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On the Nature of Things

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On the Nature of Things is an epic first century BC poem by Lucretius that grandly proclaims the reality of man's role in a universe without a god to help him along. It is a statement of personal responsibility in a world in which everyone is driven by hungers and passions with which they were born and do not understand.

Table of contents
1 Seeing with compassion
2 Persons in the drama
3 What draws men to religion?
4 Creationism versus evolution
5 References

Seeing with compassion

Lucretius's view is austere, but nevertheless he points out that a few enlightened individuals can escape periodically from their own hungers and passions and look down with compassion on poor humanity, including themselves, who are on average ignorant, unhappy, and yearning for something better than what they see around them. Personal responsibility then consists of speaking and living personal truth.

Accordingly, On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura) is Lucretius's personal statement of truth to an ignorant audience. He hopes that someone will hear, understand, and pass on a seed of truth to help improve the world.

The poem consists of the following main arguments.

Persons in the drama

There are several "persons" in the drama of this epic poem. Epicurus is a teacher who passed to Lucretius the light of understanding. Religio is a monster that attacks men from the sky and seeks to destroy truth. Epicurus wins against Religio because he explains to the comprehending person the vast and infinite universe, and brings a sudden realisation of what can be and what cannot be. This sudden understanding of the underlying atoms, void, and possible interactions of the universe will free individuals from the inherited fears of gods and of death.

Here are the words of Lucretius translated to English by William Ellery Leonard and provided courtesy the Gutenberg e-text project. [1]

Whilst human kind
Throughout the lands lay miserably crushed
Before all eyes beneath Religion--who
Would show her head along the region skies,
Glowering on mortals with her hideous face--
A Greek [Epicurus] it was who first opposing dared
Raise mortal eyes that terror to withstand,
Whom nor the fame of Gods nor lightning's stroke
Nor threatening thunder of the ominous sky
Abashed; but rather chafed to angry zest
His dauntless heart to be the first to rend
The crossbars at the gates of Nature old.
And thus his will and hardy wisdom won;
And forward thus he fared afar, beyond
The flaming ramparts of the world, until
He wandered the unmeasurable All.
Whence he to us, a conqueror, reports
What things can rise to being, what cannot,
And by what law to each its scope prescribed,
Its boundary stone that clings so deep in Time.
Wherefore Religion now is under foot,
And us his victory now exalts to heaven.

What draws men to religion?

Lucretius has compassion for those men who do not understand the mechanisms of the universe that gave them birth. These ignorant and unfortunate men need religion to explain where they came from, why good things sometimes occur, and what could possibly shield them from the misfortunes they see fall upon others.

Nor [is this the place] to pursue the atoms one by one,
To see the law whereby each thing goes on.
But some men, ignorant of matter, think,
Opposing this, that not without the gods,
In such adjustment to our human ways,
Can nature change the seasons of the years,
And bring to birth the grains and all of else
To which divine Delight, the guide of life,
Persuades mortality and leads it on,
That, through her artful blandishments of love,
It propagate the generations still,
Lest humankind should perish. When they feign
That gods have stablished all things but for man,
They seem in all ways mightily to lapse
From reason's truth: for ev'n if ne'er I knew
What seeds primordial are, yet would I dare
This to affirm, ev'n from deep judgment based
Upon the ways and conduct of the skies--
This to maintain by many a fact besides--
That in no wise the nature of the world
For us was builded by a power divine--
So great the faults it stands encumbered with:
The which, dear Memmius, later on, for thee
We will clear up. Now as to what remains
Concerning motions we'll unfold our thought.

Lucretius wrote this epic poem to "Memmius," who may be the Gaius
Memmius who in 58 BC was a praetor, a judicial official deciding controversies between citizens and between citizens and the government. There are over a dozen references to "Memmius" scattered throughout the long poem in a variety of contexts in translation, such as "Memmius mine," "my Memmius," and "illustrious Memmius."

Creationism versus evolution

Many modern creationists, those defending the faith that some God created people and the world, see this Lucretius poem as a major manifestation of the evil that entices men to hope for freedom from the "moral constraints" that God imposes on them. By this view, Charles Darwin was but the clever missionary of the atomism of Epicurus and Lucretius in inventing the "evolution theory" that could propel atomism to hijack science and philosophy in the service of the "assumption and objectives" of atomism rather than the God of common sense for which science and philosophy were created. [1]

The creationists have been a formidable foe for atomism, at least among those for whom the mechanics of atomism are not convincing. (See Creationism versus evolution.) Apparently, Lucretius wrote On the Nature of Things to convert Gaius Memmius to the atomism view of Epicurus, but the conversion attempt was unsuccessful.

The creationist Jerome, writing in about 350 AD of Lucretius's time, asserted that Lucretius took a "love potion" which drove him crazy and eventually killed him, but that during some episodes of clarity, Lucretius was able to write several books. Jerome may be right in what he wrote, but no independent record of Lucretius's real life survived, and Lucretius's poem lives on.