One long struggle in the dark.


As much as I like everything I’ve read *about* Lucretius, I have to admit that I have really been struggling with the actual text of On the Nature of Things. You see, it’s a poem from about 70 BCE which seeks to explain the Epicurean basis for understanding the world.

The Epicureans were followers of Epicurus who formed communes under his direction and for hundreds of years afterwards. Epicurus had a number of insights about our relationship to the supernatural, to the earthly world and to our own corporeal being – and he is considered by some to be the founder of modern scientific thinking. All interesting stuff, though unfortunately most of his writings have been lost over time and so we rely on poems like this one by Lucretius which is a couple hundred pages long and seeks to explain the order in which matter is organized (swerving atoms), the goals of human life (finding pleasure), our relationship to death (which should mean as little to us as what happens before we are born), proper observance of the gods (they don’t really care about us, so let’s not base our lives on trying to please them in frightened supersition) and a host of other topics core to Epicurean thought.

What struck me upon first reading of the text was the physical science that Lucretius describes – that is a world based on matter (atoms being a constituent of everything), nothing comes from nothing, the universe is a closed system – and most important to the modern scientific method: we must rely on observations based in the senses rather than superstition to determine the facts of our world. Within the course of the poem he engages in some debate with other theorists of his day – Heroclitus, Empedocles, and Anaxagoras – calling them out on their deficiencies in reasoning out the elemental nature of the world. Lucretius maintains that atoms are all around us, travelling at great speeds in relatively stable patterns – but every once and awhile they “swerve” which can set new chains of being into motion and stop the order of life from being so predictable. From what I have read *about* On the Nature of Things this particular concept bears some similarity to “the indeterminacy postulated by modern quantum physics” – stunning the modern reader (we are often so smug in believing that all our thinking is new aren’t we?).

Note: There is a book out this fall called The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt who credits Lucretius as the unsung hero of modern thought. Several articles have run in the past month about this book and the influence of Lucretius (through the rediscovery of his book in the 1400s) on the development of human culture. Such is one today in the Independent. (I am on the library wait list for this book).

On second reading, Lucretius’ thoughts on the soul and mortality jumped out at me. I attribute this to a 3-lecture series from Notre Dame University I watched in between reads – (for anyone who hasn’t grokked iTunes University… it’s an amazing resource and all free). In any case – Lucretius posits a soul made up of anima (based in the body) and animus (based in the mind which is located in the heart) which is comprised of special atoms that infuse us with our nature and consciousness. But although these souls are constituted of *something*, that something disperses when we die and becomes the constituents of other things. Thus Lucretius ends the superstitious cycle: there is not life after death, no possibility of Hades, no reason to fear retribution in the afterworld. And, he says, why would you fear death when you don’t worry about before you were born – for these are the same state? (I loved that bit – I’ve never considered the before life and the after life to be the same before reading that).

The whole Epicuran approach is fascinating to me – that life is about seeking pleasure (but not the pleasures which make us unhappy through excess or unnaturalness), that to be happy we must free ourselves from superstitions which bind us in fear. that we must ground ourselves in all the senses to find the truth. And I appreciate how Lucretius (and Epicurus) don’t just throw the baby out with the bathwater on faith – the Gods don’t get struck down in this rational approach – but it’s just commonsense that the Gods are too busy and lofty to care much about each and every one of us individuals. Their communal approach to a life which included women and slaves in the public sphere is also striking for its day.

We’re discussing this work in class tomorrow morning and I expect to add more to this post afterwards (or create a new one) – plus I am using this text for my first term paper – even though (or especially because) I have struggled with it so. One of the great things about having so many and such varied readings – is that for the first time in a long while I am realizing the value of slogging through difficult material, seeking supplementary sources and digging deeper for the rewards of understanding and integrating new idas. This is a work that I’m feeling a deep respect for, even as I feel that I am only skating on the surface of it for the time being.


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