Lucretius - On The Nature of Things¶
The version of Lucretius available at Perseus is the 1916 edition of William Emory Leonard. Perseus has excellent searching capability, and great linkage to the Latin, but that edition, which also available at Gutenberg, attempts to retain a poetic form. It is therefore open to the charge that its translation is less literal and therefore less accurate to the meaning of the original.
The versions of Lucretius available currently on this website are prose versions which stress accuracy in meaning over the poetic form. They include:
The translator of this edition is unknown, but it was published in England by Daniel Brown in 1743. This translation has the advantage that despite being older, it can sometimes be easier to read than later versions.
This is one of the most memorable and literal translations available.
The 1920's Loeb translation by William Rouse
This is the most recent edition in the public domain.
This text comes from LatinLibrary.com.
Table of Topics¶
(Note: Hyperlinks to the Bailey addition are in the process of being compiled and added.)
- [1:1] Pleasure - personified by the Goddess Venus - is the motive power behind all living things.
- Epicurus challenged and defeated the oppressive power of false religion, and showed us how to defeat, through the study of Nature, the terrors brought by false religion.
- Religion prompts men to great evil, and oppresses them by threatening punishment by the gods both in this life and in eternity after death.
- The way to defeat the control of religion in life is to show that the universe was not created by gods and is not controlled by gods, so the threats of religion to punish us during life are lies.
- The way to defeat the fear of religious punishment after death is to understand that the soul is not eternal, and our consciousness perishes with our body, so there can be no punishment or reward after death
- The process of understanding Nature begins by making this first observation: nothing comes from nothing by the will of gods - or for any other reason.
- Our second primary observation is that nothing is ever destroyed totally to nothing.
- From these two observations we conclude that the basic material of the universe is therefore indestructible, has always existed, and was never created by a supernatural god.
- We also observe that the things around us which are made of this basic material move, and from this we conclude that there is empty space allowing this movement.
- We conclude that everything around us is made up of combinations of this eternal matter and void, and that nothing else has eternal existence except one of these two things (matter and void)
- By considering the properties of matter and void we also conclude that the universe is infinite in extent
- Therefore we conclude that the universe as a whole is eternal in time, is infinite in extent, and the Earth is not at the center of the Universe - all of which tells us that there is nothing supernatural about the way it operates
- These basic lessons lead to all the rest that follows. Applying our method to all questions will lead to successive answers, and each answer will in turn illuminate the next as we proceed.
- Wisdom brings great pleasure and allows us to experience pleasure even in thinking about pain which we are not enduring, and to understand that our highest goal in life is set by Nature - that of being free from physical pain while also experiencing joy and delight.
- In order to obtain this goal we do not need great wealth or power over others. Wealth and power and fame cannot banish fear of the gods and of death anyway - the only way to do that is through the study of nature.
- The next thing about nature we need to understand is that the basic material of the universe is always in motion - it never comes to rest. And this motion is not established by any gods, but but their nature - their weight, size, and the like.
- It is also important to know that the atoms don't move like billiard balls in an unbroken chain of cause and effect - they also have the capacity to swerve just a little from their course, and from this swerve our minds derive our free will to make decisions of our own.
- The basic material of the universe has a limited number of shapes and sizes, and they are constantly moving and changing places, coming together into bodies, and then over time dissipating so that the old bodies decay and new ones are formed.
- Call upon the gods in jest if you like, but never allow yourself to be polluted by religion to think that the gods control this process - it all happens naturally!
- Even though there are no gods controlling the movements of the atoms, they cannot combine in all possible ways, but only according to their nature.
- Atoms have no color, but they vary in size and arrangement, and living things arise from certain arrangements and combinations of the atoms
- The arrangement of the material makes the key difference, and you must understand that while consciousness is not something given by the gods, it also does not derive from random combinations of matter - life can only emerge from certain types of matter in certain combinations
- So the key to remember is that living, conscious beings are made of of particles that are not themselves living or conscious - and certainly not divine or small parts of god.
- Humanity and our world were not specially created by gods. The Earth is not the only planet with life. Natural processes never create only a single thing of a kind, and the same processes which produced life here produce life on many other planets throughout the universe, and other races of animals and men, as as there has been infinite time and space for all natural combinations of things.
- Epicurus deserves our respect because he discovered immortal truths, which we should apply to our own lives as he did to his.
- Most importantly, the fear of hell must be shown to be groundless, because fear of religious punishment pollutes life and makes happiness impossible.
- The fear of hell is defeated when we realize that our mind/spirit is just another part of our physical makeup like our hands, feet, and eyes is dispelled by the study of nature.
- Our mind and spirit is material, just like everything else, and although it is composing of very special particles, it too is physical and it is inseparable from the body and dies with it.
- The Mind and body are born together and age together, and the mind can be sick just like the body can.
- The mind may be composed of particles that are immortal, but it is not immortal itself. Even if the particles of our mind came together in the same arrangement in future ages, our minds would have no memory of being us as we are now, just as our minds now have no memory of ever being together in the same combination and arrangement in past ages.
- Our minds and spirits are born and die with our bodies.
- Our minds and spirits are able to experience things only through sensation, and death brings the end of all sensation, so the state of being dead is nothing to us, and time after our death has no more relevance to us than did the time before we were born
- Death is no worse than eternal dreamless sleep.
- Under these circumstances approach death as something that is inevitable, and treat it like you are a guest who is leaving a fine banquet. Remember that the greatest men in the history of the world have also died, just as you will.
- And remember to make the most pleasant use of your life, because many men spend half their life sleeping and the other half wandering around aimlessly, not realizing that the issue to keep in mind is not how they are living at the moment but how they spend their lifetime, because they will eventually die and for an eternity be no more.
- Epicurus’ teachings bring release from religious fear, and though the limitations of life may seem bitter, the best medicine for the soul to realize the natural limits of life and make the best use of life while we have it.
- In order to make the best use of life we must understand how we interact with the outside world - we must understand that this interaction comes through the movement of parties which are perceived by our senses, such as the “images” that are perceived by our eyes.
- We must understand how the senses operate so that we are not fooled by illusions - we must understand illusions and the limits of our senses and correct for them so that our opinions about things are correct.
- Illusions and problems that prevent clear sensations (such as clear sight) do not mean that the senses are untrustworthy - it is the task of our minds to understand how the senses operate and process the information they provide correctly.
- The man who argues that nothing can be known is a fool who confesses his own ignorance.
- The senses do not make conclusions so they do not make mistakes which can be refuted, and that is because any attempted refutation depends for its proof on the senses.
- If you cannot explain to yourself something that appears to be an illusion or a contradiction, the thing to do is to accept that you do not understand, or even accept a theory that you know may be wrong, because it is better to admit your ignorance of a matter than to lose confidence in your senses and thereby give up all hope of ever learning the truth.
- All reasoning is dependent for its validity on the correctness of the evidence it has received from the senses; if the senses cannot be trusted, reason itself cannot be trusted.
- The reasoning process is dormant while we sleep, but the senses can still be active, so we cannot trust the things we think we see or hear while we are asleep, and that means that we should not give credence to dreams or think they are divinely inspired.
- The senses were not made for us by gods in order that we can see any more than that our ankles were made for us for walking - these things developed by natural processes and the use of them evolved along with their presence.
- Just as when we sleep there are other times when the reasoning judgment does not function, and another such time to be wary of is when we are under the intoxication of romantic/passionate sexual love.
- Pleasure is more pure and undiluted by pain when we excercise good judgment about the way we pursue it. It is easier to avoid the pain that comes from certain activities, such as the snares of love, than it is to escape that sort of pain once you are entangled.
- The pleasure of love is strongest when based not on passion but on habit, just as rain over time can wear away stone.
- Epicurus appears to us of later generations almost as god-like, given the immortal wisdom he discovered and explained to us.
- If our minds and the way we approach life is unpurified and inconsistent, we wage a constant internal war against ourselves
- Just like we ourselves are born and die, never to live again, we need to realize that the Earth and everything we see around us follows the same course. o All the world is mortal too, and just as it once came together into its present form, it will one day pass away.
- The things we see in the sky are not eternal either - the stars are not gods! Wonderment at the stars breeds confusion, as it is foolish to that the stars are moved by the gods - that is the kind of mistake that leads people to invent gods and get confined to the yoke of religion.
- The stars are not gods because of the way they move - everything that has a body does not have a mind. Mind and spirit exist only in living animals.
- The gods are immortal, but they did not change their immortal ways to create the world for men; the gods did not live in darkness and grief before they created the Earth.
- It is Nature that provides for all that comes into existence, even the gods themselves could never create something without the models that nature provides.
- One reason we know that Nature created the Earth, and that it was not created by the gods, is that there is so much wrong with the Earth that is not suited for us.
- Human experience on the Earth is in fact relatively young, else we would have a much longer knowledge of human history than we do.
- The Earth was formed by the natural actions of the basic material of the universe. We lack the ability to verify by close observation the nature of the stars, but we can develop theories about the stars based on our observations of the way things work here on Earth.
-  The size of the sun and the moon are as the appear to us to be (as we perceive them). Judging their size constitutes an example of special cases in which we must keep open to alternate possibilities but must never desert our perceptions as to how they appear to us.
- We know that seeds of things can combine only in certain ways, so that while many forms of life have come into existence and died out, there are limits to the types of life that can develop, and such things as half-men, half-animals never existed, and never can exist, because seeds combine only according to their nature.
- Gods did not give language to men; language developed naturally over time as individual men learned to communicate with each other.
- Men fell under religion because they had visions of gods in dreams and saw things in the world and sky that they did not understand, so they assumed the gods must be responsible. . They can avoid this by adopting a true philosophy and studying nature.
- Civilization first flowered in Athens, and the greatest flower of Athens was a man – Epicurus - who discovered and brought to us the complete truth about the way things are, and as a result the glory of Epicurus makes him seem to us almost as a divinity himself.
- Epicurus diagnosed the problem of false ways of thinking that corrupts men’s lives, and cleansed our hearts by words of truth, showing us (1) the error of greed and fear, (2) the highest good that Nature has ordained for us, (3) the natural evils that confront us, and how they can be defeated, and (4) that most of the anxiety and fear we face is imaginary, no worse than the imaginings of children.
- Even those who otherwise understand how things work here on Earth can become afraid when they look up at the sky and begin to wonder if what they see is caused by the gods.
- Such thoughts are unworthy of us and of the gods, and those those thoughts will harm us, not because the gods will cause us harm, but that our fears that we are at the mercy of gods will cause us anxiety.
- Snow, wind, hail, lightning, and the like are alll understandable if you keep in mind the basic properties of the elements involved.
- We do not have enough information to understand how many natural phenomena operate, so what we must do in these cases is to keep our minds open to any reasonable possibility that is not eliminated by the evidence - and since we have already proven that the universe has no gods over her, we never entertain the idea that something we do not understand comes about by divine action.
- At the end of our lives death is inevitable for all of us, just as the citizens of Athens, despite the greatness of their city, were not immune from perishing in the great plague.
Table of Canonical Principles¶
[1.423] All truth must be grounded on sensation - we must have confidence in what is immediately in front of us before we can understand things that are not visible.
[1.700] And what can be more sure than our senses to us, by which we fully know falsehood and truth?
Table of Ethical Principles¶
- [1.1] Hymn to Venus - Pleasure is the motivating force behind all life.