Lucretius

Lucretius

Overview
Titus Lucretius Carus was a Roman
Roman Republic
The Roman Republic was the period of the ancient Roman civilization where the government operated as a republic. It began with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy, traditionally dated around 508 BC, and its replacement by a government headed by two consuls, elected annually by the citizens and...

 poet
Poet
A poet is a person who writes poetry. A poet's work can be literal, meaning that his work is derived from a specific event, or metaphorical, meaning that his work can take on many meanings and forms. Poets have existed since antiquity, in nearly all languages, and have produced works that vary...

 and philosopher. His only known work is an epic philosophical poem laying out the beliefs of Epicureanism
Epicureanism
Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of Epicurus, founded around 307 BC. Epicurus was an atomic materialist, following in the steps of Democritus. His materialism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention. Following Aristippus—about whom...

, De rerum natura, translated into English as On the Nature of Things or "On the Nature of the Universe".

Virtually no details have come down concerning the life of Lucretius; though Jerome
Jerome
Saint Jerome was a Roman Christian priest, confessor, theologian and historian, and who became a Doctor of the Church. He was the son of Eusebius, of the city of Stridon, which was on the border of Dalmatia and Pannonia...

 tells how he was driven mad by a love potion and wrote his poetry in between fits of insanity, eventually committing suicide in middle age, modern scholarship suggests this account was likely an invention.
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Quotations

Ergo vivida vis pervicet et extraprocessit longe flamentia moenia mundiatque omne immensum peragravit mente animoque.

The vivid force of his mind prevailed, and he fared forth far beyond the flaming ramparts of the heavens and traversed the boundless universe in thought and mind.

Possunt ac fieri divino numine rentur.

Nothing can be created from nothing.

Nequeunt oculis rerum primordia cerni.

The first beginnings of things cannot be distinguished by the eye.

Stilicidi casus lapidem cavat, uncus aratri.

Continual dropping wears away a stone.

Ita res accedent lumina rebus.

Truths kindle light for truths.

Suave magni maro turbantibus aequora ventise terra magnum alterius spectare laborem;non quia vexari quemquamst jucunda voluptas,sed quibus ipse malis careas quia cernere suave est.

Pleasant it is, when over a great sea the winds trouble the waters, to gaze from shore upon another's tribulation: not because any man's troubles are a delectable joy, but because to perceive from what ills you are free yourself is pleasant.

Omnis cum in tenebris praesertim vita laboret.

Life is one long struggle in the dark.

Sic rerum summa novatursemper, et inter se mortales mutua vivunt. augescunt aliae gentes, aliaeinuuntur,inque brevi spatio mutantur saecla animantumet quasi cursores vitai lampada tradiunt.

Thus the sum of things is ever being renewed, and mortals live dependent one upon another. Some nations increase, others diminish, and in a short space the generations of living creatures are changed and like runners pass on the torch of life.

Dum taxat, rerum magnarum parva potest resexemplare dare et vestigia notitiai.

So far as it goes, a small thing may give analogy of great things, and show the tracks of knowledge.
Encyclopedia
Titus Lucretius Carus was a Roman
Roman Republic
The Roman Republic was the period of the ancient Roman civilization where the government operated as a republic. It began with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy, traditionally dated around 508 BC, and its replacement by a government headed by two consuls, elected annually by the citizens and...

 poet
Poet
A poet is a person who writes poetry. A poet's work can be literal, meaning that his work is derived from a specific event, or metaphorical, meaning that his work can take on many meanings and forms. Poets have existed since antiquity, in nearly all languages, and have produced works that vary...

 and philosopher. His only known work is an epic philosophical poem laying out the beliefs of Epicureanism
Epicureanism
Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of Epicurus, founded around 307 BC. Epicurus was an atomic materialist, following in the steps of Democritus. His materialism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention. Following Aristippus—about whom...

, De rerum natura, translated into English as On the Nature of Things or "On the Nature of the Universe".

Virtually no details have come down concerning the life of Lucretius; though Jerome
Jerome
Saint Jerome was a Roman Christian priest, confessor, theologian and historian, and who became a Doctor of the Church. He was the son of Eusebius, of the city of Stridon, which was on the border of Dalmatia and Pannonia...

 tells how he was driven mad by a love potion and wrote his poetry in between fits of insanity, eventually committing suicide in middle age, modern scholarship suggests this account was likely an invention. The De rerum natura was a considerable influence on the Augustan poets, particularly Virgil
Virgil
Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil or Vergil in English , was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works of Latin literature, the Eclogues , the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid...

 (in his Aeneid
Aeneid
The Aeneid is a Latin epic poem, written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BC, that tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who travelled to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the Romans. It is composed of roughly 10,000 lines in dactylic hexameter...

 and Georgics
Georgics
The Georgics is a poem in four books, likely published in 29 BC. It is the second major work by the Latin poet Virgil, following his Eclogues and preceding the Aeneid. It is a poem that draws on many prior sources and influenced many later authors from antiquity to the present...

, and to a lesser extent in his Eclogues) and Horace
Horace
Quintus Horatius Flaccus , known in the English-speaking world as Horace, was the leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus.-Life:...

. It virtually disappeared during the Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

, but was rediscovered in Florence
Florence
Florence is the capital city of the Italian region of Tuscany and of the province of Florence. It is the most populous city in Tuscany, with approximately 370,000 inhabitants, expanding to over 1.5 million in the metropolitan area....

 in 1417, by Poggio Bracciolini, and played an important role both in the development of atomism
Atomism
Atomism is a natural philosophy that developed in several ancient traditions. The atomists theorized that the natural world consists of two fundamental parts: indivisible atoms and empty void.According to Aristotle, atoms are indestructible and immutable and there are an infinite variety of shapes...

 (Lucretius was an important influence on Pierre Gassendi
Pierre Gassendi
Pierre Gassendi was a French philosopher, priest, scientist, astronomer, and mathematician. With a church position in south-east France, he also spent much time in Paris, where he was a leader of a group of free-thinking intellectuals. He was also an active observational scientist, publishing the...

), and in the efforts of various figures of the Enlightenment era to construct a new Christian humanism
Christian humanism
Christian humanism is the position that universal human dignity and individual freedom are essential and principal components of, or are at least compatible with, Christian doctrine and practice. It is a philosophical union of Christian and humanist principles.- Origins :Christian humanism may have...

.

Life of Lucretius


Very little is known about Lucretius's life; the only certain fact is that he was either a friend or a client
Patronage in ancient Rome
Patronage was the distinctive relationship in ancient Roman society between the patronus and his client . The relationship was hierarchical, but obligations were mutual. The patronus was the protector, sponsor, and benefactor of the client...

 of Gaius Memmius
Gaius Memmius (poet)
Gaius Memmius , Roman orator and poet, tribune of the people , patron of Lucretius and acquaintance of Catullus....

, to whom he dedicated De Rerum Natura.

Another piece of information is found in a letter Cicero
Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero , was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, political theorist, and Roman constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the equestrian order, and is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.He introduced the Romans to the chief...

 wrote to his brother Quintus
Quintus Tullius Cicero
Quintus Tullius Cicero was the younger brother of the celebrated orator, philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero. He was born into a family of the equestrian order, as the son of a wealthy landowner in Arpinum, some 100 kilometres south-east of Rome.- Biography :Cicero's well-to-do father...

 in February 54 BCE. Cicero writes: "The poems of Lucretius are as you write: they exhibit many flashes of genius, and yet show great mastership." Apparently, by February 54 BCE both Cicero and his brother had read De Rerum Natura. However, internal evidence from the poem (such as various repetitions, and the sudden end in Book 6 in the middle of the description of the plague at Athens) suggests that it was published without a final revision, possibly due to its author's death. If this is true, Lucretius must have been dead by February 54 BCE.

Virgil
Virgil
Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil or Vergil in English , was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works of Latin literature, the Eclogues , the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid...

 writes in the second book of his Georgics, clearly referencing Lucretius, "Happy is he who has discovered the causes of things and has cast beneath his feet [subiecit pedibus; cf. Lucretius 1.78, religio pedibus subiecta, "religion lies cast beneath our feet"] all fears, unavoidable fate, and the din of the devouring Underworld."

A brief biographical notice is found in Aelius Donatus
Aelius Donatus
Aelius Donatus was a Roman grammarian and teacher of rhetoric. The only fact known regarding his life is that he was the tutor of St...

's Life of Virgil
Virgil
Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil or Vergil in English , was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works of Latin literature, the Eclogues , the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid...

, which seems to be derived from an earlier work by Suetonius
Suetonius
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, commonly known as Suetonius , was a Roman historian belonging to the equestrian order in the early Imperial era....

. The statement runs as follows: "The first years of his life Virgil spent in Cremona, right until the assumption of his toga virilis, which he accepted on his 17th birthday, when the same two men held the consulate
Roman consul
A consul served in the highest elected political office of the Roman Republic.Each year, two consuls were elected together, to serve for a one-year term. Each consul was given veto power over his colleague and the officials would alternate each month...

, as when he was born, and it so happened that on the very same day Lucretius the poet passed away." The information in this testimony is internally inconsistent. Virgil was born in 70 BCE, and his 17th birthday therefore took place in 53 BCE. However, the two consuls of 70 BCE, Pompey
Pompey
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, also known as Pompey or Pompey the Great , was a military and political leader of the late Roman Republic...

 and Crassus
Marcus Licinius Crassus
Marcus Licinius Crassus was a Roman general and politician who commanded the right wing of Sulla's army at the Battle of the Colline Gate, suppressed the slave revolt led by Spartacus, provided political and financial support to Julius Caesar and entered into the political alliance known as the...

, stood together as consuls again in 55, not 53.

A yet more brief notice is found in the Chronicon
Chronicon (Jerome)
The Chronicle was a universal chronicle, one of Jerome's earliest attempts in the department of history...

of Donatus's pupil, Jerome
Jerome
Saint Jerome was a Roman Christian priest, confessor, theologian and historian, and who became a Doctor of the Church. He was the son of Eusebius, of the city of Stridon, which was on the border of Dalmatia and Pannonia...

. Writing 4 centuries after Lucretius's death, he enters under the 171st Olympiad
Olympiad
An Olympiad is a period of four years, associated with the Olympic Games of Classical Greece. In the Hellenistic period, beginning with Ephorus, Olympiads were used as calendar epoch....

, the following line: "Titus Lucretius the poet is born. Later he was driven mad by a love potion
Potion
A potion is a consumable medicine or poison.In mythology and literature, a potion is usually made by a magician, sorcerer, dragon, fairy or witch and has magical properties. It might be used to heal, bewitch or poison people...

, and when, during the intervals of his insanity, he had written a number of books, which were later emended by Cicero, he killed himself by his own hand in the 44th year of his life." The claim that he was driven mad by a love potion, although defended by some, is often dismissed as the result of historical confusion, or anti-Epicurean slander. Similarly, the statement that Cicero emended the work prior to publication is doubtful. The exact date of his birth varies by manuscript; in most it is tallied under 94 BCE, but in others under 93 or 96.

It's impossible to know the credibility of the accounts of Donatus and Jerome, since they wrote long after the poet's death, the latter author belonged to a theological tradition explicitly hostile to Epicureanism, and the sources of their off-hand comments are unknown. However, if 55 BCE is Lucretius's most likely year of death, and if Jerome is accurate about Lucretius's age (43) when he died, it can then be concluded he was born in 99 or 98 BCE. These are a lot of ifs, and it may be wisest to simply say that Lucretius was born in the 90s BCE and died in the 50s BCE. This ties in well with the poem's many allusions to the tumultuous state of political affairs in Rome
Rome
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

 and its civil strife
Roman civil wars
There were several Roman civil wars, especially during the late Republic. The most famous of these are the war in the 40s BC between Julius Caesar and the optimate faction of the senatorial elite initially led by Pompey and the subsequent war between Caesar's successors, Octavian and Mark Antony in...

.

Purpose of the poem


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
Supernatural
The supernatural or is that which is not subject to the laws of nature, or more figuratively, that which is said to exist above and beyond nature...

 and the fear
Fear
Fear is a distressing negative sensation induced by a perceived threat. It is a basic survival mechanism occurring in response to a specific stimulus, such as pain or the threat of danger...

 of death
Death
Death is the permanent termination of the biological functions that sustain a living organism. Phenomena which commonly bring about death include old age, predation, malnutrition, disease, and accidents or trauma resulting in terminal injury....

. He attempts this by expounding the philosophical system of Epicurus
Epicurus
Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher and the founder of the school of philosophy called Epicureanism.Only a few fragments and letters remain of Epicurus's 300 written works...

, whom Lucretius glorifies as the hero of his epic poem.

Lucretius identifies the supernatural with the notion that the gods/supernatural powers created our world or interfere with its operations in any way. He argues against fear of such gods by demonstrating through observations and argument that the operations of the world can be accounted for in terms of natural phenomena—the regular but purposeless motions and interactions of tiny atoms in empty space.

He argues against the fear of death by stating that death is the dissipation of a being's material mind. Lucretius uses the analogy of a vessel, stating that the physical body is the vessel that holds both the mind (mens) and spirit (anima) of a human being. 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. Being completely devoid of sensation and thought, a dead person cannot miss being alive. According to Lucretius, fear of death is a projection of terrors experienced in life, of pain that only a living (intact) mind can feel. Lucretius also puts forward the 'symmetry argument' against the fear of death. In it, he says that people who fear the prospect of eternal non-existence after death should think back to the eternity of non-existence before their birth, which they probably do not fear.

Structure of the poem


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.

Style of the poem


His poem De Rerum Natura (usually translated as "On the Nature of Things" or "On the Nature of the Universe") transmits the ideas of Epicurean physics
Physics
Physics is a natural science that involves the study of matter and its motion through spacetime, along with related concepts such as energy and force. More broadly, it is the general analysis of nature, conducted in order to understand how the universe behaves.Physics is one of the oldest academic...

, which includes Atomism
Atomism
Atomism is a natural philosophy that developed in several ancient traditions. The atomists theorized that the natural world consists of two fundamental parts: indivisible atoms and empty void.According to Aristotle, atoms are indestructible and immutable and there are an infinite variety of shapes...

, and psychology
Psychology
Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Its immediate goal is to understand individuals and groups by both establishing general principles and researching specific cases. For many, the ultimate goal of psychology is to benefit society...

. Lucretius was one of the first Epicureans to write in Latin
Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

.

Lucretius compares his work in this poem to that of a doctor healing a child: just as the doctor may put honey on the rim of a cup containing bitter wormwood (most likely Absinth Wormwood) believed to have healing properties, the patient is "tricked" into accepting something beneficial but difficult to swallow, "but not deceived" by the doctor (Book IV lines 12-19). The meaning of this refrain found throughout the poem is debatable.

Appreciation of Lucretius' work


Cornelius Nepos
Cornelius Nepos
Cornelius Nepos was a Roman biographer. He was born at Hostilia, a village in Cisalpine Gaul not far from Verona. His Gallic origin is attested by Ausonius, and Pliny the Elder calls him Padi accola...

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

Ovid
Ovid
Publius Ovidius Naso , known as Ovid in the English-speaking world, was a Roman poet who is best known as the author of the three major collections of erotic poetry: Heroides, Amores, and Ars Amatoria...

, 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
Vitruvius
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was a Roman writer, architect and engineer, active in the 1st century BC. He is best known as the author of the multi-volume work De Architectura ....

 (in the De Architectura), Quintilian
Quintilian
Marcus Fabius Quintilianus was a Roman rhetorician from Hispania, widely referred to in medieval schools of rhetoric and in Renaissance writing...

  (in his Institutiones Oratoriae) and Statius
Statius
Publius Papinius Statius was a Roman poet of the 1st century CE . Besides his poetry in Latin, which include an epic poem, the Thebaid, a collection of occasional poetry, the Silvae, and the unfinished epic, the Achilleid, he is best known for his appearance as a major character in the Purgatory...

 (in the Silvae
Silvae
The Silvae is a collection of Latin occasional poetry in hexameters, hendecasyllables, and lyric meters by Publius Papinius Statius . There are 32 poems in the collection, divided into five books. Each book contains a prose preface which introduces and dedicates the book...

) also show great admiration for the De Rerum Natura.

Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne
Lord Michel Eyquem de Montaigne , February 28, 1533 – September 13, 1592, was one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance, known for popularising the essay as a literary genre and is popularly thought of as the father of Modern Skepticism...

, in one of his Essays
Essays (Montaigne)
Essays is the title given to a collection of 107 essays written by Michel de Montaigne that was first published in 1580. Montaigne essentially invented the literary form of essay, a short subjective treatment of a given topic, of which the book contains a large number...

, On Books, lists Lucretius along with Virgil, Horace
Horace
Quintus Horatius Flaccus , known in the English-speaking world as Horace, was the leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus.-Life:...

, and Catullus
Catullus
Gaius Valerius Catullus was a Latin poet of the Republican period. His surviving works are still read widely, and continue to influence poetry and other forms of art.-Biography:...

 as his four top poets.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry , officially Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger, comte de Saint Exupéry , was a French writer, poet and pioneering aviator. He became a laureate of France's highest literary awards, and in 1939 was the winner of the U.S. National Book Award...

, notes Lucretius in "Southern Mail/ Night Flight" on page 20.

Lucretius has also had a marked influence upon modern philosophy, as perhaps the most complete expositor of Epicurean thought. His influence is especially notable in Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana
George Santayana
George Santayana was a philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist. A lifelong Spanish citizen, Santayana was raised and educated in the United States and identified himself as an American. He wrote in English and is generally considered an American man of letters...

, who praised Lucretius (along with Dante
DANTE
Delivery of Advanced Network Technology to Europe is a not-for-profit organisation that plans, builds and operates the international networks that interconnect the various national research and education networks in Europe and surrounding regions...

 and Goethe) in his book 'Three Philosophical Poets.'

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