This great poem stands with Virgil's Aeneid as one of the vital and enduring achievements of Latin literature. Lost for more than a thousand years, its return to circulation in 1417 reintroduced dangerous ideas about the nature and meaning of existence and helped shape the modern world.
The poem by Lucretius has the goal of explaining Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience. It was written in some 7,400 dactylic hexameters, divided into six untitled books, and explores Epicurean philosophy and physics through richly poetic language and metaphors. It is a rational and materialistic view of the world that presents the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna, "chance", and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities. He extols the life of contemplation as seen in these lines from the opening of Book Two:
"But nothing is sweeter than to dwell in the calm
Temples of truth, the strongholds of the wise." (II, 7-8)
Thankfully we can still enjoy the vision of the good life as presented in this beautiful poem. The basics of Lucretius' philosophy include acknowledging pleasure (or the absence of pain) as the highest good, basing ethics on the evidence of the senses, and extolling plain living and high thinking. He also is a committed atheist, denouncing the gods in Book I of the poem, advocating free will in Book II, and reassuring his readers that they have nothing to fear from death in Book III. This lucid translation by Anthony M. Esolen reminds me why Lucretius is still worth reading.
My recommendation is to find a different (better) translation (although I don't know if one exists).
Cicero, because of his personal aversion to the Epicurean philosophy, didn't quite do it justice in his book The Nature of the Gods, which introduced the Greek philosophical schools to the Romans (He all but made the Epicurean the laughing-stock of all the other philosophers). However, he also prepared and edited the transcript of this book by Lucretius, arguably the best exposition of Epicureanism, as a counterpoint.
Lucretius made a strong case for Epicureanism with epic poetry and systematic reasoning. His thoughts and presentation with creative use of analogies are eminently clear and logical to a modern reader, in spite of his relative lack of scientific knowledge. In this book, he sought to dispel the notion of gods governing the universe, and demonstrate the natural causes of all things based on a few premises, from thunderbolts to earthquakes, from the nature of disease to the nature of the mind, from the beginning of the earth to the development of society.
Highly recommended for its epic scope, clarity of thought, beauty of narrative, richness of humor and compassion.
From Wikipedia: “De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) is a 1st century BC didactic poem by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius with the goal of explaining Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience. The poem, written in some 7,400 dactylic hexameters, is divided into six untitled books, and explores Epicurean physics through richly poetic language and metaphors. Lucretius presents the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna, "chance", and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.”
It's a physics/philosophy (they didn't really draw lines between these things back then) textbook written in verse by an Epicurean Roman two thousand years ago. And frequently, decoding the verse to figure out what worldview created it, what assumptions he's making about the nature of the universe, and from there to what his point is... well, it was heavy lifting. And I complained often.
But now that I've gotten through it once, I can fairly easily see myself dipping back in occasionally. And now, I can read The Swerve about how this book influenced the Renaissance!
First, goddess, the birds of the air, pierced to the heart with your powerful shafts, signal your entry. Next wild creatures and cattle bound over rich pastures and swim rushing rivers: so surely are they all captivated by your charm and eagerly follow your lead. Then you inject seductive love into the heart of every creature that lives in the seas and mountains and river torrents and bird-haunted thickets, implanting in it the passionate urge to reproduce its kind.
This is not dry stuff, although it is dense--packing a lot of complex ideas in verse. It's not always easy reading no. Philosophy and physics don't make for page turners or escapist reading. But it often has a lyrical beauty and intensity, one devoted to this Earth and the world of the senses and its pleasures and the wonders of science in a way at times inspired and inspiring.
The New Lifetime Reading Plan: Number 19
Perhaps if I knew Greek and had read the Greek version, I would have enjoyed it more. This is a epic poem written by Lucretius explaining Epicurean and Atomist theory as known in the first century B.C. While some ideas were amazingly close to what we know today, much of it was off the mark and tedious. Interesting, however, is asking yourself how the nature of things really works. I'm not sure I could give a good explanation of how disease spreads or what makes lightning or if the earth is dissolving into nothing. Interesting. A classic. A chore to get through.
To choose a good translation of Lucretius, I would say,
One ought to pick a version in the English of today.
And metered verse is called for too -- a poem needs to chime.
The bill was filled when Stallings crafted pairs of lines that rhyme.
The translation does not attempt to capture the deliberately archaic language that Lucretius wrote in. I was skeptical at first of some of Stallings' more modern and colloquial word choices, but a check with the Latin showed that these still stayed close to the original meaning.
This is an accessible and recommendable translation of an important work.
I am rather struck by Lucretius insistence on the mortality of the soul; his preoccupation with the subject seems obsessive.