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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1084

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Lucretius’s scientific and philosophical poem, On the Nature of Things, is arranged in six books, each with a different purpose in his overall theme: explaining the physical and spiritual worlds as they affect man and defining the Epicurean lifestyle centered on the pursuit of pleasure.

Book I explain the laws that govern atoms, as well as the nature of things we can consider immortal:

If time utterly destroys things when they age, and eats up all their elements to nothing, out of what does Venus bring back into the light of life all living things, each after its kind? Or, as we see that living things are brought back, out of what does the earth give them nourishment and growth? Out of what do the earth’s fountains and rivers keep full the sea? Out of what does nature feed the stars? For infinite time has gone by already, and the passing of days would necessarily have consumed all things to nothing if they were composed of mortal elements. So if despite the eternity of time that has gone by those things which we see today continue to exist, then those things are no doubt composed of immortal elements which cannot return to nothing.

Book II explains atoms more in depth, including the science behind their movement and structure, as well as expounding on Epicurean philosophy:

O miserable minds of men! O blinded hearts! In what darkness of life and in what great danger you pass this term of life, whatever its duration. How can you choose not to see that Nature craves for herself no more than this: that the body feel no pain, and the mind enjoy pleasure exempt from care and fear?

Book III explores the rules that govern the human mind and spirit in relation to the body, suggesting that we should not fear death:

You can best test the man when he is in doubt and danger, and when he is amid adversity learn who he really is. For then, and not until then, are the words of truth are forced out from the bottom of his heart. His mask is torn off, and the reality is left. Avarice and blind lust for honors lead unhappy men to overstep the bounds of right, and as partners and agents of crime to strive night and day with tremendous effort to struggle up to the summit of power. Such sores of life are in no small measure fostered by the dread of death. For foul scorn and knawing [sic] needs are seen to be far removed from a life of pleasure and security, and are thought to be the same as loitering before the gates of death.

Later in book III he questions:

To those who mourn for the dead, this question should be asked:

“What is there in death so extremely bitter, if it comes in the end to sleep and rest, that anyone should pine over the dead in never-ending sorrow?”

Book IV includes the explanation of how our senses work, including commentary on the role sexuality plays in the Epicurean life:

You will find that it is from the senses that comes all knowledge of the true, and that the senses cannot be refuted. For that which is of itself able to distinguish the false from the true must from the Nature of the case be proved with a higher certainty...We therefore must perceive what is soft and cold or hot by one distinct faculty, and by another perceive the different colors of things and thus see all objects which have color. Taste too is a separate faculty; smells spring from one source, sounds from another. It therefore must follow that any one sense cannot confute any other. Nor can any sense take itself to task, since equal credit must be assigned to it at all times. What therefore has at any time appeared true to each sense, is true.

Of sexual relationships, Lucretius states that although they can hinder us as humans, the act does bring physical pleasure:

Do you not see how those whom mutual pleasure has chained together are often both tortured in their common chains?...This they would never do unless they experienced mutual joy that is strong enough to force them into the snare and hold them in its meshes.

Book V asserts that Earth is the center of our astrological system, and discusses the morality of humanity:

When we turn our gaze on the heavens far above the glittering stars, and direct our thoughts to the courses of the sun and moon, into our hearts, burdened as they are with other ills, the fear of the gods enters, we begin to believe that the power of the gods is unlimited, and that they wheel the stars about in their varied motions. This is because the lack of power to solve the question troubles the mind with doubts, and we wonder whether there was ever a birth-time of the world, and whether likewise there is to be any end, and how long the world can endure this strain of restless motion, or whether by the grace of the gods with an everlasting existence the world may glide on through eternity and defy the power of immeasurable ages.

Book VI explores atmospheric and earthly phenomena, such as pestilence. In this final section, Lucretius also rejects the influence of the gods in these things.

Once more I will mount the illustrious chariot of the muses, and ascend to heaven to explain the true law of winds and storms, which men foolishly lay to the charge of the gods. I will tell how, when the winds are angry, they raise fierce tempests, and when there is a lull in their fury, how that anger is appeased, and how the omens presaged their fury have thus been appeased. I will at the same time explain all those other things which mortals observe upon earth and in heaven which abase their souls with fear of the gods. Such things weigh men down and press them to earth because ignorance of their causes constrain men to submit things to the empire of the gods, and to give over to the gods the kingdom of the universe.

It seems that Lucretius' aim in this work is not merely to educate his fellow citizens, but to guide them towards a life without fear and shame, based on logical philosophies about the natural world and man's peaceful place in it.

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