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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

On the Nature of Things (or De Rerum Natura in the original Latin) is a philosophical poem written by the Epicurean Lucretius (ca 99-55 BCE). The poem is divided into six 'books' or sections and each of these books deals with different aspects of Epicurean thought. In order to summarize ...

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On the Nature of Things (or De Rerum Natura in the original Latin) is a philosophical poem written by the Epicurean Lucretius (ca 99-55 BCE). The poem is divided into six 'books' or sections and each of these books deals with different aspects of Epicurean thought. In order to summarize On the Nature of Things, I will offer a brief summary of each of the books.

Book I: Lucretius begins by defending science against superstition in the first four hundred lines. After this, he describes and defends atomic theory: like the pre-Socratics Democritus and Leucippus and like the earlier Epicureans, Lucretius defends a view of the physical universe according to which all that exists are atoms and void. This materialist explanation was highly heterodox in antiquity and was ridiculed by other philosophical schools (Academics, Peripatetics, Stoics). Book I concludes with a consideration of the composition of physical bodies; this spills over into Book II. The conclusion of this discussion is that space and time are infinite.

Book II: After finishing his discussion of the composition of physical bodies, Lucretius discusses the highly controversial idea of atomic swerve. He holds that the atoms that make up the universe have a character and a will of their own and their motion is not uniform and linear but that they may, from time to time, choose to swerve.

Book III: He begins again by praising Epicurus for revealing the truth about the nature of things and discusses some key aspects of Epicurean ethical doctrine. He describes the Epicurean 'tetrapharmakon' (four-fold remedy): one must not fear death, what is good is easy to get, what is difficult is easy to survive, and one must not fear the gods. We also learn that the body and soul are material and mortal and that this belief is the metaphysical basis for the tetrapharmakon.

Book IV: This is given over entirely to a discussion of sex. The model of sex proposed is an androcentric, hydraulic model. He recognizes that women and men both gain pleasure from sex and also counsels promiscuity.

Book V: Book V is mostly given over to his cosmological doctrines. One of the central claims is that the world is not created by a divine intellect nor by gods. Further, the world is not eternal but mortal. After this discussion, he introduces what might well be the earliest (Western) version of a social contract theory according to which people decided to live together in societies because of a compact. He ends Book V with a discussion of pleasure and hedonism.

Book VI: In the final book, Lucretius talks about celestial phenomena at first. Then he talks about disease and health, with a focus on the Athenian plague.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1720

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 void to make objects of greater hardness or softness, strength or weakness.

Lucretius calls upon the reader’s reason and his or her observation of nature, pointing out absurdities that might come about if his own point were not true. For example, he substantiates his statement that nothing can be created from nothing by saying, For if things came to being from nothing, every kind might be born from all things, nought would need a seed. First men might arise from the sea, and from the land the race of scaly creatures, and birds burst forth from the sky.

These “proofs,” which may fill fifty or one hundred lines of poetry, are often unconvincing, but they reveal the author’s knowledge of nature and his imaginative gifts.

The universe is infinite in the Epicurean system. Lucretius would ask one who believes it finite the following question: If one were to run on to the end . . . and throw a flying dart, would you have it that that dart . . . goes on whither it is sped and flies afar, or do you think that something can check and bar its way?

Lucretius ridicules the Stoic theory that all things press toward a center, for the universe, being infinite, can have no center. Lucretius, in his proof that the universe is infinite, does not consider what it ended up taking some two millennia for another thinker to consider; one could go to the “end” of a finite universe, throw a dart from there, and have it sail on unimpeded into another part of the universe, giving the appearance that the universe has no end, if space is curved. He often contradicts what science has since proved true, but he is remarkably accurate for his time.

Book 2 opens with a poetic description of the pleasure of standing apart from the confusion and conflicts of life. Nothing is more gladdening than to dwell in the calm high places, firmly embattled on the heights by the teaching of the wise, whence you can look down on others, and see them wandering hither and thither.

Lucretius is providing this teaching by continuing his discussion of atoms, which he says move continuously downward like dust particles in a sunbeam. They have a form of free will and can swerve to unite with one another to form objects. Lucretius adds that if the atoms could not will motion for themselves, there would be no explanation for the ability of animals to move voluntarily.

The poet outlines other properties of atoms in the latter part of the second book: they are colorless, insensible, and of a variety of shapes that determine properties of the objects the atoms compose. Sweet honey contains round, smooth particles; bitter wormwood, hooked atoms.

While Lucretius scorns superstitious fear of the gods, he worships the creative force of nature, personified as Venus in the invocation to book 1. Nature controls the unending cycle of creation and destruction. There are gods, but they dwell in their tranquil homes in space, unconcerned for the fate of humanity. A passage in praise of Epicurus precedes book 3, the book of the soul. Lucretius says that fear of death arises from superstitions about the soul’s afterlife in Hades. This fear is foolish, for the soul is, like the body, mortal. The poet describes the soul as the life force in the body, composed of very fine particles that disperse into the air when the body dies. Since the individual will neither know nor feel anything when the soul has dissolved, fear of death is unnecessary. One should not regret leaving life, even if it has been full and rich. One should die as “a guest sated with the banquet of life and with calm mind embrace . . . a rest that knows no care.” If existence has been painful, then an end to it should be welcome.

The introductory lines of book 4 express Lucretius’s desire to make philosophy more palatable to his readers by presenting it in poetry. His task is a new one: “I traverse the distant haunts of the Pierides (the Muses), never trodden before by the foot of man.” The poet begins this book on the topic of sensation with an explanation of idols, the films of atoms that float from the surfaces of objects and make sense perception possible. People see because idols touch their eyes, and they taste the bitter salt air because idols of hooked atoms reach their tongues. Idols become blunted when they travel a long distance, causing people to see far-off square towers as round.

Lucretius blames the misconceptions arising from visual phenomena such as refraction and perspective on reason, not sense, for accuracy of sense perceptions is an important part of his theory: “Unless they are true, all reason, too, becomes false.”

A second eulogy of Epicurus introduces the fifth book, for some readers the most interesting of all. In it Lucretius discusses the creation of the world and the development of human civilization. Earth was created by a chance conjunction of atoms, which squeezed out Sun, Moon, and stars as they gathered together to form land. The world, which is constantly disintegrating and being rebuilt, is still young, for human history does not go back beyond the Theban and Trojan wars. The poet gives several explanations for the motion of stars, the causes of night, and eclipses. Since proof can come only from the senses, any theory that does not contradict perception is possible.

Lucretius presents the curious idea that the first animals were born from wombs rooted in the earth. Monsters were created, but only strong animals and those useful to people could survive. What follows is a delightful picture of primitive people, hardy creatures living on nuts and berries and living in caves. Lucretius describes the process of civilization as people uniting for protection, and learning to talk, use metals, weave, and wage war. Problems began for them with the discovery of wealth and property, breeding envy and discord. It was at this point that Epicurus taught people the highest good, to free them from their cares.

The sixth book continues the explanation of the natural phenomena—thunder, lightning, clouds, rain, earthquakes—that inspired people to fear the gods. Lucretius examines many subjects, giving several explanations for many of them. He concludes the poem with a vivid description of the plague of Athens, modeled on Thucydides’s account.

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