Divine delight of men, Mother of Aeneas, Beneath the gliding signs of heaven, Holy Venus
Who fills the fruitful lands and navigable seas
With all the types of creatures that your conceptions please
For you from now, and still forever
They welcome the rising Sun together
Lucretius opens the epic latin poem On The Nature of Things praising Venus for creating the multitude of life on Earth. He goes on to recount how she conquered the warlike Mars with the overwhelming power of love. It is beautiful. I love the rich symbolism of ancient paganism, and this is a superb example from the First Century BC. Praising a deity is a cliche ridden business, and not something that many writers can do without embarrassing both themselves and the reader. Lucretius in contrast handles the task superbly. But the opening lines of the Nature of Things belie what it is about and give no clue as to what is coming next. Lucretius was like many of his day a follower of the philosophy of Epicurus and the science of Democritus. Indeed, we only know as much as we do about both these thinkers from the commentary about them in this poem. In particular, we get a lot about the Classical atomic theory.
And what a theory it is.
Lucretius on Atoms
The first section goes into great detail about what atoms are and how they work. Reading it with the benefit of the knowledge we get from modern science it is astounding. It is not just how accurate the conception of atoms is, but how well Lucretius understands how they work. Atoms are the very stuff of nature for Lucretius. We now know is pretty much the case. The ways that atoms interact define what can and what cannot happen. He gives example after example to show that everything we see can be interpreted in the light of these tiny particles.
Lucretius is not a modern scientist, but his outlook is pretty close to one. He demands that every explanation put forward correspond to our experiences. His ideas are defended in a rhetorical style but even so his attitude is clearly rational and pragmatic. And what he has worked out about the what the nature of atoms must be is stunning.
He conceives of atoms as solid particles that exist in a void. There are different types of atoms which interact in different ways. They aren’t coloured, colour being a quality of groups of atoms. He even suggests that in a vacuum objects would fall at the same rate regardless of size. I couldn’t follow how he reached that conclusion, but it was remarkably prescient. It would not be until the time of Galileo that the full implications of that idea would be begin to be worked through.
There are a finite number of types of atoms, much smaller than the number of things that can be made with atoms. The analogy he uses is that of the alphabet where a great many words can be made from a small number of letters. And to take that further, different words can result from different arrangements of the same letters. There won’t be many students of chemistry who won’t have heard that metaphor at least once. It keeps getting used because it is a good one.
The nature of atoms constrains what the world can contain. If you can’t make something with the atoms that already exist, you can’t make it. And the nature of things we see around us is determined by the nature of the atoms of which they are composed. So stone for example, is made of very dense atoms. Water is made of very slippery ones. And so on.
Often Lucretius’s explanations of the nature of things seems strange at first sight. For example he describes a violent death as being the result of the atoms of the body being severely rearranged and unable to resume their original form. A wound healing on the other hand represents the body being able to get back to how it was before. This isn’t how we think about it now, but on reflection that is not far off what actually happens.
Lucretius and Evolution
The most astonishing inference that Lucretius draws from the atomic theory is that animals that don’t have a useful configuration of atoms won’t be around, because they won’t fit into the natural environment. This is so close to a theory of evolution that you have to remind yourself that this is not just pre-Darwinian, but pre everyone that led up to Darwin as well.
Lucretius and the Gods
If atoms can come together to form something as complex as a man, there is no particular reason why they shouldn’t also go one step further and create a god. Lucretius does not dispute the existence of the gods. In fact he speaks about them with reverence. But it is a matter of daily observation that they don’t take any interest in the day to day goings on of puny humans. Why should they? They are already happy enough. What would motivate them to bother with us?
What doesn’t exist is a soul. It can’t be seen or touched, and is not necessary to explain anything in particular. And there is a knotty problem. When does it come into existence? Is it waiting to enter the body when it is born? If it is created with the body itself why would it not cease to exist with the end of the life of the body?
Without a soul, there is no need to worry about what happens after you die. The warnings of priests are not to be taken seriously. In fact, quite the opposite. Priests and other religious types have not truly grasped the nature of the gods, and so are in effect acting impiously. Popping along to a temple to appreciate the majesty of a being who is greater than you is probably a good thing. Joining in with others to share that experience is fine too. It is a good way of getting along with your fellow man, something Epicureans approved of.
But if gods are real, and worshipping them is okay, that doesn’t mean you have to buy into the whole religion package. Sacrificing your daughter to placate the gods? Hideously wrong. The example Lucretius uses is how Agamemnon killed Iphigenia according to Homer. At her age she should have gone to the temple to get married, not to confer some military advantage to her father. Lucretius is appalled by this suffering. It is both cruel and pointless.
Lucretius was a functional atheist even if he accepted that there were gods somewhere. Morality was in the hands of humans and the gods were not involved in deciding what was right or wrong. This is a liberating thought. We don’t have to worry about punishments being meted out to us after we are dead, because we will cease to exist. We just have to work on using the time we have while we are alive as best we can.
Lucretius and Epicurus
Lucretius doesn’t quote many philosophers in the Nature of Things, but he gives honour to the name of Epicurus. There was no need to explain who Epicurus was. Schools devoted to his teaching existed in all the cities of the empire and his followers were everywhere. Fragments of the works of Epicurus have been found in the remains of both Pompei and Herculaneum.
Not much of the actual work of Epicurus has survived, so Lucretius is one of our main guides to Epicurean thought. Epicurus was rated by Lucretius as the foremost of philosophers. And he doesn’t feel the need to justify this, so he was probably not alone in that opinion. The star of Epicurus has long been eclipsed by the more stellar talents of Plato and Aristotle, but it is interesting to reflect that neither get a mention in this poem.
The Epicureans avoided involvement in politics and didn’t challenge the status quo and so were pretty much left in peace by other groups. Their ideas were opposed by the Stoics, and criticised by Cicero. Marcus Aurelius takes the time to reject the Epicurean notion of atoms in his Meditations – the only counter argument his stoicism concedes. It isn’t hard to imagine that the Epicureans were not popular with priests either. But I imagine their schools of philosophy provided a sort of social network that was useful in a world before easy communication systems had been invented. Epicurus had recommended making friends. Indeed friendship was the thing that his philosophy rated as the highest form of pleasure. The schools were probably a good way of meeting them.
The Nature of Things
I think it is a shame that Epicurus, Lucretius and this particular text are not much better known than they are. In fact I think the Nature of Things could have been, should have been one of the foundational texts of Western civilisation.
The ideas in it are just so good, and so wholesome. Most of them have come to be regarded as pretty much common sense. We now know that atoms are not the only things in the Universe. We now have subatomic particles, electromagnetic radiation and a set of forces to fill in the picture. But Lucretius himself would have been delighted to learn this extra detail. He was essentially right – as we have probed deeper the supernatural has receded ever further.
But it goes a bit wider than simple scientific knowledge. It is a picture of a world that is abundant. There are an infinite number of atoms and so no limit to what we can learn to do with them. Lucretius explicitly praises the benefits of advances in technology. And the benefits of understanding the world go wider. He explains how thunder works so we don’t need to fear it, or what it says about Jupiter’s moods.
It is a democratic view of the world as well. We are all made of the same atoms, and we all have pretty similar capabilities. There are fairly few references to great men, but lots of appreciation of what men in general are capable of.
And ultimately, the value of this poem is reminding us that this is who we are. In the West we are pragmatic realists. We have from time to time fallen for political ideologies that promise much but deliver little, or religious systems that promise everything and deliver nothing. Nowadays we have generally seen through those, but can still be tempted by self help mumbo jumbo or technological gadgets. Easy solutions never work for tough problems.
Our civilisation has always been at its best when it sees things as they really are and strives to understand them better. Improvements to our ways of living and to how we treat each other have always been the result of careful and diligent study. We get better by building our knowledge. To live a better life, you first need to appreciate the Nature of Things.