Lucretius: the nature of things – On Religion and Peace

In the prologue to Book I of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius introduces three main themes. They are the system of the heavens, the origin of all things, and the nature of the Gods. The first two are strictly natural themes suitable for a naturalist: astronomy and physics. The third is curious, for Lucretius and his poem have been condemned down through the ages for atheism and irreligion.
Yet Lucretius speaks well of the Gods: They are immortals, who live the best of lives, free from care, lacking nothing, abiding forever in an undisturbed part of the universe, enjoying perfect tranquility. They epitomize the best imaginable life. They are neither anxious nor inclined to anger, and so they never have need to be praised or appeased, least of all by human beings on earth, about whom they have neither care nor interest, and of whom they take no notice. Nothing that we may do in their regard ever reaches them, or, if it did, would it concern them. The very idea of religion is foreign to the Gods.
This idea of the Gods is characteristically Greek. The ancient Greeks believed that if we can imagine something perfect, it must exist in some respect, and because they also supposed that to exist is to be somewhere, the Gods must reside in a fitting place, “over the rainbow,” a place free of trouble or the uncertainty of change, “where troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops.”
This tendency was embedded in their grammar. Plato made it explicit in his theology and his theory of ideas. Lucretius, whose philosophy differs radically from Plato’s, nevertheless wanted to present his readers with wisdom in a Greek fashion. He was bilingual and bicultural. So, it should be no surprise that he represented the Gods after the manner of the Greeks.
Lucretius rightly infers from all this that if the Gods have no need of religion, then they must not be the originators of it. He locates the origin of religion in the human imagination motivated by passion, especially fear, “the terrors of the mind.” His philosophy of nature is offered as an antidote to this human disorder.
According to Epicurus, whose follower he was, the best human life consisted of peace and tranquility, untroubled and giving no offense to others. It arises from knowledge of how things really are. In sum, Lucretius was not an atheist. He was, however, an enemy of any institutional religion and of priests, theologians and astrologers, whom, he believed, were responsible for great mischief, causing trouble to individuals and nations.
Therefore, it is surprising that, in the opening lines of his poem, Lucretius invokes the goddess Venus, and asks her to be his muse, his divine patron and collaborator. He represents her as the smiling face of nature, most evident in springtime. She is the joy and delight of all living creatures, their caring, nurturing mother; her infusions of vital power cause them, like flowers, to spring into existence and face the Sun; when she appears the oceans laugh, the sky becomes clear, the winds, gentle, animals frolic, and all things on earth are bathed in light.
Literary scholars have observed that it was customary for ancient poets to begin their poems by invoking a divine muse, and that Lucretius was just following custom. This is so. But Lucretius had other more urgent reasons. He was a Roman citizen. His contemporaries were Julius Caesar and Cicero. He wrote his poem during the Roman Republic’s time of troubles, which ended, after his death in 44BCE, the very year of Caesar’s assassination, the end of the Republic, and the establishment of the Empire.
Now Rome had two legendary founders. Romulus is supposed, according to legend, to have founded the city in 753BCE. According to its foundation myth, the city was embroiled in violence from the start, in murder — Romulus murdered his twin brother and rival Remus — and civil war. Romulus and Remus were products of a virgin birth: Their mother, Rhea Silvia, was a Vestal Virgin who had taken a vow of chastity. Mars, the god of war, raped her while she was tending the sacred fire. Mars became the patron of Roman militarism.
However, the narrative of the Roman foundation myth also features a second, earlier founder: Aeneas, a Trojan prince, whose adventures after escaping the destruction of Troy led him to Italy. He was the progenitor of the Roman people, the Aeneadae. His mother was Venus, or as she was known to the Greeks, Aphrodite, the goddess of love and of all peaceable virtues and delights.
In this light, Lucretius’ purpose becomes clear. If he could not rid Rome of religion, then at least he might pacify it, by exalting Venus above Mars. Thus he concludes his preamble, which I hope everyone will read, for it is truly lovely and still relevant, with a prayer to Venus that she might cause “the savage works of war to sleep and be still over all the land and sea.” To this end, he asks that she conquer Mars with love, by feeding his eager eyes with her incomparable beauty, so that, besotted by her charm, he would recline upon her lap and remain quiet or quiescent under her caresses.
From all this, it should be clear. Lucretius was not an atheist. Indeed, he was, like Plato, a theological reformer, whose purpose was to rescue theology from religion, and to make it strictly philosophical. He was also an anti-militarist, and, perhaps, a pacifist. As the poem develops, it will become clear that he was deeply sensible to suffering, not just by humans, but all creaturely suffering.
He was well aware that animals grieve just as much as we do, and so, he was sensitive to their welfare. Perhaps he was a vegetarian. Through all this, he pursued two goals: enlightenment and peace. Each depended on the other: War darkens the mind, and cruelty is nurtured in a darkened intellect, which religion, un-reformed and un-pacified by philosophy, inflames.
Are there lessons here? One must be cautious when applying an ancient doctrine to modern conditions. Yet, with proper caution, there is something to be learned. Religion may indeed serve the purposes of living a good life, but only if it promotes joy and peace, and only if it repudiates all doctrines that evoke fear and induce violent passions. Now the only remedy for these disorders of the soul is truth, which resides in the nature of things. Truth alone enlightens the mind and calms the passions. We must all study physics.

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