Victor Nuovo: Why read Lucretius?

This essay begins a new series of philosophical reflections. Like the former, it will focus on a classical text, in this instance one from the Roman era, “De Rerum Natura” (“On the Nature of Things”), by Lucretius, or, Titus Lucretius Carus, to give him his full name. It is a great epic poem, published around the middle of the first century B.C.E., whose theme, the most universal of all, is just everything.
Lucretius sets out to explain, from a natural standpoint, how worlds and all they contain originate, flourish, and cease to be, and the theory on which he based his explanation was as simple as could be. It rested on a single idea: the generative power of matter. He also had a moral and political purpose. He wanted to show how to live peacefully and contentedly in a world not made for us, and to prescribe a way to determine values, laws, and institutions, which are truly humane and upon which human happiness depends. All this he presented in the most sublime poetic phrases and images.
These excellences alone make Lucretius’ poem worth reading not once but many times over. The enjoyment multiplies each time one revisits it. Moreover, “De Rerum Natura” is a classic, and shouldn’t everyone read the Classics? And isn’t it true that the great moments of European cultural and intellectual renewal and creativity, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, were inspired and given impetus by the rediscovery of the literature of antiquity, the Classics?
“Classic” means a work of surpassing excellence, and therefore reading the Classics is a way of preserving excellence and creativity in our society. Now, while there is much truth in this, it is an exaggeration.
What is the truth? In the first place, in our multicultural world, we have been made aware that other traditions have produced great works of art and literature that rival and perhaps even surpass our own.
But even our own tradition may mislead us in the classics that have been handed down to us. I will explain. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) surely counts as one of the great figures of the late Renaissance and the early Enlightenment. His writings are modern classics. He knew the ancient Classics well and here is what he said about them. He worried that the writings of Plato and Aristotle were too highly regarded. He observed that the founding of European society followed the barbarian invasions of Europe, which brought an end to the Roman Empire. He likened these invasions to a great flood inundating the land and carrying everything away with it. As is the way with floods, things of great weight and gravity sink to the bottom and are lost, buried under a residue of barbaric silt and mud, whereas lighter things, flotsam and jetsam, survive by floating along the top.
He suggested that what we take to be Classics, in particular writings of Plato and Aristotle, are the flotsam and jetsam of the past that survived because they were intellectually light of weight, whereas the works of great gravity, especially the writings of Democritus, were lost. If learning was to renew itself and progress, it was necessary that we become archaeologists of the past. Chief among those whose opinions he desired to recover was Democritus, whom he judged to be the greatest natural philosopher of antiquity, and because Bacon believed that the modern renewal of learning depended upon a revival of natural philosophy, or, in our terms, the natural sciences, recovering Democritus was essential.
Now the writings of Democritus are lost. We have only fragments and testimonies, quotations and expositions of them by other ancient writers whose works survived. One important source is a work written during the third century of the Common Era. Diogenes Laertius wrote a book titled “The Lives of the Eminent Philosophers,” which has survived, although with some parts missing. It is painful to read over forgotten names and their works, lost perhaps forever, but it is well to be reminded how little we know of the past.
Diogenes provides a short biography of Democritus’ long life (he was over 100 when he died), a summary of his teaching, and a long list of his writings. In addition to writings on physics, Democritus also wrote about ethics, music and mathematics. He is credited with having discovered infinitesimal magnitudes, and was one of the first to study conic sections and vortices, whose motions, he believed, provided a clue to the formation of worlds.
Democritus’ writings on physics are not entirely lost to us. Moreover, his theory of nature was appropriated a couple of centuries later by Epicurus, who developed it further with some modifications in a work he entitled, fittingly, “On Nature.” This work is also lost, except for some fragments, but before this happened it was read by Lucretius, who based his poem on it, thereby transforming Epicurus’ plain Greek prose into exquisite Latin poetry.
By the way, Diogenes Laertius transcribed three long philosophical letters by Epicurus in his “Lives.” So we have a way of checking Lucretius against his source, and it all checks out.
This is why we read Lucretius, because he gives us access to lost Classics, indirectly to the writings of Democritus, and to his philosophy of nature. In his life of Democritus, Diogenes Laertius mentions that Plato deliberately avoided mentioning him in his writings, and comments that he did this “obviously because he (Plato) knew that he would have to match himself against the best of philosophers.” Democritus seems to have been Plato’s overbearing rival, his nemesis.
There’s one more reason to read Lucretius. “De Rerum Natura” was virtually lost during the Middle Ages, until in 1417 an Italian scholar, Poggio Bracciolini, discovered a manuscript of the poem in a monastery while in southern Germany. He had it copied, and before long, it went viral. It provided the new natural philosophers of the 17th century, among them Huygens, Boyle, Locke and Newton, with a scientific text, superior, they believed, to anything found in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, which outlined a theory of the origin of the universe by the random motion of atoms.
Lucretius’ poem, then, was instrumental in launching the scientific revolution.
Postscript: The story of the discovery of Lucretius by Poggio is well told by Stephen Greenblatt in his entertaining book, “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.” Note the subtitle. As Greenblatt describes it, the discovery of Lucretius might not have happened, and if not, then where would be now? So much of what is momentous in history, natural and human, is accidental. This, by the way, is a central theme of “De Rerum Natura.”
Another postscript: “De Rerum Natura” is available in several modern English translations: Oxford World Classics has a verse translation; and Penguin Classics publishes two English versions, one in verse and the other in prose. Check your local bookstore.

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