Lucretius, My Reflection

A few months ago I don't remember how I learned about a poem written in Ancient Greece called De Rerum Natura - On the Nature of Things - by Titus Lucretius Carus.  Lucretius lived ca. 99 BCE - 55 BCE and his only known work is this long and wonderful poem.

You can get it for free from Project Gutenberg (and in Latin and English at the Perseus Project), but it's written in Old English, which I find challenging. So I never finished it. It was astounding but I had other books I had to read for my book club.

Then, speaking of my book club, a couple members suggested a book called The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt which is about the poem, Lucretius, and also the man who rediscovered it in 1417, Poggio Bracciolini. Poggio worked for the pope at the time and all the intrigue of the church is also talked about, which is fascinating.

I am less than halfway through the book, but so far I highly recommend it. It's interesting and inspiring.

On page 185, Greenblatt lists 20 elements that constituted the Lucretian challenge which he claims changed the world (once it was rediscovered by Poggio). To fully appreciate Lucretius I highly recommend reading the book, which is both fascinating and inspiring.

Briefly, here are the 20 elements. Remember, this was written before Christianity, over 2000 years ago.
  1. Everything is made of particles. These particles are immutable, indivisible, invisible, infinite in number, and constantly in motion.
  2. These elementary particles are eternal, indestructible and immortal. But all objects in the universe are transitory, and there is a ceaseless process of formation, dissolution, and redistribution. Time is infinite.
  3. While the particles are infinite in number, they are limited in size and shape. They fit together like the letters of an alphabet, according to a code. Some letters combine easily and others resist each other. But they form sentences in infinite variety. While Lucretius didn't claim to know the code, he said it could be investigated and understood by human science.
  4. Space, like time, is infinite. Matter is not packed together in a solid mass. There is a void in things, which allows the particles to move, collide, combine, and move apart. So the universe consists of the elementary particles and everything they combine to form, and empty, intangible space. Nothing else exists.
  5. The universe has no creator or designer. The patterns of order and disorder in the world are not the product of a divine scheme. Providence is a fantasy. There is no supreme choreographer planning the movements of the particles, but "because throughout the universe from time everlasting countless numbers of them, buffeted and impelled by blows, have shifted in countless ways, experimentation with every kind of movement and combination has at last resulted in arrangements such as those that created and compose our world. There is no end or purpose to existence, only ceaseless creation and destruction, governed entirely by chance." 
  6. Everything comes into being as the result of a swerve. "At absolutely unpredictable times and places they deflect slightly from their straight course, to a degree that could be described as no more than a shift of movement.” This tiny shift is enough to set off a ceaseless chain of collisions. Everything in the universe exists because of these random collisions of invisible particles.
  7. This swerve is the source of free will. (This element deserves a book in itself) Briefly explained, an outside force can  act on a  human, but that person can deliberately hold himself back from a predetermined action..
  8. Nature ceaselessly experiments. Basically, everything living has evolved through countless trials and errors and successful adaptations, which are just the result of a fantastic number of combinations over great expanses of time. Lucretius said“what has been created gives rise to its own function,” meaning, for example, were not created to fulfill a purpose. Their usefulness gradually enabled living things to survive and reproduce.
  9. The universe was not created for or about humans. In fact, there is no reason to believe that human beings as a species will last forever. There were other forms of life before us, which no longer exist, and there will be other forms of life after us, when our kind has vanished.
  10. Humans are not unique. We're made of the same stuff that everything else is made of. Each individual is unique, but thanks to the abundance of matter, the same is true of virtually all creatures.
  11. Human society began in a primitive battle for survival, not in a Paradise. (Note that this was pre-Christian, but Lucretius may have been writing about the Jews.) Early humans had a craving for security and struggled to master their natural enemies. That violent struggle was largely successful, "but the anxious, acquisitive, aggressive impulses have metastasized. In consequence, human beings characteristically develop weapons that turn against themselves."
  12. The soul dies. The human soul is made of tiny elements hidden within the body. When the body dies, the soul does as well.
  13. There is no afterlife. Life on this Earth is all that humans have.
  14. Death is nothing to us. When you are dead, the particles that linked together to create you disperse. End of story.
  15. All organized religions are superstitious delusions, which are based on deeply rooted longings, fears and ignorance. If you have an uncanny string of good or bad luck, or if nature does something destructive, there are natural explanations.
  16. Religions are invariably cruel. "The quintessential emblem of religion—and the clearest manifestation of the perversity that lies at its core—is the sacrifice of a child by a parent. Almost all religious faiths incorporate the myth of such a sacrifice, and some have actually made it real." (While Lucretius was writing about the Greek religion, he may have known about the Jewish religion as well. But this one is prescient in regards to Christianity, which began not long after he died.)
  17. There are no angels, demons, ghosts, or any kind of immaterial spirit.
  18. The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain. (Lucretius was a follower of Epicurus.) There is no ethical purpose higher than pursuing happiness for yourself and your fellow creatures. Man's natural needs are simple. A failure to recognize the boundaries of these needs leaves people to a vain and fruitless struggle for more and more.
  19. The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain but delusion. The principal enemies of human happiness are inordinate desire – the fantasy of attaining something that exceeds what the finite mortal world allows – and gnawing fear. It is perfectly reasonable to seek to avoid pain, but suffering wins when our natural aversion to pain turns to panic. Lucretius thought. Humans were unhappy because of the power of the imagination. They are deluded in thinking they are infinite beings, capable of infinite pain or pleasure. This leads to religion, where they imagine they can negotiate with the gods for a better outcome.
  20. Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder. Realizing all of the above does not lead to despair. Grasping the way things really are is a crucial step toward the possibility of happiness. We are not the center of the universe and it's not all about us. The exercise of reason leads to happiness and is accessible to everyone. It's necessary to refuse the lies of fantasy mongers and priests and look squarely and calmly at the true nature things. All speculation – science, morality, attempts to fashion a life worth living – must start and with the comprehension of the invisible particles and the void and nothing else. While it may seem that this would lead to a cold emptiness – the universe robbed of its magic – in fact one is liberated from harmful illusions. This is not the same as disillusionment. Knowing the way things are awakens the deepest wonder.
I highly recommend this book and Lucretius' poem (linked to above)
On the Nature of Things by Lucretius:
And for The Kindle


  1. Interesting, but I wonder if we're getting Lucretius through the sieve of an optimistic interpreter (Greenblatt), rather like the way Muslim apologists find all kinds of surprisingly up-to-date sciency things in the Koran.

  2. I'm sure some of Greenblatt's take is rose-colored. But I've actually read parts of the poem, and it's really in there. I'd highly recommend reading it. It's awesome. :)

  3. Lucretius was a Roman, not a Greek. He lived in a time where the Roman Republic was declining to eventually lead to the "dictatorships" (dictator was a legitimate position within the original schemes of republican government) of the 2 triumvirates. He was lucky enough to die before that final period, but he did get to see the log jam of Roman Politics start to destroy what ever decency there had been to thier political system. For a very enjoyable 15 or so podcast about the downfall of the Roman Republic I submit the following link:

  4. For those interested in a very good general history of Rome which will take up about 120 hours there is

    The guy who delivers this is a top notch scholar with a real in depth knowledge of the subject matter, with an occasional bit of satire.

    Your selections for response force me to post as anonymous.

  5. I am resubmitting a previous post with corrections and better formatting.

    Lucretius was a Roman, not a Greek. He lived in a time where the Roman Republic was declining to eventually lead to the "dictatorships" (dictator was a legitimate position within the original schemes of republican government) of the 2 triumvirates. He was lucky enough to die before that final period, but he did get to see the log jam of Roman Politics start to destroy what ever decency there had been to their political system. For a very enjoyable 15 hour or so podcast about the downfall of the Roman Republic I submit the following link: