(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.”