But that man’s mind itself in all it does
Hath not a fixed necessity within,
Nor is not, like a conquered thing, compelled
To bear and suffer,—this state comes to man
From that slight swervement of the elements
In no fixed line of space, in no fixed time.
—Lucretius, Of the Nature of Things, Book II, p. 57.
After reading The Swerve it seemed to me that I must read Lucretius. At my library I found many editions of De Rerum Natura, usually translated as On the Nature of Things. I found a compact edition entitled Of the Nature of Things translated by William Ellery Leonard. Comparing his work with another I was on the brink of choosing the other based on the first line, Leonard has it as follows: “Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,” but I preferred the romance and classicism of the other which read, “Mother of Aeneas, darling of Gods and men.” Yet, when I began to peruse the forward, I knew I had to chose Leonard— his appeal to the “throbbing reality of the great living Roman, chief poet on the Tiber’s side” (xi) spoke to me. And, he ended with an emotional appeal—only slightly tempered and made very amusing by being written in the third person: “He has loved Lucretius for many years, and the mighty spirit of the Roman has helped him to sustain many burdens in life” (xiv).
Thus thou myself in themes like these alone
Can hunt from thought to thought, and keenly wind
Along even onward to the secret place
And drag out truth (16).
On the Nature of Things is basically an ancient science book written in verse. It is quite spectacular. Lucretius is thought to have lived between 99 and 50 B.C., but there is not much else known about him. Indeed, he came perilously close to complete obscurity, as The Swerve relates. Which would have been a shame as his words, particularly his acceptance of mortality, as well as his sensible observations of the natural world are beautifully rendered. He is emphatic that one need only think and live with a “breast all free” (187) to see that there are reasonable explanations for the nature of things. Admittedly, sometimes he’s a bit testy:
… For dolts are ever prone
That to bewonder and adore which hides
Beneath distorted words, holding that true
Which sweetly tickles in their stupid ears (25)
Starting with his concept that all matter is composed of seeds (or atoms, or germs) undetectable to the eye, with a clear inclination or disinclination for similar seeds that can’t be mixed willy-nilly—after all human beings have a similarity and affinity for other human beings, we can’t mate with trees can we? No, of course not, there are limits.
From out the heart, aye, verily, proceeds
First from the spirit’s will, whence at the last
‘Tis given forth through joints and body entire (56).
He moves on to the motion of said atoms, the soul, the senses, love, the origin of the world and its inhabitants, the beginning of civilisation, meteorology, and then, concludes with the plague. In all fairness, the work was apparently unfinished so one can only hope he had been planning a more pleasant ending. Nevertheless, on a whole, quite ambitious.
…but unto things are given
Their fixed limitations which do bound
Their sum on either side, ‘tmust be confessed
That matter, too, by finite tale of shapes
Does differ (64).
This is a fascinating point to pause on. Life is finite. There are limits, and yet:
The which now having taught, I will go on
To bind thereto a fact to this allied
And drawing from this its proof: those primal germs
Which have been fashioned all of one like shape
Are infinite in tale; for, since the forms
Themselves are finite in divergences,
Then those which are alike will have to be
Infinity within the finite. It’s brilliant, really. I can’t stop coming back to this idea again and again: the possibility, the diversity—but all within the finite. It almost seems that it is the limits which make infinity possible. Similarly, it is the certain knowledge of death (but don’t despair! nothing will matter because, well, you’ll be dead!) which makes life sweet. Lucretius writes with such passion about every subject that I am not revealing anything unexpected by saying, so too then—Love. His section on love and lust is startlingly erotic in its true description of the “violence of delight,” the lovely insatiability:
Nor can they sate their lust
By merely gazing on the bodies, nor
They cannot with their palms and fingers rub
Aught from each tender limb, the while they stray
Uncertain over all the body (177)
It’s not as if all his “facts” are correct, he has, for just one example, some funky notion about women being less likely to conceive when enjoying sex too much, (sometimes men come up with such odd ideas regarding women’s sexuality that all one can do is be thankful not to have been their lover). But, be that as it may, he was onto some very huge ideas, with enormous implications for the way in which one chooses to live. As an admirer of Epicurean philosophy, to spare oneself unnecessary evils and ignorances doesn’t require much. Our bodies are made to experience this world in all its wondrous splendor, and as we happen to find ourselves here, why not?
Therefore we see that our corporal life
Needs little, altogether, and only such
As takes the pain away, and can besides
Strew underneath some number of delights (45).