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Essays - Lucretius


LUCRETIUS, a Roman aristocrat; Omar-Khayyam, royal astronomer of Persia; Haeckel, a modern professor, "all nature for his own."

One thousand years separate Lucretius from Omar; one thousand years separate Omar from Haeckel. Yet all three contemplate the same problems, argue from essentially the same premises, and reach the same conclusions respecting the world and life and death. But the spirit of each how different! Haeckel, the type and extenuator of the calm, self-contained, scientific indifferentism of our own day; Omar, the poet of cynicism and merry despair; Lucretius, the stern and mighty prophet, who defied the gods of old in the name of religion itself, of the moral freedom of man, arid of his duty of moral heroism without hope beyond the grave.

All we know of Lucretius, apart from his great poem, may be summed up in half a dozen words. He was a Roman gentleman, a contemporary of Cicero and Julius Caesar; born about the opening of the first century before the Christian era, he died at the age of forty-four by his own hand. His one great work, his life work, "De Rerum Natura," a didactic poem in six books, has come down to us, like the Aeneid of Virgil, in a seemingly unfinished state, having been published under the editorship of Cicero within a year or so of the author's death.

By general consent of competent judges the poem ranks among works of genius of the first order. In force, sincerity, and unswerving devotion to truth as he saw it, in grandeur of plan and purpose, in imagination and insight, in sustained and impassioned eloquence, it remains, taken as a whole, one of the grandest monuments of the ancient mind.

The following brief summary will give some idea of the plan of the poem:

Book 1 : After an invocation of Venus comes the Epicurean doctrine of atoms, the original substance out of which all are produced and into which all are ultimately resolved; that all phenomena are explicable by fortuitous concurrence of atoms, the present order being the result of infinite experiments. The close, some two hundred lines, demonstrates the infinity of the universe in space and time by arguments which Bruno, Voltaire, Buchner, Renan and Haeckel have only repeated or, at most, only enriched with further illustrations but without adding necessarily to their strength.

Book 2 : Opens with an impressive passage on the security and charm of the contemplation of life, the life of reason, contrasted with the restless anxieties and alarms of a life of worldly ambition. He then passes on to a more technical exposition of nature and movements of atoms. They are primordial, indestructible and infinite in number. Sensation, life, birth, growth and decay are but the results of their combination and disintegration. The sum of all things remains always the same. All things are in ceaseless motion; rest is only apparent to our sense. From infinity of space and matter he implies a plurality of worlds or infinitude of other systems beside our own. The earth is decaying and we live in its old age.

The spirit of some of these passages is reflected, consciously or unconsciously, in the lines of Emerson:

"Wouldst thou know the mystic song,
Chanted when the sphere was young?
To the open ear it rings,
The eternal genesis of things;
Of tendency thro' endless ages,
Of star dusk and star pilgrimages,
Of rounded worlds of space and time,
Of the old flood's subsiding slime;
The rushing metamorphosis,
Transforming all that fixture is,
Melts things that be to things that seem,
And solid nature to a dream."

Book 3: Trials of the soul and life as vital, principle. The fear of death and of eternal torments after death is the chief source of human misery. The fear of death and hell must therefore be eradicated. Twenty-six formal arguments are proposed and enforced to prove that soul and body are alike material and that the soul perishes with the body.

The last two hundred lines or so constitute one of the grandest passages of his work and finds its nearest parallel in the pages of Bossuet. It is an impassioned expostulation with those who would tarry past their hour at the banquet of life; who, having warmed both hands at the fire of life, repine against going the way appointed on which all the great and good and wise of the past have gone: Homer and Scipio, Socrates and Epicurus.

There is no tone of cynicism or pessimism in his words; all are inspired by a feeling of august resignation to the universal law. No such bitterness, for example, as in Omar's lines:

"And fear not, lest Existence closing your
Account and mine, should know the like no more;
The Eternal Saki from that bowl has poured
Millions of Bubbles like us, and will pour."

Or in Tennyson's "The Dark Voice":

"And will one beam be less intense
When thy peculiar difference
Is cancelled from the World of Sense?"

Compare Macaulay:

"Socrates said to die was gain, even if death were nothing more than dreamless sleep."

Milton thought otherwise:

"Sad cure: for who would lose,
Though full of pain, this intellectual being;
These thoughts that wander through eternity."

Macaulay says: "I once thought with Milton; but every day brings me nearer and nearer to the doctrine here laid down by Socrates."

Book 4: Is intimately connected with the third. To the question which naturally arises, If there is no life after death, what is the origin of the practically universal belief in a future life? he replies, by the celebrated theory of perception, that delicate films or emanations, the images of things, are thrown off constantly from the surfaces of all bodies and are borne incessantly through space, appearing to the living, sometimes in waking visions, but especially in sleep. It is these presentations or subtle images which have given rise to the belief in the ghosts of the dead.

His furious protest against design or final causes in nature occurs as a kind of digression near the close of the book, and is argued and enforced with an energy which betrays his passionate earnestness, and with an acuteness and variety of detail that shows his wide observations.

"Sed quod natumst id procreat usum"i. e., "eyes not made to see, but we see because we have eyes." Book 4, 835.

Book 5: Deals with astronomy, the history of the globe and the origins of life and civilization. The purpose of the discussion is to show that all our system was produced and is maintained by natural agency; that it is neither divine nor created by divine power. The earth is at rest at the centre of our system "sup-ported by the air as our body is by the vital principle." Then follows an animated sketch of prehistoric anthropology, which is doubly startling from its contrast on the one hand with the astronomical proclivities which precede it and, on the other hand, its striking agreement with the most recent conclusions of such authorities as Darwin, Tylor, Lubbock and Spencer.

Book 6: As the last source of superstition is our ignorance of the causes of unusual natural phenomena, the sixth book is de-voted to explanation of thunder-storms, tempests, volcanoes, earthquakes and the like phenomena generally attributed to the direct agency of the gods but are as natural as flight of birds or fall of leaves.

The first question naturally asked is, What is the object of the poem? It was not speculative nor even poetical, but practical. The secret of that immense enthusiasm which sustained him unfailingly throughout his vast adventure was not simply the joy of a poet in his art, or a scholar in his book, or a philosopher in his thought, or a naturalist in his observations; but all these moods of feeling were combined and concentrated by a lofty moral purpose and passion seeking the emancipation and elevation of human life. This is the soul of his argument and of his eloquence as well.

The first step in the emancipation of man must be the utter rending and destruction of every shred of belief in the hideous system of superstition which passed for religion in his day. Both Tennyson and Mrs. Browning have deemed that Lucretius was not atheistic at heart.

"Lucretius, nobler than his mood
Who dropped his plummet down the broad
Deep universe, and said no god."

We may observe that there are hints here and there in his great work which would seem to justify the picturing his real state of mind as this : "Whether there are good gods or a supreme good god, that is a later question. However it may ultimately be answered, meanwhile infinitely better that no gods be recognized than the gods that are."

So Tennyson interprets:

"My Master held
That gods there are, for all men so believe.
I pressed my footsteps into his and meant
Surely to lead my memories in a train
Of flowery clauses onward to the proof
That gods there are, and deathless."

"His mode of conceiving the operation of law in the universe is not irreconcilable with the conception of modern theism."

"The idea of law in nature as understood by Lucretius is not necessarily inconsistent with that of a creative will determining the conditions of the elemental substances."

Therefore, the instant and pressing need is to annihilate in men all faith and fear alike respecting the capricious, tyrannical phantoms masquerading as gods to the misery and degradation of man.

How thoroughly even an accomplished critic may misconceive the true purport of the great work, the following judgment of Macaulay is in evidence. Says that illustrious essayist:

"The greatest didactic poem in any language was written in defence of the silliest and meanest of all systems of philosophy."

From the real point of view of the true purpose of Lucretius, that is the silliest and meanest of criticism possible. No, Lucretius did not pursue his great argument to defend or to confirm the Epicurean philosophy; but he used that philosophy as the best available means to meet the phantoms of the mind and drive them once for all, to use his own expression, beyond the flaming walls of the world, "flamantia novenia mundi."

"Pagan religion, a vast and complicated instrument of terror Heaven, earth, and hell were infested with immeasurable divinities who exercised over men a tyranny at once cruel, inexplicable, and ridiculous. For poor humanity fear reigned everywhere, on land and sea, in the air, in darkness, light, in noise and silence. Man could neither speak nor think nor even sneeze, without exposing himself to the capricious reprisals of celestial vengeance. To escape these haunting horrors, more than for any other cause, men sought to drown their thoughts in vicious excesses or in the mad pursuits of ambition and luxury."

To this one great end, the liberation of mankind from these debasing terrors which dishearten and demoralize life, to free them once for all from the dread of that tyrannous crew of gods, those vile and capricious deities whose rule wrought only misery and corruption in mankind for this he built his lofty rhyme, for this he marshalled his mighty arguments, to this end his sonorous and magnificent lines, like Roman cohorts, march ever steadily onward without halt or deflection, over mountain, or morass, or vast desert tracts of the drear, cold, mechanical system of philosophy he perforce adopted as the best available. The secret of that fervor which leads him to push his argument even beyond the grave and to assert with enthusiasm and demonstrate with immense elaboration the nonexistence of the soul after death, is not merely speculative or philosophic, but the grim determination to make it no longer possible for human faith or fear to deepen the miseries of present life by forebodings grounded on a belief in the future continued and conscious subjection to the tyranny and cruelty of the terrible divinities.

"The best we can desire after a courageous life spent in doing good according to our lights, is the eternal peace of the grave." "Lord, give them an eternal rest!"

His poem is a huge rampart raised against the invasion of the gods, here or hereafter. There is undoubtedly a personal note to be distinguished in his outbursts of eloquent denunciation and impassioned argument. The sensitive and imaginative nature of the great poet had doubtless suffered immeasurably in earlier years by reason of the dark and sinister beliefs of pagan superstition.

"He would not make his judgment blind;
He faced the spectres of the mind
At last he beat his music out."

Hence the sudden and indignant outbursts against the gods in the model of a scientific demonstration. Hence the repeated and superfluous assaults upon ideas and doctrines which he has already shown to be false and groundless; slaying over again the already slain. They are the irrepressible notes of a personal joy in a new-found freedom, the cries of one who, having escaped from the horrible obsession of superstitous terrors, is not content to vanquish them simply; his vengeance must also triumph over them. The Epicurean philosophy of nature had wrought his freedom; there he found his Trinity eternal atoms, infinite space, and universal law. In his fierce championship of that Epicurean philosophy Lucretius is but defending the last asylum wherein his own reason and moral sense found final refuge.

"In singular contrast" [says Martha*] "to that which takes place in the world of communities today, the philosophy of antiquity fulfilled the moral functions reserved among moderns for the priests. Today souls oppressed with heart troubles or tormented with doubt and the dark problems of destiny turn from philosophy to religion. The ancients for the same reason turned from religion to philosophy."

Although no new principle or maxim of conduct appears in his teaching, yet the old were enforced, defended, and applied with such noble sincerity of passion and insight, with such power and grandeur of argumentative eloquence as to make them seem new. The first surprise which greets us here is to find in Lucretius a strenuous defender of the moral liberty of man. Of the three fundamental postulates, God, Freedom, and Immortality, which the common conscience of the modern world regards as the necessary conditions of religion and morality, he discards defiantly the first and last, but maintains as resolutely the second freedom. This is the power, "quod fati foedera rumpat." Book, ii, 254.

"Sua cinque voluntas." "His own will makes for each a beginning."

Compare Omar in contrast:

"We are
But helpless pieces of the game He plays
Upon this checker-board of nights and days;
Hither and thither moves and checks and stays,
And one by one back in the closet lays."

The strength of his teaching is rather to be found in his impassioned protest against the varying forms of evil rife in his day, rather than in the detailed proclamation of positive good.

Against the ambition and love of luxury, the satiety and discontent of his age, he inveighs with extraordinary power. Over and over again he inculcates the lesson that "a life governed by reason, passions ruled by will, plain living, high thinking, and a contented spirit are the only ends worthy of man's endeavor." Yet he does not preach cynicism, like Omar; or despair, like Schopenhauer. The former's advice to man,

"Drink! for we know not whence we came, nor why;
Drink! for we know not why we go, nor where---"

finds no echo in Lucretius. Lucretius never thus uses the doctrine of the extinction of all life at the grave as an argument for men to wreak themselves upon the pleasures and excesses of life. He draws a higher lesson than "eat, drink, for tomorrow we die."

There is no hell after death, it is true; still hell is here, and it is of every man's own making. "Hic Acherusia fit stultorum denique vita." ("The life of fools at length becomes a hell here on earth.") Book iii, 1023.

Here Lucretius and Omar strike a common chord: ---

"I sent my soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that after-life to spell.
And by and by my soul returned to me,
And answered, 'I myself am Heaven and Hell. "

"The tortures of Tantalus, Lityus, and the Danaides and Lyseplus symbols of the blind cowardice and superstition, of the craving passions, of the ever-filled and ever-renewed ambitions which curse and degrade our mortal existence."

Cerberus and the Furies and the tortures of the damned do not exist beyond the grave, but here the creations of a guilty conscience.

" We learn from him that man's first business is to know and obey the laws of his own nature; that his well-being consists in valuing rightly the common real blessings of life rather than in following illusions of fancy or custom, in reverencing the sanctity of family life, and in cherishing a kindly sympathy with all living things."

These truths he presses with a moral earnestness and intensity akin to the noblest examples of modern religious fervor.

We have hardly more than touched upon what to many is his chief characteristic. Lucretius is the poetic incarnation of the scientific spirit. In this regard he has been held dear and chiefly honored by Bruno, Bayle, Voltaire, by Goethe, Buchner, Huxley, Haeckel, and all the hosts of the church militant of science.

"He has drunk deeper of the scientific spring than any poet of ancient or modem times, save perhaps Goethe."

There are in his system of natural philosophy many mistakes, exaggerations and puerile conceits at which even the boy at school to-day may smile; yet, on the other hand, his frank, fearless, and absolute allegiance to nature and to nature's laws alone, as discovered or discoverable by reason and sense, apart from the direction or intervention of any gods whatever this attitude not only wins the applause of the scientific hosts, but his profound imaginative grasp of general principles, his many and marvellous anticipations of some of the most recent conclusions of modern science, may well fill all minds with admiring wonder. He maintains the infinity of the universe, the indestructibility of matter and energy, the universal reign of law, the probability of a plurality of worlds, the incessant motion and transformation that pervade all nature, he steadfast hills as well as sea and rivers and organic life, and the possibility of the mechanical explanation of all phenomena.

He has the fundamental conception of evolution and the "survival of the fittest." His startling similarity of expression regarding sense perception reminds us of the latest teaching of that department of psychology called "psycho-physics." The origin of language, the prehistoric life and progress of man he describes and unfolds in terms which amaze us by their identity with the teachings of Darwin, Tylor, Lubbock, Morris, and Spencer. In Professor Haeckel's last book, "The Riddle of the Universe," the chapter on Unity in Nature, which in the author's view is the final epitaph on the doctrine of design in nature, seems written with the open page of Lucretius before him. This summing up of natural science at the hands of Haeckel after its long march of two hundred years furnishes us hardly anything in point of principle essentially new; the same old difficulties, objections, arguments, illustrations, and assumptions familiar to us in Lucretius present themselves anew, disguised in the modern drapery of scientific terminology. The recent book by Professor Becker-ton on the "Romance of the Heavens," the central ideas of which are the eternity of the cosmos and the function of "constructive collision" of stellar masses, recalls not only in general view but in imaginative details as well the clash of atoms and the endless transformations of Lucretius.

True, the battle in his time was a conflict between science in its infancy and pagan religion in its decrepitude; still, may we not ask, has the old controversy no meaning or message of importance for us today?

"May we not say that the conditions which evoked that philosophy are once more reappearing? Once more we are confronted with two solutions of life: that which takes as its basis some creative act of faith, and that which is based solely on observation of such phenomena as are apprehended by the senses."

Two thousand years, indeed, separate the treatise of Haeckel from the poem of Lucretius, "The Riddle of the Universe," from "De Rerum Natura." Meanwhile experience and ordered observation have enriched and enlarged the materials of argu ment beyond the boldest dreams of the Roman poet. But the conclusions themselves are the same, and they remain equally unsatisfactory, equally unverified. Marking time instead of marching, the demonstration has not advanced a single step within the realm of the invisible. Natural science halts frustrate at the same impassable limits where Lucretius left it, the limits of time and sense, of nature and experience.

Omar's experience with the prophets of Mohammedanism has its parallel in man's experience with the sages of militant science:

"Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and saint, and heard great argument
About it and about but evermore
Came out by the same door wherein I went."

"The gospel of science as in the days of Lucretius, so now, has no hope to offer us but that of eternal death.''

In a word, the ultimate mysteries of the world and life and death and Deity remain to-day as far beyond the reach of human penetration and proof by unaided reason as they ever were. To the vision and to the act of faith alone these mysteries can reveal their meanings, the substance of things hoped for, the end of things not seen; not in whole, indeed, but in part, "for now we see through a glass darkly," but sufficient for the needs of the nobler life, the satisfaction of the reason, the peace and assurance of the heart.

In a last word let us not fail to emphasize again the honor due to the noble aim of Lucretius; for that aim was no less noble than the system which supported it was false. For all his philosophy and all his science and all his poetical power as well were consecrated to one supreme end: the emancipation of human life from the fears and the passions which enslaved and degraded it. A deep compassion springing from the sense of man's actual misery and debasement, a noble hope inspired by the conviction of a peace and a dignity and a moral worth still possible for man these vibrate through every line of his great poem, imparting to his powerful numbers that peculiar tone of impassioned, we might almost say religious, earnestness that infests his great work with a moral grandeur, a majesty and dignity without parallel in all the range of pagan literature.

More than poet, more than philosopher, the burden of a prophet seems to rest upon his soul, as with literary gesture so commanding, in tones so resonant and majestic, with the passion of Isaiah and the sublimity of Job, he preaches for all time the gospel of man's freedom from passion and fear under the conduct of the universal and impersonal law.

"He builded better than he knew." His atheism might better be called the greatest protest against pagan religion in the name and in the spirit of true religion itself.

( Originally Published 1914 )

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