De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) by Titus Lucretius Carus

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Critical Overview

(Epics for Students)

Manuscript page with writings by Lucretius Published by Gale Cengage

As the oldest known example of Latin hexameter poetry, Lucretius' De rerum natura continues to be the subject of much scholarly debate. Entire journal articles focus on the translation of single excerpts, and an accepted "standard" translation is yet to be published. The challenge lies not only in translating the work, but also in preserving its rhythms and imagery in a way that is meaningful to contemporary readers while maintaining the integrity of the text. Scholars and students of classicism admire the text for its lyrical presentation of scientific models. It is also an important text because it is the best single presentation of Epicurean ideals and classical atomic theory that is available. Although the hard science behind Lucretius' assertions concerning the physical world is somewhat naive, there are many ideas that have either been proven or are related to later, more sophisticated theories. In a review for Free Inquiry, Gordon Stein notes, "Granting his lack of equipment to measure things of an atomic (or even galactic) size, we must still marvel at how close his speculations came to the findings of modern science." As for Lucretius' religious beliefs (or lack thereof), critics find that the epic is still relevant to modern-day atheistic and agnostic beliefs.

One of Lucretius' major themes in De rerum natura is death. The ending of the poem, with its extended description of a plague that terrorized Athens, strikes many readers as abrupt and dark. The ending has, therefore, been fertile ground for critical debate. For a time, many scholars maintained that the sudden ending was evidence that the epic was incomplete. They argued that Lucretius intended to return to his masterpiece and finish it. Today, most scholars agree that the work is unfinished, but not because of the ending. In various places in the poem, Lucretius alludes to a later discussion of the gods and their living conditions, yet at the close of the work, he has not addressed this.

Although the ending seems abrupt, critics have devised various arguments to explain why Lucretius wanted his epic to end as it does. To some, the ending presents a sort of test for the reader. Having read Lucretius' account of death and the cyclical nature of the world, the reader has a choice. The reader either can be horrified at the scope of this historical event of human suffering; or can take comfort in the knowledge that with death comes life and the afflicted have nothing to fear because there is nothing beyond death—no judgment, no hell, and no desire. J. L. Penwill, in an article for Ramus—Critical Studies in Greek and Roman Literature, applies Lucretius' worldview to contemporary situations: "The victims of the plague are ... innocent. And in the pain of an individual death from cancer or AIDS, or in the face of natural disasters such as fire, flood, and earthquake, or even of ones that can be ascribed to human causes such as ethnic cleansing in Bosnia or genocide in Rwanda, the undeserved suffering again and again forces the anguished cry, 'Why does God let this happen?' The answer is simple. God has no interest in the matter. That is the way things are." Granted, this is a harsh view that clashes with popular religious belief systems, but later in the same article, Penwill offers an insight that reveals Lucretius' tenderness toward people: "Unlike the gods, human beings possess the quality of compassion."

Also related to Lucretius' theme of death is a seeming contradiction in the text. His Epicurean ideals dictate that there is nothing beyond death, and so people should neither fear it nor seek immortality. He states that the pursuit of immortality leads men into ruin as they become creatures of envy, cruelty, and selfishness. Still, Lucretius claims that he will secure poetic immortality through his great work. In Book One,...

(The entire section is 967 words.)