Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1365
Lucretius begins by invoking the name of Venus as a creative force, appealing to Memmius (to whom the work is addressed), and then praising his master Epicurus. (Scholars have noted the seeming inconsistency in Lucretius' invoking Venus at the beginning of a work that disclaims the gods' involvement with human life. The solution most commonly offered is that such a invocation was standard in the literature of the time, and that by keeping to the standard Lucretius hoped to win the trust and continued attention of readers.) Lucretius states that religion teaches fear, while science teaches fact. He recounts the story of Agamemnon, who was willing to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia for the good will of the gods. This is not piety, Lucretius says, but rather wickedness demanded by religion.
Next, Lucretius sets about describing atoms as the building blocks of every object and living thing in the world. Nothing comes from nothing, and no object can ever be reduced to nothing. Although atoms cannot be seen, their presence can be felt in the wind, evaporation and humidity, and sensory experience. The entire world is composed of atoms and space, or void. Void is what allows motion because atoms can move through space without interference. Lucretius asserts that atoms are indivisible, solid, and indestructible, as each one moves from thing to thing.
In anticipation of protests, Lucretius disclaims the theories of the philosophers Heraclitus, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and the Stoic objectors. Next, Lucretius explains that the universe is infinite. He illustrates this point by asking what would happen if a man went to the edge of the earth and threw a spear. The spear would, of course, go somewhere. Consequently, he reasons, atoms and void are infinite.
Lucretius explains that the differing properties of things are accounted for by the different properties of atoms. For example, substances with a bitter or harsh taste have sharper atoms than substances that have pleasant tastes. The same is true for aromas. A disagreeable scent irritates the nose as its atoms pass through, while pleasant scents are composed of smooth atoms. There are a fixed number of atomic shapes even though there are infinite atoms. Atoms are also colorless. He stresses that atoms are indestructible, but their compulsion to move on to other things creates instability in the world. He describes atomic motion as swerving. If atoms simply moved straight down, he explains, they would never collide and hence would never create anything at all.
All things must die, despite the fact that the atoms that make up a person came from another source and will become something else when the person dies. Earth provides everything humans need to live, but not forever. Lucretius concludes with the idea that there are other worlds like this one, subject to the same laws of atoms.
The atomic theories are applied to humankind as Lucretius considers the nature of the soul (which he equates with the mind). He argues that even the soul is subject to death because it is composed of atoms, which are only present temporarily. Lucretius sets out four elements of the soul's atomic composition—air, breath, warmth, and an unnamed fourth element. He claims that the soul resides in a person' s chest and is really a body part, except that the soul cannot exist without the body and vice-versa. Lucretius likens the body to ajar holding the soul; if the jar is dropped and shatters, the soul leaks out. Lucretius ends the book by reproaching those who fear death. After all, there is nothing after death, so why live in fear of nothingness? Death brings about the end of desire and is not to be mourned. Lucretius adds that all the great men who have gone before have died, so it is approaching arrogance to feel uncomfortable about following their paths. Living one's entire life in fear of death serves only to ruin what chance of happiness and peace there may be.
Sense perception and visions are accounted for in Book Four. Lucretius explains that objects constantly give off atoms that can be perceived by the senses. These are called "films" or "peels." He adds that the senses are completely reliable, although interpretations of what is sensed are not always accurate. As an example, he writes that there are no such things as Centaurs, yet people have seen them because they perceive a film of a man and a film of a horse stuck together and interpret this as a single creature. Because people can be fooled by films that produce, what seems to be, images of Centaurs and other non-existent creatures, they feel compelled to create mythologies about them. This is how woodland gods, spectres, and dreams come into being in the mind.
As Lucretius approaches the end of this book, he begins a fiery section about love and lust. He describes romantic love as an emotional state to be avoided, as it is destructive and causes men and women to make poor decisions and lead themselves into ruin. Oddly, he includes a discussion of infertility and explains why it happens and how it can be corrected. He concludes with a brief description of true love. "Habit is the recipe for love," he says, suggesting that true love is not found in sudden passion but, instead, develops over time.
In Book Five, the longest of the six books, Lucretius offers an account of how the world began and how civilization developed. He again emphasizes the futility of fearing gods or death, and he praises the virtues of friendship and peace.
First, Lucretius establishes that his telling of the creation of the world is not blasphemous because the gods are remote and unconcerned with human dealings. Besides, the gods have nothing to do with the creation of the world; nature is solely responsible. Explaining the wonders of celestial bodies, he returns to the assertion that everything is mortal and is subject to decay. The sun and moon are about the same size as they appear to the eyes and celestial bodies move because of gusts of heavenly winds. He describes the destructive nature of the elements and how they often battle each other.
Next, Lucretius describes life for early people as difficult and dangerous, but free of war between tribes. Early in human history, there were freakish beings that failed to continue in existence because they were unable to survive into adulthood, find food, or procreate. He explains that whenever a new idea came about, it was shared so that the other people could benefit by it. Humankind comes to discover fire, create language and music, develop medicine, establish law, and, upon discovering metal, makes progress in farming. Warfare is also raised to new heights with the creation of metal weapons.
Lucretius opens Book Six with an extended speech about Epicurus, which many scholars view as a eulogy. In the final book of his epic, Lucretius intends to cast away any doubt in his reader's mind that there exist deities that meddle in human affairs. Natural occurrences such as high winds, volcanic eruptions, lightning, and earthquakes have nothing to do with divine activity. Only nature has the power to make these things happen, and to assume that the gods create them is ridiculous. Further, worshipping the gods does not prevent catastrophe. By discussing each type of natural disaster (and phenomena such as magnetism and rainbows), Lucretius hopes to reveal the folly of superstition so prevalent in his society.
Lucretius tells of the Athenian plague of 430 B.C., during which there was no comfort for the afflicted or for the survivors. Lucretius supposes that the Athenians failed to realize that there are limits to both pleasure and pain, otherwise they would know that nature does not give death without also giving life. This story brings the epic to a fitting close, as Lucretius began with the figure of Venus as a creative and life-giving force. Throughout the poem, Lucretius emphasizes the fleeting quality of life, and he supports his argument by constructing his poem in such a way that it begins with life and ends with death.
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