On the Nature of Things by Lucretius.

1483 edition.
On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura; 1st Century B.C.) by Lucretius was a rather ambitious read of mine given how, when I was reading it, I was laden with the foulest cold I've ever had. I probably shouldn't have, it wasn't the most successful of reads, but I did manage to enjoy it. It's a poem (though I read R. E. Latham's prose translation) divided into six books and it is concerned with Epicureanism. That was a philosophy that rejected determinism and advocated a kind of hedonism, however pleasures were divided so pleasures of the soul and of the mind were regarded as more worthy than sensual pleasures or pleasures of the body. Lucretius' goal was to explain it in full detail.

The book's divided into the following parts:
  1. Matter and Space.
  2. The Movement and Shapes of Atoms.
  3. Life and Mind.
  4. Sensation and Sex.
  5. Cosmology and Sociology.
  6. Meteorology and Geology.
The first two parts are largely with physics and they begin an invocation to Venus:

Mother of Aeneas and his race, delight of men and gods, life-giving Venus, it is your doing that under the wheeling constellations of the sky all nature teems with life, both the sea that buoys up our ships and the earth that yields our food. Through you all living creatures are conceived and come forth to look upon the sunlight. Before you the winds flee, and at your coming the clouds forsake the sky. For you the inventive earth flings up sweet flowers. For you the ocean levels laugh, the sky is calmed and glows with diffused radiance. When first the day puts on the aspect of spring, when in all its force the fertilising breath of Zephyr is unleashed, then, great goddess, the birds of air give the first intimation of your entry; for yours is the power that has pierced them to the heart. Next the cattle run wild, frisk through the lush pastures and swim the swift-flowing streams. Spell-bound by your charm, they follow your lead with fierce desire. So throughout seas and uplands, rushing torrents, verduous meadows and the leafy shelter of the birds, into the breasts of one and all you instil alluring love, so that with passionate longing they reproduce their several breeds.
Lucretius then writes on an absolute wealth of subjects concerning the universe; the idea of matter, the concept of the universe (in which he argues that it is infinite and has no centre), atoms (for example that they are colourless and without heat, taste, or smell), and the idea of a universe contains an infinite number of worlds and possibilities. He then turns to biology writing on the mind and spirit, the senses, sex itself, and thought and determination. Next, he writes about the stars, the emergence of life and society, before focusing on natural phenomenon such as thunder, earthquakes, the sea, volcanoes, the seasons (particularly spring), and even magnets.

For such a short book (mine was about 250 pages) its scope is absolutely vast. It also seemed to me so very advanced especially with some of his theories on physics - the universe and atoms as well as the suggestion of a lack of an intervening deity and afterlife seemed like it belonged to the Enlightenment and not the Ancients. And, above all else, it was an enjoyable read, though not an easy one. I'd be very keen to revisit it once I've grounded myself a little more in Epicureanism. Even so, without that, I did like it very much.

Comments

  1. i think it was about 20 years ago i read this; the physics section with its discussion of "atomies" impressed me the most. Hard to believe that the manuscript didn't suffer pontifical destruction over those long centuries... probably because no one could understand what he was actually saying?

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    Replies
    1. Perhaps indeed! I wish I'd read Epicurus first - it would have helped so much :)

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