Context

(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!”