Titus Lucretius Carus: On the Nature of Things
(De Rerum Natura)
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1997

Acknowledgement: Prepared from the Sphere Library book, translated Martin Ferguson Smith 1969.

Overall Impression: This is an interesting work to read, useful for promoting understanding of classical Epicureanism.

Notes mostly extracted from the text: Lucretius' only extant work, written in dactylic hexameter, addressed to Gaius Memmius (who became praetor in 58 BC and failed to be converted) , written c. 59 BC, possibly incomplete and lacking final revision. He faithfully reproduces the doctrines or Epicurus. Epicurus was born in Samos 341 BC, after Athens had been defeated by Philip II of Macedon. Most of his writings have perished, particularly On Nature. Lucretius regarded him as the spiritual savior of mankind. Epicureanism was a missionary philospohy, aiming to give man happiness by making him self-sufficient. Its key teachings included: Study science in order to rid yourself of unneccesary fears, especially of the gods and death. Sensation is the basis of all knowledge. Pleasure that leads to pain shoul be avoided and pain that leads to pleasure should not be avoided. Pleasure means freedom from pain in the body and trouble in the mind. Not all desires are to be satisfied. Most pleasure is to be obtained by living a simple life.


Book I

Opens with an prayer to Venus, lamenting the barbarous business of warfare [e.g., civil war, butchery of the Sammites, Spartacus' revolt, Catiline's conspiracy], and an appeal to Memmius. 

Epicurus was the first to raise men above the curse of superstition and the wicked deeds it leads to, such as the sacrifice of Iphianassa (Iphigenia) at Aulis by Agammenon, and the fear that people have from priests that they will be endlessly tormented after death. 

"Nothing ever springs miraculously from nothing... all are formed from fixed seeds... Any given thing possesses a distinct creative capacity... In every case, growth is a gradual process... Things are created from a definite, appointed substance... All things are composed of imperishable seeds... No visible object ever suffers total destruction, since nature renews one thing from another, and does not sanction the birth of anything, unless she receives the compensation of another's death."

Matter exists in the form of invisible particles, e.g. the particles of the wind, of odors, cold, sound. Wearing down of objects is accompanied by a loss of substance which is invisible. Empty space (void) exists. Lighter objects contain more void within. "The universe, in its essential nature is composed of two things, namely matter and the void... All predictable things are either properties or accidents of matter and void... Time has no independent existence; rather from events themselves is derived a sense of what has occurred in time past, of what is happening at the present, and of what is to follow in the future..."

"Two kinds of bodies are to be distinguished: there are primary elements of things, and objects compounded of primary elements [atoms]. As for the primary elements, no force has power to extinguish them... The ultimate particles are solid and contain no void... They must of necessity be everlasting. Their bodies must consist of unchanging substance..." The atoms, though indivisible, have parts which cannot have an independent existence. In contrast to Heraclitus, fire is not the ultimate substance, nor are there just the four elements championed by Empedocles. etc. Also criticizes the views of Anaxagoras . Lucretius wishes to make the Epicurean philosophy he is teaching more palatable, to "coat it with the sweet honey of the Muses". The atoms are infinite in number and the void is infinite in extent, as is the universe. "The ultimate particles are assuredly given no respite from movement, because there is no bottom at all where they can congregate and settle... The universe has nothing beyond to bound it... Everywhere lies open to things, infinite in every direction on every side... Since the universe is infinite, there can be no center... 

Book II

Benefits of Epicurean philosophy: "..Nothing is more blissful than to occupy the heights effectively fortified by the teachings of the wise... The mind, divorced from anxiety and fear, may enjoy a feeling of contentment. And so the nature of the body evidently is such that it needs few things, namely those which banish pain and, in so doing, succeed in bestowing pleasures in plenty... Life is one long struggle in the gloom... This terrifying darkness that enshrouds the mind must be dispelled not by the sun's rays and the dazzling darts of day, but by the study of the superficial aspect and underlying principle of nature."

All atoms are in constant motion-- "... those which are concentrated in closer union and rebound only a very short distance apart, entangled by the interlacement of their own shapes, for the basis of tough rock..." The movement of the particles of matter can be very fast, even faster than sunlight. "... The world was by no means created for us by divine agency: it is marked by such serious flaws." All bodies are drawn downwards by their weight, but follow a somewhat swerving path that allows them to come in contact with each other. "All the ultimate particles lie far beneath the range of our senses... their movements too must be hidden from sight..." There is a great variety of atomic shapes, which account for the different characteristics of compound bodies such as viscosity, transparency, hardness, and other sensations they can produce. E.g., the rough particles in brine cause pain. The number of atomic shapes is limited, though the atoms of each shape are infinite in number. The forces of creation and destruction are evenly balanced. "No object whose substance is plainly visible consists only of one class of atom." Digression on the cult of the Great Mother (Cybele). Compound bodies consist of a mixture of different types of atoms, which cannot unite arbitrarily in any combination. The particles of matter (atoms) are colorless and devoid of sensation, but the compounds derived from them can impart sensation. "Death does not destroy things so completely that it annihilates the constituent elements: it merely dissolves their union. Then it joins them in fresh combinations, and so causes all things to alter their forms and change their colors, to acquire sensation and resign it in an instant... You must not imagine that the fluctuating qualities which we perceive on the surface of things, sporadically appearing and suddenly disappearing, are permanently inherent in the ultimate particles."

There are many worlds in nature and they are not controlled intimately by the gods: "Under no circumstances must it be considered likely that this one earth and heaven alone has been formed and that those particles of matter outside it achieve nothing... You must acknowledge the existence elsewhere of other aggregations of matter similar to this world of ours... In the totality of created things there is nothing solitary; everything belongs to some family, and each species has very many members... You can see that nature is her own mistress and is exempt from the oppression of arrogant despots, accomplishing everything by herself, spontaneously and independently, free from the jurisdiction of the gods. For-- and here I call to witness the sacred, peacefully tranquil minds of the gods, who pass placid days and a life of calm-- who has the power to rule the entirety of the immeasurable." 
The world grew and now declines. "All things gradually decay and head for the reef of destruction, exhausted by the long lapse of time." 

Book III

Eulogy on Epicurus. "You are my father and the discoverer of truth... I feed on each golden saying. Plainly visible are the gods in their majesty, and their calm realms... All the needs of the gods are sullied by nature, and nothing at any time detracts from their peace of mind..."

We must banish fear of death. Men are driven to seek wealth in part because of a fear of death. "The ignominy of humble position and the sting of penury are considered to be incompatible with a life of enjoyment and security... The mind, or the intelligence, as we often term it, in which the reasoning and the governing principle of life resides, is part of a person no less than the hand and foot... Mind and soul are intimately connected, and together from a single substance... the mind or intelligence has its seat fixed in the middle of the breast-- the rest of the soul-substance is disseminated through all the body... Mind and soul consist of material substance... The mind is exceedingly subtle, being composed of the minutest particles." The mind and the soul consist of four substances: heat, calm air, and chill breath as well as a nameless subtle substance. Body and soul are united firmly even in the womb. The mind is more essential to life than the soul. The mind and soul are subject to birth and death. "The mind is born with the body, develops with it, and declines with it." The mind feels pain and is therefore mortal. It is affected by the body and can be cured by medicine. The mind cannot exists without the body and both must live in union. The soul suffers dissolution at death. "Divorced from the body, the soul cannot have either eyes or nose or hands or tongue or ears, and therefore cannot possess either sentience or life." If the soul were immortal, we should have some recollection of our earlier existence, which we do not. Other arguments against the immortality of the soul. "Death, then, is nothing to us... When we are no more, when body and soul, upon whose union our being depends, are divorced, you may be sure that nothing at all will have the power to affect us or awaken sensation in us, who shall not then exist..." "We have no recollection of our earlier existence; for between that life and this lies an unbridged gap-- an interval during which all the motions of our atoms strayed and scattered in all directions, far away from sensation." "We have nothing to fear in death, that one who no longer exists cannot become miserable, and that it makes not one speck of difference whether or not he has ever been born, once his mortal life has been snatched away..." It is futile to mourn the dead, since it involves "a return to sleep and repose...". In death there is no longing for sensual pleasures. Nature rebukes those who complain about death. Hell and its torments exist only in our life. Why should you hesitate to die, since far greater men have died before you? Restlessness and discontent can only be banished by studying the nature of things. Why cling to life, when death is inevitable and will be eternal?

Book IV

Vision is caused by fine films emitted by objects. Optical phenomena. Hearing, speech, sounds, taste, smell. The mind perceives mental pictures that do not always exist. Dreams... Sleep. 

The cause of sexual desire. The stirring of the seed, which concentrates in the groin and arouses the genitals. Men fall towards their wound, in this case the dart of Venus. Sexual love is dangerous and futile. "You should cast the accumulated seed into any woman's body rather than reserve it for a single lover who monopolizes you, and thus involve yourself in inevitable anxiety and anguish... The pleasure of intercourse is purer for the healthy-minded than for the love-sick... Lovers are in love deluded by Venus with images: no matter how intently they gaze at the beloved body, they cannot sate their eyes; nor can they remove anything from the velvety limbs which they explore with roving, uncertain hands... It is all in vain, since they cannot take away anything from their lover's body, nor wholly penetrate it and merge into it... [After orgasm] there is a brief respite in their raging passion. Then the same madness returns... the lover consumes his strength and is exhausted by the strain... Meanwhile his fortune melts away... his reputation totters..." When love is unrequited, the misery is countless. Men are blinded by passion to the faults of their beloved. Female sexual passion can be real, however. Mechanisms of heredity and infertility. Preferred sexual position. How a plain woman can win love. 

Book V

Another Eulogy of Epicurus. The components of the world-- earth, sea, sky-- are destined to be destroyed. The earth and the heavenly bodies are neither alive nor divine. The gods do not inhabit our world: "The nature of the gods is so tenuous, and so far removed from our senses, that it is scarcely perceptible even to the mind; and, since it eludes the touch and impact of our hands, it cannot touch anything that is tangible to us... For what benefit could immortal and blessed beings derive from our gratitude, that they should undertake to do anything for our sake? What new occurrence could induce them, after such ages of tranquillity, to desire to change their former mode of life... The world was by no means created for us by divine agency: it is marked by such serious flaws... wild beasts... torrid heat... perpetual frost... diseases". The four component elements of the world (earth, water, air and fire) are mortal and therefore the whole world is mortal. The recency of history indicates the world is young and had a beginning. The world will someday be destroyed. The formation of different parts of the world: the ether, the heavenly bodies. The earth remains at rest in the middle of the world. The orbits of the heavenly bodies. Night, dawn, variation in length of day and night, phases of the moon, eclipses. The beginning of life and the eventual cessation of earth's fertility. "Nothing remains constant: everything is in flux; everything is altered by nature and compelled to change. As one thing decays and declines with age, another thrives and emerges from obscurity. In this way, time alters the nature of the world..." Many defective creatures were made... the survival of the fittest. Fabulous hybrid monsters could never have existed. Primitive man. Beginnings of civilization. The origin of language, of fire, monarchies. "And yet, if a man were to guide his life by true principles, great wealth consists in living on a little with a contented mind; for of a little there is never a lack." Property, evil consequences of riches. The causes of beliefs in the gods. The miseries caused by erroneous beliefs concerning the nature of the gods. Metals. Iron. War. Weaving. Agriculture. Music. Seasons. Art. 

Book VI

Another eulogy to Epicurus and the "godlike nature of his discoveries". His plan is to explain certain "terrestrial and celestial phenomena which, when observed by mortals, make them perplexed and panic-stricken, and abuse their minds with dread of the gods..." Thunder. Lightning. Thunderbolts are not instruments of the gods. Waterspouts and whirlwinds. Clouds. "We see rivers and the earth itself exhale mists and vapors. These exhalations, which are expelled like breath, are carried upwards, and overspread the sky with a veil of darkness, gradually uniting to form the clouds on high". Rain and rainbow. Earthquakes. Volcanic eruptions. The rise of the Nile in summer. Toxic lakes. Springs. Magnets. Pestilences. The plague of Athens.