The J. S. Watson translation is available as a free online read or download from books.Google.com.
THE MOST SALIENT EXCERPTS
(if you don’t want to tackle the whole)
On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura)
trans. J. S. Watson
Three excerpts from On the Nature of Things are found below. Each deals with one of Lucretius’s key positions.
The excerpt from Book One begins with praise of Epicurus, the “man of Greece” who dared to teach that the gods did not control daily life; it also deals with the inevitable evils of “Religion,” which for Lucretius is mere superstition which darkens the mind, making it unable to reach any true or accurate understanding of the world.
Book Two explains that a degenerative principle is at work in the universe, one of the earliest attempts to lay out a philosophy of entropy.
Book Five explores the implications of Lucretius’s atomism: there is no designer; all that is has come from a chance collision of the atomic particles which make up the world. No other explanation accounts for the random aspects that Lucretius sees in the world around him: the inhospitability, ill forturne, and death that exists in the physical universe.
About this translation
Lucretius wrote in Latin verse: the scientific prose of the ancient world. I have chosen to reprint a prose version of his work here. John Selby Watson, a historian and headmaster, was known for his literal, readable translations from the Greek; he contributed numerous volumes to the popular Everyman’s Library series.
Book One: There Is No Divine Generation
When the life of men lay foully grovelling before our eyes, crushed beneath the weight of a Religion, who displayed her head from the regions of the sky, lowering over mortals with terrible aspect, a man of Greece was the first that dared to raise mortal eyes against her, and first to make a stand against her. Him neither tales of gods, nor thunderbolts, nor heaven itself with its threatening roar, repressed, but roused the more the active energy of his soul, so that he should desire to be the first to break the close bars of nature’s portals.
Accordingly the vivid force of his intellect prevailed, and proceeded far beyond the flaming battlements of the world, and in mind and thought traversed the whole immensity of space ; hence triumphant, he declares to us what can arise into being, and what cannot ; in short, in what way the powers of all things are limited, and a deeply-fixed boundary assigned to each.
By which means Religion, brought down under our feet, is bruised in turn ; and his victory sets us on a level with heaven.
In treating of these subjects, I fear you may think that you are entering on forbidden elements of philosophy, and commencing a course of crime. Whereas, on the contrary, that much-extolled Religion has too frequently given birth to criminal and impious deeds; as when at Aulis the chosen leaders of the Greeks, the chief of men, foully stained the altar of the virgin Trivia with the blood of Iphigenia….To such evils could Religion persuade mankind!
…[D]id men but know that there was a fixed limit to their woes, they would be able, in some measure, to defy the religious fictions and menaces of the poets ; but now, since we must fear eternal punishment at death, there is no mode, no means, of resisting them. For men know not what the nature of the soul is; whether it is engendered with us, or whether, on the contrary, it is infused into us at our birth, whether it perishes with us, dissolved by death, or whether it haunts the gloomy shades and vast pools of Orcus, or whether, by divine influence, it infuses itself into other animals, as our Ennius sung….Wherefore with reason then, not only an inquiry concerning celestial affairs is to be accurately made by us, (as by what means the courses of the sun and moon are effected, and by what influence all things individually are directed upon the earth,) but especially also we must consider, with scrutinizing examination, of what the soul and the nature of the mind consist, and what it is, which, haunting us, sometimes when awake, and sometimes when overcome by disease or buried in sleep, terrifies the mind….
This terror and darkness of the mind, therefore, it is not the rays of the sun, or the bright shafts of day, that must dispel, but reason and the contemplation of nature; of which our first principle shall hence take its commencement, THAT NOTHING IS EVER DIVINELY GENERATED FROM NOTHING. For thus it is that fear restrains all men, because they observe many things effected on the earth and in heaven, of which effects they can by no means see the causes, and therefore think that they are wrought by a divine power. For which reasons, when we shall have clearly seen that NOTHING CAN BE PRODUCED FROM NOTHING, we shall then have a more accurate perception of that of which we are in search, and shall understand whence each individual thing is generated, and how all things are done without the agency of the gods.
Book II: All Things Decay
…[T]he heaven, and the earth, and the sun, the moon, the sea, and other things which exist, are not single, but rather of infinite number ; since these follow the same general law as other things that arise and decay ; the limit of existence, deeply and unalterably fixed, awaits these parts of nature as well as others, and they consist as much of a natural body, generated but to die, as the whole race of animals which abound, in their several kinds, in this state of things.
Which points if, being well understood, you keep in mind, and reason from them, the system of nature immediately appears, as a free agent, released from tyrant masters, to do every thing itself of itself spontaneously, without the help of the gods. For…who is able to rule the whole of this immense universe? Who can hold in his hand, with power to guide them, the strong reins of this vast combination of things ? What god can, at the same time, turn round all the heavens, and warm all the earth with ethereal fires? Or what god can be, at the same moment, present in all places, to produce darkness with clouds, and shake the calm regions of heaven with thunder, and then to hurl bolts, and overturn, as often happens, his own temples; or afterwards, retiring to the desert and uninhabited parts of the earth, to rage there, exercising that weapon with which he often misses the guilty, and kills the innocent and undeserving?
And after the time when the world was produced, and the natal day of the sea, and the rise of the earth and the sun, atoms were added from without; seeds, which the vast whole, by agitation, contributed, were conjoined; whence the sea and the earth had the means of increase, and whence the mansion of the sky amplified its vastness, and raised its lofty vaults far above the earth, and the air rose higher and higher. For to every body in nature, from all regions of space, are contributed, by the agitation of particles, its own proper atoms, and they betake themselves severally to their own kinds of matter; the particles of moisture pass to water; the earth is increased with atoms of earth; and the fiery-principles produce fire, and the aerial air; until, as such operations proceeded, nature, the perfectress and parent of the world, brought all things to the utmost limit of growth; as happens when that which is received into the vital passages, is no more in quantity than that which flows away and passes off. In these circumstances, the age and growth of all beings’ must be at a stand; here nature, by her own influence, restrains further increase.
…For certainly we must admit that many atoms flow off and pass away from bodies; but, till they have reached the highest point of growth, more ought to accrue to them. From that point, age reduces by degrees their mature force and strength, and melts away and sinks down to its decline….Bodies, therefore, naturally decay, as they are wasted by their substance passing off, and as all things yield to external attacks; for food at last fails to support advanced age; and hostile atoms, striking externally, cease not to exhaust every creature, and subdue it with assaults.
So likewise the walls of the great world, being assailed around, shall suffer decay, and fall into mouldering ruins….[I]t is in vain to expect that this frame of the world will last for ever….And thus, even now, the age of the world is debilitated, and the earth, which produced all races of creatures, and gave forth, at a birth, vast forms of wild animals, now, being exhausted, scarcely rears a small and degenerate offspring. The earth, I say, which produced all creatures; for it was not, as I conceive, a golden chain from above that let down the tribes of mortals from heaven into the fields; nor did the sea, or the waves that beat the rocks, produce them ; but the same earth, which now nourishes them from her own substance, generated them at first.
BOOK V: The Design of the Universe Is By Chance
To say…that the gods designed to arrange all this noble fabric of the world for the sake of men, and therefore that we ought to extol it as an honourable achievement of the deities, and to believe that it will certainly be eternal and imperishable…is to be guilty of the utmost folly; for what profit can our gratitude afford to those who are immortal and blessed in themselves, that they should labour to effect any thing for our sake?
…Moreover, whence was a model or idea for making things, and whence was the notion of men themselves, implanted in the gods at first, that they should know, and conceive in their mind, what they should seek to do? Or by what means was the power of primary-particles known, and what they could effect by their change of order and place, if Nature herself did not give the first specimens of production?
For the primordial atoms of things were driven in so many ways by so many impulses, through an infinite duration of time, and were accustomed so to be borne and carried forward by their own weight, and to meet in all modes, and to try all endeavours, as if to ascertain what their combinations might generate, that it is not surprising if they fell at last into such positions, and acquired such motions, as those bv which this universe of things, through perpetual renovation is now carried on.
But if I were even ignorant what the primary-elements of things are, yet this I could venture to assert, from the scheme of the heaven itself, and to support it from many other reasons, tliat the system of things was by no means prepared for us by divine power, so great is the faultiness with which it stands affected.
In the first place, of all that space which the rapid circumvolution of the heaven covers, mountains and woods, the abodes of wild beasts, have occupied a vast portion; rocks, and great marshes, and the sea, which widely separates the coasts of countries, cover another vast portion. Moreover, burning heat, and the constant descent of frost, deprive mortals of almost two-thirds of what is left. And as to the land which yet remains, nature would still, by her own operation, cover it with thorns, if human strength did not prevent…And yet at times, when all things, procured with so great labour, are green and flourish over the earth, either the sun in the heavens burns them up with violent heat, or sudden showers and cold frosts destroy them, or blasts of winds, with violent hurricanes, tear them to pieces.
Besides, why does nature cherish and increase, by land and by sea, a terrible brood of wild beasts and monsters, hostile to the human race ? Why do the seasons of the year bring diseases ? Why does untimely death wander abroad ?
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