On the Nature of Things (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

On the Nature of Things (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

NOOK Book(eBook)

View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now
LEND ME® See Details


Lucretius' dazzling poetic work, On the Nature of Things, composed during the late Roman Republic, has captivated imaginations for twenty-one centuries. This epic promises to lift the reader above common fears, ambitions, and misery; as well as the terror of living in a universe controlled by little-understood forces. Lucretius uses the framework of Epicurus' teachings to create an ethics based on free will, the value of friendship, and the serenity of intellectual reflection.

It was Lucretius' hope that On the Nature of Things would provide an antidote to the politically insecure environment of the late Republic, and perhaps for all time to come. We can read this magnificent poem to learn how to view the world without illusions and contemplate the workings of nature with a clear, untroubled mind.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781411430808
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Publication date: 09/01/2009
Series: Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 665 KB
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

Titus Lucretius Carus was born anywhere from 99 to 94 BC and was admired by Virgil and discussed by Cicero. Lucretius is one of the chief promoters of Epicurean philosophy to come out of antiquity, and On the Nature of Things made Epicurus known to subsequent generations.


Lucretius' dazzling poetic work, On the Nature of Things, composed during the late Roman Republic, has captivated imaginations for twenty-one centuries. If only for its elegant poetic language, On the Nature of Things transcends its age, and generations of readers have turned to it for comfort and inspiration. Composed in the genre known as didactic poetry, this hexameter epic promises to catapult the reader above common fears and misery; ambition for power, money, and love; and the terror of living in a universe controlled by little-understood forces. Lucretius uses the framework of Epicurus' physical theory, atomism, to create an ethics based on free will, the value of friendship and the serenity of intellectual reflection. He holds out the contemplation of natural processes as the greatest palliative, teaching his reader to appreciate the abiding rhythms of the never-ending binding and unbinding of atoms as they cause natural phenomena to come into and go out of existence. This unending flow includes both the universe itself and the human soul. In a world where atoms are free to swerve and collide as they will, neither omnipotent, angry gods nor tyrannical political leaders intervene in human affairs. Lucretius reduces love to the flow of bodily juices, the gods to disinterested spectators, and the fear of death to ignorant superstition. It was his hope that On the Nature of Things would provide an antidote to the politically insecure environment of the late Republic, and perhaps for all time to come. Modern analogies to Lucretius' physical theories such as indeterminacy theory, chaos theory, and string theory do not make us any more at home in theuniverse, nor is the world today any less turbulent than it was in Lucretius' time. We too can read this magnificent poem to learn how to view the world without illusions and contemplate the workings of nature with a clear, untroubled mind.

Titus Lucretius Carus was born anywhere from 99 to 94 BC and died sometime between 55 and 51 BC, during the period known as the late Republican period. Very little is known about Lucretius. St. Jerome wrote a sensationalized account of his life in which Lucretius is alleged to have gone mad after drinking a love potion and subsequently committed suicide. This story is now dismissed by scholars as anti-Epicurean propaganda fabricated to discredit Lucretius, whose arguments contradicted the creationist and providential biases of the early Christians. It is safe to assume that Lucretius was a member of the educated, leisured ruling class of Rome but little else. He dedicated On the Nature of Things to Memmius, a prominent political figure who vied for a consulship and was a gifted orator and dilettante. This suggests that the work was intended for typical members of the ruling class of Roman society, men who were politically ambitious and probably ignorant of philosophy. Lucretius considered such men worthy of convincing of the value of the disinterested contemplation of nature. Perhaps he believed that his carefully wrought words could help make the world a better place and produce a more open society. Lucretius was admired by a younger contemporary, Virgil, and discussed by Cicero in a letter written in 54 BC. Aside from Diogenes Laertius, whose Life of Epicurus was known to the Roman world of Lucretius' time, Lucretius is probably the chief promoter of Epicurean philosophy to come out of antiquity. On the Nature of Things is such an outstanding piece of literature that it outlived the Epicurean sects popular in the Rome of Lucretius' time and made Epicurus known to subsequent generations.

In the mid-first century BC the Roman Republic was poised for radical political change. The end of the century would see Caesar turn the Republic into an empire. During Lucretius' lifetime, Rome endured Sulla's bloody civil war in 88 BC, the Spartacus slave revolt, civil unrest, scandal, intrigue, and conspiracy in politics. David Sedley points out that this was a period when the philosophical center of gravity was shifting away from Athens. The events of the Mithridatic War (91-86 BC) and the Epicurean tyrant Aristion (88-86 BC) drove many philosophers out of Athens. Among the many who made their way to Italy was Philodemus, who headed the major Epicurean school (the school's library was found during the eighteenth-century excavations of Herculaneum). Cicero's friends Atticus and Cassius (the latter was one of Julius Caesar's assassins) were Epicureans. David Sedley maintains that Lucretius drew upon the first fifteen books of Epicurus' thirty-seven-book work, On Nature, and that Lucretius himself was independent of any sect. He was a "fundamentalist" who considered the Epicurean philosophy the most effective preventative to turmoil, whether political or personal. Lucretius hoped that a reader-friendly poem to this effect would inspire his contemporaries to abandon their superstitions and destructive ambitions and opt for more benign control over events.

Although On the Nature of Things would influence Horace and Virgil and survive the Byzantine and Islamic Empires, it was not until the early fifteenth century that it became a mainstay of Western literature. Its true value was recognized when Lorenzo Valla, papal secretary to Pope Nicholas V, countered Cicero's unwarranted charge that Epicureanism was hedonism. In 1473, On the Nature of Things was published in Bresia on one of the new printing presses and admired by Erasmus. In 1523, Diogenes Laertius' biography of Epicurus was published in Basel. The anti-Epicurean bias of the Church continued, however, and the philosopher Giordano Bruno was forced to leave the Dominican order for harboring Epicurean beliefs. By contrast, Bruno's more enlightened contemporary, Montaigne, freely embraced these beliefs in his essays. During the Renaissance, Lucretius' poem provided a backdrop for newly recognized scientific approaches. It proved to be a spur to enlightenment thinkers, in particular to the French scientist Pierre Gassendi in the early seventeenth century. In modern times, Lucretius' influence has been no less important, inspiring such diverse thinkers as Henri Bergson, who in 1907 wrote Creative Evolution; the poets Milton, Whitman, Tennyson, and Wordsworth; and scientists such as Alfred North Whitehead.

There is controversy in the literature over whether Lucretius translated, paraphrased, or simply rendered Epicurus' ideas in his own words. Whereas Epicurus wrote, as Cicero contends, in a plain unadorned style, Lucretius crafted a poetry that stands on its own for its carefully wrought figures. Hexameter, a form common to Greek and Latin epic poetry, consists of six stresses to a line. Each metrical stress is followed by either two short syllables or one long one. Hesiod, who lived around 700 BC, was the earliest poet to write didactic literature in this genre. The pre-Socratic cosmologists Parmenides and Empedocles also wrote their philosophical poems about nature in hexameters. Lucretius was one of only a few Roman intellectuals to choose this form for a philosophical and scientific presentation. Lucretius and other Roman thinkers such as Cicero struggled with the challenge of Latinizing the Greek language. Cicero's translations of Plato's Timaeus and Aratus' Phainomena made plain this dilemma. Epicurus had written in Greek, and Latinizing his highly technical vocabulary was no small feat. Greek is a highly nuanced, philosophically developed language that Lucretius himself contrasted with the "poverty of our native language." In trying to solve this dilemma Lucretius succeeded in creating some of the most original metaphors known to literature. Diskin Clay points out that what is abstract in Epicurus becomes concrete and vivid in Lucretius. The terms antiperistasis and antimetastasis, for example, describe movement in a plenum by the mutual shifting of parts. Lucretius demonstrated this concept through the example of the movement of a fish through water. Lucretius used imagery, similes, and metaphor in a way unknown before Lucan and the later imperial poets. He employed personification and figurative language to describe the behavior of natural objects and atoms. One of the figures he made good use of is the epic periphrasis, which is a roundabout way of naming something that makes its meaning apparent by approximating a whole or partial definition. (Calling the planets "the wandering stars" is an example.) Periphrasis became an important feature of poetic style beginning with Lucretius.

Cyril Bailey, the great authority on Lucretius, contends that his mind was visual not logical. Elizabeth Asmis convincingly argues against this. She points out the logical sequence of Lucretius' arguments even though the order in which they are presented is not strictly logical. He used poetic linguistic artistry, she claims, to make philosophy absolutely persuasive to the ordinary person just as Empedocles and other pre-Socratics did to express physics and cosmology. David Sedley notes the symmetry of each pair of books, as well as the underlying theme of mortality. Book I emphasizes the indestructibility of the elements, whereas books III and V focus on the perishability of the soul and of the cosmos. Thus the themes of life and death are balanced.

On the Nature of Things consists of six books which are ordered into sections. The work begins by invoking Venus, the goddess of love and creativity. This invocation has caused many commentators to wonder whether Lucretius opposed religion per se or just the more primitive superstitions of the religious cults of his own and former ages. The theme of infinite atoms in infinite space juxtaposed to the goddess of love seems an unlikely combination. Both, however, contribute to an ethos of serenity based on the recognition of the impersonal nature of both the gods and the physical world.

Lucretius also juxtaposed ethics to atomic swerves. His doctrine of uncaused swerves (clinamen) "at no fixed place or time" has prompted endless commentary in the secondary literature; Cicero had particular problems with it. This provides an important clue to how Lucretius operated. His conception of freely swerving atoms allowed him to ground a theory of free will for man. Another one of his ideas was shocking to the classical Greek philosophers and Christians alike: the notion that the soul is mortal and material, merely composed of finer atoms than the rest of the world. This concept contradicts the Judeo-Christian belief in an immortal and spiritual soul, and reward and punishment in the afterlife. Lucretius wanted no part of this. He quoted Epicurus' aphorism "therefore death is nothing to us" and admonished his readers to ". . . give up things unsuited to your years and make way for younger men; for there is no escape." Peace of mind comes when we accept death's inevitability and reject the anxiety-provoking fears of vengeful gods and retribution after death. Lucretius supported his view with thirty proofs that demonstrate that once the body dies there is nothing to keep the soul in existence.

Lucretius was ahead of his time in adopting the Epicurean theory of perception. He recognized that while ideas are fallible and often illusory, sensory perception is not. His theory of vision -- that atom-like, lightning-fast images stream from the surfaces of objects to enter the eyes and mind to cause vision -- is far more advanced than other theories proposed by his contemporaries. His appreciation of geology, biology, sociology, and even psychological motivations and the role of sex contributes an arsenal of weapons with which to combat common illusions. Lucretius was diametrically opposed to the "clichés so dear to contemporary love poets such as Catullus and his school," as Monica Gale explains. Lucretius mocked the pain of jealousy, guilt, idealization, and disillusion that romantic love causes. In his view, a love affair should be more like a friendship than a passion. The culprit that causes someone to fall in love is the umor, or liquid, stimulated by passion's urges and nothing more. Lucretius was no less dismissive of accounts that aggrandize man's origins. He presented a history of civilization that was unique for his time, one which described the evolution of nomadic hunters into city dwellers. In his view, language, law, and the arts all developed without the intervention of the gods. Lucretius was Western civilization's earliest Darwinian, presenting a theory of the natural survival of the fittest to account for these advances. He ended his epic work with a eulogy to Epicurus and Athenian civilization and, as it turned out, not unwarranted forebodings of the future.

Lucretius attacked dogmatism on many fronts. Classical Greek philosophy fared no better than religion. He considered the pre-Socratic philosophers, with the exception of the atomists Leucippus and Democritus, to be completely wrong. Heraclitus, the monist who reduced everything to fire, and Empedocles, whose theory of the four elements was a mainstay of pluralism, are two examples. Lucretius was just as dismissive of the later Greek philosophical tradition. The theory of atomism utterly rejects the late Greek concept of the ideal "One," the belief in eternity and divine providence, the cyclical view of time, and the valorization of the ideal form. One mainstay of classical philosophy that came under particularly sharp criticism from Lucretius is the idea of a singular universe centered around a spherical earth. Lucretius maintained that the universe is infinite, encompassing infinite space and an infinite number of atoms, and suggested that it is possible that other worlds may exist besides our own. After all, in his view, all existence is transient and worlds may come and go. Although the early Christians were offended by such ideas, Lucretius' views are quite compatible with contemporary thought. For example, On the Nature of Things contains one of the greatest assaults on the fear of death in all the literature. Lucretius contended that being dead is no different than not being born. David Sedley points out that this is the very same "symmetry argument" discussed in recent philosophical writings on death.

Lucretius wrote a work that transcends his time. He thoroughly demonstrated that materialism can serve as the basis of an aesthetic appreciation of the universe as well as a foundation for ethics, history, and many of the sciences. It was a rather curious mission to attempt to write philosophy for the politically ambitious, rather jaded and pragmatic Roman educated class. Lucretius deconstructed every philosophical and religious bastion that comforted the average Roman, but provided what he thought was necessary medicine sweetened by the honey of poetic language. In today's world, the age-old conflict between religious fundamentalism and science is once again being reenacted. Yet many people find no comfort in either approach to life. Lucretius provides an alternative. His dispassionate philosophical attitude offers a way to avoid the pain of fear and superstition and a way to know the pleasure of a temperate approach. Following his lead allows one to appreciate nature, value friendship in all its dimensions, and perhaps even create a world liberated from wrathful and destructive forces.

Dr. Emilie Kutash holds a Ph.D. in ancient philosophy and has published widely on topics and figures of late antiquity. She is a research associate at Boston University Center for the History and Philosophy of Science and holds a second doctorate in psychology, practicing in that field as well.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

On the Nature of Things Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
D23 More than 1 year ago