How Lucretius's poem helps us understand our relationship to the natural world, and ourselves.
By Josie Thaddeus-Johns
How tempting, and human, to seek out a design overlaying our lives—finding patterns in how the cards fall for us, whether they’re punishment or reward for our behavior. For the ancient Romans, these patterns took the form of the gods, who were assumed to intervene in human lives. Removing this delusion was the goal of Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius. Instead, he wrote, what is real should be discerned purely from our senses, without letting our anxieties and fears lead us astray.
“For nothing is harder than to distinguish the real things of sense/from those doubtful versions of them that the mind readily supplies,” he wrote, in the fourth book of his epic six-book philosophy poem, On the Nature of Things (or to give it its Latin name, De Rerum Natura), which was written around the middle of the first century BC. A philosophical treatise in carefully constructed, and often stunningly inventive form, his poem hopes to remove humans from the solipsistic center of their universe, and to encourage them to engage with the ambient wonders of the world around them. We should delight in connecting with nature, Lucretius argued, and take comfort in its laws of equilibrium and regeneration. “Nature renews one thing from another, and does not sanction the birth of anything, unless she receives the compensation of another's death.”
De Rerum Natura’s philosophical and scientific cues come from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, born in 341 BC, and a proponent of hedonism (from the Greek hedone, “pleasure”). But pleasure-seeking, to Epicurus, has nothing to do with the instant gratification the word conjures up to us. In the ancient sense, these philosophers were more interested in the avoidance of pain, and a glimmering, everyday tranquillity. Ignorance, pride, meanness, boredom and sexual obsession are condemned by Epicurus’s disciple Lucretius. Accepting the bounds of mortality is the route to happiness, rather than always craving some new pleasure, he explains.
Today, in the flitting of the contemporary always-on mindset, the poem resonates as a plea to slow down, tune into your senses and enjoy the world on its own terms. Nothing comes from nothing, and everything can be explained by matter, so why worry about the unknown?
But reading On the Nature of Things and only taking away the philosophy is like listening to a pop song and only hearing the lyrics. The rhythm and flow of the poetry transport us, just like a big ballad’s wailing melodic synths and pounding drums. Lucretius calls it the “honey” that makes the medicine go down, soothing the delivery of his philosophy. All in service of a theory he hopes can get us ever closer to a kind of stillness: earthly, human and universal.