LUCRETIUS

ca. 94-ca. 50 B.C.

Roman philosopher and poet

Lucretius, whose full name was Titus Lucretius Carus, is something of a mystery. His only known work is a long philosophical poem called De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things). Historians have discovered nothing about his family, his social status, or his life. Even the dates of his birth and death are only estimates based on the few scattered references to him in the writings of later Romans. Although some scholars have suggested that Lucretius was not a Roman, most believe that he was a well-educated Roman from a good family.

Lucretius’s poem explains and celebrates Epicureanism, a philosophy* that was based on the teachings of Epicurus, a Greek thinker of the 300s B.C. Most people of the time believed that the gods controlled or interfered in human affairs and that the soul, which continued to exist after death, could be punished for a person’s sins in life. The Epicureans, the people who followed Epicurus’s philosophy, departed from these views. They believed that the gods were calm, remote beings who took no interest in the human world, and that the universe, which contained many worlds, was governed by physical or mechanical laws. They also believed that the soul ceased to exist after death. To an Epicurean, the ideal life was one of simplicity and deep thought. Death was nothing to be feared, since it was merely the end of sensation. In his poem, Lucretius praises Epicurus’s wisdom, saying that Epicurus “Rescued our life from darkness and rough seas/And rested it in the unclouded light of peace.”

De rerum natura is 7,400 lines long and divided into six books, each with a prologue, or introductory section. The first two books set forth the basic principles of Epicureanism and the structure of the universe as the Epicureans understood it. Book 2 ends with a declaration that all things, including the world itself, must someday die: “All must age, and fade, and make/ That universal pilgrimage to the grave.”

The third and fourth books deal with the human soul and mind. Book 3 tells how the soul is made and how it dies. Lucretius argues that people should accept death as inevitable and not fear it. Those who have enjoyed life should go, when the time comes, “as if leaving after a good dinner.” For those who have not enjoyed life, death can bring no additional disappointments, since it is pure nothingness. Book 4 explains such human experiences as dreams, memory, and imagination. It also warns against passionate involvement in love, which, Lucretius states, only leads to jealousy and rejection.

* philosophy study of ideas, including science

A SENSATIONAL STORY

Although nothing definite is known about Lucretius's life, the early Christian father St. Jerome wrote an account of the poet's death. According to Jerome, Lucretius's wife gave him a love potion that drove him insane. He wrote his great poem De rerum nature during brief intervals of sanity between fits of madness, then ended his life by suicide. Not a single piece of evidence confirms this tale, which may have been an attempt to discredit Lucretius, who was one of the most famous poets and thinkers of pagan (nonChristian) Rome.

The fifth and sixth books are about the natural world. Book 5 shows how the world and all the beings in it were created according to physical laws. It ends with a description of the growth of human civilization, tracing history from the time of primitive cave dwellers to the rise of mighty civilizations. In Book 6, Lucretius explains lightning, volcanoes, earthquakes, rainbows, and other natural events that have caused people to hold false and superstitious beliefs about the gods. Since earthquakes, for example, can be explained by Epicurean theories about the physical world, there is no reason to imagine that they are caused by angry gods. The poem ends with an account of a plague* that brought intense suffering and death to Athens. It is a reminder that everyone and everything must perish.

Despite his serious subject matter, Lucretius’s tone is not gloomy. The poem is a declaration of his faith that people can learn to enjoy happy, calm lives. Some of the most famous lines in De rerum natura describe someone who is safe on the shore watching another person struggling in a storm at sea. These lines show the satisfaction of the philosopher who escapes the turmoil of life by understanding the true nature of things:

How sweet to watch, from land, while winds enrage The great sea’s waves, another man in trouble!

—Not taking pleasure in another’s pain,

But seeing what evils you yourself are spared.

* plague highly contagious, widespread, and often fatal disease

(See also Philosophy, Roman; Poetry, Roman.)

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