On the Nature of Things (Lucretius)

Lucretius. On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura). trans. Anthony Esolen. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 

Modern atheism has fallen on hard times.  No atheist today can probably play on the level of Lucretius, either in intellect or literary skill (tips fedora).  Lucretius’s power of communication and imagination is sheer genius.  His science is laughably bad, though to be fair he couldn’t have known any better.

Esolen’s translation is a delight.  He is aware of the pacing and rhythm and keeps the English close to the original.  He also provides outlines of each book. 

Book 1.

Nature is matter + the void.  

He holds to the eternality of matter or at least of time: “For infinite time has gone and the lapse of days must have eaten up all things which are of mortal body.”  His point is that nature dissolves everything.  His reasoning for it is atrocious.  If infinite time has indeed gone by, then there must have been an infinite number of days before today, in which case we would never get to today.

He links his doctrine of motion with an ever-present void in all things.  Nature, therefore, is a combination of bodies and void. While he believes matter is dissolved, he doesn’t believe it is annihilated.  It returns to a “first-beginning” of solid singleness.

Side note:  matter comes from materia, which comes from mater, mother.  Of course, etymological arguments are usually worse than useless, but this is fascinating. It sees matter as the unformed potential of all things.  Matter in his ontology functions like a mother, who gives birth.

Book 2

Lucretius summarizes his previous metaphysical musings. His problem is in finding a way that matter can produce movement without some supervening cause (lines 62ff). As atoms travel through the void, they bump into each other and these bumps move into the opposition direction.  That appears to be true, but it doesn’t explain why they started to move.

He defines velocity as the particles’ slowing down in the void as a result of “getting entangled” with air waves.  Again, Lucretius comes very close to anticipating modern science, but he almost always gets it wrong.  Imagine, he almost discovered quantum entanglement!

While Lucretius doesn’t explicitly attack the concept of aether, the idea is there.  He says the sun (or light) is slowed down as it moves by the “atoms.”  The important point is that it doesn’t move in a vacuum (lines 151ff).

In a famous passage Lucretius says there is an infinite number of atoms which exist in a number of finite shapes or molds (525-529).  

Book 3

Book 3 deals with the soul.  The soul is mortal. It is conjoined with physical particles and when the particles die, the soul dies.  Lucretius is not a strict materialist on this point, though, as he emphatically asserts the existence of the mind.  He is what later writers would call a “property dualist.” Mind isn’t the same thing as matter, yet it supervenes and depends on matter.

Unfortunately, Lucretius’s target is Plato’s doctrine of reincarnation.  He ridicules it and rightly so, but as he seemed to be unaware of biblical revelation, he doesn’t deal with stronger arguments for the immateriality of the soul.  That’s a shame, too, because he seemed to anticipate the same criticisms made of Descartes. The “tight conjoining” of body and soul is very close to Hebraic thought.  

By the time we get to books five and six, Lucretius’s argument had come upon hard times.  Whenever a perplexing issue arises, he responds with “the atoms did it.”  That’s the danger in reductionist philosophies. After you have reduced everything, you don’t have much left to talk about.

Conclusion

It’s easy to make fun of Lucretius’s argument.  From a scientific point of view it is complete nonsense.  We have to give him some credit, though.  Unlike some Greek thinkers, Lucretius took nature seriously.  He investigated the particulars of nature rather than forcing science into some deductive grid.

And while Lucretius was an atheist, his atheism was preferable to Mediterranean polytheism. Pagan mythologies often came close to magic sex religions.  Lucretius was wise to choose reason instead.  For example, “Their ignorance of causes makes them yield/All power and rule to those divinities./These rational causes they cannot discern/So they suppose it’s all the will of the gods” (VI: 55ff).

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