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on the nature of things

7 july 2013

After I'd survived the first couple of years of classical languages in college, my professor proposed a reading course for the two of us who were the closest thing to classics majors at my university. Poetry, he suggested vaguely, and after we'd signed up, more specifically: Lucretius' De rerum natura [On the Nature of Things].

I didn't know any better, so I actually enjoyed Lucretius: not just the famous purple-verse bits like the cow longing for her calf (Book Two, lines 350-370, p. 67), but even the more abstruse stuff like the endless discussion of optical theory in Book Four. As always, the sheer novelty of being able to sort of understand what someone was saying in a foreign language (let alone a language from two millennia ago) was part of the appeal. But so was a sense that Lucretius was a rough guide to ideas still current in the sciences, for all that he was a poet, and an ancient, and unprovided with high-tech equipment.

Even if you don't subscribe to Stephen Greenblatt's "he made the world modern" view of Lucretius, you have to concede that the guy was ahead of his time. Atomic theory, the conservation of matter and energy, the laws of thermodynamics, a materialistic view of natural phenomena, uniformitarianism, the concepts of eternity and a boundless universe, but also those of extinction and historical contingency … these are remarkable things to run across in the first century before Christ. Or rather, as Greenblatt and others might argue, remarkable preservations of ideas once in wide circulation, but dormant during long centuries of Christian theism that had more in common with worship of pagan gods than they'd be comfortable admitting.

Lucretius's ideas are somewhere between a kind of intuitive folk physics and the axioms of the scientific method. Much of his thought follows on his initial claim that the gods don't even play dice with the universe. They don't do anything at all with the universe. They sit aloof and in perfect contentment, barely giving the universe a thought. When Virgil asks, early in the Aeneid,

Can there be
Anger so great in the hearts of gods on high?
referring to Juno, who pursues Aeneas implacably across most of his epic, he may well be responding in part to Lucretius, whose answer would have been a quiet "no." No, if you're having a bad seven years of it trying to get to Italy after the Trojan War, you may feel like blaming a malevolent god, but it's more likely literally just the way things fell out. The atoms of the universe caused storms and shipwrecks and what you thought were Harpies eating your lunch. Ascribing their effects to some implacable sky goddess is just storytelling.

Virgil also tells the story of Cybele, the Earth Mother; and of course his favorite goddess was Lucretius's favorite goddess, the sympathetic Venus. As the Greek Aphrodite, she had gotten the reputation for whining and deviousness in the Homeric poems, but the Romans redeemed her by associating her with a mythical ancestor of their race. Lucretius, on the other hand, scoffs at the myth of Cybele, treating the earth as a materialistic, if fertile, matrix of us all. He more explicitly invokes, and praises, Venus; but it's clear that she is the metaphor of metaphors for him. The force that through the green fuse drives the flower – or as Lucretius less lyrically puts it, the force that through the erection drives the semen – is his "Venus": the world of pure animation.

Way too much of On the Nature of Things is taken up with expounding theories of optics, but even the sheer bulk of its seat-of-the-pants physics (which drove me as an undergraduate to near-distraction) is part of its calm, anti-metaphysical approach to the Universe. Lucretius might not explain optical illusions exactly the way we explain them, but he doesn't attribute them to visions sent from Mercury or Iris, and that places him way closer to the modern worldview than to that of Virgil and Ovid.

Lucretius is often translated into English prose. Despite his frequent assertion that his verse is a kind of "honey" that will mollify the harshness of his philosophical doctrine, there seems little reason to take up page after page of English pentameters on stuff like the meteorological basis for thunder. In this late-20th-century translation, however, Anthony Esolen tries a flexible pentameter, possibly on the principle that it can't do any great harm to Lucretius's language or ideas to render them into workable poetry. Esolen does an excellent job conveying the surprise and the oddity of one of the world's great imaginative texts.

Lucretius. On the Nature of Things. [De rerum natura.] Translated by Anthony M. Esolen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.