Sunday, January 01, 2012

De Rerum Natura, by Lucretius

In De Rerum Natura the first century BC Roman poet Lucretius presents his view of the universe as governed by natural laws. He rules out the influence of gods and of supernatural forces, though he doesn’t argue over their existence. He strongly takes issue with religion, which he sees as destructive. Lucretius argues that all matter of any sort is composed of atoms, extremely small particles. Atoms vary significantly in type, though there is a limited number of types. Various combinations of types of atoms account for the variety of things in the world. Lucretius believes in the immortality of only three things: of atoms, the void (the empty spaces between atoms and between substances made of atoms), and of the universe itself, beyond and outside of which nothing exists. Atoms themselves are infinite in number, just as the universe and the void are infinite in extent. Although his belief in atoms anticipates modern atomic theories, his ideas about how atoms work do not.

Lucretius argues that there is no reason to fear death. First, all things are born and must die. This pattern is the natural way of things. The mind and the body are separate from one another but inextricably linked. They are born together, mature together, grow old and die together. The mind, the spirit, does not outlive the body or exist in any form after the body perishes. Why fear death, then, Lucretius asks, when there is no afterlife in which one can be punished or rewarded for how he has lived his physical life, and when there is no mind or spirit remaining to contemplate the life that has ended? (He does not succeed in convincing me not to fear death). This view of the universe, of atoms, of religion and life after death is Epicurean.

Lucretius believes that the world can be known through reason, not through supernatural or religious explanations. Although many of his explanations for how the world works are wrong—for instance, he believes the moon, sun, and stars are embedded in a firmament surrounding the earth, and that their motions are accounted for by contending winds, and that earthquakes and volcanoes are the result of subterranean disturbances caused by winds—the important revelation of his poem is that through reason we can understand the natural laws that do govern the universe. He does anticipate many modern theories—the science of genetics, for instance.

This translation of De Rerum Natura is more than 7000 lines long and is divided into six parts or “Books.” The least interesting was Book IV, “The Senses,” while the others were compelling to varying extents. The first two books, “Matter and Void” and “The Dance of Atoms,” are a good introduction to Lucretius’ thought and the poem as a whole.

The translator, A. E. Stalling, is an American poet who writes often about classical subjects. She graduated from the University of Georgia with a classics degree and lives in Athens, Greece. Her translation is intentionally modern. It is well done, clear (with some exceptions), and makes uses of such modern terms as “pathogens,” a word that implies more knowledge of disease than the ancient world possessed. This is a flaw in an otherwise effective translation.

No comments: