On the Nature of Things Analysis



(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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The Qualities of Atoms

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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The Mind and the Soul

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 520 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 516 words.)