On the Nature of Things by Lucretius

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Summary

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

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 2,173 words.)