On The Nature Of Things

illustration from Stephen Greenblatt’s piece in The New Yorker about Lucretius

I finished reading Stephen Greenblatt’s book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, this week.  It inspired this morning’s poem on my daily poem project, Writing the Day.

Reading Lucretius

this twenty-first century morning makes me

a Roman meditating a thousand years ago

On the Nature of Things, a universe

without gods, made from very small particles,

eternal motion colliding, swerving in new directions.

And Lucretius inspires this weekend entry because, like Greenblatt, encountering the story of Lucretius and his writing did make me marvel at the modernity of thought from this man of the first century.

De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) is his long poem in which he tried to explain Epicurean philosophy to his Roman audience.

lucretiusLucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher (c. 99 BC – c. 55 BC) and the poem is written in the “heroic hexameter” used in both Greek and Latin, including Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. It is divided into six untitled books.

What is marvelous to me is that it is really what we would call today a book on physics. It covers atomism, the mind and soul, sensation and thought and celestial and terrestrial phenomena.  And it’s a poem!

What was shocking for his time is that his universe operates according to physical principles (he calls them fortuna) and not the divine intervention of any gods – whether they be Roman or Greek deities or any other variation.

You can read Lucretius’ book online  and you can get many versions of the book.  But I would never have found his work at all if I had not heard Stephen Greenblatt interviewed and bought his retelling of Lucretius in The Swerve.  I did get a copy of the poem from the library and read portions of the original, but I preferred the more modern path into the poem. After all, that was what Lucretius was also trying to accomplish with his book.

Titus Lucretius Carus wrote On the Nature of Things sometime around 60 B.C.E  This was not a philosophy of his own invention. He was repackaging the tenets of Greek Epicureanism, which dates back to 300 B.C.E., to his Roman audience.

He sets himself the task of explaining the nature of everything. It seems an impossible task. And yet, many have tried since, including Albert Einstein and others wanting to find a unified theory that would “explain it all.”

He didn’t get all of the “science” correct, which one would expect. But the ideas that are there, are quite amazing for his time.

He considers the atomic nature of matter – that everything is made from very tiny particles that we cannot see that operate under rules that are beyond man or gods. This philosophy questions that there are gods and considers that religion may be more harmful than good. Consider how just those two ideas are still charged with controversy today.

He considers astronomy and life on other planets, conception and death,  heredity and even a kind of evolution and speciation. He gets into areas we would call psychology, such as the senses and perception, sleep and dreams.

Nor to pursue the atoms one by one,
To see the law whereby each thing goes on.
But some men, ignorant of matter, think,
Opposing this, that not without the gods,
In such adjustment to our human ways,
Can nature change the seasons of the years,
And bring to birth the grains and all of else
To which divine Delight, the guide of life,
Persuades mortality and leads it on

The importance of his writing was not its originality, but its presentation. You could go back four centuries earlier to Parmenides (520-450 BCE), a Greek philosopher who described all things as being singularly composed of a fiery aether. He said that matter could not be created or destroyed.

And there was  Pythagoras’ numerical formulations to describe the nature of things.

Empedocles (490-430 BCE) had four basic elements to compose the universe: earth, water, fire and air. He  perceived attractive and repulsive forces between the elements (see gravity, van der Waal, and electromagnetism) which he referred to (charmingly, I think) as Love and Strife.

Anaxagoras (500-428 BCE) believed that every substance has an elemental form that is composed of some small fraction of every type of element.

Democritus (460-370 BCE)  arrived at an atomic model that survived for 2000 years. with little alteration. Plato and Aristotle were not fans of his philosophy, but Epicurus and Lucretius believed it and passed it on.

Lucretius writes that he will “explain by what forces nature steers the courses of the Sun and the journeyings of the Moon, so that we shall not suppose that they run their yearly races between heaven and earth of their own free will (remember that the planets were gods themselves) or that they are rolled round in furtherance of some divine plan.”  That kind of thinking could get you into a lot of trouble  – then and today.

And the swerve? Determinism doesn’t live harmoniously with the idea of free will.  Lucretius wants free will in his physicalistic universe. He suggests that there is an indeterministic tendency for atoms to swerve randomly. This indeterminacy allows for the “free will which livings things throughout the world have.” That indeterminacy is what caused Einstein to say that “God does not play dice with the universe.”  Einstein was uncomfortable with some of the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics.  Of course, Einstein was using “God” in a non-religious sense.

And it looks like “god” does play dice with the universe at the quantum level. Lucretius would be pleased to know this.


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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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