Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 99 to c. 55 BC) was a Roman poet and author of De Rerum Natura [On the Nature of Things], which he appears to have completed but failed to revise and fully prepare for the reader. We assume from the words of the poem itself that Lucretius was a friend of Memmius, a prominent Roman political figure, to whom the work is addressed. Other than that, we know virtually nothing about him, other than a scurrilous story circulated four hundred years after his death that he was driven mad by a love potion, created his poem in lucid intervals, and then killed himself.
On the Nature of Things is a long celebration of the philosophy of Epicurus, a view of life which claims that all natural phenomena are to be understood in terms of material atoms, that gods play no role in natural events or human affairs and have nothing to do with creating or sustaining the world, that the immortality of the soul is a myth fabricated by traditional religions for their own absurd and cruel purposes, and that the highest goal of life is the avoidance of unnecessary pain and the pursuit of appropriate pleasure, especially through contemplation. The poem is thus a long, impassioned plea for what we would now call classical humanism.
Most of On the Nature of Things is taken up with a wide-ranging materialist explanation for natural phenomena based on atomic theory, so that we can understand how the world works without reference to divine planning or intervention and can accept how we human beings, like all other things, are made up of material stuff which combined when we were born and which will dissolve back into particles when we die (as will the earth and our cosmos eventually). The notions of the immortality of the soul and of an afterlife of rewards and punishments are therefore specious. It is important to recognize, however, that the greatness of the poem does not stem from its contributions to our scientific knowledge or from any complex philosophical arguments. It is a magnificent poem because it conveys to us both the excitement and passion of the speakerís feelings for these materialistic ideas and the urgency and eloquence with which he pursues his ethical mission of persuading his readers to live better lives. It is the most famous, long-lasting, and influential endorsement of Epicurean philosophy in our culture.
Lucretius offers us a vision of the world rather different from the one our scientific traditions present. His world is in constant motion, driven by the mechanical forces of production and dissolution, and intensely vital. At the heart of it lies the random movement of basic particles (atoms), so that there is nothing deterministic about why things occur the way they do. Nature has its regular phenomena, of course, but at the heart of it lie unpredictable motions. These can make our existence precarious and short-lived, but nature is also intensely beautiful, awe-inspiring, and worthy of contemplation. We should have the courage to accept this condition and reorient our lives so that we are not misled by false ambitious, unnecessary fears, and superstitions.
The poem has always been extremely popular and influential. It played a vital role in the development of Latin poetry before Virgil and was an important text in those centuries when a knowledge of Latin literature was an essential part of an educated personís agenda. The list of those who have expressed their admiration and debt to Lucretius reads like a Whoís Who of Western culture, and that popularity continues today.
Readers who would like to read a more detailed introduction to the poem should consult the following web page: