De rerum natura

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from De Rerum Natura)
Jump to: navigation, search
Opening of the 1483 copy of De rerum natura'by Girolamo di Matteo de Tauris, which had been printed for Pope Sixtus IV.

De rerum natura (Latin: [deː ˈreːrũːm naːˈtuːraː]; On the Nature of Things) is a first-century BC didactic poem by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (c. 99 BC – c. 55 BC) with the goal of explaining Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience. The poem, written in some 7,400 dactylic hexameters, is divided into six untitled books, and explores Epicurean physics through poetic language and metaphors.[1]

Lucretius presents the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna ("chance"), and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.[2]


A 1570 print of De rerum natura.

To Epicurus, the unhappiness and degradation of humans arose largely from the dread which they entertained of the power of the deities, from terror of their wrath. This wrath was supposed to be displayed by the misfortunes inflicted in this life and by the everlasting tortures that were the lot of the guilty in a future state (or, where these feelings were not strongly developed, from a vague dread of gloom and misery after death). To remove these fears, and thus to establish tranquility in the heart, was the purpose of his teaching, thus the deities, whose existence he did not deny, lived forevermore in the enjoyment of absolute peace, strangers to all the passions, desires, and fears, which agitate the human heart, totally indifferent to the world and its inhabitants, unmoved alike by their virtues and their crimes.

To prove this position he called upon the atomism of Democritus, so as to demonstrate that the material universe was formed not by a Supreme Being, but by the mixing of elemental particles that had existed from all eternity governed by certain simple laws. Lucretius's task was to clearly state and fully develop these views in an attractive form; his work was an attempt to show that everything in nature can be explained by natural laws, without the need for the intervention of divine beings.[3]

Lucretius identifies the supernatural with the notion that the deities created our world or interfere with its operations in some way, he argues against fear of such deities by demonstrating, through observations and arguments, that the operations of the world can be accounted for in terms of natural phenomena. These phenomena are the regular, but purposeless motions and interactions of tiny atoms in empty space.


The poem consists of six untitled books, in dactylic hexameter, the first three books provide a fundamental account of being and nothingness, matter and space, the atoms and their movement, the infinity of the universe both as regards time and space, the regularity of reproduction (no prodigies, everything in its proper habitat), the nature of mind (animus, directing thought) and spirit (anima, sentience) as material bodily entities, and their mortality, since, according to Lucretius, they and their functions (consciousness, pain) end with the bodies that contain them and with which they are interwoven. The last three books give an atomic and materialist explanation of phenomena preoccupying human reflection, such as vision and the senses, sex and reproduction, natural forces and agriculture, the heavens, and disease.

Lucretius opens his poem by addressing Venus not only as the mother of Rome (Aeneadum genetrix) but also as the veritable mother of nature (Alma Venus), urging her to pacify her lover Mars and thus spare Rome from strife.[4][5] By recalling the opening to poems by Homer, Ennius, and Hesiod (all of which begin with an invocation calling upon the Muses), the proem to De rerum natura makes use of epic convention. The entire proem is also written in the format of a hymn, recalling other early literary works, texts, and hymns and in particular the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite,[6] the choice to address Venus may have been due to Empedocles's belief that Aphrodite represents "the great creative force in the cosmos".[5] Given that Lucretius goes on to argue that the gods are removed from human life, many have thus seen this opening to be contradictory: how can Lucretius pray to Venus and then deny that the gods listen to or care about human affairs?[5] In response, many scholars argue that the poet uses Venus poetically as a metonym, for instance, Diskin Clay sees Venus as a poetic substitute for sex, and Bonnie Catto sees the invocation of the name as a metonym for the "creative process of natura".[7]

After the opening, the business of the piece commences by an enunciation of the proposition on the nature and being of the deities, which leads to an invective against the gigantic monster superstition, and a thrilling picture of the horrors which attends its tyrannous sway. Then follows a lengthened elucidation of the axiom that nothing can be produced from nothing, and that nothing can be reduced to nothing (Nil fieri ex nihilo, in nihilum nil posse reverti); which is succeeded by a definition of the Ultimate Atoms, infinite in number, which, together with Void Space (Inane), infinite in extent, constitute the universe. The shape of these corpuscles, their properties, their movements, the laws under which they enter into combination and assume forms and qualities appreciable by the senses, with other preliminary matters on their nature and affections, together with a refutation of objections and opposing hypotheses, occupy the first two books.[3]

In the third book, the general concepts proposed thus far are applied to demonstrate that the vital and intellectual principles, the Anima and Animus, are as much a part of us as are our limbs and members, but like those limbs and members have no distinct and independent existence, and that hence soul and body live and perish together; the argument being wound up by a magnificent exposure of the folly manifested in a dread of death, which will forever extinguish all feeling—both the good and the bad.[3]

The fourth book is devoted to the theory of the senses, sight, hearing, taste, smell, of sleep and of dreams, ending with a disquisition upon love and sex.[3]

The fifth book is described by Ramsay as the most finished and impressive,[3] while Stahl considers that its "puerile conceptions" indicate that Lucretius should be judged as a poet, not as a scientist,[8] this book addresses the origin of the world and of all things that are therein, the movements of the heavenly bodies, the changing of the seasons, day and night, the rise and progress of humankind, society, political institutions, and the invention of the various arts and sciences which embellish and ennoble life.[3]

The sixth book contains an explanation of some of the most striking natural appearances, especially thunder, lightning, hail, rain, snow, ice, cold, heat, wind, earthquakes, volcanoes, springs and localities noxious to animal life, which leads to a discourse upon diseases. This in its turn introduces an appalling description of the great pestilence which devastated Athens during the Peloponnesian War, and thus the book closes. The abrupt ending suggests that Lucretius had not finished fully editing the poem before his death.[3]


Lucretius wrote this epic poem to "Memmius", who may be Gaius Memmius, who in 58 BC was a praetor, a judicial official deciding controversies between citizens and the government.[9] 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". According to Lucretius's frequent statements in his poem, the main purpose of the work was to free Gaius Memmius's mind of the supernatural and the fear of death—and to induct him into a state of ataraxia by expounding the philosophical system of Epicurus, whom Lucretius glorifies as the hero of his epic poem.

However, the purpose of the poem is subject to ongoing scholarly debate. Lucretius refers to Memmius by name four times in the first book, three times in the second, five in the fifth, and not at all in the third, fourth, or sixth books; in relation to this discrepancy in the frequency of Lucretius's reference to the apparent subject of his poem, Kannengiesse advances the theory that Lucretius wrote the first version of De rerum natura for the reader at large, and subsequently revised in order to write it for Memmius. However, Memmius' name is central to several critical verses in the poem, and this theory has therefore been largely discredited.[10] Bruns[11] and Brandt[12] have set forth an alternative theory that Lucretius did at first write the poem with Memmius in mind, but that his enthusiasm for his patron cooled. Stearns suggests that this is because Memmius reneged on a promise to pay for a new school to be built on the site of the old Epicurean school.[13] Memmius was also a tribune in 66, praetor in 58, governor of Bithynia in 57, and was a candidate for the consulship in 54 but was disqualified for bribery, and Stearns suggests that the warm relationship between patron and client may have cooled (sed tua me virtus tamen et sperata voluptas/ suavis amicitiae quemvis efferre laborem, "But still your merit, and as I hope, the joy/ Of our sweet friendship, urge me to any toil").[14][15]

There is a certain irony to the poem, namely that while Lucretius extols the virtue of the Epicurean school of thought, Epicurus himself had advised his acolytes from penning poetry because he believed it to make that which was simple overly complicated.[16]

Manuscript history and rediscovery[edit]

Copies of the poem were preserved in a number of medieval libraries, with two ninth-century manuscripts surviving to this day in Leiden University, and references to a number of others dating from the tenth through the twelfth centuries.[citation needed]

It was rediscovered in January 1417, and brought to wide public attention, by Poggio Bracciolini via a medieval copy, probably in the Benedictine library at Fulda, the copy found by Poggio did not survive, but a copy of it by Poggio's friend, Niccolò de' Niccoli, did; it is kept today at the Laurentian Library in Florence ("Codex Laurentianus 35.30"). Machiavelli made a copy early in his life. Molière produced a verse translation which does not survive; John Evelyn translated the first book.[1]

The Italian scholar Guido Billanovich demonstrated that Lucretius's poem was well known in its entirety by Lovato Lovati (1241–1309) and some other Paduan pre-humanists during the thirteenth century,[17][18] this proves that the work was known in select circles long before the official rediscovery by Poggio. It has been suggested that Dante (1265–1321) might have read Lucretius's poem, as a few verses of his Divine Comedy exhibit a great affinity with De rerum natura, which can hardly be explained otherwise.[17]

The first printed edition of De rerum natura was produced in Brescia, Lombardy, in 1473. Other printed editions followed soon after. Additionally, although only published in 1996, Lucy Hutchinson's translation of De rerum natura was in all likelihood the first in English and was most likely completed some time in the late 1640s or 1650s.[19][full citation needed]

The oldest purported fragments of De rerum natura were published by K. Kleve in 1989 and consist of sixteen fragments, these remnants were discovered among the Epicurean library in the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum. Because, as W. H. D. Rouse notes, "the fragments are so minute and bear so few certainly identifiable letters that at this stage some scepticism about their proposed authorship seems pardonable and prudent."[20] However, Kleve contends that four of the six books are represented in the fragments, and thus he reasons that the entire poem was at one time kept in the library. If Lucretius's work were to be definitely placed at the Villa of the Papyri, it would suggest that the poet was studied by the Neapolitan Epicurean school.[20]

Notable figures who owned copies include Ben Jonson whose copy is held at the Houghton Library, Harvard; Thomas Jefferson owned at least five Latin editions and English, Italian and French translations. Montaigne owned a Latin edition published in Paris, in 1563, by Denis Lambin which he heavily annotated.[21] His Essays contain almost a hundred quotes from De rerum natura.[1]

Main ideas[edit]


Lack of divine intervention[edit]

After the poem was rediscovered and made its rounds across Europe and beyond, some thinkers began to see Lucretius's Epicureanism as a "threat synonymous with atheism."[22] In fact, a number of Christian apologists viewed De rerum natura as an atheist manifesto and a dangerous foil to be thwarted,[22] it should be noted that when Lucretius was rediscovered and decried as an atheist, the label was extremely broad and itself did not necessarily mean a denial of divine entities (in fact, a number of large Christian sects were known to label dissenting groups as atheists).[23] What is more, Lucretius was himself a theist, and in his work he does not deny the existence of deities;[24][25] he simply argues that they did not create the universe, that they do not care about human affairs, and that they do not intervene in the world.[26] Regardless, due to the ideas espoused in the poem, much of Lucretius's work was seen by many as direct a challenge to theistic, Christian belief.[27] Ada Palmer has labelled six ideas in Lucretius's thought (viz. his assertion that the world was created from chaos, and his denials of Providence, divine participation, miracles, the efficacy of prayer, and an afterlife) as "proto-atheistic".[28][29] She qualifies her use of this term, cautioning that it is not to be used to say that Lucretius was himself an atheist in the modern sense of the word, nor that atheism is a teleological necessity, but rather that many of his ideas were taken up by 19th, 20th, and 21st century atheists.[29]


De rerum natura does not argue that the soul does not exist; rather, the poem claims that the soul, like all things in existence, is made up of atoms, and because these atoms will one day drift apart, the human soul is not immortal. Lucretius thus argues that after we die, there is no afterlife, and that death itself is simply annihilation, he likens the physical body to a vessel that holds both the mind (mens) and spirit (anima). Neither the mind nor spirit can survive independent of the body, thus Lucretius states that once the vessel (the body) shatters (dies) its contents (mind and spirit) can no longer exist. So, as a simple ceasing-to-be, death can be neither good nor bad for this being, since a dead person—being completely devoid of sensation and thought—cannot miss being alive. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Lucretius sees those who fear death as embracing the fallacious assumption that they will be present in some sense "to regret and bewail [their] own non-existence."[5]

To alleviate the fear of non-existence, Lucretius makes use of the symmetry argument: he argues that the eternal oblivion awaiting all humans after death is exactly the same as the nothingness that preceded our birth, since that nothingness caused us no discomfort, we should have no fear of the same post-death nothingness that will follow:[5]

Look back again—how the endless ages of time comes to pass
Before our birth are nothing to us. This is a looking glass
Nature holds up for us in which we see the time to come
After we finally die. What is there that looks so fearsome?
What's so tragic? Isn't it more peaceful than any sleep?[30]


Lucretius maintained that he could free humankind from fear of the deities by demonstrating that all things occur by natural causes without any intervention by the deities. Historians of science, however, have been critical of the limitations of his Epicurean approach to science, especially as it pertained to astronomical topics, which he relegated to the class of "unclear" objects.[31][32]

Thus, he began his discussion by claiming that he would

explain by what forces nature steers the courses of the Sun and the journeyings of the Moon, so that we shall not suppose that they run their yearly races between heaven and earth of their own free will [i.e., are gods themselves] or that they are rolled round in furtherance of some divine plan....[33]

However, when he set out to put this plan into practice, he limited himself to showing how one, or several different, naturalistic accounts could explain certain natural phenomena, he was unable to tell his readers how to determine which of these alternatives might be the true one.[34]

Let us now take as our theme the cause of stellar movements.
  • First let us suppose that the great globe of the sky itself rotates....
  • There remains the alternative possibility that the sky as a whole is stationary while the shining constellations are in motion. This may happen
  • because swift currents of ether ... whirl round and round and roll their fires at large across the nocturnal regions of the sky. Or
  • an external current of air from some other quarter may whirl them along in their course. Or
  • they may swim of their own accord, each responsive to the call of its own food, and feed their fiery bodies in the broad pastures of the sky.
One of these causes must certainly operate in our world.... But to lay down which of them it is lies beyond the range of our stumbling progress.[35]

Drawing on these, and other passages, William Stahl considered that "The anomalous and derivative character of the scientific portions of Lucretius' poem makes it reasonable to conclude that his significance should be judged as a poet, not as a scientist."[36]

The swerve[edit]

Determinism appears to conflict with the concept of free will. Lucretius attempts to allow for free will in his physicalistic universe by postulating an indeterministic tendency for atoms to veer randomly (Latin: clinamen, literally "the turning aside of a thing", but often translated as "the swerve").[1][37] According to Lucretius, this unpredictable swerve occurs at no fixed place or time:

When atoms move straight down through the void by their own weight, they deflect a bit in space at a quite uncertain time and in uncertain places, just enough that you could say that their motion has changed, but if they were not in the habit of swerving, they would all fall straight down through the depths of the void, like drops of rain, and no collision would occur, nor would any blow be produced among the atoms. In that case, nature would never have produced anything.[38][39]

This swerving provides the indeterminacy that Lucretius argues allows for the "free will which living things throughout the world have" (libera per terras ... haec animantibus exstat ... voluntas).[40]


Classical responses[edit]

The earliest recorded critique of Lucretius's work is in a letter written by Cicero to his brother Quintus, wherein the former calls Lucretius's poetry "full of inspired brilliance, but also of great artistry" (Lucreti poemata, ut scribis, ita sunt, multis luminibus ingeni, multae tamen artis).[41][42] However, Cicero is elsewhere critical of Lucretius and the Epicureans, and disparaged them for their omission from their work of historical study.[43]

It is also believed that Virgil referenced Lucretius and his work in the second book of his Georgics when he wrote: "Happy is he who has discovered the causes of things and has cast beneath his feet all fears, unavoidable fate, and the din of the devouring Underworld" (felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas/atque metus omnis et inexorabile fatum/subiecit pedibus strepitumque Acherontis avari).[44][45]

Lucretius was almost certainly read by the imperial poet Marcus Manilius (fl. 1st century AD), whose didactic poem Astronomica (c. AD 10–20), alludes to Lucretius's work in a number of places.[46] However, Manilius's poem, unlike De rerum natura, espouses a Stoic, deterministic understanding of the universe,[47] and it consequently attacks the very philosophical underpinnings of Lucretius's worldview.[46] This has led scholars like Katharina Volk to argue that "Manilius is a veritable anti-Lucretius".[46] What is more, Manilius also seems to suggest throughout this poem that his work is superior to that of Lucretius's.[48] Coincidentally, De rerum natura and the Astronomica were both rediscovered by Poggio Bracciolini in the early 15th century.[49]

Cornelius Nepos, in his Life Of Atticus, mentions Lucretius as one of the greatest poets of his times.

Ovid, in his Amores, writes: Carmina sublimis tunc sunt peritura Lucreti / exitio terras cum dabit una dies (which means "the verses of the sublime Lucretius will perish only when a day will bring the end of the world").

Vitruvius (in the De Architectura), Quintilian (in his Institutiones Oratoriae) and Statius (in the Silvae) also show great admiration for the De Rerum Natura.

Later works[edit]

At the start of the 7th century, Isidore of Seville produced De natura rerum, a book of astronomy and natural history dedicated to the Visigothic king Sisebut; in both this work, and as well as his more well-known Etymologiae (c. AD 600–625), Isidore quotes Lucretius "most lavishly".[50] About a century later, Bede produced a work of the same title, partly based on Isidore's work but apparently ignorant of Lucretius's poem.[51]

Michel de Montaigne, in his essay "Of Books", lists Lucretius along with Virgil, Horace, and Catullus as his four top poets.[52]

Lucretius has also had a marked influence upon modern philosophy, as perhaps the most complete expositor of Epicurean thought.[citation needed] His influence is especially notable in Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana, who praised Lucretius—along with Dante and Goethe—in his book Three Philosophical Poets.[53]


  1. ^ a b c d Greenblatt, Stephen (August 8, 2011). "The Answer Man: An Ancient Poem Was Rediscovered—and the World Swerved". The New Yorker. Condé Nast. LXXXVII (23): 28–33. ISSN 0028-792X. Archived from the original on November 15, 2011. 
  2. ^ In particular, De rerum natura 5.107 (fortuna gubernans, "guiding chance" or "fortune at the helm"): see Gale pp. 213, 223–24.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Ramsay 1867, pp. 829–30.
  4. ^ Leonard, William Ellery (1916). "Proem – Lucr. 1.1". Perseus Project. Tufts University. Retrieved February 20, 2017. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Sedley 2013 [2004].
  6. ^ Keith 2012, p. 39.
  7. ^ Catto 1988, p. 98.
  8. ^ Stahl 1962, pp. 82–83.
  9. ^ Englert 2003, p. xii.
  10. ^ Stearns 1931, p. 67.
  11. ^ Bruns, Lukrez-Studien (Freiburg, J.C.C. Mohr, 1884)
  12. ^ Brandt (1885) NJbb (31: 601–613)
  13. ^ Stearns 1931, p. 68.
  14. ^ Stearns 1931, p. 68.
  15. ^ Lucretius, De rerum natura 1.140.
  16. ^ de May 2009, v.
  17. ^ a b Piazzi, Francesco (2010). "Hortus Apertus – La fortuna – Dante e Lucrezio" (PDF). Editrice La Scuola. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 10, 2015. 
  18. ^ Billanovich 1958
  19. ^ Goldberg 2006.
  20. ^ a b Rouse 1992 [1924], pp. liv–lv.
  21. ^ "Titi Lucretii Cari De rerum natura Libri Sex (Montaigne.1.4.4)". Cambridge University. Archived from the original on August 29, 2016. Retrieved July 9, 2015 – via The Cambridge Digital Library. 
  22. ^ a b Sheppard 2015, p. 31.
  23. ^ Sheppard 2015, pp. 21–23.
  24. ^ Palmer 2014, p. 26. "Lucretius was a theist."
  25. ^ Bullivant & Ruse 2013. "To be sure, Lucretius and Epicurus are not professed atheists [but] the resulting theism is one that denies providence and rejects transcendentalism."
  26. ^ Sheppard 2015, p. 31.
  27. ^ Sheppard 2015, p. 29.
  28. ^ Palmer 2014, p. 25.
  29. ^ a b Palmer 2014, p. 26.
  30. ^ Lucretius, De rerum natura 3.972–76.
  31. ^ Lloyd 1973, p. 26.
  32. ^ Stahl 1962, pp. 81–83.
  33. ^ Lucretius, De rerum natura 5.76–81.
  34. ^ Alioto 1987, p. 97.
  35. ^ Lucretius, De rerum natura 5.510–533.
  36. ^ Stahl 1962, p. 83.
  37. ^ Lewis Charlton T.; Short, Charles, eds. (1879). "Clinamen". A Latin Dictionary. Retrieved June 30, 2017 – via the Perseus Project. 
  38. ^ Lucretius, De rerum natura 2.216–224.
  39. ^ Lucretius, Inwood, & Gerson, pp. 65–66.
  40. ^ Lucretius, De rerum natura 2.256–57.
  41. ^ Lucretius & Lee 1893, p. xiii.
  42. ^ Cicero, Epistulae ad Quintum Fratrem 2.10.3.
  43. ^ Gale 2001, p. 35.
  44. ^ Vergil, Georgics 2.490-492.
  45. ^ Rouse 1992 [1924], p. xx.
  46. ^ a b c Volk 2009, p. 192.
  47. ^ Volk 2009, p. 1.
  48. ^ Volk 2009, p. 193.
  49. ^ Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica (November 7, 2013). "Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Retrieved June 29, 2017. 
  50. ^ Dronke 1984, p.459.
  51. ^ Kendall & Wallis, p. 191.
  52. ^ Montaigne, Essays, "Of Books".
  53. ^ Santayana 1922 [1910], pp. 19–72.


Further reading[edit]


External links[edit]