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In search of godlike calm: Lucretius, in an engraving by Michael Burghers, c.1680

There’s a self-help book that too few people read. It’s a book of unbridled passion and uncommon beauty; it’s pedantic but moving, angry but earnest. In short, it’s a sweeping torrent of breath-taking scope that seeks to solve our lives, mitigate the pains of being human and promote the joys of a rational mind. So why is it not flying off the shelves? Perhaps because it’s a 7,000-verse, six-book poem, in Latin. Yet, though written more than 2,000 years ago, it still takes and shakes the modern reader by the lapels, compelling him — in song — to accept the poet’s view of human existence: transient mortal lifespans in a material, immortal world. This year, the poem celebrates the 600th anniversary of its remarkable rediscovery. It is worth revisiting more than ever.

De rerum natura
(“On the nature of things”) is a tour de force of Epicurean philosophy. Lucretius, its author, had an uncanny intuition of the irrational fears that rattled mankind — of the unknown and the unknowable, of divine retribution, of death, and indeed of suffering after death. He realised that science and reason could dispel most — maybe all — of life’s gripes. This mission, however, needed solid foundations. In fact, it had the surest of building blocks: indivisible and indestructible atoms. It may discourage readers that the poem’s first third tackles atomic physics. But magnum ex parvo: from microscopic origins grow immense and life-changing conclusions. The third book brings the crucial reality check: since your soul is corporeal, it will dissolve after death, never to reappear as you. This one life, then, is both all we have and all we are.

At this point ethics must come into play. How on earth to spend this one life? The answer, it emerges, is in serene bliss. This isn’t the hedonistic debauchery of the libertine “epicure”. Instead, it’s the ataraxia (“freedom from anxiety”) achieved by removing physical and — more crucially — mental pains. Without fear we can realise our true humanity. The poem’s second half paints the bigger picture: all of our sensations, including dreams and thoughts, result from atomic data striking our body; mankind has gradually evolved in its skills and culture; nothing is supernatural, as everything, including meteorological and astronomic events, have rational, physical causes; most strikingly, the gods do exist out there in the universe but are indifferent to human affairs, unmoved by prayer, and inactive in our world. Religion and superstition are thus a damaging sham, instilling fear and obstructing peace. Direct contemplation of the gods’ serenity, by contrast, is man’s route to godlike calm.

For all its antiquity, the poem proclaims some extraordinarily modern tenets: of infinite worlds in an infinite universe; of the mortality of our own world; of natural selection promoting more suitable species; of one’s permanent dissolution on death; of indeterminate movements at a sub-atomic level. It is this last which frees mankind from the deterministic chains of physically-constrained molecular collisions: each random atomic “swerve” breaks this series and allows the independent action of free will, an emergent property of each wondrous coagulate of human atoms.

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