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...