Commentary & Opinion
12:28 pm
Fri August 31, 2012

David Nightingale - Lucretius (~99 - ~55 BCE)

Lucretius, Roman poet, was born around  99 BCE.

 Sometimes people are remembered for one thing – and with Lucretius it was his  long poem “De Rerum Natura” -- “on natural things”.

 His poem is about natural philosophy, but in six parts (or books) it really covers life, atomism, mankind's place in the world, pleasures, men and women, and, like Epicurus, how reason is more desirable than gods and superstitions. He died about 55 years before Christ was born, but we don't know much else about him. All we have are his words – first written in Latin, presumably either on wax tablets or on papyrus.

 His poem was copied, but lost for some centuries, until re-discovered in 1417. It starts (p.3, ref.1)with a prayer to Venus, goddess of fertility, and lover of Mars, the god of war:

Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,

Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars

Makest to teem the many-voyaged main...

 But it soon goes to the basic principles of atomism, and how there are primordial bodies, with nothing born from nothing:

... once more, we all from seed celestial spring  ...

... And in what structure the primordial germs

Are held together, and what motions they

Among themselves do give and get...

...Deep in the eternal atoms of the world ...    [p.82 ref.1]

 In these days of string theory and Higgs bosons, our thoughts are still not so far removed from those of Lucretius. When, on TV's Big Bang Theory, the character Leonard is asked what's new in physics he replies that nothing much has changed since  the 1930s (!), and while physicists flounder around in string theory and particle physics  Lucretius has already said:

... and now, since I have taught that things cannot

Be born from nothing, nor the same, when born,

To nothing be recalled, doubt not my words,

Because our eyes no primal germs perceive;...     [p.12, ibid]

 He talks about the incessant motion of the atoms – today's Kinetic Theory:

 ... That motions also of the primal stuff

Secret and viewless lurk beneath, behind.

For thou wilt mark here many a speck, impelled

By viewless blows to change its little course,

And beaten backwards to return again,

Hither and thither in all directions round...    [p.49-50, ibid]

 He talks about sight, hearing, taste and smell in his Book 4, and when many people used to believe that rays come out of our eyes, he writes, correctly:

... those images

Which to our eyes in mirrors do appear,

In water, or in any shining surface,

Must be, since furnished with like look of things,

Fashioned from images of things sent out...    [p.138, ibid]

Book 5  is about the formation of the world, plus astronomical questions.

For, lo,

First came the earthy particles

(As being heavy and intertangled) ...

and they pressed from out their mass ...    

those particles which were to form the sea, the stars, the sun...     [p.206, ibid] 

In Book 5, Lucretius addresses the beginnings of civilization:

... When huts they had procured and pelts and fire,

And when the woman, joined unto the man,

Withdrew with him unto one dwelling place...

Were known; and when they saw an offspring born

From out themselves, then first the human race

Began to soften...

... And children, with the prattle and the kiss,

Soon broke the parents' haughty temper down.    [p.229, ibid]

His final book is about earthquakes, rainbows, and magnets. (Lodestone had been noted in Greece about then, and was known to swing around if suspended on a string.)

 He died when he was only 44 – but oh! Lucretius, what fun we might've had chatting with you today!

References:

1.  “On the Nature of Things”; a metrical translation by W.E.Leonard; J.M.Dent & Sons, London, 1921

2.  “Lucretius, On the Nature of Things”; translation by Martin Ferguson Smith; Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, IN, 46244; 2001.

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