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Lucretius: On the Nature of the Universe

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they don't make books like this any more

My first experience of Lucretius was quite memorable. I was at a party at a friend’s house, probably in my late twenties, and was reasonably intoxicated and very alert at the end of it all. My friend offered me a bed for the night in a room that was also a mini-library, and naturally invited me to partake of any reading material if I was feeling restless. I don’t know what made me pick on this book, the only known work of this otherwise quite mysterious Roman writer, except that I’ve often had periods of enthusiasm for Graeco-Roman literature, and doubtless I was in the grip of such an enthusiasm at the time.

The copy I picked up then had the untranslated title De Rerum Natura, I remember, and it was a verse translation, unlike the prose version I’ve just finished reading. I found it very sobering and exhilarating reading, not only for the virtuosity of its writing – imagine putting a major scientific treatise into verse form – but for its modern and sympathetic approach to enquiry, mixing acute observation with imaginative leaps of interpretation, for its ambition [an attempt to account for all the matter and forces in the universe, a Theory of Everything], and for its uncompromising this-worldliness, its relentless castigation of superstition and supernatural explanations. I remember rushing through it with drunken impatience, fascinated by the bold, broad ideas – an atomic theory, how extraordinary – but less interested in the details, which obviously wouldn’t be able to stand up to a scrutiny I was in any case unable and unwilling to provide.

This more recent reading hasn’t changed my view too much, though I now know that the atomic theory is of even more ancient date, going back at least to Democritus, though it’s also clear that Lucretius was far more than a mere presenter of others’ theories. Of course I’m nowhere near enough of a classical scholar to determine the degree of originality of each of his views and attitudes – and he ventures well beyond physical theories into the realm of life, sex and morality – but the vitality and energy of his writing, and its literary quality, bespeaks, to me, a highly original mind. He presents testable hypotheses – though, in the classical manner, he doesn’t bother testing them – which are too numerous to mention, but some of his broad claims are that the universe is eternal and infinite, and that atoms and space are its basic constituents. These constituents are constantly forming, deforming and reforming to comprise the ever-changing physical world we see around us, but atoms themselves are indestructible. This somewhat paradoxical idea of eternality and indestructibility combined with constant decay and abrasion is a feature of the work, which even contains a thrilling foretaste of evolutionary theory. Sometimes, of course he gets it quite spectacularly wrong, as in these claims about the sun:

Next, as to the size and heat of the sun’s disc: it cannot in fact be either much larger or much smaller than it appears to our senses. So long as fires are near enough both to transmit their light and to breathe a warm blast upon our bodies, the bulk of their flames suffers no loss through distance: the fire is not visibly diminished. Since, therefore, the heat of the sun and the light it gives off travel all the way to our senses and cause the world to shine, its shape and size also must appear as they really are, with virtually no room for any lessening or enlargement.

Hmmm, as long as it’s near enough, distance doesn’t matter. Methinks I detect a slight flaw in that argument.

Lucretius covers plenty of ground – the sun, the moon, clouds, rain, minds [they’re located in the breast], atoms [they’re colourless, odourless, tasteless and without heat or sound], earthquakes, magnets, death, religion and superstition, these are all explored and accounted for in his own way, with nods [and head-shakes] to Epicurus, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Democritus, Anaxagoras and others. It’s a fascinating journey into some cutting-edge classical thinking.

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Written by stewart henderson

April 12, 2012 at 7:43 am

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