Lucretius: The Roman Poet of Humanism
by Gary Sloan (e-mail: [March 15th, 2001]

“In De Rerum Natura, Lucretius sought to clear the mental rubbish that obscures reality. He exposed flaws in common assumptions about gods. To begin with, he scoffed at the anthropocentric notion that gods created the earth for humans.”

      Centuries before the concept gained respectability, the Roman philosopher-poet Lucretius (99-55 BCE) was an ardent proponent of humanism, one of its stalwart progenitors. In De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), Lucretius insists human happiness is incompatible with belief in gods that manipulate nature, pursue their own agendas (open or hidden), and legislate human ends. Humans must, he insists, unshackle themselves from superstition, irrational fears, and hollow pieties. They must exercise reason and adopt a scientific mind set.

      Lucretius is sometimes classified as an atheist. He wasn’t, not exactly, but the gods in which he purported to believe were singularly ungodly. They didn’t create the universe, stage-manage events, answer prayers, reward virtue, punish vice, inspire sacred texts, visit the sublunary world, or, apparently, even know we exist. They had none of the usual "omni" attributes. They were limited in knowledge, power, and inventiveness. Though Lucretius doesn’t offer a physical description, they were corporeal beings. They dwelt between worlds (intermundia), ensconced in a Shangri-la of perpetual stasis. There, they lived lives of ceaseless tranquility and repose, unruffled by crass desires and base emotions, inviolably shielded from the thousand shocks, natural and unnatural, terrestrial flesh is heir to.

     In De Rerum Natura, Lucretius sought to clear the mental rubbish that obscures reality. He exposed flaws in common assumptions about gods. To begin with, he scoffed at the anthropocentric notion that gods created the earth for humans. The terrain and climate are woefully inhospitable, he observed, unkind to our mortalities (as Herman Melville might say): "Of all that the sky covers with its mighty expanse, a great part is possessed by mountains and forests full of wild beasts, rocks and marshes, and seas that keep the lands far apart. Much of this land is barred to mortals by scorching heat and constant frost. Of the land that is left, nature would cover it with brambles except that man’s power resists. He groans over the stout mattock for his very life and cleaves the soil with the pressure of the plow."

     Equally implausible is the belief gods created us. If they did, they are either sadistic or bungling. Consider the infant: "The child, like a sailor cast forth by the cruel waves, lies naked upon the ground, speechless, in need of every kind of vital support, as soon as nature has spilt him forth with throes from his mother’s womb into the regions of light, and he fills all around with doleful wailings -- as is just, seeing that so much trouble awaits him in life."

     Other species have a better claim than we to terrestrial primacy: "The diverse flocks, herds and wild creatures grow. They need no rattles, none of them wants to hear the coaxing and broken baby-talk of the foster-nurse, they seek no change of raiment according to the temperature of the season, they need no weapons, no lofty walls to protect their own. For them, the earth herself brings forth all they want in abundance."

“Nor should we fear the gods will punish us, either here or hereafter. The false supposition generates paralyzing fear of death and natural phenomena.”

     Besides, why would the gods create us? We can do nothing for them: "What largess of beneficence could our gratitude bestow upon beings immortal and blessed, that they should effect anything for our sake? Or what novelty could entice those who were tranquil before to desire a change in their former life! For it is evident that he must rejoice in new things who is offended with the old. But when one has had no annoyance in the past, enjoying a life of happiness, what could kindle a love of novelty in such a one?"

     Nor would the gods by creating us necessarily confer a beneficence on us. Had our species never existed, we would be none the worse: "What evil had there been for us had we not been made? He who has never tasted the love of life, never been enrolled in the lists, how does it hurt him never to have been made?" More, since all knowledge is grounded in experience, how could the gods even conceive of beings like us? "Whence was a pattern for making things first implanted in the gods, or even a conception of mankind, so as to know what they wished to make and see it in the mind’s eye?"

     Nature is a law unto herself. She is "free and rid of proud masters, herself doing all of her own accord, without the help of the gods." Capricious or inept gods will never undo the orderly motions of the heavens: "When we think of the sun and moon and stars, into our hearts already crushed with other woes a new anxiety awakens and lifts up its head--whether we have to do with some immeasurable power of the gods, able to make the bright stars revolve with different movements. For it shakes the mind with doubt whether the walls of the world are able to endure the strain of restless motion."

     Nor should we fear the gods will punish us, either here or hereafter. The false supposition generates paralyzing fear of death and natural phenomena. Lightning, tempests, earthquakes, and disease become agents of divine retribution. When earth gapes, thunder rolls, or plague rages, even the educated may "revert to the old superstitions and take to themselves cruel taskmasters, whom the poor wretches believe omnipotent, ignorant of how the power of each thing has been limited and its boundary firmly fixed."

     As the wind blows and the waves mount, even the doughty warrior may cower like a frightened child: "When the supreme violence of a furious wind upon the sea sweeps over the waters the chief admiral of a fleet along with his mighty legions, does he not crave the gods’ peace with vows and in his panic seek with prayers the peace of the winds and favoring breezes." All for naught: "Nonetheless, he is caught up in the furious hurricane and driven upon the shoals of death." Thunder and lightning and other natural phenomena bring whole nations to heel, in collective prostration for sins real or imagined.

     Lucretius demonstrates the absurdity of such fears. Take the thunderbolt. If its purpose is to punish wrongdoers, why does it strike the innocent? Why does it strike where no one is? "Are the gods practicing their arms and strengthening their muscles?" Why give targets advance warning by thundering from every direction? Why, to zap one victim, shoot everywhere? Why do the gods shatter their own temples and statues?

“Ultimately, nothing exists but atoms and the void (corpora et inane). There is no ghost in the machine.”

     Lucretius viewed the underworld, Hades, as a fiendish projection of earthly travails: "Assuredly whatsoever things are fabled to exist in deep Acheron [Hades], these all exist in this life. There is no wretched Tantalus, fearing the great rock that hangs over him in the air and frozen with vain terror. Rather, it is in this life that fear of the gods oppresses mortals without cause, and the rock they fear is any that chance may bring."

     When fortune smiles, the educated deride the concept of eternal punishment. To see what they really think, "scrutinize them in danger or peril." The bravado crumbles: "Banished far from the sight of men, stained with some disgraceful charge, afflicted with all tribulations, they yet live. And in spite of all, wherever the wretches go they sacrifice to their ancestors and send down oblations to the departed ghosts, eagerly directing their minds to superstition."

     Lucretius held that the soul, like the body, consists of material particles, albeit of a finer sort. What he called the soul (or spirit) we might call sensation or perception. Thought, or reflection, he called mind, effected by a third class of particles. Soul, mind, and body were, via the complex interaction of their particles, mutually interdependent. What affected the one affected the other two. A hard blow to the body stunned the mind and soul. Mental depression dulled sensation and weakened the body. When a person died, the three types of particles were irremediably dissevered and scattered. Every particle went its separate way, never again to link up with the others in the configuration that generated the selfhood of the deceased. Body, mind, and soul were thus mortal. The particles themselves, on the other hand, were immortal, forever reassembling to create new entities, both animate and inanimate.

     Hades aside, Lucretius believed fear of death stems from misconceptions about nonbeing and overactive imaginations. When people think of themselves dead, they instinctively imagine they retain bodily sensations: "They do not see that in real death there will be no other self that lives to bewail the perished self or stands by to feel pain that they lie there lacerated, burning, or mauled by wild beasts." They fancy they will miss life’s pleasures, forgetting that "no longer will any desires possess them." Death is merely the resumption of our pre-zygotic (as we might say) condition, nonentity. As the American poet Philip Freneau said, "If nothing once, you nothing lose / For when you die, you are the same."

     Eternal existence was the exclusive privilege of atoms (primordia rerum, "first beginnings of things," Lucretius called them) and the void, empty space within and between atoms. Without a void, the atoms would have nowhere to move, and without movement they couldn’t do anything. Atoms were indestructible and indivisible. Were they infinitely divisible, all macroscopic phenomena would long ago have vanished. Disintegrating bodies would decompose forever. Particles would never reconstitute themselves to form new entities. The universe would fizzle into virtual nothingness. And nothing can come of nothing (Nil ex nihilo fit).

     Like his Greek predecessors Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus (his chief mentor), Lucretius was a thoroughgoing materialist. Everything in the universe--all objects, all events, including those called mental and spiritual -- is a manifestation of the interaction of particles. Ultimately, nothing exists but atoms and the void (corpora et inane). There is no ghost in the machine. Just as the letters of an alphabet can be variously ordered to create an infinite number of words, so diverse combinations of atoms produce an inexhaustible supply of entities. The movement of the atoms is entirely fortuitous, undirected, without behest. A Designer is a superfluous hypothesis:

Certainly it was no design of the atoms to place themselves in a particular order, nor did they decide what motions each should have. But atoms were struck with blows in many ways and carried along by their own weight from infinite times up to the present. They have been accustomed to move and to meet in all manner of ways. Being spread abroad through a vast time and trying every sort of combination and motion, at length those come together that produce great things, like earth and sea and sky and the generation of living creatures.

     Despite his advocacy of materialism, Lucretius wasn’t a strict determinist. He attributed to the particles that constitute the mind unpredictable swerves, causeless motions, which he introduced to preserve autonomous volitions in animals, human and nonhuman: "Whence comes this free will in living creatures all over the world? Whence is this will wrested from the fates by which we proceed whither pleasure leads each, swerving our [particle] motions not at fixed times and fixed places, but just where our mind has taken us? Undoubtedly it is our wills that begin these things, and from the will movements go rippling through the limbs." Although the concept of the swerve may sound gratuitous, it has some affinities with quantum theories of atomic behavior.

“Lucretius contended that belief in creator gods sprang from human ignorance and indolence. By treating gods as the causal agents of natural processes, people spared themselves the labor of seeking the real causes.”

     Lucretius contended that belief in creator gods sprang from human ignorance and indolence. By treating gods as the causal agents of natural processes, people spared themselves the labor of seeking the real causes: "They observed how the array of heaven and the various seasons of the year came round in due order and could not discover by what causes all that came about. Therefore, their refuge was to leave all in the hands of the gods and to suppose that by their nod all things are done."

     Humans placed the gods in the sky because it is the locus of impressive and intimidating phenomena: "Through the sky the moon revolves, the solemn stars of night, heaven’s night-wandering torches and flying flames, clouds and sun, rain and snow, winds, lightnings and hail, rapid roarings and great threatening rumbles of thunder."

     The ascription of causal efficacy to the gods was a mistake for which humans paid dearly: "O unhappy race of mankind, to ascribe such doings to the gods and to attribute to them bitter wrath as well! What groans did we create for ourselves, what wounds for us, what tears for generations to come!"

     Having created the celestial potentates, people sought to appease them with ignominious rituals and sacrifices: "It is no piety to show oneself often with covered head, turning towards a stone and approaching every altar, none to fall prostrate upon the ground and to spread open the palms before shrines of the gods, none to sprinkle altars with the blood of beasts in showers and to link vow to vow."

     True piety, says this impassioned rationalist and empiricist, consists in the ability "to survey all things with tranquil mind." Observe closely and reason carefully, he advises. Be prepared to discard cherished presuppositions and to defend novel premises: "Forbear to spew out reason from your mind, but rather ponder everything with keen judgment; and if it seems true, own yourself vanquished, but, if it is false, gird up your loins to fight."

     Lucretius’ espousal of materialism, personal extinction, and ungodly gods earned him the enmity of the Christian church. He was roundly stigmatized. Embellishing unsubstantiated rumors, St. Jerome prated that the poet "was driven mad by a love potion, composed books in the intervals of insanity, and committed suicide in his forty-fourth year." He threw in for good measure that Cicero had to correct the poet’s botched ravings. Among his own, the great poets, Lucretius has always found favor. He has stirred the collective poetic imagination of the West. Echoes of De Rerum Natura reverberate in Virgil, Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Arnold, Tennyson, and other luminous legatees.

     In Lucretius, as in all genius, there was some trash, quite a bit in fact (erroneous information, untenable hypotheses, wild surmises), but his conviction that the universe can be understood and happiness achieved without recourse to supernatural agencies and divine revelation put him far ahead of his time. So much so that many still haven't caught up.

Resources and Avenues for Further Study

  • The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Lucretius
  • Google Directory: Latin > Texts > Ancient > Lucreti Cari, Titi

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