Rediscovering a Roman Thought

Lucretius’s poem On the Nature of Things was written in 50 BC, yet remains as startling as ever

David Butterfield

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.

Lucretius did not pluck his doctrines from the ether: as his first lesson proves, nothing can come from nothing. He was an ardent — almost fundamental — convert to Epicureanism, a Greek philosophy then a few centuries old. Epicurus (341-270 BC) founded the legendary Garden in Athens, a community of thinkers who rejected political and public life, applying themselves to study, debate and reflection. This may seem indulgent — and rather selfish — introversion. But Epicurus and his successors actively sought to open the eyes of their dawdling, deluded contemporaries. Epicureanism, which proclaimed one truth for all, was avowedly open to all.

Lucretius knew he was faced with a hard sell: a pacifist, anti-religious, materialistic philosophy that denied all pleasures of the afterlife would hardly appeal to the warmongering, cultic and politically-obsessed audience of republican Rome. Indeed, Lucretius confesses that, like doctors who administer wormwood to children by smearing cups with honey, he has sugared the bitter pill of harsh truths with the sweet — if not saccharine — beauty of the dactylic hexameter. That medicine, however difficult, proved to be effective. Lucretius’s verses captivated his upstart contemporary, the enfant terrible Catullus, and intimately influenced the Augustan titans of Virgil and Horace. Lucretius’s passion penetrated much farther in time and space: Spenser, Voltaire, Goethe, Wordsworth, Shelley and Tennyson are all in his debt.

And yet, we almost lost this poem entirely and irrevocably. Perhaps only one copy survived the fall of Rome; thereafter, it was scarcely copied or read throughout the mediaeval period. Buried in the darkest corners of monastic libraries, there was little hope that it would survive to the age of print. But, in 1417, the enterprising papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini was indulging his primary passion — bookhunting. Somewhere in southern Germany (he was tight-lipped about his sources) he turned up a Carolingian copy of Lucretius. His chance discovery at once saved this transformative poem from destruction, reinjecting it into Western thought: copies swiftly emanated from Florence, percolating through Italy and farther afield. Its effect on both science and philosophy was gradual but profound: Machiavelli, Montaigne, Gassendi, Newton, Bayle, Voltaire, Kant, Darwin, Rutherford and Einstein were inspired by its contentions.

But we still have much to learn from Lucretius: the liberating power of reason, the importance of friendship, the crippling effect of unbridled ambition, the practical consequences of human mortality, the restorative power of the countryside and the arts, the danger of ignorance, and the value of faith. This is not the religious faith of us Christians, nor of the ancient Roman. It is the faith that, should humans collectively reflect on themselves and their society, their shared values will overcome their differences, however violently manifested. As the cult of identity increasingly splices and segregates our communities, and religious fervour rends the globe, there’s no more timely lesson to learn than Lucretius’s. And for that we’d do well to raise a glass to that most humane of bibliophiles, Poggio.

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