of it. Lucretius outlines the fundamental laws of this system in the first book of his poem. According to Lucretius, everything is composed of small “first bodies,” tiny particles made up of a few “minima” or “least parts,” which cannot be separated. These first bodies, or atoms, are solid, indestructible, and of infinite number. They are mixed with...
(The entire section is 1720 words.)