SOME OBSERVATION ON LUCRETIUS
[The following lecture has been prepared by Ian Johnston, Vancouver Island University. It is in the public domain, released January 2010]
[Quotations from On the Nature of Things are taken from the translation available here: Lucretius]
Thomas Carlyle had firm opinions about modern translations of works from the classical past: “We want what the ancients thought and said, and none of your silly poetry” (quoted in the Preface to W. C. Green’s translation of the Iliad), a remark which comes to mind when one surveys some of the recent English translations of Lucretius, where (as with Homer) one finds a rich selection of competing versions in poetry and prose. I doubt if there has ever been a time when so many different English translations of On the Nature of Things have been so readily available to the reader. Thus, in the spirit of someone who has to select a single text for a class, I find myself speculating on a question of some importance in such a situation: How should one assess the relative merits of prose and poetry translations of this book for student readers, both in general terms and in particular cases?
Lucretius’ poem, of course, belongs to a genre most English readers are not very familiar with, a long poetical work on a “philosophical” or “scientific” subject (the reason for the quotation marks will soon be apparent). We do have such things in our traditions—Zoonomia by Erasmus Darwin (written in heroic couplets) springs to mind as the best example—but for the most part our philosophical and scientific works have been written in prose (to say nothing of the fact that poems like Darwin’s are hardly read by anyone nowadays, let alone by students). So the decision of many translators to render Lucretius in English prose appears sensible enough on the surface: they are establishing contact with the tradition most familiar to the reader. Who has any desire to read about science or philosophy in verse? In the spirit of Carlyle, we might say that in such a treatise what matters are the ideas, and the versification simply gets in the way.
What objections could one make to such a stance? Well, the first objection might be that Lucretius constantly reminds us that he is writing a poem, is very insistent that the poetic form is an important part of his purpose, and is evidently very proud of the result (even if he did not fully revise it and prepare it for the reading public). True, he does encourage us to separate form and content (à la Carlyle) with that image of honey smeared around the cup containing bitter medicine, a section which we might interpret as suggesting that for Lucretius the poetic form is merely a sweet decoration covering the real content. Still, it might be worth remembering that the issue of the suitability of poetry for “philosophical” works was alive and well in ancient times and that in selecting to write poetry Lucretius is going against the traditional suspicions of poetry in Plato and, more importantly, in Epicurus (as Emily Gowers reminds us). So perhaps we could be losing more than a tasty but irrelevant treat by completely ignoring and contradicting the passages where he celebrates the poetry he is “weaving” (and, of course, reading about such lyric ambitions in an English prose translation strikes one as rather odd).
Another possible objection is that On the Nature of Things is a culturally important poem, a vital development in the history of Latin verse, the key link between Ennius, the father of Latin poetry, and Virgil (somewhat similar, perhaps, to the importance of Marlowe’s dramatic poetry in the transformation of English blank verse before Shakespeare). This point is naturally important to students of Latin poetry and applies only to the poem in Latin. Hence, it is obviously not relevant to any English translation, no matter how much classical scholars may deplore the practice of prose translations (if they deplore it), in the same way that some students of English literature scoff at French prose translations of Shakespeare.
Objections to the tradition of translating Lucretius into English prose become more substantial if one pauses to explore an important question: What is this work trying to do? What is its purpose? To reach a tentative answer to these questions, we need to take our lead from Lucretius and follow a circuitous road.
It takes no profound reflection to realize that the main purpose of this poem is not to present and defend in any rational manner a comprehensive scientific argument about the nature of the world. To demonstrate this point one does not have to assess the scientific content of the poem (more about that later) but simply point out what is obvious enough from the start: the main point of the work is not scientific but ethical. Lucretius wants to encourage people to live more successfully, to experience life without the constant anxieties brought about by their ignorance of natural causes and by their excessive dependence on customary religious practices and political ambitions. Knowledge of the materialistic nature of things, he believes, is the most certain route to such an improved awareness and thus to a better life. It addition it will motivate the reader to seek out appropriate pleasures. In writing the poem he is undertaking a task of persuasion, trying to convince the reader to follow the advice he is offering. And that persuasion involves, not simply the prosaic reasonableness of the scientific views he is advancing, but more importantly the rhetorically persuasive effects of poetry. In other words, this poem is not simply a presentation of rational ideas; it is about the emotional feelings associated with those ideas (nowhere is this more evident than in the superb closing section of Book 3, where the speaker addresses directly the reader’s fear of death).
Let me (at the risk of digressing) expand on this last point, since it is key to what I am going to be claiming about On the Nature of Things. Here is a very famous example of the poetic expression of feeling for an idea:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. (Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”)
Now, this idea would be easy enough to render in prose, but the entire point of the lines would be lost, because what matters here is not the idea but the speaker’s feelings about the idea. No one would ever place Wordsworth’s poem on a required reading list for a philosophy course, because the idea is commonplace. And yet no one would leave this poem out of a course in English Romantic poetry because it is, quite simply, one of the finest expressions of feeling about an idea ever written. And that feeling emerges from the poetic form (the sentence structure, repetition, imagery, rhythm, and so on), from the way those features of the style help us grasp the confident and urgent intensity of the speaker’s feelings. The passage is a fine and justly celebrated example of Wordsworth’s amazing ability to provide in his best poetry insight into his feelings about nature, something which transformed the understanding of countless people, not only about nature but about themselves. And he achieved this, not by rational persuasion but by his poetic power. One might make similar observations about other famous poems of “ideas” (Pope’s Essay on Man, for instance or, if we move outside English literature, the supreme examples of Dante in the Divine Comedy and Aeschylus in the Oresteia): their purpose is to illuminate feelings about ideas, not rationally to argue for those ideas (in fact, from a logical perspective, their poetic work often amounts to a rather poor rational defence of anything).
Now, this gives us the basis for a more substantial objection to prose renditions of Lucretius. If he is, indeed, seeking, like Wordsworth, to convey feelings about a particular understanding of the cosmos in order to persuade the reader to share those feelings, then abandoning the poetic form in favour of prose would seem to work against that purpose, since it means turning away from the literary form best suited to exploring such emotions. This observation may carry a little more weight when we reflect that the scientific content of Lucretius’ poem has had little to no effect on the history of science (indeed it rarely merits consideration in accounts of that history); whereas, what the poem reveals about an attitude towards life (and science) has always had an enormous influence among those who read his work in Latin—scientists and non-scientists alike.
At this point a couple of questions inevitably arise. First, why cannot prose carry out the same rhetorical effect as poetry? Why would a prose translation automatically deny this aspect of the poem? The short answer is that such a loss is not inevitable, for prose is capable of remarkably “poetic” effects, as anyone who has read the sermons of John Donne or listened to those of Jeremiah Wright can attest. One could also point out that Plato’s early Socratic dialogues, thanks largely to their dramatic form and the characterization of Socrates, are justly famous as prose works which communicate insight into the delights of the philosophical life and that this aspect of these fictions is far more important to most readers than any light they shed on complex philosophical issues. After all, those who meet Socrates in these works retain a (usually affectionate) memory of the man long after they have forgotten this or that detail of his argumentative conversations. So, given these and many other examples, I would never establish some a priori principle about what prose can or cannot achieve.
That said, however, it does seem from the examples of prose translations of Lucretius in English which I have read that prose generally fails to account satisfactorily for the aspect of the work I have just mentioned. The best of them (the Hackett edition by Martin Ferguson Smith), for all its merits as crisp, clear English, never comes close to the sort of poetic quality needed—the evenness in the tone and cool clarity of the diction and sentence structure keep things calm and steady in a way well suited to a science essay or philosophical argument, but there is little sense of emotional variety or intensity and the pace never seems to vary (try reading aloud the famous opening to Book 2, for example). Smith certainly avoids the dreary plod of, say, Cyril Bailey or H. A. J. Munro, but still there’s little sense of Lucretius’ urgency or imaginative excitement in Smith’s prose.
Part of this response may well stem from the complex question of the reader’s expectations. People’s way of reading poetry differs from the way they read prose (a potentially contentious point, I admit, but my assertion is based on my own experience and my years of teaching prose and poetry to students). And setting out to read what looks at first like a scientific treatise in the form of a series of prose essays is inviting the reader to treat Lucretius as if she were reading a scientific text (like Origin of Species). And to that task the reader brings different habits and criteria than she does to something that looks and reads like a long traditional poem. In response to this assertion one might well ask the following: If translations of Homer have worked well enough in prose, why cannot one say the same about Lucretius? And haven’t you contradicted yourself with your remarks about Plato’s early Socratic dialogues? Fair enough, I suppose. Prose editions of Homer, however, also elicit different expectations and habits from readers than do poetic ones. In a prose version, the epic poem becomes an epic novel or, in many cases I prefer not to think about, a historical romance. However, even given this shift, I would be prepared to argue that, all else being equal, much less is lost in that transformation than in one which turns a great epic poem into what reads like a prosaic argument (at least both prose and poetic forms of Homer preserve the details of the story, the characters, and the speeches, and the reader is still dealing with fiction).
There is, however, at least one compelling argument in favour of a prose translation, an important point which helps to account for the fact the Smith translation is still the first choice of many teachers, and that is the questionable quality (to use the politest term available) of many of those versions offered up as poetry. Carlyle’s remarks, after all, may not spring from an insensitivity to poetry so much as from a disgust with the failure of his contemporaries to provide acceptable poetic translations of the classics, for their efforts were, by and large, fairly wretched (at least in the case of Homer). Hence, one can make a good case that having a clear and eminently readable prose version of Lucretius at least gives us the content in a succinct and enjoyable manner, and that is preferable to the loose, periphrastic, inert, and incompetent versification on display in some of the recent attempts to render Lucretius in English verse. I would, for example, select Smith’s or Ronald Latham’s efficient prose over Frank Copley’s or Walter Englert’s laboured verses or A. E. Stalling’s often perky fourteeners with their emphatic forced rhymes, or William Leonard’s hopelessly outdated and euphemistic diction. Rolfe Humphries’ colloquialisms and odd word choices may be relatively infrequent but their effect is catastrophic, and the tone of the translation seems totally wrong. What one desiderates in a good deal of such versification is any sense of emotional compression and intensity, together with an awareness that there may be more to writing poetry than just leaving an erratic blank space to the right of the page (as in, for example, David Slavitt’s lifeless lines or Anthony Esoslen’s erratic, rhythmically halting verses, or the prosaic chat of C. H. Sisson laid out to look like poetry). If Ronald Melville emerges as significantly better than these poetic offerings, the reason may well be that—whatever criticism one might have about this or that aspect of the style—he avoids the idiosyncrasies of the others, so a sense of the power and seriousness of Lucretius can manifest itself. In his text we are at least dealing with what we can recognize and read as poetry, without constantly having to wonder about strange rhythms, odd colloquialisms, and an inappropriate tone.
Of course, these judgments, like all assessments of poetic quality, reflect very personal preferences. After all, few literary matters are more disputatious than the issue of the quality of poetic translations. But if the poetry in translation cannot catch and hold the tone and intensity of Lucretius (what one reviewer has called the “relentless urgency” of the poem), if, that is, it fails to deliver direct emotional insight into the speaker’s feelings, especially at those moments when Lucretius’ poem really soars (as in the closing section of Book 3, for example), but instead holds the reader back and forces her to wade through awkward, inflated, and rhythmically inert or limping English, then give me good prose every time. This is especially important when one is considering a text for students, because bad poetry will probably reinforce any convictions they may already have about how long poems are boring and irrelevant (especially those from ancient times).
THE SCIENTIFIC CONTENT OF LUCRETIUS
A response to a good deal of what I have said so far will depend to a large extent on one’s opinion of the scientific content of Lucretius’ poem. After all, if the work contains a treasure of scientific information and argument, then one might reasonably defend a prose version as a contribution important for its factual and rational content (especially given the deficiencies in most poetic alternatives). In Carlyle’s words, we would have the essential part—that is, the denoted content—and the poetry is no great loss. If, however, the scientific content is not the main (or the only) issue, then offering the work as a scientific treatise in prose might seem somewhat limiting.
Now, it’s clear enough that Lucretius is, in part, writing a polemic. He is, as it were, jumping into an energetic intellectual battle, keen to announce his support for Epicurean science and his admiration of Epicurus and to wage war against the opponents of those views, especially the Stoics, the forces of organized religion, and the traditional values of politically ambitious Romans. We have lost most of the other philosophical works he is reacting to and borrowing from, although the diligent work of countless scholars gives us many details of who said what and when. In the face of that lack of full contextual documentation, we might well begin by looking directly at the poem and asking ourselves if there is any scientific value in his contribution (much of which is, as he admits, borrowed from others).
I say scientific value, because at this point I wish to separate the literary and historical merits of his poem (its qualities as a poem and its value as a historical document) from what it has to offer of value as a scientific treatise. I also wish to stress that in trying to sort out the value of Lucretius’ scientific contributions, we need to remember that there is an important difference between a specific contribution to a scientific understanding of the natural world and the effort to encourage a particular approach to understanding nature (scientific or otherwise). The first is a matter of reasoned argument and convincing evidence; the second is an attempt at rhetorical persuasion (which may well involve rational argument but is not limited to that).
On the face of it, Lucretius’ poem is something of a disappointment as a scientific work. He is probably at his scientific best when he is refuting an opponent (although he is not always fair to his rival’s ideas, as in the case of Anaxagoras), when, that is, he raises key objections to the theories of those materialists who wish to explain that all matter is produced from one or more basic substances (fire, air, water, earth, individually or in combination). The objections may be obvious enough, but his treatment is effective and thorough. And his argument for the existence of atoms, for their properties, and for the ways in which a limited number of atomic shapes can produce the variety in materials we see all around us and also account for variations in colour, smell, and other sensations is, although not original to him, the strongest and most interesting scientific theory in the poem. If we measure the value of the poem by its scientific ideas, Lucretius’ presentation of materialistic atomism is an obvious highlight.
At this point one should acknowledge what many people find particularly interesting in the poem: its apparent anticipation of a number of modern ideas. These include the social contract, non-visible sources of solar heat, the water cycle, the development of language, and (perhaps) certain aspects of sexuality and heredity, among others. However, in the poem these are, for the most part, not given a firm theoretical basis—that is, they are not scientifically explained in any detail by atomic theory or anything else (other than the velocity of falling particles in empty space)—and, as often as not the differences between modern theories and what Lucretius offers are more significant than the superficial similarities, so that the very notion of an “anticipation” of modern theories is pure Whiggery (for example, in what people see in Book 5 as an early account of natural selection). And where we can recognize an obvious influence, that may not amount to a scientific contribution. For example, it may well be that that classic work of modern political sociology, Rousseau’s Second Discourse (On the Origins of Inequality) borrows heavily and directly from Lucretius, but the presentation in Lucretius is no more scientifically convincing than it is in Rousseau.
Moreover, in many places, the materialistic explanations Lucretius offers are, well, scientifically embarrassing (although almost invariably interesting). He is particularly weak on what is often considered the high point of ancient science, the regular motions in the cosmos (a weakness Frank Copley attributes to the lack of interest in mathematics endemic to Epicurean science). As a result, the treatment of solar and lunar eclipses is hopeless (an inevitable result of the theory of perception which convinces him that the sun and the moon are the same size as we observe them from earth). In a similar manner, his treatment of the sun’s motion is very muddled because he does not clearly differentiate between its daily orbit around the earth and its annual movement around the ecliptic. He rejects the notion of attraction to the centre (i.e., gravity) because he confuses the entire universe (which has no centre) with celestial systems (in his terminology, worlds) within that universe (which do have centres). What he has to say about the celestial bodies seems to be derived, as Cyril Bailey observes, from the general knowledge of his time (minus the mathematics). He relies upon various winds or movements of air (air and wind are different substances in his view) as the cause of any complex natural phenomenon that is difficult to explain, everything from the motion of the sun and the stars to earthquakes, lightning, volcanic eruptions, perception of distance, and magnetism. His most famous doctrine, that of the unpredictable swerve of the atomic particles in their linear motion (the clinamen), the source of the atomic collisions which result in the initial material combinations which create everything, saves us from the determinism of the Stoics and guarantees free will in living creatures, but it has long been dismissed as arrant speculation without scientific credibility. The idea is offered up without evidence: in a nice piece of circular reasoning worthy of Descartes, Lucretius introduces the swerve as the guarantor of free will and then uses the existence of free will to demonstrate the validity of the swerve. The poem relies heavily on observations of the natural world as evidence (an important point we will consider later on), and is not interested in precise measurement or experiment. The closest we get to the latter is (perhaps) the business with the magnet repelling iron filings when a brass container is inserted between the iron and the lodestone, a result which should not have happened, because, as we now know and as Lucretius should (one assumes) have observed, the behaviour of a magnet is not affected by the interposition of a non-magnetic substance between iron and the source of the magnetism.
From the point of view of modern science, one of the most telling deficiencies in Lucretius is his lack of interest in universally binding theoretical explanations for natural phenomena (something which may well be linked to his lack of interest in mathematics). Having focused on a particular perception, he will then offer a list of alternative often very ingenious theories (e.g., for the motion of the stars or the appearance and disappearance of the sun each day). All those which might conceivably happen somehow in a materialistic universe are acceptable, provided they are not contradicted by our senses, and there is no use trying to sort out one possible theory from another. He even expresses a certain contempt for anyone who might want to do that. Lucretius concedes that in our world there must be only one explanation, but given that there are countless other worlds in the universe where other explanations may be valid, he sees little point in trying to settle on just one of the alternatives as correct.
At this point one might well protest that such criticisms are manifestly unfair. To measure Lucretius against the methods and purposes of modern science is to make demands neither he nor any other ancient thinker could be expected to meet. They did not have an agreed upon method of enquiry and their reflections on nature had a purpose fundamentally different from the modern preoccupation with gaining power over nature. That is very true. But I am not trying to assess the merits of Lucretius methods, merely to point out that his poem has serious problems if we wish to see in it a valuable contribution to specific developments in the methodology and achievements of science. There is, after all, a reason why, as I have already mentioned, Lucretius, who was read by almost every well-educated European for five centuries (at least) is almost always totally absent from histories of science.
This last historical point perhaps needs some elaboration. There is no doubt that, in directing people’s attention to a thoroughgoing and secular materialism based on atoms, Lucretius’ poem exerted a significant influence on those interested in natural philosophy, so that, as Monte Johnson and Catherine Wilson state, “the Lucretian conception of nature . . . was a major driving force in the Scientific Revolution experienced in Western Europe beginning in the early seventeenth century.” But that influence, important as it was in shifting attention away from traditional ways of carrying out investigations of the natural world, did not contribute directly to defining the purposes and methods of the new science. Indeed, as Johnson and Wilson point out, the new scientific developments in many respects contradicted the major purpose of Lucretius’ endorsement of ancient atomism.
Here I should also mention the spirited defence of Lucretius’ scientific merits made recently by Michel Serres, in an extraordinary book which argues that, far from being a justly forgotten footnote in the development of science, Lucretius’ poem is, in fact, where it all begins: it is, simply put, the beginning of modern physics (hence the title of his study of Lucretius, The Birth of Physics). I do not have time here to explore Serres’ argument in detail, but, eloquent and interesting as it may be, his defence strikes me as an extreme case of Whiggery, which requires the insertion of a mathematical backbone carved out of Archimedes to prop up the often flabby bodily structure of Epicurean science. Whatever the merits of this procedure for an understanding of Archimedes or Epicurus, such links are not present in Lucretius’ poem and suggesting possible connections does little to mitigate the criticisms I pointed out above.
However, Serres’ book is a vitally important contribution to an understanding of Lucretius (and I am very indebted to his arguments) because he quite correctly places most of his emphasis on the single most important point about On the Nature of Things: the poem is not primarily about this or that explanation of natural phenomena, nor does it have much to offer by way of outlining a detailed method of scientific enquiry (other than repeatedly emphasizing sense experience and reason); it is instead, first and foremost, an eloquent plea for a certain way of orienting oneself to nature and, beyond that, to one’s own life. And this aspect of the poem has exerted an enormous and continuing impact on European intellectual life, not only among natural scientists but among educated people of every imaginable description, from Catholic priests to materialistic atheists, from nuclear physicists to Romantic poets and democratic politicians.
Let me amplify this point a little before moving on to consider just what that orientation involves. What I am claiming about On the Nature of Things is that the merit of the poem emerges from the eloquence of its observations and recommendations rather than from the facts or explanations it offers. Just as Wordsworth’s poetry fundamentally changed many people’s attitude to nature without offering any particularly useful or detailed “theory” of nature, so Lucretius contributed fundamentally to influencing attitudes about the natural world and human conduct, without in the process giving us any remarkably new discoveries or methods. In other words, On the Nature of Things is not a scientific treatise (merely or primarily) but an amazing and influential poem, which succeeds because of its poetic insight and power. To overlook that or brush it aside in the interests of isolating its scientific content is to negate the very reason the work has played such an important role in our historical development and is still a wonderful read.
These observations about the scientific value of Lucretius’ poem could also be applied to its philosophical value as well. Hence, tributes to the philosophical content need to be assessed carefully. George Santayana, for example, claims that Lucretius offers us “one complete system of philosophy, materialism in natural science, humanism in ethics. Such was the gist of all Greek philosophy before Socrates. . . . Such is the gist also of what may be called the philosophy of the Renaissance, the reassertion of science and liberty in the modern world. . . .” Given what I have said above about the scientific contributions of Lucretius, my response to such a claim will be obvious enough. I have no quarrel with that word “gist” (the limitations it suggests are appropriate), but the notion that Lucretius offers us a “complete system of philosophy” seems, to put it mildly, stretching things considerably (there is, after all, an important difference between applauding and paying tribute to such a system or to the “gist” of such a system and actually offering us the philosophical details).
For Lucretius is about as important to the history of philosophy as he is to the history of science. Yes, he is a justly celebrated proselytizer for a certain way of looking at the world and of conducting oneself in it: in fact, he is the most famous, eloquent, long-lasting, and influential literary champion of Epicurean ideas and a crucial voice in the spread of classical humanism. But one would hardly consider Lucretius worth looking at closely if one’s main concern was to analyze the complex details of an attempt rationally to justify the philosophical system he is endorsing.
LUCRETIUS’ VIEW OF NATURE
What, then, is Lucretius’ view of nature? What lies at the heart of his impulse to teach us how to view the natural world? And how does that impulse shape what he has to say? Here we come to the heart of the matter, the “vision” which inspired him and which he offers to us.
It is clear enough that Lucretius’ major purpose is, as I said before, ethical. He wants people to live happier, more successful lives. His Epicurean sympathies naturally enough see the route to such better lives in the relief of pain, especially pain of mental anxieties fostered by the pursuit of unworthy and self-defeating aims (money, fame, political power), by the fear of death, and by organized religion and its doctrines. Along with release from pain, he includes the pursuit of pleasure, but only those pleasures which do not promise to bring with them an increase of pain (that is why random promiscuous sex is to be preferred to romantic entanglements and why the pleasures of contemplation, so richly celebrated at the start of Book 2, are the finest of all). Such avoidance of pain and enjoyment of pleasure, especially in contemplation, are best achieved by understanding the material basis of the world, thus acquiring knowledge which will provide a much healthier perspective on what truly matters (particularly knowledge of our own mortal physicality). Hence, his teaching does not involve the study of nature for its own sake or as a means of spiritual discipline or as a method for increasing our power over natural phenomena: its major purpose is utilitarian—it will make our lives happier.
The most obvious and famous result of this attitude is Lucretius’ extreme hostility to traditional religion—which, in his view, is neither reasonable or natural and is the source of endless anxiety and cruelty. And responses to his poem often begin and end with that. Voltaire, as one might expect, enthusiastically approved the most famous line in the poem attacking traditional religion: “That shows how much/ religion can turn mankind to evil” (1.134), and the energy of that endorsement is matched by any number of people who turned away from Lucretius in horror for this irreligious stance. In many places, the materialistic explanations for certain phenomena (particularly for the famous series of seventeen proofs of the mortality of the soul in Book 3) are obviously designed to neutralize the effect of organized religion’s most potent weapon: the fear of death and the afterlife. Just as Thomas Hobbes (in Leviathan) realizes that to convince people to accept his theory he has to demolish traditional ways of interpreting scripture in order to ease fears of the life hereafter, so Lucretius has to demolish the immortality of the soul, which is the basis for all sorts of stories and practices, in order to ease similar fears deliberately fostered by traditional belief.
Lucretius does, of course, believe in the gods, but his vision of these entities does not admit that they have any significant interaction with human beings other than providing them images of their divine but material persons (by a process he promises to explain but never does) so that human beings may engage in the only appropriate form of worship, the contemplation of divine forms. He explicitly rejects the notion that gods created the world (Why on earth would they interrupt their tranquil existence to do that? And where would they get the idea?), as well as the ever-popular view that the design of nature reflects benevolent purposes in the divine powers that created it (If so, why are there so many obvious flaws in nature?). It is interesting to observe how some later thinkers influenced by Lucretius who wish to adopt his materialistic stance but who need to take the sting out of any accusations of impiety simply make those gods (or God) the source of natural laws (e.g., the Deists) or else, like Kant (in Universal History of Nature), invoke Lucretius in order to distance themselves from him by summoning the design argument to their assistance.
Lucretius’ vision of nature, however, has other important targets. He wishes to counter skeptics who claim that there is no certain knowledge of anything, let alone of nature, as well as the determinists, for whom nature operates by permanently fixed universal laws of cause and effect. The former group he dismisses easily (the self-referential paradox reveals that they are standing on their heads), and in response to the latter he offers a vision of a natural world which cannot be subjected to deterministic rules. The result is totally fascinating, even if (or perhaps because) it is so different from our mainstream scientific traditions. And when we explore this aspect of the work, the poem takes on an extraordinary life of its own as a vision of great imaginative power.
The first and most obvious point about Lucretius’ view of nature is its extraordinary dynamism. Everything is always moving all the time. Objects may be apparently at rest, but all their particles are always in restless motion, matter is streaming to and from them all the time, the air is full of particles in motion (sunlight, images, smells, noises, and so on) and its composition is always changing, corporeal stuff enters and leaves the cosmos continuously, below the earth all matter is constantly shifting, and everywhere around us the battle between heat and water continues without pause. The earth is constantly leaning over and threatening to collapse (like a precarious, ill-constructed building), then righting itself, and then moving once again, often with cataclysmic results. No writing about nature is so dominated by verbs of motion, change, collision, combat, creation, explosion, destruction, and dissolution. This vision is reinforced by the way in which Lucretius spends so much time on phenomena involving flowing liquids and constantly shifting atmospheric conditions, those features of nature which most resist accurate prediction (to judge from the time he spends on various subjects and the quality of his poetry as he moves from one subject to another, he is far more interested in the behaviour of clouds, winds, and lightning, for example, than he is in the regular motions of the planets). Yes, he does acknowledge the repetitive patterns, like the returning seasons and the monthly phases of the moon, but what really fires his imagination are the sudden and unexpected phenomena, like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, thunderbolts, rainstorms, whirlwinds, torrential floods, and disastrous diseases).
Allied to this dynamism is the randomness of nature. At the heart of all natural processes is the random swerve which cannot be reduced to some universal deterministic law. And, like that swerve, nature often operates suddenly, unpredictably, and often with enormous force. The overwhelming sense one gets is of an intense vitalism, whose effects we can acknowledge but cannot contain, control, or entirely foresee. The vitalism helps to produce an interesting ambiguity in the poem, since Lucretius moves back and forth between a sense of earth as a caring and endlessly creative mother and a sense of the world as an inanimate stage for the survival of the fittest and for the enduring mechanical and often violent wars between the forces of production and dissolution.
These qualities of Lucretius’ vision of nature lie at the heart of Serres’ argument that in this work we have the birth of modern physics, which, in response to the inadequacies of classical physics, has embraced randomness and irrational dynamism at the heart of matter. That claim, as I have mentioned, strikes me as exaggerated, but there is no denying the characteristics of the poem which prompt it. The vitalism is best symbolized early in the poem by Venus, the source of the erotic energy that drives all activities in nature. And Serres makes much of the opening picture of Venus and Mars, in which the speaker of the poem is asking Venus to control the natural aggression of her lover in order to bring peace to Romans. Of course, this is a plea for political harmony at a time of growing unease, but, Serres argues, it is also an important indication of Lucretius’ overall purpose: Lucretius wants Venus (the symbol of his vision of nature) to rein in Mars, the aggressive, warlike spirit at the heart of other ways of looking at nature (Serres makes the same comment about the later reference to Hercules and his aggressive masculine exploits early in Book 5).
The importance of this irrational vitality at the heart of nature may help to explain one of the greatest attractions of Lucretius’ poem—the emphasis it places on particular perceptions of single natural phenomena. Again and again, Lucretius links the point he is making to a specific scene: a horse halfway across a flowing river, sheep grazing in the meadow, trees rubbing in the wind, severed limbs twitching on the ground, lions going berserk in battle, garments hanging up beside the sea, huge dogs playing with their pups, a cow searching for her slaughtered calf, the appearance of oars above and below the water, stars glimmering in the heavens, a race horse in the starting gate, the build up of clouds before a storm, and on and on. Such experiences, the style of the poem insists, are much more important than any explanations we might try to come up with to account for them. Lucretius clearly does not wish to subsume the particularity of our sense perceptions under some universal principle (hence, all mechanical explanations which satisfy our sense experience are equally correct). It’s as if he wants our interaction with nature to be specific, local, individual—anything but some exemplification of a general rule. This desire, of course, sets him at odds with the driving impetus of modern science, whose entire endeavour is to subordinate the particular experience to the general law.
Now this last point is an important reason why the poetic quality of a translation matters. Lucretius is often accused of being extremely pessimistic, thanks especially to his emphatic assertions about the destruction of the world and the eventual dissolution of everything in our cosmos (to say nothing of the final section on the plague in Athens). In addition, his poem frequently calls attention to the destructive effects of natural processes (earthquakes, whirlwinds, floods, and so on) and to the mutability of everything. Yes, such passages provide plenty of material for some gloomy reflections. But offsetting this is the enormous delight he communicates in his pictures of the natural world and the confident joy he expresses in thinking about it as a source of unending activity, beauty, sublimity, and power. Like Socrates in Plato’s early dialogues, Lucretius is urging us to have the courage to reorient our priorities to nature and to our own lives, and (again, like Socrates) the most persuasive means he has at his disposal is an insight into his own intense convictions and his determined courage in the face of an unpredictable, powerful, dynamic, and dangerous but always fascinating world.
At times one even gets the impression that Lucretius wants us to reach an understanding of nature through our particular perceptions of natural phenomena on a case by case basis. His materialistic atomic theory and his two guiding principles (sense experience and reason) will give us the tools to carry out such a task, so that we can then share the enthusiasm he feels by looking all around us with a heightened sensitivity to the wonders of nature. Serres makes much of the fact that Lucretius at times uses the word foedus (meaning treaty) to describe this relationship: rather than seeking out and imposing universal laws on our experience of nature, we should begin and end with our perceptions and, as it were, arrive at an understanding by some mutual negotiation with nature. Whether this qualifies as a scientific stance is, I suppose, open to debate—it certainly flies in the face of our accepted notions of what science is all about—but it is a call to reorient the way we look at, comprehend, and feel about the world and about ourselves. If we need a “proof” of the value of such a stance before signing on, we find it, not in the scientific or philosophical arguments, but in the character of the narrator of the poem, in the intense confidence, resolution, and delight he reveals in contemplating this vision of the nature of things.
A COMMENT ON THE INFLUENCE OF LUCRETIUS
I have referred above to the significant impact Lucretius has had on all sorts of developments in our culture, up to and including the present day. I have no wish to offer a detailed or comprehensive account of that influence, even if I had the time and expertise to do so. Still, one should, I think, at least pay tribute to that aspect of the poem, if only by suggesting that readers interested in the subject consult the recently published Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, a collection of essays in which scholars well versed in the subject offer, among other things, a fascinating glimpse of those who have paid tribute to the shaping influence of Lucretius on them and their works.
The Latin text of Lucretius was first published as a printed book around 1473, and the first English translation, by a “Puritan blue-stocking,” Lucy Hutchinson, appeared in the mid 17th century (Taylor). Since the first appearance of the Latin text in print, the list of those who have acknowledged Lucretius as an important influence reads like a Who’s Who of Western Culture. It includes, as one might expect, those who welcome the poet’s attacks on organized religion and endorsement of reason and sense experience in pursuit of a life of moderate pleasure (e.g., Voltaire, Diderot, Hume) but it also includes pious Catholics (e. g. Gassendi), who seem to have experienced little difficulty with the anti-religious sentiments in the poem, leading Romantic poets (e. g., Wordsworth, Shelley), and a slew of nineteenth-century figures (e. g., Arnold, Tennyson, Marx, Fitzgerald, Pater, Whitman, Goethe), among many, many others. Thomas Jefferson, it seems, owned eight copies of On the Nature of Things, declared himself a firm disciple of Epicurus, and may have derived that phrase “pursuit of happiness,” at least in part, from his reading of Lucretius (Hamilton). The poem’s influence, according to Stuart Gillespie and Donald Mackenzie, can be linked to a range of twentieth-century poets and philosophers. So pervasive is its presence in the intellectual climate that for one critic at least (Stuart Gillespie) Charles Darwin’s claim that he had not read Lucretius is rather like Milton’s claiming that he had not read Genesis.
One figure in this tradition who obviously stands out is Montaigne, who was immersed in Latin as a child and grew up with the great Latin classics as his constant companions. Montaigne knew Lucretius backwards, quotes him more than any other classical author, and covered his copy of Lucretius’ text with his own annotations. Of course, there are some obvious differences between the two thinkers, for Montaigne has a much more skeptical, ironic, and wry imagination than Lucretius does, but for all that there is a great deal in Lucretius which Montaigne finds to his liking, especially the brave resolve to live with the pleasures which are possible and to turn away from the storms of political life and religious controversies in very uncertain times, relying upon reason and sense experience of nature as a guide. If we remember that Montaigne has exercised a decisive influence on the education of French students for hundreds of years, we can better appreciate how a leading modern European intellectual like Michel Serres, who hails Montaigne as his “father,” is also an ardent defender and brilliant interpreter of Lucretius.
LIST OF WORKS CITED
Bailey, Cyril, translator. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910.
Copley, Frank O., translator. Lucretius, The Nature of Things. New York: Norton, 1977. (Sample here)
Gowers, Emily. “Thoroughly modern Lucretius.” Times Literary Supplement, October 1, 2008 (available here).
Englert, Walter, translator. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2003. (Sample here).
Esolen, Anthony M., editor and translator. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. (Sample here)
Gillespie, Stuart and Philip Hardie, editors. The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007.
Green, W. C. The Iliad of Homer with a Verse Translation. London: Longmans, 1884.
Hamilton, Carol V. “The Surprising Origins and Meaning of the ‘Pursuit of Happiness.” George Mason University’s History News Network 1-28-07. (Availablehere)
Johnson, Monte and Catherine Wilson. “Lucretius and the history of science.” In The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius. Edited Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 131-148.
Taylor, Margaret E. Review of Cosmo Alexander Gordon. A Bibliography of Lucretius. London: Hart-Davis, 1962. In The American Journal of Philology, Volume 87, No. 2 (April 1966), p. 253. (Available here)