The Nature of Things (Norton Edition)

The Nature of Things (Norton Edition) - Lucretius,  Frank O. Copley (Translator)
As myrrh cannot be readily stripped of scent
without destruction of its substance, too,
so mind and soul cannot be readily drawn
out of the body but that all three must die. pg. 64, Bk. III, lines 327-330
Titus Lucretius Carus, a Roman of whom little is known, presumably wrote the poem The Nature of Things to convert his friend and/or associate Gaius Memmius to Epicureanism. In the pursuit of pleasure- not unbridled hedonism, but the tranquil pleasure of learning (ataraxis)- Lucretius rejects religion and seeks to understand the world around him. Lucretius praises the 4th century B.C Greek philosopher Epicurus throughout the six books. The atomist view of Epicurus is the foundation for Lucretius’ passages on his observations- many of which are startling and seem beyond his time. Just some examples:

Approximately 1600 years before Galileo Galilei, Lucretius noted
And so, through the blank of void, all things must fall
at equal speed, though not of equal weight. pg. 34, Bk. II, lines 239-240
On color being the product of reflected light:
And peacocks’ tails, when sunlight shines full on them,
will likewise, as they catch the light, change color;
now since these colors come when light has struck,
without it, we must conclude, they could not be. pg. 47; Bk. II, lines 806-809
On the infinity of space and possibility of life elsewhere in the universe:
In no way, now, will logic let us think,
since empty space runs endless everywhere
{…}
And so again and again you must admit
that other meetings of matter exist elsewhere
like this of ours which ether holds close-gripped.
{…}
that other circled earths exist elsewhere pg. 53; lines 1052-1053, 1064-1066, and 1075
He also rejects the teleological views of Aristotle and, 1800 years before Darwin, suggests the idea of natural selection:
no part of us grew there that we might use it,
but what grew there created its own use. pg. 102;Bk IV lines 834-835

Then, too, earth tried creating hosts of strange
creatures, fantastic things in face and form,
{…}
Many kinds of creatures, too, must then have died
and been unable to reproduce their kind.
for all you see now breathing the breath of life
had either cunning or courage or nimbleness
to guard and preserve their kind since time began. pg. 132; Bk. V, lines 837-838 and 855-859
{…}
But those whom nature had given no powers, either
to live on their own or to supply to us
advantages that would make us let their kind
find food in our protection and keep safe,
these, of course, fell profit and prey to others,
all caught in their own death-dealing limitations,
till nature at last rendered their kind extinct. pg. 133; Bk. V, lines 871-877
And 1800 years before Mendel, he touches on the basic mechanics behind genetics:
The female, too, comes from the father’s seed
And males find origin in the mother’s flesh,
for every child us born of twofold seed,
and every child resembles more that parent
of whom it has more than half; this we observe
whether the child’s of male or female sex. pg. 111; Bk. IV, lines 1227-1231
There’s plenty he gets wrong as well, which is not surprising that this was probably written in the 1st century B.C. Following the Epicurean model, Lucretius refuses to find truth in anything but the senses. The sense cannot contradict each other. Smell cannot contradict sight. Touch cannot contradict sound. Without reliance on the senses, “all sanity would collapse, and life itself world drop in its tracks if we can’t trust the senses…” pg. 94, Bk. IV, lines 507-508.

This an amazingly prophetic little book and it is filled with a sensibility lacking in Plato and Aristotle. Unfortunately, I’m sure the anti-religious tone will turn many away, but even for those who may not subscribe to Lucretius’ atheistic view, it is a lucid refutation of the gods. Not based on angry defiance, but on his well-argued view on nature. This is one of those rare classics that is truly enjoyable to read. As much for the ideas as the presentation.
If you have grasped this well, you see that nature,
free in a world no lords, and masters rule,
does everything by herself, without the gods. pg. 54; Bk. II, lines 1090-1092

Nothing goes down to darkness and the Pit;
there must be matter that worlds to come may grow;
they too will run their course and follow you.
before you day, men died, and men will die;
there’s never an end; one thing grows from another.
life is no grant in freehold; life’s a loan. pg. 79; Bk. III, lines 966-971