On the Nature of Things by Titus Corus Lucretius

I.—The Invocation and the Theme

Mother of Romans, joy of men and gods, Kind Venus, who 'neath gliding signs of heaven Dost haunt the main where sail our argosies, Dost haunt the land that yieldeth crops of grain, Since 'tis of thee that every kind of breath Is born and riseth to behold the light; Before Thee, Lady, flit the winds; and clouds Part at thine advent, and deft-fingered earth Yields Thee sweet blooms; for Thee the sea hath smiles, And heaven at peace doth gleam with floods of light. Soon as the fair spring face of day is shown And zephyr kind to birth is loosed in strength; First do the fowls of air give sign of Thee, Lady, and of Thy entrance, smit at heart By power of Thine. Then o'er the pastures glad The wild herds bound, and swim the rapid streams. Thy glamour captures them, and yearningly They follow where Thou willest to lead on. Yea, over seas and hills and sweeping floods, And leafy homes of birds and grassy leas, Striking fond love into the heart of all, Thou mak'st each race desire to breed its kind. Since Thou dost rule alone o'er nature's realm, Since without Thee naught wins the hallowed shores Of light, and naught is glad, and naught is fair, Fain would I crave Thine aid for poesy Which seeks to grasp the essence of the world.  On the high system of the heavens and gods I will essay to speak, and primal germs Reveal, whence nature giveth birth to all, And growth and nourishment, and unto which Nature resolves them back when quite outworn. These, when we treat their system, we are wont To view as "matter," "bodies which produce," And name them "seeds of things," "first bodies" too, Since from them at the first all things do come.

THE TYRANNY OF RELIGION AND THE REVOLT OF EPICURUS

When human life lay foully on the earth Before all eyes, 'neath Superstition crushed, Who from the heavenly quarters showed her head And with appalling aspect lowered on men, Then did a Greek dare first lift eyes to hers—  First brave her face to face. Him neither myth Of gods, nor thunderbolt; nor sky with roar And threat could quell; nay, chafed with more resolve His valiant soul that he should yearn to be First man to burst the bars of nature's gates. So vivid verve of mind prevailed. He fared Far o'er the flaming ramparts of the world, And traversed the immeasurable All In mind and soul: and thence a conqueror Returns to tell what can, what cannot rise, And on what principle each thing, in brief, Hath powers defined and deep-set boundary. Religion, then, is cast to earth in turn And trampled. Triumph matches man with heaven.

The profoundest speculations on the nature of things are not impious. Let not the reader feel that in such an inquiry he is on guilty ground. It is, rather, true that religion has caused foul crimes. An instance is the agonising sacrifice of sweet Iphigenia, slain at the altar to appease divine wrath.

"Religion could such wickedness suggest." Tales of eternal punishment frighten only those ignorant of the real nature of the soul. This ignorance can be dispelled by inquiring into the phenomena of heaven and earth, and stating the laws of nature.

II.—First Principles and a Theory of the Universe

Of these the first is that nothing is made of nothing; the second, that nothing is reduced to nothing. This indestructibility of matter may be illustrated by the joyous and constantly renewed growth that is in nature. There are two fundamental postulates required to explain nature—atoms and void. These constitute the universe. There is no tertium quid. All other things are but properties and accidents of these two. Atoms are solid, "without void"; they are indestructible, "eternal"; they are indivisible. To appreciate the physical theory of Epicurus, it is necessary to note the erroneous speculations of other Greek thinkers, whether, like Heraclitus, they deduced all things from one such fundamental element as fire, or whether they postulated four elements. From a criticism of the theories of Empedocles and Anaxagoras, the poet, return to the main subject.

A HARD TASK AND THREEFOLD TITLE TO FAME

How dark my theme, I know within my mind; Yet hath high hope of praise with thyrsus keen  Smitten my heart and struck into my breast Sweet passion for the Muses, stung wherewith In lively thought I traverse pathless haunts Pierian, untrodden yet by man. I love to visit those untasted springs And quaff; I love to cull fresh blooms, and whence The Muses never veiled the brows of man To seek a wreath of honour for my head: First, for that lofty is the lore I teach; Then, cramping knots of priestcraft I would loose; And next because of mysteries I sing clear, Decking my poems with the Muses' charm.

This sweetening of verse with: "the honey of the Muses" is like disguising unpalatable medicine for children. The mind must be engaged by attractive means till it perceives the nature of the world.

As to the existing universe, it is bounded in none of its dimensions; matter and space are infinite. All things are in continual motion in every direction, and there is an endless supply of material bodies from infinite space. These ultimate atoms buffet each other ceaselessly; they unite or disunite. But there is no such thing as design in their unions. All is fortuitous concourse; so there are innumerable blind experiments and failures in nature, due to resultless encounters of the atoms.

CALM OF MIND IN RELATION TO A TRUE THEORY OF THE UNIVERSE

When tempests rack the mighty ocean's face, How sweet on land to watch the seaman's toil— Not that we joy in neighbour's jeopardy, But sweet it is to know what ills we 'scape. How sweet to see war's mighty rivalries Ranged on the plains—without thy share of risk. Naught sweeter than to hold the tranquil realms On high, well fortified by sages' lore, Whence to look down on others wide astray— Lost wanderers questing for the way of life— See strife of genius, rivalry of rank, See night and day men strain with wondrous toil To rise to utmost power and grasp the world.

Man feels an imperious craving to shun bodily pain and secure mental pleasure. But the glitter of luxury at the banquets of the rich cannot satisfy this craving: there are the simpler joys of the open country in spring. But the fact is, no magnificence can save the body from pain or the mind from apprehensions. The genuine remedy lies in knowledge alone.

Not by the sunbeams nor clear shafts of day, Needs then dispel this dread, this gloom of soul, But by the face of nature and its plan.

PROPERTIES OF ATOMS

Particles are constantly being transferred from one thing to another, though the sum total remains constant. In the light hereof may be understood the uninterrupted waxing and waning of things, and the perpetual succession of existence.

Full soon the broods of living creatures change, Like runners handing on the lamp of life.

Greater or less solidity depends on the resilience of atoms. Their ceaseless motion is illustrated by the turmoil of motes in a stream of sunlight let into a dark room. As to their velocity, it greatly exceeds that of the sun's rays. This welter of atoms is the product of chance; the very blemishes of the world forbid one to regard it as divine. But the atoms do not rain through space in rigidly parallel lines. A minute swerve in their motion is essential to account for clashings and production; and in the ethical sphere it is this swerve which saves the mind from "Necessity" and makes free will possible. Though the universe appears to be at rest, this is a fallacy of the senses, due to the fact that the motions of "first bodies" are not cognisable by our eyes; indeed, a similar phenomenon is the apparent vanishing of motion due to distance; for a white spot on a far-off hill may really be a frolicsome lamb.

Oft on a hillside, cropping herbage rich, The woolly flocks creep on whithersoe'er The grass bejewelled with fresh dew invites, And full-fed lambs disport and butt in play— All this to eyes at distance looks a blur; On the green hill the white spot seems at rest.

The shapes of atoms vary; and so differences of species, and differences within the same species, arise. This variety in shape accounts, too, for the varying action and effects of atoms. Atoms in hard bodies, for example, are mainly hooked; but in liquids mainly smooth. In each thing, however, there are several kinds,  which furnish that particular thing with a variety of properties. Furthermore, atoms are colourless, for in themselves they are invisible; they never come into the light, whereas colour needs light—witness the changing hues of the down on a pigeon's neck, or of a peacock's tail. Atoms are themselves without senses, though they produce things possessed of senses. To grasp the origin of species and development of animate nature, one must realise the momentous importance of the arrangement and interconnection of atoms. Wood and other rotting bodies will bring forth worms, because material particles undergo, under altered conditions, fresh permutations and combinations. One may ask, what of man? He can laugh and weep, he can discuss the composition of all things, and even inquire into the nature of those very atoms! It is true that he springs from them. Yet a man may laugh without being made of laughing atoms, and a man may reason without being made of reasonable atoms!

EPICURUS AND THE GODS

O thou that from gross darkness first didst lift A torch to light the path to happiness, I follow thee, thou glory of the Greeks! And in thy footsteps firmly plant my steps, Not bent so much to rival as for love To copy. Why should swallow vie with swan? Thou, father, art discoverer of things, Enriching us with all a father's lore; And, famous master, from thy written page, As bees in flowery dells sip every bloom, So hold we feast on all thy golden words— Golden, most worthy, aye, of lasting life. Soon as thy reasoning, sprung from mind inspired, Hath loud proclaimed the mystery of things, The mind's fears flee, the bulwarks of the world Part, and I see things work throughout the void. Then Godhead is revealed in homes of calm, Which neither tempests shake nor clouds with rain Obscure, nor snow by piercing frost congealed Mars with white fall, but ever cloudless air Wraps in a smile of generous radiancy. There nature, too, supplieth every want, And nothing ever lessens peace of mind.

III.—Of Mind and Soul and Death

Mind and soul are portions of the body. While mind is the ruling element, they are both of the nature of the body—only they are composed of exceedingly minute and subtle atoms capable of marvellous speed. Therefore, when death deprives the body of mind, it does not make the body appreciably lighter.

It is as if a wine had lost its scent, Or breath of some sweet perfume had escaped.

Mind and soul consist of spirit, air, heat, and an elusive fourth constituent, the nimblest and subtlest of essences, the very "soul of the soul." It follows that mind and soul are mortal. Among many proofs may be adduced their close interconnection with the body, as seen in cases of drunkenness and epilepsy; their curability by medicine; their inability to recall a state prior to their incarnation; their liability to be influenced by heredity like corporeal seeds. Besides, why should an immortal soul need to quit the body at death? Decay surely could not hurt immortality! Then, again, imagine souls contending for homes in a body about to be born! Consequently, the soul being mortal, death has no sting.

To us, then, death is nothing—matters naught, Since mortal is the nature of the mind, E'en as in bygone time we felt no grief When Punic conflict hemmed all Rome around. When, rent by war's dread turbulence, the world Shuddered and quaked beneath the heaven's high realm, So when we are no more, when soul and frame Of which we are compact, have been divorced, Be sure, to us, who then shall be no more, Naught can occur or ever make us feel, Not e'en though earth were blent with sea and sky.

Men in general forget that death, in ending life's pleasures, also ends the need and the desire for them.

"Soon shall thy home greet thee in joy no more, Nor faithful wife nor darling children run To snatch first kiss, and stir within thy heart Sweet thoughts too deep for words. Thou canst no more Win wealth by working or defend thine own. 
The pity of it! One fell hour," they say, "Hath robbed thee of thine every prize in life." Hereat they add not this: "And now thou art Beset with yearning for such things no more."

The dead are to be envied, not lamented. The wise will exclaim: "Thou, O dead, art free from pain: we who survive are full of tears."

"What is so passing bitter," we should ask, "If life be rounded by a rest and sleep, That one should pine in never-ending grief?"

Universal nature has a rebuke for the coward that is afraid to die. There are no punishments beyond. Hell and hell's tortures are in this life. It is the victim of passion or of gnawing cares that is the real victim of torment.

IV—The World's Origin and Its Growth

Not by design did primal elements Find each their place as 'twere with forethought keen, Nor bargained what their movements were to be; But since the atom host in many ways Smitten by blows for infinite ages back, And by their weight impelled, have coursed along, Have joined all ways, and made full test of all The types which mutual unions could create, Therefore it is that through great time dispersed, With every kind of blend and motion tried, They meet at length in momentary groups Which oft prove rudiments of mighty things— Of earth, and sea, and sky, and living breeds.

Amidst this primeval medley of warring atoms there was no sun-disk to be discerned climbing the vault, no stars, or sea, or sky, or earth, or air—nothing, in fact, like what now exists. The next stage came when the several parts began to fly asunder, and like to join with like, so that the parts of the world were gradually differentiated. Heavier bodies combined in central chaos and forced out lighter elements to make ether. Thus earth was formed by a long process of condensation.

Daily, as ever more the ether-fires And sun-rays all around close pressed the earth With frequent blows upon its outer crust, Each impact concentrating it perforce, So was a briny sweat squeezed out the more With ooze to swell the sea and floating plains.

PRIMEVAL FERTILITY OF THE EARTH

At first the earth produced all kinds of herbs And verdant sheen o'er every hill and plain; The flowery meadows gleamed in hues of green, And soon the trees were gifted with desire To race unbridled in the lists of growth; As plumage, hair, and bristles are produced On limbs of quadrupeds or frame of birds, So the fresh earth then first put forth the grass And shrubs, and next gave birth to mortal breeds, Thick springing multiform in divers ways. The name of "Mother," then, earth justly won, Since from the earth all living creatures came. Full many monsters earth essayed to raise, Uprising strange of look and strange of limb, Hermaphrodites distinct from either sex, Some robbed of feet, and others void of hands, Or mouthless mutes, or destitute of eyes, Or bound by close adhesion of their limbs So that they could do naught nor move at all, Nor shun an ill, nor take what need required. All other kinds of portents earth did yield— In vain, since nature drove increase away, They could not reach the longed-for bloom of life, Nor find support, nor link themselves in love.

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST IN THE STRUGGLE FOR EXISTENCE

All things you see that draw the breath of life, Have been protected and preserved by craft,

Or speed, or courage, from their early years; And many beasts, which usefulness commends, Abide domesticated in our care.

The protective quality in such animals as lions is ferocity; in foxes, cunning; in stags, swiftness. Creatures without such natural endowments of defence or utility tend to be the prey of others, and so become extinct.

PRIMITIVE MAN

Primeval man was hardier in the fields, As fitted those that hardy earth produced, Built on a frame of larger, tougher bones And knit with powerful sinews in his flesh; Not likely to be hurt by heat or cold, Or change of food, or wasting pestilence. While many lustres of the sun revolved Men led a life of roving like the beasts. What sun or rain might give, or soil might yield Unforced, was boon enough to sate the heart. Oft 'neath the acorn-bearing oaks they found Their food; and arbute-berries, which you now In winter see turn ripe with scarlet hue, Of old grew greater in luxuriance. Through well known woodland haunts of nymphs they roamed, Wherefrom they saw the gliding water brook Bathe with a generous plash the dripping rocks— Those dripping rocks that trickled o'er green moss.

As yet mankind did not know how to handle fire, or to clothe themselves with the spoils of the chase; but dwelt in woods, or caves, or other random shelter found in stress of weather. Each man lived for himself, and might was right. The stone or club was used in hunting; but the cave-dwellers were in frequent danger of being devoured by beasts of prey. Still, savage mortality was no greater than that of modern times.

THE EVOLVING OF CIVILISATION

When men had got them huts and skins and fire, And woman joined with man to make a home,  And when they saw an offspring born from them, Then first began the softening of the race. Fire left them less inured with shivering frames To bear the cold 'neath heaven's canopy. Then neighbours turned to compacts mutual, Desirous nor to do nor suffer harm. They claimed for child and woman tenderness, Declaring by their signs and stammering cries That pity for the weak becometh all.

The rudiments of humane sentiments sprang, therefore, in prehistoric family life. Language was the gradual outcome of natural cries, not an arbitrary invention. The uses of fire were learned from the lightning-flash and from conflagrations due to spontaneous combustion or chance friction. In time this opened out the possibility of many arts, such as metal-working; for forest fires caused streams of silver, gold, copper, or lead to run into hollows, and early man observed that when cooled, the glittering lumps retained the mould of the cavities. Nature also was the model for sowing and grafting. Those who excelled in mental endowment invented new modes of life. Towns and strongholds were founded as places of defence; and possessions were secured by personal beauty, strength, or cleverness. But the access of riches often ousted the claims of both beauty and strength.

For men, though strong and fair to look upon, Oft follow in the retinue of wealth.

Religious feelings were fostered by visions and dreams; marvellous shapes to which savage man ascribed supernatural powers. Recurrent appearances of such shapes induced a belief in their continuous existence: so arose the notion of gods that live for ever.

Our navigation, tillage, walls, and laws, Our armour, roads, and dress, and such-like boons, And every elegance of modern life, Poems and pictures, statues deftly wrought, All these men learned with slow advancing steps From practice and the knowledge won by wit. So by degrees time brings each thing to sight, And reason raiseth it to realms of day. In arts must one thing, then another, shine, Until they win their full development.

 
 To the Roman poet Titus Corus Lucretius (99-55 B.C.) belongs the distinction of having made Epicureanism epic. Possessed by a desire to free his fellow men from the trammels of superstition and the dread of death, he composed his poem, "On the Nature of Things." His reasonings were based on the atomic theory, which the Greek Epicurus had taken as the physical side of his system. In natural law Lucretius found the true antidote to superstition, and from a materialistic hypothesis of atoms and void he deduced everything. Against the futilities of myth-religion he protested with the fervour of an evangelist. On the ethical side, he accepted from Epicurus the conception that the ideal lies in pleasure—not wild, sensual pleasure, but that calm of mind which comes from temperate and refined enjoyment, subdual of extravagant passion, and avoidance of political entanglements. It is appropriate that the life of this apostle of scientific quietism should be involved in obscurity. The story of his insanity, so beautifully treated by Tennyson, may or may not be true. It is hardly credible that a work so closely reasoned was, as a whole, composed in lucid intervals between fits of madness; but, on the other hand, there are signs of flagging in the later portions, and the work comes to a sudden conclusion. The translations are specially made by Prof. J. Wight Duff, and include a few extracts from his "Literary History of Rome."

Arthur Mee J. A. Hammerton