On the Nature of Things

by Lucretius
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Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

Lucretius' On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura in the original Latin) is a long philosophical poem that discusses important aspects of Epicurean thought. This is an especially valuable work for understanding Epicurean thought because the works of the earlier Epicureans (two centuries before Lucretius) survive only in fragmentary form and are often preserved in writings by their philosophical opponents. On the Nature of Things is an extraordinary poetical work, full of all kinds of puns, word play, and imagery. It is equally extraordinary as a philosophical work because it contains a range of rigorous arguments defending and explicating Epicurean doctrines.

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On the Nature of Things serves as the basis for our understanding of Epicurean physics and cosmology. The world, according to Lucretius, is mortal and made up entirely of atoms and void. All physical things are created out of the chance conjunction of atoms; death is nothing besides the disjunction of these atoms. Unlike almost every other philosopher of the time, Lucretius argues against the existence of an immortal soul or a divine creator of the world. He also has a strong doctrine with respect to free will -- the very atoms which constitute the world have a will of their own as does everything else in the world.

Lucretius also explores the moral and political ramifications of these physical and cosmological views. Since there is no afterlife and death is nothing other than the dissolution of a conjunct of atoms, we have no reason to fear death and we also have no reason to fear gods who may punish us in the afterlife. Such ideas went against all religious beliefs of the time. It also follows that all we have is this life, so we should give pleasure its due -- again, an idea that is in stark contrast to the teachings of philosophers like the Stoics. While the Epicureans were not hedonists in the contemporary sense -- they argued for a hierarchy of pleasures and advocated only natural and necessary ones -- they did argue that happiness consisted in maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Lucretius also offers an account of the creation of society on the basis of these doctrines.

On the Nature of Things is, then, unique and remarkable for all kinds of reasons. First, arguably no other text from antiquity is as beautiful in terms of its poetry as it is rigorous in terms of its philosophy. Second, it contains complete explications of Epicurean doctrines as well as arguments in support of some of these claims. Lucretius also synthesizes the physical and cosmological arguments with the moral and political ones, showing how the moral and political views follow quite naturally from the physical and cosmological ones; in this he is also a systematic philosopher.

Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 379

Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, which many consider to be the greatest didactic poem in any language, is an exposition of the philosophy of Epicurus. No divergence of doctrine, however minute, is to be found between Lucretius and his master.

After an invocation to Venus, symbolic of the loveliness, fruitfulness, and peace of nature, Lucretius eulogizes Epicurus as the deliverer of humankind from the superstitious terrors of religion: When human life lay foul before the eyes, crushed on the earth beneath heavy religion, who showed her face from the regions of heaven, glowering over mortals with horrible visage, first a Greek man dared to lift mortal eyes against her and to stand up to her; neither stories of gods nor thunderbolts nor heaven with menacing growl checked him, but all the more they goaded the spirited manliness of his mind, so that he longed to be first to break through the tight locks of nature’s portals. Thus the lively force of his mind prevailed, and he journeyed far beyond the flaming walls of the world and traversed the whole immensity with mind and soul, whence victorious he reports to us what limit there is to the power of each thing, and by what law each has its boundary-stone set deep. And so religion in turn is cast down under foot and trampled; the victory exalts us to heaven.

People make themselves miserable through fear of divine caprice in this life and of hellfire after it. Lucretius argued that the first fear comes from ignorance of the workings of nature and the latter from the false belief in an immortal soul. The cure for both is an understanding of materialist philosophy. “Thus of necessity this terror of the mind, these darknesses, not the rays of the sun nor the bright arrows of daylight will disperse, but nature’s aspect and her law.”

You may think, says Lucretius to Memmius (the Roman official to whom the poem is dedicated), that the materialist philosophy is unholy. Not so: “On the contrary, that very religion has very often given birth to criminal and impious deeds.” For instance, the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father. “Tntum religio potuit suadere malorum!—so much of evil has religion been able to put over!”

Nature and Atoms

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 597

The first law of nature is “Nothing is ever generated from nothing, by any divine force.” This Lucretius takes to be amply proved by experience. If something could come from nothing, then anything could beget anything, or things would pop up out of season, or adult humans and trees would appear all at once. The observed regularity of birth and growth implies fixed seeds of all things or, in other words, sufficient causes of all that happens. Nor can anything disappear into nothing; if it could, then already in the infinity of time nothing would be left. “By no means then do any of the things that are seen perish utterly; since Nature refashions one thing out of another, nor permits anything to be born unless aided by the death of something else.”

Nature consists of atoms (“seeds,” “beginnings”—Lucretius does not use the Greek word) too small to be seen, but nevertheless real. The winds, odors, heat, and cold show that real things can be invisible, and the drying of wet clothes and the gradual wearing away of rings and stones proves that the things we can see are made of tiny particles. Because things move, there must be void space for them to move in. Visible objects contain much void, as is proved by differences in density and by the free passage of heat and sound through apparently solid objects, of water through rocks, and of food through the tissues of the body. Besides atoms and void, no third kind of thing exists; everything else that has a name is either an essential or accidental property of these two.

Atoms are absolutely solid, containing no void within them, and therefore are internally changeless. If they were not, there would be no large-scale objects left, for all would have been pulverized in infinite time. Moreover, if things were infinitely divisible, then the sum of things and the least thing would be equal, both containing an equal, since infinite, number of parts—an absurd situation, according to Lucretius.

After refuting (what he takes to be) the rival theories of Heraclitus, Empedocles, and Anaxagoras, Lucretius proceeds to prove that the universe is infinite in space. If it were not, what would happen if you went to the edge of it and shot an arrow? Either the arrow would stop, because there was something beyond to stop it, or it would not, and again there would be space beyond the presumed boundary. The number of atoms in infinite space is also infinite, for because their general tendency is to fly apart, a finite number in infinite space would have to so spread out that the average density would be near zero, which is against observation. There is no center to the world and no antipodes. (All the ancient atomists continued to hold that the earth was a flat disc, even though schools such as the Pythagoreans and Aristotelians, less scientific in their general principles, had long known better.)

Book 1 concludes with a well-known passage, more applicable to the progressive nature of science than to the fossilized dogmas of Epicureanism:These things you will learn thus, led on with little trouble; for one thing will grow clear from another, nor will blind night snatch away the road and not let you perceive Nature’s ultimates. Thus things will kindle lights for things.

The proem to book 2 is the longest ethical passage in the poem, depicting the peaceful serenity of the Epicurean’s life, contrasted with the troubled existence of the unenlightened, who in getting and spending lay waste their powers.

The Qualities of Atoms

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Atoms move either by their own weight or by blows from other atoms. Left to themselves, atoms move “downward” (Lucretius fails to define what down means in an infinite, centerless universe), all at the same speed, faster than light, because the void offers no resistance. No atom, then, would ever have hit another if it were not for the fact that “at quite an uncertain time and at uncertain places they push out a little from their course.” Thus one hits another, the second a third, and so on. Lucretius also employs this “swerve,” which is supposed to occur not just “in the beginning” but in the present, to account for free will in human beings.

Everything in nature is different from every other thing: Each lamb knows its own mother, one blade of wheat is not exactly like the next. The atoms also differ in their shapes. Lightning, though it is fire, “consists of more subtle and smaller figures.” Honey is sweet because, being made of smooth and round bodies, it caresses the tongue and palate, while the hooked atoms of wormwood tear them. (According to atomism, all the senses are varieties of touch.) The shapes of atoms are not infinite in number. If they were, Lucretius infers, there would have to be some that were of enormous size. However, the number of atoms of each shape is infinite. Not every kind of particle can link with every other—that would produce monstrosities.

All combustibles contain particles capable of tossing fire abroad. Anything (such as a fruit) that has color, taste, and smell must contain at least three kinds of constituent atoms. However, no atom by itself has color, savor, or odor; the properties of atoms are simply solidity, size, shape, and weight. Colors and the other sensed qualities are products of atomic arrangements. If colors were embedded in the ultimate constituents of matter, we should be unable to account for their rapid changes without violating the principle nothing-from-nothing. Lucretius has another argument: Because color is not essentially bound up with the shape of a thing, if atoms were themselves colored, we should expect all visible things to exist in all possible colors.

Nor are individual atoms endowed with consciousness. For sense depends on vital motions, and hence depends on birth. Heavy blows can produce unconsciousness, which ought not to happen if consciousness were independent of atomic arrangements. Pain is the result of a disturbance, but an atom cannot be (internally) disturbed. In addition, consciousness of each atom would lead to all sorts of absurdities, such as that not only a man but also his semen would be conscious.

Lucretius makes brilliant use of the atomistic principle that just as an indefinitely large number of meanings can be conveyed by rearranging the letters of the alphabet, “so also in things themselves, when motion, order, position, and figure are changed, the things also are bound to be changed.”

There are other worlds, like this one, in the infinite universe. Indeed, the vastness and complexity of the universe is itself proof that the whole is not governed by gods: it would be too much for them. Or, if you assume intellects adequate for the task, it then becomes inexplicable why there is evil and confusion in the world.

Growth and decay pertain to worlds as much as to individuals. The vital powers of this earth are wearing out. “Indeed, already the broken and effete earth has difficulty in creating little animals, though it once created all the kinds at once, and gave birth to the huge bodies of wild beasts.”

The Mind and the Soul

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 713

Lucretius distinguishes between the mind (animus, mens), which is what thinks in us, and the soul (anima), which is the vivifying principle: “seeds of wind and hot vapor, which take care that life shall stay in the limbs.” Both, of course, are made of atoms, “extremely subtle and minute.” They form a unity: “Mind and soul are joined to each other and form one nature, but the chief, so to speak, that which rules the whole body, is the Reason. . . . It is situated in the middle region of the chest.” Besides atoms of wind, air, and hot vapor, the mind also contains a fourth, unnamed kind of atom, “than which nothing finer or more mobile exists.” This “very soul of the whole soul” has to be postulated to account for consciousness, which is the motion of this superfine substance. Lucretius is a consistent materialist; consciousness is not for him an unexplained product of atomic motions, distinct from them but, like color, an “accident” of atoms of a certain kind in a certain arrangement. In other words, consciousness is an atomic process.

Souls differ in their compositions: Lions have more heat, deer more wind, oxen more air. People also differ from one another; their temperaments depend on the makeup of their souls. However, Lucretius is quick to add: “So tiny are the traces of the natures, which Reason could not dispel from us, that nothing prevents us living a life worthy of the gods.”

The soul particles are few in number compared to those of the flesh, as we know from our inability to sense very slight stimuli. It follows from the atomic nature of the soul that it is dispersed at death; hence consciousness ceases. Lucretius deems this point so important that he reinforces it with a multitude of observations. Lucretius points out that understanding grows with the body and decays with it; that the soul is affected by bodily diseases besides having some of its own; that mental ills can be cured by material medications; that “dying by pieces” in paralysis and the twitches of recently severed limbs show that the soul is divisible and therefore destructible; and that there must be some soul-fragments left in the body after death to account for the generation of worms in the corpse. He also points out that if the soul is immortal, we should remember our past existences (to the ancients, the immortality of the soul implied preexistence as much as life post mortem). To reply that the soul loses its memory at the shock of birth “is not, I think, to stray very far from death.”

Animals have souls appropriate to their bodily constitutions. Thus, the transmigration hypothesis—that souls should queue up to get into a body—is not only incomprehensible but ridiculous. In general, each thing has its appointed place: that of the soul is the body. If the soul were immortal, there would be a tremendous grotesqueness in its being so intimately linked with a mortal thing (as Lucretius contends elsewhere, there could never have been any centaurs, because the disparity in growth rates between the limbs of equine and human beings render them incompatible). Immortal things are so because they cannot be assaulted (atoms), because they offer no resistance to blows (void), or because there is no room for them to scatter. None of these applies to the soul. Therefore, fears of hell are foolish.Death, therefore, is nothing to us, nor does it concern us in the least, inasmuch as the nature of the mind is held to be mortal. And just as we felt no ill in time gone by when the Carthaginians came from all quarters to the attack, when all things under the high shore of heaven shook and trembled in horror at the fearful tumult of war, and it was in doubt to which of them would fall the rule of all things human by land and sea—so, when we shall not exist, when there shall have been a parting of body and soul by whose union we are made one, you may know that by no means can anything happen to us, who will then not be, nor move our feeling; not if earth is confounded with sea and sea with sky.

Perception

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Last Updated on June 20, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 382

The theory of vision in atomism is that objects constantly throw off “idols” or “semblances,” very thin films, of which the snake’s discarded skin furnishes an example. Such “idols” enter the eye and jostle the atoms of the mind, resulting in vision. The less said about this doctrine—which, as ancient critics pointed out, cannot even explain why people cannot see in the dark, or how people can get the “idol” of an elephant into our eye—the better. Although the Epicurean theory is patently false and ridiculous, its ancient rivals are unintelligible.

All perceptions are true, according to the Epicureans, even those in imagination and dreams—which are perceptions of finer idols that enter the body otherwise than through the eyes. It is in inferences from perception that errors arise. Epicurus held that the gods really do exist because they are perceived in dreams. They live in the peaceful spaces between the worlds, in “quiet mansions that winds do not shake, neither do clouds drench them with rainstorms nor the white fall of snow disturb them, hardened with bitter frost; ever a cloudless sky covers them, and smiles with light widely diffused.” The gods are, in short, ideal Epicureans. The mistake of people is in their false inferences that these beings trouble themselves with humans or even know of their existence. True (Epicurean) religion consists in taking these blessed beings as models and making one’s own life, as far as possible, like theirs.

In his discourse on perception and imagination, Lucretius takes the opportunity to state another important principle of materialist philosophy, the denial of purposive causation. One must not suppose that our organs were created in order to perform their appropriate functions: This is “back-to-front perverse reasoning, for nothing at all was born in the body so that we might be able to use it, but what is once born creates its own use.”

This book concludes with a discussion of sex, genetics, and embryology, containing the philosopher’s denunciation of the passion of love as “madness.” It is best, Lucretius says, not to fall in love at all; but if you do, you can still be saved if only you will open your eyes to “all the blemishes of mind and body of her whom you desire.”

The Origin of the World

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The world was not created by the gods. If they set out to create a world, where could they get the plan for it other than through observation of nature? Lucretius explains the origin of the world this way:So many beginnings of things, of many kinds, already from infinite time driven on by blows and by their own weights, have kept on being carried along and hitting together, all trying to unite in all ways, creating whatever conglomerations were possible among them, so that it is no wonder that they have fallen into those dispositions also and come through those passages by which the present sum of things is carried on by renewal.

However, even if we knew nothing of this concourse of atoms, we ought still to reject the hypothesis of divine creation, on account of the many evils in the world. Most of the earth is uninhabitable sea, mountain, and desert; what can be lived in requires laborious clearing and cultivation, the fruits whereof are uncertain. Why are there wild beasts, diseases, untimely deaths, the helplessness of human infancy?

The world is young, for discoveries—such is the Epicurean philosophy—are still being made. The heavy earth-seeds came together and squeezed out the smoother and rounder, which went to make sea, stars, sun, and moon. Lucretius gives five alternative explanations of the revolutions of the heavens; one is free to take one’s choice as long as gods are not introduced.

First bushes appeared on the earth’s surface, then trees, then, by spontaneous generation, birds and beasts. “Wherever there was an opportune spot, wombs grew, grasping the earth with their roots.” Many monsters (though no centaurs) came out of them; in the end, all perished except those few that were capable of feeding and protecting themselves and begetting offspring. Although this account contains the notion of survival of the fittest, it is hardly an improvement over the fantasies of Empedocles and distinctly inferior to the evolutionary speculations of Anaximander, who in the sixth century b.c.e. had already freed himself from the prejudice of fixity of species.

Civilization

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Lucretius next proceeds to a reconstruction of the history of civilization. This passage, which has nothing to do with atomist principles, is a marvel of shrewd deduction, confirmed in almost all its details by modern anthropology and archaeology. His principle of reasoning is that certain discoveries could not have been made unless others had preceded them; for example, woven textiles must have come after iron, which is necessary for making various parts of the loom. (Although he was mistaken, the method is promising.)

Fire came first and made possible stable family relationships and the development of human sympathy. “Then too neighbors began to join in friendship, anxious neither to harm nor be harmed among themselves.” Language arose in these primitive societies, first as mere animal cries, but developing by the assignment of conventional names. Then came kings and cities and property and gold. Then revolts broke out against absolute rulers, leading to the rule of law. Religion, unfortunately, also arose. Metallurgy was discovered accidentally: first that of copper, silver, and gold, later bronze and iron.

Though this account, quite unlike most ancient philosophies, shows a knowledge of technology and of the idea of progressive development, Lucretius did not consider material progress an unalloyed blessing. Life was on balance no more secure in his day than in times of savagery; then one might be eaten by a wild beast, but one did not have to contend with looting armies. Then one might have poisoned oneself through ignorance; however, for Lucretius the danger was that someone else might poison you very skillfully. Lucretius the materialist wrote:Thus the race of men labors always in vain, and uses up its time of life in idle cares, truly because it has not learned what the limit of getting is, nor at all how far true pleasure can increase. And this, little by little, has raised life up to the height and stirred up from below the great tides of war.

Book 6 consists of miscellaneous Epicurean “explanations” of phenomena such as thunder, lightning, and earthquakes, the natural causes of which need to be understood lest they provide material for religion to use to frighten people. The poem ends abruptly after a translation of Thucydides’s description of the plague at Athens in the second year of the Peloponnesian War.

Additional Reading

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Bréhier, Émile. The Hellenistic and Roman Age. Translated by Wade Baskin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965. Deals with Epicurus, Lucretius, and atomistic metaphysics in the broad context of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy.

Clay, Diskin. Lucretius and Epicurus. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983. A helpful comparative study of the metaphysical and ethical philosophies of two important thinkers from the ancient world.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962. Copleston provides a brief but clear discussion of Lucretius in his chapter on “Epicureanism.”

Dalzell, Alexander. The Criticism of Didactic Poetry: Essays on Lucretius, Virgil, and Ovid. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. Explores how Lucretius used poetic forms to express his philosophical views.

Dudley, D. R., ed. Lucretius. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965. Provides seven important articles on various aspects of Lucretius’ life and work. Includes an index of names and important passages from the work.

Gale, Monika. Myth and Poetry in Lucretius. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Lucretius’s distinctive use of poetic imagery is analyzed in a study that sheds light on his methods and metaphysics.

Hadzsits, George D. Lucretius and His Influence. New York: Cooper Square, 1963. A solid analysis of the influence of On the Nature of Things from the Roman era through the Middle Ages and Renaissance to modern criticism. The fourth chapter is especially good regarding the work’s place in relation to other ancient authors.

Jones, W. T. A History of Western Philosophy: The Classical Mind. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1969. In a chapter on ancient atomism and materialism, Jones discusses Lucretius in a clear and accessible way.

Lucretius. On the Nature of Things. Edited and translated by Antony M. Esolen. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. A superior translation, skillfully constructed and thoroughly enjoyable to read. A good starting place for those who seek a balance of scholarship and fine translation.

Minadeo, Richard. The Lyre of Science: Form and Meaning in Lucretius’ “De Rerum Natura.” Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969. A scholarly study. Thorough discussion of recurrent motifs and the overall design of the work. Provides copious notes, an appendix of Latin words and concepts, and an index.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem? Timaeus and Genesis in Counterpoint. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997. Reflects on the similarities and differences between biblical views and other important philosophical outlooks from the ancient world, including the Epicurean outlook amplified by Lucretius.

Sedley, D. N. Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Shows how Lucretius built on and departed from Greek traditions that informed the context in which he worked.

Segal, Charles. Lucretius on Death and Anxiety: Poetry and Philosophy in “De Rerum Natura.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. Shows how Lucretius developed his understanding that death is not to be feared.

Sikes, E. E. Lucretius: Poet and Philosopher. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1936. Addresses all important themes, events in Lucretius’ life, and philosophical speculations in relation to other traditions in close detail. Provides the Latin text and a translation. Index and annotated appendix.

Robert J. Forman John K. Roth

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 516

Additional Reading

Bréhier, Émile. The Hellenistic and Roman Age. Translated by Wade Baskin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965. Deals with Epicurus, Lucretius, and atomistic metaphysics in the broad context of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy.

Clay, Diskin. Lucretius and Epicurus. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983. A helpful comparative study of the metaphysical and ethical philosophies of two important thinkers from the ancient world.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962. Copleston provides a brief but clear discussion of Lucretius in his chapter on “Epicureanism.”

Dalzell, Alexander. The Criticism of Didactic Poetry: Essays on Lucretius, Virgil, and Ovid. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. Explores how Lucretius used poetic forms to express his philosophical views.

Dudley, D. R., ed. Lucretius. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965. Provides seven important articles on various aspects of Lucretius’ life and work. Includes an index of names and important passages from the work.

Gale, Monika. Myth and Poetry in Lucretius. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Lucretius’s distinctive use of poetic imagery is analyzed in a study that sheds light on his methods and metaphysics.

Hadzsits, George D. Lucretius and His Influence. New York: Cooper Square, 1963. A solid analysis of the influence of On the Nature of Things from the Roman era through the Middle Ages and Renaissance to modern criticism. The fourth chapter is especially good regarding the work’s place in relation to other ancient authors.

Jones, W. T. A History of Western Philosophy: The Classical Mind. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1969. In a chapter on ancient atomism and materialism, Jones discusses Lucretius in a clear and accessible way.

Lucretius. On the Nature of Things. Edited and translated by Antony M. Esolen. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. A superior translation, skillfully constructed and thoroughly enjoyable to read. A good starting place for those who seek a balance of scholarship and fine translation.

Minadeo, Richard. The Lyre of Science: Form and Meaning in Lucretius’ “De Rerum Natura.” Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969. A scholarly study. Thorough discussion of recurrent motifs and the overall design of the work. Provides copious notes, an appendix of Latin words and concepts, and an index.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem? Timaeus and Genesis in Counterpoint. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997. Reflects on the similarities and differences between biblical views and other important philosophical outlooks from the ancient world, including the Epicurean outlook amplified by Lucretius.

Sedley, D. N. Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Shows how Lucretius built on and departed from Greek traditions that informed the context in which he worked.

Segal, Charles. Lucretius on Death and Anxiety: Poetry and Philosophy in “De Rerum Natura.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. Shows how Lucretius developed his understanding that death is not to be feared.

Sikes, E. E. Lucretius: Poet and Philosopher. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1936. Addresses all important themes, events in Lucretius’ life, and philosophical speculations in relation to other traditions in close detail. Provides the Latin text and a translation. Index and annotated appendix.

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