Lucretius, On the Nature of Things (1st century B.C.)
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|Lucretius, On the Nature of Things.|
|William Ellery Leonard|
|MIT Internet Classics Archive. Commentary at Classics Technology Center.|
In De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), the poet Lucretius (ca. 50 BC) fused the atomic theory of Democritus and Leucippus with the philosophy of Epicurus in order to argue against the existence of the gods. While ordinary humans might fear the thunderbolts of Jove or torments in the underworld after death, Lucretius advised his readers to take courage in the knowledge that death is merely a dissolution of the body, as atoms combine and reassemble according to chance as they move through the void. Against the Stoics, Aristotelians, and Neoplatonists, Lucretius argued for a mechanistic universe governed by chance. He also argued for a plurality of worlds (and these planets, like the Earth, need not be spherical) and a non-hierarchical universe. Despite the paucity of ancient readers persuaded by Lucretius' arguments, his work was almost universally admired as a masterful example of Latin style.
In the right column below are study questions corresponding to the four excerpts from Lucretius. Consider these questions as you read in order to gauge your understanding of the text. Hint: You may want to print this page and mark the key words and phrases relevant to these questions.
|1|| And there shall come the time when even thou,
Forced by the soothsayer's terror-tales, shalt seek
To break from us. Ah, many a dream even now
Can they concoct to rout thy plans of life,
And trouble all thy fortunes with base fears.
I own with reason: for, if men but knew
Some fixed end to ills, they would be strong
By some device unconquered to withstand
Religions and the menacings of seers.
But now nor skill nor instrument is theirs,
Since men must dread eternal pains in death.
For what the soul may be they do not know,
Whether 'tis born, or enter in at birth,
And whether, snatched by death, it die with us,
Or visit the shadows and the vasty caves
Of Orcus, or by some divine decree
Enter the brute herds, as our Ennius sang, ...
Why is belief in the gods detrimental to human happiness, according to Lucretius?
|2||For since they wander through the void inane,
All the primordial germs of things must needs
Be borne along, either by weight their own,
Or haply by another's blow without.
For, when, in their incessancy so oft
They meet and clash, it comes to pass amain
They leap asunder, face to face: not strange-
Being most hard, and solid in their weights,
And naught opposing motion, from behind.
And that more clearly thou perceive how all
These mites of matter are darted round about,
Recall to mind how nowhere in the sum
Of All exists a bottom,- nowhere is
A realm of rest for primal bodies; since
(As amply shown and proved by reason sure)
Space has no bound nor measure, and extends
Unmetered forth in all directions round.
|Did Lucretius accept the idea of celestial spheres, or did he conceive of space as extending an infinite distance in all directions?|
|3||Linked by their own all intertangled shapes,-
These form the irrefragable roots of rocks
And the brute bulks of iron, and what else
Is of their kind...
The rest leap far asunder, far recoil,
Leaving huge gaps between: and these supply
For us thin air and splendour-lights of the sun.
And many besides wander the mighty void-
Cast back from unions of existing things,
Nowhere accepted in the universe,
And nowise linked in motions to the rest.
|How did Lucretius explain why atoms may combine to make larger bodies?|
|4||For thou wilt mark here many a speck, impelled
By viewless blows, to change its little course,
And beaten backwards to return again,
Hither and thither in all directions round.
Lo, all their shifting movement is of old,
From the primeval atoms; for the same
Primordial seeds of things first move of self,
And then those bodies built of unions small
And nearest, as it were, unto the powers
Of the primeval atoms, are stirred up
By impulse of those atoms' unseen blows,
And these thereafter goad the next in size;
Thus motion ascends from the primevals on,
And stage by stage emerges to our sense,
Until those objects also move which we
Can mark in sunbeams, though it not appears
What blows do urge them.
Herein wonder not
How 'tis that, while the seeds of things are all
Moving forever, the sum yet seems to stand
Supremely still, except in cases where
A thing shows motion of its frame as whole.
For far beneath the ken of senses lies
The nature of those ultimates of the world;
And so, since those themselves thou canst not see,
Their motion also must they veil from men-
For mark, indeed, how things we can see, oft
Yet hide their motions, when afar from us
Along the distant landscape. Often thus,
Upon a hillside will the woolly flocks
Be cropping their goodly food and creeping about
Whither the summons of the grass, begemmed
With the fresh dew, is calling, and the lambs
Well filled, are frisking, locking horns in sport:
Yet all for us seem blurred and blent afar-
A glint of white at rest on a green hill.
Again, when mighty legions, marching round,
Fill all the quarters of the plains below,
Rousing a mimic warfare, there the sheen
Shoots up the sky, and all the fields about
Glitter with brass, and from beneath, a sound
Goes forth from feet of stalwart soldiery,
And mountain walls, smote by the shouting, send
The voices onward to the stars of heaven,
And hither and thither darts the cavalry,
And of a sudden down the midmost fields
Charges with onset stout enough to rock
The solid earth: and yet some post there is
Up the high mountains, viewed from which they seem
To stand- a gleam at rest along the plains.
How did Lucretius explain the motions of dust in a beam of sunlight according to atomic theory?
Give one argument presented by Lucretius for the existence of atoms too small to be seen by the human eye.
What do the examples of grazing sheep and armies on maneuvers illustrate?
Do you have a great quote for this page? Let me know! (If used, a new quote is worth 1 point extra credit)
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