David Nightingale: Lucretius, Philosopher

Aug 27, 2017

Sculpture of Lucretius, 1859-1861, Parco del Pincio, Rome
Credit photo by Colle Pincio / Wikimedia Commons

This essay is about Titus Lucretius Carus, a Roman, who was born around 99 BC.

He is known for a long poem “De Rerum Natura” -- “on natural things” -- or on natural philosophy.

Lucretius' poem is in six parts (or books) and it addresses life, atomism, mankind's place in the world, pleasures, men and women. Like Epicurus, a Greek who lived 3 centuries earlier, and who taught that life's aims should be pleasure blended with morality, Lucretius claims that reason is more desirable than gods and superstitions. Lucretius died about half a century before Christ was born, but we don't know much 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.

Despite what he believed about superstition and gods, it actually starts (ref.1 p.3) with a hymn to Venus, giver of life:

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 ideas of atomism, and how there are primordial bodies, where nothing can ever be 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 ... [ref.1 p.82]

We would have to ask him what his 'primal germs' actually are. As for atoms, they were the brainchild of the much earlier Greek philosopher, Democritus. In these days that go beyond atoms, 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]

However, he talks later about the incessant motion of atoms – today's Kinetic Theory -- and his ideas on what was much later observed to be Brownian motion -- that motion that floating pollen particles undergo from unseen collisions with obviously invisible water molecules:

... 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]

Lucretius talks about sight, hearing, taste and smell, 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]

His final book (Book 6) is about earthquakes, rainbows, and magnets. (Lodestone had been noted in Greece about then, and a piece of lodestone was known to swing around if suspended on a string.)

He died when he was only 44. And oh! Lucretius, how interesting it would be chatting about these same subjects with you today!

Finally, I'd like to thank Ms Judy Mage of New Paltz for bringing my attention to Lucretius.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at NewPaltz and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.


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.