Themes

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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 697

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Although Lucretius presents many themes in this work, two major ones pervade the text. Firstly, he suggests that even though substance is immortal while the human soul is mortal, we should not fear death. Books I and II support this, presenting the nature of atoms and the eternal nature of non-organic substances. In Book I he states:

But be it the Long Ago contained those germs,
By which this sum of things recruited lives,
Those same infallibly can never die,
Nor nothing to nothing evermore return.
And, too, the selfsame power might end alike
All things, were they not still together held
By matter eternal, shackled through its parts . . . But now
Because the fastenings of primordial parts
Are put together diversely and stuff
Is everlasting, things abide the same.

“Things” are held together by eternal matter, states Lucretius. However, with the soul, he claims in Book III, it is different:

Now come: that thou mayst able be to know
That minds and the light souls of all that live
Have mortal birth and death. . . .

The soul no less is shed abroad and dies
More quickly far, more quickly is dissolved
Back to its primal bodies, when withdrawn
From out man's members it has gone away.

Yet in spite of his insistence that the soul is made of particles so minute that they merely dissolve upon the death of the body, Lucretius insists that we ought not fear death. Book III expounds on this:

Therefore death to us
Is nothing, nor concerns us in the least,
Since nature of mind is mortal evermore. . . .

When comes that sundering of our body and soul
Through which we're fashioned to a single state,
Verily naught to us, us then no more,
Can come to pass, naught move our senses then—

Basically, he reasons, since all our senses are experienced through our body, which is tied to our soul, once the soul ceases, we will no longer have senses to feel anything, good or bad. We will feel no pain nor mourn our lack of life. It is folly to wish for more than what we have in this life:

Death's not to shun, and we must go to meet.
Besides we're busied with the same devices,
Ever and ever, and we are at them ever,
And there's no new delight that may be forged
By living on.

However, this brings us to another theme, which perhaps Lucretius expounds on to offer comfort in the face of certain death: the Epicurean philosophy that man should live for pleasure and avoid pain. He explains that we can feel pleasure in the mind and the body and should seek both:

Often the body palpable and seen
Sickens, while yet in some invisible part
We feel a pleasure; oft the other way,
A miserable in mind feels pleasure still
Throughout his body—quite the same

In Book IV he elaborates on our use of senses and encourages our enjoyment of each, such as the sense of taste:

Next, only up to palate is the pleasure
Coming from flavour.

In Book II, Lucretius remarks that rather than dwell on the dark evils of life, we should imitate nature in worrying about nothing except avoiding pain and delighting in all that we enjoy:

O not to see that nature for herself
Barks after nothing, save that pain keep off,
Disjoined from the body, and that mind enjoy
Delightsome feeling, far from care and fear!

Although intimate relationships can come with entanglements, Lucretius feels that the physical pleasure to be gained is not to be denied, as he describes in Book IV:

At last, with members intertwined, when they
Enjoy the flower of their age, when now
Their bodies have sweet presage of keen joys. . . .

However, Lucretius notes that this Epicurean lesson—to not worry and simply enjoy life’s pleasures—is a difficult one for man:

So man in vain futilities toils on
Forever and wastes in idle cares his years—
Because, of very truth, he hath not learnt
What the true end of getting is, nor yet
At all how far true pleasure may increase.

Ironically, according to our poetic philosopher, in all our pointless toiling to do what we feel we ought, we waste our best years and never truly understand how deep our joys in life can become.

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