LUCRETIUS

THE ROMAN EPICUREAN SCIENTIST

Titus Lucretius Carus was born at the very beginning of the first century B.C., he lived a life about which we know almost nothing except the odd fact that he died at the age of forty-four as the result of a "love potion" or drug of some sort. These were bad times politically, life was insecure and the future uncertain; the old religion had largely faded, and for the first time the full force of the Greek philosophical tradition, especially the work of Epicurus, was available for Roman eyes. In such a world Lucretius came to maturity, soaked himself in volumes of Greek thought largely unavailable to us now, and put together in poetry of grand design and remarkable execution a major philosophical treatise. This is all the more remarkable because Romans generally has small patience and talent for philosophy. Lucretius stands out as the first and last Roman philosopher worthy of the name.

The title De Rerum Natura is often translated as "On the Nature of Things" or "The Nature of the World", phrases which fail to convey what must have been Lucretius' meaning. To backtrack a bit, Greek thinkers somewhat before the time of Socrates had worked out a system for the origin of the world, which could be summed up under the Greek noun phusis or physis in modern spelling. This came from the verb phuo meaning "beget; come into being", not unlike the German werden. Under this rubric things could be explained not just by describing what and how they are, but as it were genetically, by where they come from. Everything is generated by something else, the plants, the animals, the rocks.... everything has an organic history. Now in Lucretius' time Latin had an impoverished philosophical vocabulary, and it was necessary to fashion new words for new ideas. So Lucretius chose the verb nascor "be born" as approximating the Greek original, and derived from it a noun natura which he clearly meant to be the Latin equivalent of the Greek physis.

Therefore the title of Lucretius' poem should be " On the Coming Into Being of Things (=The World)". Here is a great difference, for the old translation would imply that we were dealing with a descriptive treatise, whereas the translation given here, ensures the philosophical and organic view of the world which Lucretius in fact demonstrates.

Throughout the work, blind superstition and "bound back belief" (Latin religio etymologically means "tying, binding back... ") is opposed with distaste and detailed argumentation. One could say that the subtitle of the poem would be "Against Superstition", which is exactly what Lucretius means by "religion". The mysteries which "bound back" the mind of men before Epicurus and others showed the true light of a clear mind, all disappear when faced with thought, logical reason, and above all SCIENCE.

The Greeks made no distinction between a wise man, a thinker, a philosopher, and a scientist, using the work sophos for all of them. The idea of separating the world of human wisdom, physical wisdom and metaphysical wisdom would have seem to them unnecessary, and probably ludicrous. Since the Industrial Revolution we have effected this very split, with the result that the serious philosopher has often been seen as the opponent of the scientist. Science is often seen as a combination of physical research with a strong bent for practical engineering, and the economic emoluments which industry can derive from its use of a certain kind of thought. If we believe that Man can control nature, and that the world is here for us to manipulate for human benefit, this makes sense. But we are now coming to a realization that our engineering sciences, especially chemistry and nuclear physics, have lost the philosophic overview of where we are going, and as this century ends, we must conclude that we have engineered ourselves into a mess. Although the economic purview is still strong, the environmental or "natural" overview is deteriorating at an accelerating rate.

This could never have happened in the ancient world for two reasons: First, the ancients did not and would not separate ideas from implementation, they realized that it is the ideas that make progress, while engineering (for example the Roman talent for military engineering, bridges, aqueducts and cannon) are unimportant and probably worthless in the larger view of things. But as the larger view faded, the ever-practical Romans settled for sheer implementation, which they were agile at, and lost the thread of scientific thought completely. A brief survey of the pages of Pliny the Elder's summation of Roman scientific thought will make this painfully clear.

Second, the people of the Classical world never had the sheer power to use, and also to damage the world around them, hence the conflict of idea and implementation never arose for them. Had the Romans put together a simple steam engine, which was mechanically and design-wise completely within their abilities, they could have had engines to pump out mines, drive grain-mills, and propel ships throughout the Mediterranean world.. Instead they chose the reprehensible institution of slavery, while since the Industrial Revolution, we developed machines which would replace slaves, and instituted the preferable state of personal freedom for all.

This is all true, and the history of the Classical world still annoys the serious student of ancient science and technology. Wasting their knowledge about steam and hydraulics on toys and temple trickery, they missed the possibility of an ancient Industrial Revolution completely. But pause a minute to consider these points:

1) The population of the ancient Mediterranean was in excess of a hundred million persons. Is unemployment something which can be swept under the rug in a hurry?

2) For all that can be said about the inveterate conservatism of the ancient world, let it be noted that they left the world largely in the condition in which they found it. True, Europe was deforested, true that mining had removed some of the irreplaceable natural resources. But they did not leave Europe stripped of all resources, or the earth irretrievably poisoned.

For a millennium and a half the Greco-Roman society dominated Europe completely, but when it receded in the 7th c. AD, it did not leave a ruined countrysideor a polluted atmosphere.

What has all this to do with the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius?

In the tradition of ancient thought, science was a part of thought, and applied science without a rational philosophical overview, was unthinkable. For Lucretius, philosophy concerns itself with Man and his realm, and with the world around us, insofar as we can comprehend it. In this sense, Lucretius stands as an important thinker in the Hellenic wake, he puts understanding first, philosophically and esthetically.

Classicists without scientific background often fail to realize the amount of pre-experimental scientific thinking which Lucretius' pages represent. Most of this comes from the Greeks, mainly from Epicurus about whom we know far less than we would like. In fact for us Lucretius is a prime source of information about Epicurean thought. In the pages of Lucretius we find:

1) A developed atomic theory, resembling that of the world of Dalton if not ours today, with serious intimations of what is to come.

2) Clearly spelled out laws of the conservation of matter and energy, essential to any understanding of modern chemistry.

3) A doctrine involving molecular "hooks" or attachments, which is remarkably similar, although the words may be different, to our understanding of molecular attraction and combination. He misses the role of electrical charges, but recall that the doctrine of electrons was publicly announced by Thomson only in l904.

4) A pellucidly clear statement about biological mutations, and selection of the fittest to survive. When Darwin was asked late in his life if he had ever read Lucretius, he stated to the incredulous questioner that he had not. But it is all there in Lucretius, whether Darwin had read it or not.

The list goes on. None of this means that Lucretius was a scientist, in fact he was an interpreter of many centuries of Greek thought, which was always engaged with what we call scientific speculation. It is possible that without this speculation the scientific renaissance of the 16th and 17th centuries would never taken place, since it is traditional for newcomers in thinking to be able to place their feet on the shoulders of giants.

Some traditional Classicists insist that the work of Lucretius is principally a poem. And indeed it is this also. Each of the books is prefaced by a poetic "apostrophe to Thought", expressed in the most delicate poetic nuances, yet retaining rigorous firmness of mind. The wonderful introduction to the first book is more than a hundred lines of well wrought poetry, it is a deep view and a perception of the living, biological world. There is nothing quite like it in any language, reading it carefully while playing a record of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring brings together two views of the elemental world, both suggest Man's place in it. If you are not sure about the humanistic meaning of Lucretius, try it with the Stravinsky music and see if it adds anything new.

But the two first books,aside from the prefaces, are thoroughly technical. Lucretius is faced with the difficult task of interpreting Greek atomism in Latin, which lacks familiarity with the basic concepts and also a suitable and exact vocabulary.  It all comes off very well, although any serious reader has to sift and plow. That is probably the nature of scientific thinking; after the brilliant invocations and odes to science, you have to settle down and work at it. Lucretius does work at it, it is much to his credit as a thinker and as a scientific philosopher.

Vergil celebrated his grown-man's birthday on the day Lucretius died, and planned to devote his life after completing the Aeneid to philosophy in Lucretius' vein (not to Stoicism, for which see the comment on Vergil). His writing is full of Lucretisms, but later Romans paid scant attention to this author who was probably too far above them intellectually, and the Middle Ages lost contact with Lucretius almost completely. All our modern texts stem from a single medieval prototype, without which we would have no more idea of Lucretius that we have of the arch-poet Gallus who disappeared leaving us just two lines. The monks who copied the medieval exemplar of Lucretius' work probably understood little of what they were writing, and the MS tradition abounds in intolerable errors and misunderstandings. By the year 1600 Lucretius was against printed and read, and he has had an important place on the Classical bookshelf ever since.

Still, Lucretius is never easy reading. One has to know a lot of Latin, also a lot of ancient science and be prepared to spend much time wrestling with many recalcitrant passages. But in the deserted territory of Roman philosophical questing, Lucretius stands alone, unique and totally admirable. The more you know of this strange and solitary figure, the more you respect him.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris