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Lucretius, Roman Poet and Philosopher

#15-14 Lucretius on the soul in De Rerum Natura


Lucretius, the Roman poet and philosopher, became one of the giants of the Enlightenment.  He was the principle and best source for Greek Atomism; a scientific philosophy which widely influenced the critical thinking of that age including the re-emergence of science. 

The great Latin didactic poet. Our sole information concerning his life is found in the brief summary of Jerome, written more than four centuries after the poet's death. Jerome followed, often carelessly, the accounts contained in the lost work of Suetonius De Viris Illustribus, written about two centuries after the death of Lucretius; and, although it is likely that Suetonius used the information transmitted by earlier grammarians, there is nothing to guide us to the original sources. According to this account the poet was born in 95 B.C. He became mad in consequence of the administration of a love-philtre; and after composing several books in his lucid intervals, which were subsequently corrected by Cicero; he died by his own hand in the forty-fourth year of his age. Donatus states in his Life of Virgil, a work also based on the lost work of Suetonius, that Lucretius died on. The same day on which Virgil assumed the toga virus, that is, in the seventeenth year of Virgil's life, and on the very day on which he was born, and adds that the consuls were the same, that is C. Pompeii’s Magnus and M. Licentious Crass us, consuls in 70 and again in 55. The statements cannot be perfectly reconciled; but we may say with certainty that Lucretius was born between 98 and 95 BCE, and died in 55 or 54. A single mention of his poem, the De Rerum Natura (which from the condition in which it has reached us may be assumed to have been published posthumously) in a letter of Cicero's to his brother Quintus, written early in 54 BCE, confirms the date given by Donatus as that of the poet's death. The statements of Jerome have been questioned or disbelieved on the ground of their intrinsic improbability. They have been regarded as a fiction invented later by the enemies of Epicureanism, with the view of discrediting the most powerful work ever produced by any disciple of that sect. It is more in conformity with ancient credulity than with modern science to attribute a permanent tendency to derangement, to the accidental administration of any drug, however potent. A work characterized by such strength, consistency and continuity of thought is not likely to have been composed "in the intervals of madness" as Jerome says. Donatus, in mentioning the poet's death, gives no hint of the act of suicide. The poets of the Augustan age, who were deeply interested both in his philosophy and in his poetry, are entirely silent about the tragical story of his life. Cicero, by his professed antagonism to the doctrines of Epicurus, by his inadequate appreciation of Lucretius himself and by the indifference which he shows to other contemporary poets, seems to have been neither fitted for the task of correcting the unfinished work of a writer whose genius was so distinct from his own, nor likely to have cordially undertaken such a task.

Yet these considerations do not lead to the absolute rejection of the story. The evidence afforded by the poem rather leads to the conclusion that the tradition contains some germ of fact. It is remarkable that in more than one passage of his poem Lucretius writes with extraordinary vividness of the impression produced both by dreams and by waking visions. It is true that the philosophy of Epicurus put great stress on these, as affording the explanation of the origin of supernatural beliefs. But the insistence with which Lucretius returns to the subject, and the horror with which he recalls the effects of such abnormal phenomena, suggest that he himself may have been liable to such hallucinations, which are said to be consistent with perfect sanity, though they may be the precursors either of madness or of a state of despair and melancholy. Other passages, where he describes himself as ever engaged, even in his dreams, on his task of inquiry and composition, produce the impression of are unrelieved strain of mind and feeling, which may have ended in some extreme reaction of spirit, or in some failure of intellectual power, that may have led him to commit suicide. But the strongest confirmation of the tradition is the unfinished condition in which the poem has reached us. The subject appears to have been fully treated in accordance with the plan sketched out in the introduction to the first book. But that book is the only one which is finished in style and in the arrangement o its matter. In all the others, and especially in the last three the continuity of the argument is frequently broken by passages which must have been inserted after the first draft of the arguments was written out. Thus, for instance, in his account of the transition from savage to civilized life, be assumes at v.1011 the discovery of the use of skins, fire, &c., and the first beginning of civil society, and proceeds at 1028 to explain the origin of language, and then again returns, from 1090 to 1160, to speculate upon the first use of fire and the earliest stages of political life. These breaks in continuity show what might also be inferred from frequent repetitions of lines which have appeared earlier in the poem, and from the rough workmanship of passages in the later books, that the poem could not have received the final revision of the author. Nor is there any great difficulty in believing that Cicero edited it; the word "emendavit," need not mean more than what we call "preparing for press."

From the absence of any claim on the part of any other district of Italy to the honour of having given birth to Lucretius it is inferred that he was of purely Roman origin. No writer certainly is more purely Roman in personal character and in strength of understanding. His silence on the subject of Roman greatness and glory as contrasted with the prominence of these subjects in the poetry of men of provincial birth such as Ennius, Virgil and Horace, may be explained by the principle that familiarity had made the subject one of less wonder and novelty to him. The Lucretian genus to which he belonged was one of the oldest of the great Roman houses, nor do we hear of the name, as we do of other great family names, as being diffused over other parts of Italy, or as designating men of obscure or servile origin. It may well be assumed that Lucretius was a member of the Roman aristocracy, belonging either to a senatorian or to one of the great equestrian families. If the Roman aristocracy of his time had lost much of the virtue and of the governing qualities of their ancestors, they showed in the last years before the establishment of monarchy a taste for intellectual culture which might have made Rome as great in literature as in arms and law. A new taste for philosophy had developed among members of the governing class during the youth of Lucretius, and eminent Greek teachers of the Epicurean sect settled at Rome at the same time, and lived on terms of intimacy with them. The inference that Lucretius belonged to this class is confirmed by the tone in which he addresses Gaius Memmius, a man of an eminent senatorian family, to whom the poem is dedicated. His tone is quite unlike that in which Virgil or even Horace addresses Maecenas. He addresses him as an equal he expresses sympathy with the prominent part he played in public life, and admiration for his varied accomplishments, but on his own subject claims to speak to him with authority.

Although our conception of the poet's life is necessarily vague and meager, yet his personal force is so remarkable and so vividly impressed on his poem, that we seem able to form a consistent idea of his qualities and characteristics. We know, for example that the choice of a contemplative life was not the result of indifference to the fate of the world, or of any natural coldness or even calmness of temperament. In the opening lines of the second and third books we can mark the recoil of a humane and sensitive spirit from the horrors of the reign of terror which he witnessed in his youth, and from the anarchy and confusion which prevailed at Rome during his later years. We may also infer that he had not been through his whole career so much estranged from the social life of his day, as he seems to have been in his later years. Passages in his poem attest his familiarity with the pomp and luxury of city life, with the attractions o the public games and with the pageantry of great military spectacles. But much the greater mass of the illustrations of his philosophy indicate that, while engaged on his poem he must have passed much of his time in the open air, exercising at one the keen observation of a naturalist and the contemplative vision of a poet. He seems to have found a pleasure, more congenial to the modern than to the ancient temperament, in ascending mountains or wandering, among their solitudes. References to companionship in these wanderings, and the well-known description of the charm of a rustic meal speak of kindly sociality rather than of any austere separation from his fellows.

Other expressions in his poem imply that he was also a student of books. Foremost among these were the writings of Epicurus; but he had also an intimate knowledge of the philosophical poem of Empedocles, and at least an acquaintance with the works of Democritus, Anaxagoras, Heraclitus, Plato and the Stoical writers. Of other Greek prose writers he knew Thucydides and Hippocrates; while of the poets he expresses in more than one passage the highest admiration of Homer, whom he imitated in several places. Next to Homer, Euripides is most frequently reproduced by him. But his poetical sympathy was not limited to the poets of Greece. For his own countryman Ennius he expresses an affectionate admiration; and he imitates his language, his rhythm and his manner in many places. The fragments of the old tragedian Pacuvius and of the satirist Lucilius show that Lucretius had made use of their expressions and materials. In his studies he was attracted by the older writers, both Greek and Roman, in whose masculine temperament and understanding he recognized an affinity with his own.

His devotion to Epicurus seems at first sight more difficult to explain than his enthusiasm for Empedocles or Ennius. Probably he found in his calmness of temperament, even in his want of imagination, a sense of rest and of exemption from the disturbing influences of life; while in his physical philosophy he found both an answer to the questions which perplexed him and an inexhaustible stimulus to his intellectual curiosity. The combative energy, the sense of superiority, the spirit of satire, characteristic of him as a Roman, unite with his loyalty to Epicurus to render him not only polemical but intolerant and contemptuous in his tone toward the great antagonists of his system, the Stoics, whom, while constantly referring to them, he does not condescend even to name. With his admiration of the genius of others he combines a strong sense of his own power. He is quite conscious of the great importance had of the difficulty of his task; but he feels his own ability to cope with it.

It is more difficult to infer the moral than the intellectual characteristics of a great writer from the personal impress left by him on his work. Yet it is not too much to say that there is no work in any literature that produces a profounder impression of sincerity. No writer shows a juster scorn of all mere rhetoric and exaggeration. No one shows truer courage, not marred by irreverence, in confronting the great problems of human destiny, or greater strength in triumphing over human weakness. No one shows a truer humanity and a more tender sympathy with natural sorrow.

The peculiarity of the poem of Lucretius, that which makes it unique in literature, is that it is a reasoned system of philosophy, written in verse. The prosaic title De Rerum Natura, implies the subordination of the artistic to a speculative motive. As in the case of nearly all the great works of Roman literary genius, the form of the poem was borrowed from the Greeks. The rise of speculative philosophy in Greece was coincident with the beginning of prose composition, and many of the earliest philosophers wrote in the prose of the Ionic dialect; others, however, and especially the writers of the Greek colonies in Italy and Sicily, expounded their systems in continuous poems composed in the epic hexameter. Most famous in connexion with this kind of poetry are Xenophanes and Parmenides, the Eleatics and Empedocles of Agrigentum. The last was less important as a philosopher, but greater than the others both as a poet and a physicist. On both of these grounds he had a greater attraction to Lucretius. The fragments of the poem of Empedocles show that the Roman poet regarded that work as his model. In accordance with this model he has given to his own poem the form of a personal address, he has developed his argument systematically, and has applied the sustained impetus of epic poetry to the treatment of some of the driest and abstrusest topics. Many ideas and expressions of the Sicilian have been reproduced by the Roman poet; and the same tone of impassioned solemnity and melancholy seems to have pervaded both works. But Lucretius, if less original as a thinker, was probably a much greater poet than Empedocles. What chiefly distinguishes him from his Greek prototypes is that his purpose is rather ethical than purely speculative; the zeal of a teacher and reformer is stronger in him than even the intellectual passion of a thinker. His speculative ideas, his moral teaching and his poetical power are indeed interdependent on one another, and this interdependence is what mainly constitutes their power and interest. But of the three claims which he makes to immortality, the importance of his subject, his desire to liberate the mind from the bonds of superstition and the charm and lucidity of his poetry - that which he himself regarded as supreme was the second. The main idea of the poem is the irreconcilable opposition between the truth of the laws of nature and the falsehood of the old superstitions. But, further, the happiness and the dignity of life are regarded by him as absolutely dependent on the acceptance of the true and the rejection of the false doctrine. In the Epicurean system of philosophy he believed that he had found the weapons by which this war of liberation could be most effectually waged. Following Epicurus he sets before himself the aim of finally crushing that fear of the gods and that fear of death resulting from it which he regards as the source of all the human ills. Incidentally he desires also to purify the heart from other violent passions which corrupt it and mar its peace. But the source even of these - the passions of ambition and avarice - he finds in the fear of death; and that fear he resolves into the fear of eternal punishment after death.

The selection of his subject and the order in which it is treated are determined by this motive. Although the title of the poem implies that it is a treatise on the "whole nature of things," the aim of Lucretius is to treat only those branches of science which are necessary to clear the mind from the fear of the gods and the terrors of a future state. In the two earliest books, accordingly, he lays down and largely illustrates the first principles of being with the view of showing that the world is not governed by capricious agency, but has come into existence, continues in existence, and will ultimately pass away in accordance with the primary conditions of the elemental atoms which, along with empty space, are the only eternal and immutable substances. These atoms are themselves infinite in number but limited in their varieties, and by their ceaseless movement and combinations during infinite time and through infinite space the whole process of creation is maintained. In the third book he applies the principles of the atomic philosophy to explain the nature of the mind and vital principle, with the view of showing that the soul perishes with the body. In the fourth book he discusses the Epicurean doctrine of the images, which are cast from all bodies, and which act either on the senses or immediately on the mind, in dreams or waking visions, as affording the explanation of the belief in the continued existence of the spirits of the departed. The fifth book, which has the most general interest, professes to explain the process by which the earth, the sea, the sky, the sun, moon and stars, were formed, the origin of life, and the gradual advance of man from the most savage to the most civilized condition. All these topics are treated with the view of showing that the world is not itself divine nor directed by divine agency. The sixth book is devoted to the explanation, in accordance with natural causes, of some of the more abnormal phenomena, such as thunderstorms, volcanoes, earthquakes, &c., which are special causes of supernatural terrors.

Lucretius (c. 95 BC-55 BC)

The consecutive study of the argument produces on most readers a mixed feeling of dissatisfaction and admiration. They are repelled by the dryness of much of the matter, the unsuitableness of many of the topics discussed for poetic treatment, the arbitrary assumption of premises, the entire failure to establish the connexion between the concrete phenomena which the author professes to explain and these assumptions, and the erroneousness of many of the doctrines which are stated with dogmatic confidence. On the other hand, they are constantly impressed by his power of reasoning both deductively and inductively, by the subtlety and fertility of invention with which he applies analogies, by the clearness and keenness of his observation, by the fullness of matter with which his mind is stored, and by the consecutive force, the precision and distinctness of his style, when employed in the processes of scientific exposition. The first two books enable us better than anything else in ancient literature to appreciate the boldness and, on the whole, the reasonableness of the ancient mind in forming hypotheses on great matters that still occupy the investigations of physical science. The third and fourth books give evidence of acuteness in psychological analysis; the fourth and sixth of the most active and varied observation of natural phenomena; the fifth of original insight and strong common sense in conceiving the origin of society and the progressive advance of man to civilization. But the chief value of Lucretius as a thinker lies in his firm grasp of speculative ideas, and in his application of them to the interpretation of human life and nature. All phenomena, moral as well as material, are contemplated by him in their relation to one great organic whole, which he acknowledges under the name of "Natura daedala rerum," and the most beneficent manifestations of which he seems to symbolize and almost to deify in the "Alma Venus," whom, in apparent contradiction to his denial of a divine interference with human affairs, he invokes with prayer in the opening lines of the poem. In this conception of nature are united the conceptions of law and order, of ever-changing life and interdependence, of immensity, individuality, and all-pervading subtlety, under which the universe is apprehended both by his intelligence and his imagination.

Nothing can be more unlike the religious and moral attitude of Lucretius than the old popular conception of him as an atheist and a preacher of the doctrine of pleasure. It is true that he denies the doctrines of a supernatural government of the world and of a future life. But his arguments against the first are real1y only valid against the limited and unworthy conceptions of divine agency involved in the ancient religions; his denial of the second is prompted by his vital realization of all that is meant by the arbitrary infliction of eternal torment after death. His war with the popular beliefs of his time is waged, not in the interests of license, but in vindication of the sanctity of human feeling. The cardinal line of the poem, Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum, is elicited from him as his protest against the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father. But in his very denial of a cruel, limited and capricious agency of the gods, and in his imaginative recognition of an orderly, all-pervading, all-regulating power, we find at least a nearer approach to the higher conceptions of modern theism than in any of the other imaginative conceptions of ancient poetry and art. But his conception even of the ancient gods and of their indirect influence on human life is more worthy than the popular one. He conceives of them as living a life of eternal peace and exemption from passion, in a world of their own; and the highest ideal of man is, through the exercise of his reason, to realize an image of this life. Although they are conceived of as unconcerned with the interest of our world, yet influences are supposed to emanate from them which the human heart is capable of receiving and assimilating. The effect of unworthy conceptions of the divine nature is that they render a man incapable of visiting the temples of the gods in a calm spirit, or of receiving the emanations that "announce the divine peace" in peaceful tranquility. The supposed "atheism" of Lucretius proceeds from a more deeply reverential spirit than that of the majority of professed believers in all times.

His moral attitude is also far removed from that of ordinary ancient Epicureanism or of modern materialism. Though he acknowledges pleasure to be the law of life, yet he is far from regarding its attainment as the end of life. What man needs is not enjoyment, but "peace and a pure heart." The victory to be won by man is the triumph over fear, ambition, passion, luxury. With the conquest over these nature herself supplies all that is needed for happiness. Self-control and renunciation are the lessons which he preaches.

It has been doubted whether Cicero, in his short criticism in the letter already referred to, concedes to Lucretius both the gifts of genius and the accomplishment of art or only one of them. Readers of a later time, who could compare his work with the finished works of the Augustan age, would certainly disparage his art rather than his power. But with Cicero it was different. He greatly admired, or professed to admire, the genius of the early Roman poets, while he shows indifference to the poetical genius of his younger contemporaries. Yet he could not have been insensible to the immense superiority in rhythmical smoothness which the hexameter of Lucretius has over that of Ennius and Lucilius. And no reader of Lucretius can doubt that he attached the greatest importance to artistic execution, and that he took a great pleasure, not only in "the long roll of his hexameter, "but also in producing the effects of alliteration, assonance, &c., which are so marked a peculiarity in the style of Plautus and the earlier Roman poets. He allows his taste for these tricks of style to degenerate into mannerism. And this is the only drawback to the impression of absolute spontaneity which his style produces. He was unfortunate in living before the natural rudeness of Latin art had been successfully grappled with. His only important precursors in serious poetry were Ennius and Lucilius, and, though he derived from the first of these an impulse to shape the Latin tongue into a fitting vehicle for the expression of elevated emotion and imaginative conception, he could find in. neither a guide to follow in the task he set before himself. The difficulty and novelty of his task enhances our sense of his power. His finest passages are thus characterized by a freshness of feeling and enthusiasm of discovery. But the result of these conditions and of his own inadequate conception of the proper limits of his art is that his best poetry is clogged with a great mass of alien matter, which no treatment in the world could have made poetically endurable. [
Adapted from Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)]


From The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy at http://www.iep.utm.edu/l/lucretiu.htm


Lucretius (c. 99 - c. 55 BCE)

Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus) was a Roman poet and the author of the philosophical epic De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of the Universe), a comprehensive exposition of the Epicurean world-view. Very little is known of the poet’s life, though a sense of his character and personality emerges vividly from his poem. The stress and tumult of his times stands in the background of his work and partly explains his personal attraction and commitment to Epicureanism, with its elevation of intellectual pleasure and tranquility of mind and its dim view of the world of social strife and political violence. His epic is presented in six books and undertakes a full and completely naturalistic explanation of the physical origin, structure, and destiny of the universe. Included in this presentation are theories of the atomic structure of matter and the emergence and evolution of life forms – ideas that would eventually form a crucial foundation and background for the development of western science. In addition to his literary and scientific influence, Lucretius has been a major source of inspiration for a wide range of modern philosophers, including Gassendi, Bergson, Spencer, Whitehead, and Teilhard de Chardin.


David Simpson


Table of Contents (Clicking on the links below will take you to that part of this article)

Lucretius as a Philosopher




Of Lucretius’ life remarkably little is known: he was an accomplished poet; he lived during the first century BC; he was devoted to the teachings of Epicurus; and he apparently died before his magnum opus, De Rerum Natura, was completed. Almost everything else we know (or think we know) about this elusive figure is a matter of conjecture, rumor, legend, or gossip.

Some scholars have imagined that this lack of information is the result of a sinister plot – a conspiracy of silence supposedly conducted by pious Roman and early Christian writers bent on suppressing the poet’s anti-religious sentiments and materialist blasphemies. Yet perhaps more vexing for our understanding of Lucretius than any conspiracy of silence has been the single lurid item about his death that appears in a fourth century chronicle history by St. Jerome:

94 [sic] BC. . . The poet Titus Lucretius is born. He was later driven mad by a love philtre and, having composed between bouts of insanity several books (which Cicero afterwards corrected), committed suicide at the age of 44.

Certainly the possibility that Lucretius (whose blistering, two hundred line denunciation of sexual love comprises one of the memorable highlights of the poem) may himself have fallen victim to a love potion is a superb irony. Unfortunately, there is not a shred of evidence to support the claim. Nor is it highly likely that Cicero (a skeptical-minded thinker with sympathies toward Stoicism) would have assisted to any large degree in the publication of an epic celebrating the Epicurean creed. As for the suggestion that Lucretius produced De Rerum Natura in lucid periods between intervals of raging insanity, the poem itself stands as a strong argument to the contrary. At the very least it must be considered improbable that a work of such scope and complexity, of such intellectual depth and sustained reasoning power, could have been the product of fitful composition and a diseased mind.

Fortunately, even if we dismiss Jerome’s account as little more than an edifying fable and resign ourselves to the absence of even a scrap of reliable biographical information on Lucretius, there is still one source we can turn to for valuable insights into the poet’s character, personality, and habits of mind, and that is De Rerum Natura itself. For although the poem tells us almost nothing about the day to day affairs of Lucretius the man, it nevertheless furnishes a large and revealing portrait of Lucretius the poet, philosopher, social commentator, critic of religion, and observer of the world.

Indeed one does not have to read very far into the poem to discover that not only is Lucretius a serious student of philosophy and science, but that above all he is a great poet of nature. He reveals himself as a lover of woods, fields, streams, and open spaces, acutely sensitive to the beauties of landscape and the march of seasons. He proves a keen observer of plants and animals and at least as knowledgeable and interested in crops, weather, soil, and horticulture as in the existence of gods or the motion of atoms. The preponderance of natural descriptions and images in the poem has led some readers to suppose that the author must have led some form of rural existence, perhaps as the owner of a country estate. True or not, it is clearly not the city, with its hurly-burly of commerce, money grubbing, social climbing, and political strife, but the quiet countryside with its contemplative retreats, solitude, and simple pleasures that inspires his poetry and (as was the case with his master Epicurus in his garden at Athens) his philosophical reveries.

It is generally assumed that the poet, as his name implies, was a member of the aristocratic clan of the Lucretii. On the other hand, it is also possible that he was a former slave and freedman of that same noble family. Support for the idea of his nobility comes in part from his suave command of learning and the polished mastery of his style, but mostly from the easy and natural way (friend to friend, rather than subordinate to superior) in which he addresses Memmius, his literary patron and the addressee of the poem.

Gaius Memmius was a Roman patrician who was at one time married to Sulla’s daughter, Fausta. In 54 BC (one year after Lucretius’ death), he stood for consul, but was defeated owing to an electoral violation, which he himself revealed but was afterwards condemned for. In 52 BC he went into exile at Athens, and it is unknown whether he ever returned to Rome. Lucretius dedicated his poem to him, and throughout the epic the poet is at pains to remind Memmius of the sweet rewards of the Epicurean lifestyle and the bitter tribulations of public life. No doubt it would have distressed the poet deeply to know that his chief literary sponsor, instead of following the lofty path to Epicurean tranquilitas, ended his career with a vain descent into the tarnishing world of power politics and personal ambition.

Literary tradition has supplied Lucretius with a wife, Lucilla. However, except for a line or two in the poem suggesting the author’s personal familiarity with marital discord and the bedroom practices of "our Roman wives" (4. 1277), there is no evidence that he himself was ever married.


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Italy during the first century BC

For the most part, the forty-four years of Lucretius’ lifetime was a period of nearly non-stop violence: a time of civil wars, grueling overseas campaigns, political assassinations, massacres, revolts, conspiracies, mass executions, and social and economic chaos. Even a brief chronology of the times paints a grim picture of devastation, with each decade bearing witness to some new disturbance or uprising:

100 BC: riots erupt in the streets of Rome; two public officials, the tribune L. Appuleius Saturninus and praetor C. Servilius Glaucia, are murdered.

91 BC: the so-called Social War (between Rome and her Italian allies) breaks out. No sooner is this bitter struggle ended (88 BC) than Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a ruthless politician and renegade army commander, marches on Rome, and an even more convulsive and bloody Civil War begins.

82 BC: Sulla becomes dictator. His infamous proscription results in the arrest and execution of more than 4000 leading citizens, including 40 senators.

71 BC: Spartacus’ massive slave revolt (involving an army of 90,000 former slaves and outlaws) is finally put down by Cassius and Pompey. More than 6000 of the captured rebels are crucified and their bodies left for display along the Appian Way.

62 BC: Defeat and death of Catiline. By this point in his career this former lieutenant of Sulla had become a living plague upon Roman politics and a virtual byword for scandal, intrigue, conspiracy, demagoguery, and vain ambition.

Such was Rome from the rise of Sulla to the fall of Catiline, a period of seemingly endless bloodshed and civil unrest. With such a background, it is little wonder that the precepts of Epicurus – with their emphasis on contemplative pursuits and quiet pleasures and severe strictures against ambition, fame, and the world of politics – struck a responsive chord in the heart of a young Roman poet. To a sensitive intellectual like Lucretius, the teachings of Epicurus must have had the force of a philosophical revelation. In this respect, it is noteworthy (and ironic) that throughout De Rerum Natura whenever the poet writes about Epicurus he praises him not simply as a great teacher and brilliant philosopher, but virtually as a kind of oracle and even a god. Meanwhile, he seems to have viewed his own role as that of an Epicurean evangelist: he is a poetic apostle dedicated to spreading the master’s gospel of liberation from the bondage of superstition and error, of inner peace attained through the study of philosophy and the enjoyment of modest pleasures.


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Lucretius’ Personality and Outlook

Unlike his hero Epicurus, who had a reputation for being gentle and self-effacing, Lucretius’ excitable personality springs vividly from his pages. Though naturally passionate and intellectually contentious, he also reveals himself as reflective and prone to melancholy. Like his master, he detests war, strife, and social tumult and favors a life quietly devoted to sweet friendship (suavis amicitia) and intellectual pleasures.

At the beginning of Book 2 of his poem, the poet compares the prospect of a person armed with the insights of Epicurus to that of a secure spectator looking down upon a scene of strife:

Pleasant it is, when over the great sea the winds shake the waters,
To gaze down from shore on the trials of others;
Not because seeing other people struggle is sweet to us,
But because the fact that we ourselves are free from such ills strikes us as pleasant.
Pleasant it is also to behold great armies battling on a plain,
When we ourselves have no part in their peril.
But nothing is sweeter than to occupy a lofty sanctuary of the mind,
Well fortified with the teachings of the wise,
Where we may look down on others as they stumble along,
Vainly searching for the true path of life. . . . (2. 1-10)

This idea of philosophy as a private citadel or quiet refuge in a world of anxiety and turmoil, or of some form of contemplation as the true path to enlightenment, has been a recurrent theme in world literature from the Buddha to Boethius, from Socrates to Schopenhauer. The idea is a central component of Epicurean doctrine and a favorite theme and image of Lucretius, whose characteristic vantage point throughout the poem is that of a critical observer above the fray. As narrator, he stands aloof, a scornful yet at the same time sympathetic witness to mankind’s dark strivings and tribulations:

Lo, see them: contending with their wits, fighting for precedence,
Struggling night and day with unending effort,<
Climbing, clawing their way up the pinnacles of wealth and power.
O miserable minds of men! O blind hearts!
In what darkness, among how many perils,
You pass your short lives! Do you not see
That our nature requires only this:
A body free from pain, and a mind, released from worry and fear,
Free to enjoy feelings of delight? (2. 11-19.)

Like his master, Lucretius obviously feels that the true purpose of moral philosophy is not merely to diagnose human miseries; but to heal them.



From the very start of the poem, and especially in the opening lines of Book 3 (a ringing tribute to Epicurus), Lucretius makes it clear that his main purpose is not so much to display his own talents as to render accurately in a suitably sublime style the glorious philosophy of his master:

O you who out of the vast darkness were the first to raise
A shining light, illuminating the blessings of life,
O glory of the Grecian race, it is you I follow,
Tracing in your clearly marked footprints my own firm steps,
Not as a contending rival, but out of love, for I yearn to imitate you.
For why should the swallow vie with the swan?
Why should a young kid on spindly limbs
Dare to match strides with a mighty steed? (3. 1-8.)

The poetry, Lucretius keeps reminding his readers, is secondary, a sugar coating to sweeten Epicurus’ healing medicine. The Epicurean system is what is important, and the poet pledges all his skill to presenting it as clearly, as faithfully, and as persuasively as possible. In his view nothing less than universal enlightenment and the liberation of mankind is at stake.

Epicurus was born at Samos, an Athenian colony, in 341 BC. Reduced to its simplest level, the goal of his teaching was to free humanity from needless cares and anxieties (especially the fear of death) . By furnishing a complete explanation of the origin and structure of the universe, he sought to open men’s eyes to a true understanding of their condition and liberate them from ignorant fears and superstitions. Though by all accounts he was a voluminous writer, only a tiny fraction of his original output has survived, with the result that Lucretius’ poem has served as one of the primary vehicles for conveying his thought.


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The Epicurean system consists of three linked components: Physics, Ethics, and Canonic. These three elements are designed to be interdependent, each one supposedly uniting with and reinforcing the other two. (To cite just one example, Epicurus’ physics supposedly validates both the existence of free will and the fact that the soul disintegrates with the body, ideas that are crucial to Epicurean ethics. The canonic claims to validate the authority and reliability of sensation, which in turn serves as a basis for Epicurean physical theories and ethical views relating to pleasure and pain.) In actual fact, however, the three components are quite separable, and it is certainly possible, for example, to accept Epicurus’ ethical doctrines while entirely denying his canonic teachings and physics.


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One of the great achievements of the scientific imagination, the Epicurean cosmos is based on three fundamental principles: materialism, mechanism, and atomism. According to Epicurus the universe covers an infinitude of space and consists entirely of matter and void. For the most part the philosopher upholds Democritus’ theory that all matter is composed of imperishable atoms, tiny indivisible particles that can neither be created or destroyed. He also shares Democritus’ view that the atoms are infinite in number and homogenous in substance, while differing in shape and size. However, whereas Democritus held that the number of atomic sizes and shapes is infinite, Epicurus argued that their number, while large, is nevertheless finite. (As Lucretius notes, if atoms could be any size, some would be visible, and possibly even immense.) As for atomic motion, Democritus had claimed that the atoms move in straight lines in all directions and always in accordance with the iron laws of "necessity" (anangke). Epicurus, on the other hand, contends that their natural motion is to travel straight downwards at a uniform high velocity. At random and unpredictable moments, moreover, they deviate ever so slightly from their regular course, their resulting collisions thus occurring not by strict necessity but always with some element of chance. This theory of atomic "swerve" or clinamen is a crucial feature of the Epicurean world-view, providing (so Lucretius and other adherents believed) a firm physical foundation supporting the existence of free will.

Armed with these basic principles, Epicurus is able to explain the universe as an ongoing cosmic event – a never-ending binding and unbinding of atoms resulting in the gradual emergence of entire new worlds and the gradual disintegration of old ones. Our world, our bodies, our minds are but atoms in motion. They did not occur because of some purpose or final cause. Nor were they created by some god for our special use and benefit. They simply happened, more or less randomly and entirely naturally, through the effective operation of immutable and eternal physical laws.

Here it should be noted that Epicurus is a materialist, not an atheist. Although he argues that not only our earth and all its life forms, but also all human civilizations and arts came into being and evolved without any aid or sponsorship from the gods, he does not deny their existence. He merely denies that they have any knowledge of or interest in human affairs. They live on immune to destruction in their perfectly compounded material bodies in the serene and cloudless spaces between the worlds (intermundia), perfectly oblivious of human anxieties and cares. Lucretius imagines that Epicurus rivaled them in their divine tranquility.


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The so-called canonic teachings of Epicurus (from the Greek kanon, "rule") include his epistemological theories and especially his theories of sensation and perception. In certain respects, these theories represent Epicurus’ thought at its most original and prescient – and in one or two instances at its most fanciful and absurd.

The central principle of the canonic is that our sense data provide a true and accurate picture of external reality. Sensation is the ultimate source and criterion of truth, and its testimony is incontrovertible. Epicurus considered the reliability of the senses a bulwark of his philosophy, and Lucretius refers to trust in sensation as a "holdfast," describing it as the only thing preventing our slide into the abyss of skepticism (4. 502-512).

But if our sensory input is always true and dependable, how are we to account for hallucinations, fantasies, dreams, delusions, and other forms of perceptual error? According to Epicurus, such errors are always due to some higher mental process. They arise, for example, when we apply judgment or reasoning or some confused product of memory to the actual data presented to us by sensation. As Lucretius remarks, we deceive ourselves because we tend to "see some things with our mind that have not been seen by the senses":

For nothing is harder than to distinguish the real things of sense
From those doubtful versions of them that the mind readily supplies. (4. 466-468.)

Epicurus’ theory of sensory perception is consistent with and follows from his materialism and atomism. Like Democritus, he postulates that external objects send off emanations or "idols" (eidola) of themselves that travel through the air and impinge upon our senses. In effect, these subtle atomic images or films imprint themselves on the senses, leaving behind trace versions of the external world (auditory and olfactory as well as visual) that can be apprehended and stored in memory. Once again, perceptual errors can occur in this process, but not because of any inherent problem with sensation itself. Instead, mistakes arise due either to the contamination of the "idols" by other atoms or because of the "false opinions" that we ourselves, through defects in our higher mental operations, introduce.

In short, unless it is distorted by some form of external "noise" or by some processing error attributable to reason, all information conveyed through the senses is true. This is Epicurus’ core canonic teaching. Unfortunately, this belief in the infallibility of sense perception and the unreliability of logic and reason led him and his followers (including Lucretius) into a number of strange conclusions – such as the absurd claim that the sun, moon, and stars are exactly the size and shape that they appear to be to our naked eye. Thus (as strict Epicurean doctrine would have it) the moon truly is a small, silver disc, the sun is a slightly larger golden fire, and the stars are but tiny points of light.


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Epicurus’ ethics represents the true goal and raison d’etre of his philosophical mission, the capstone atop the impressive (though hardly flawless) pillars of his physics and epistemology. Like Socrates, he considered moral questions (What is virtue? What is happiness?) rather than cosmological speculations to be the ultimate concerns of philosophical inquiry.

As mentioned earlier, it is possible to accept one component of the Epicurean system without necessarily subscribing to the others. But from Epicurus’ (and Lucretius’) point of view, it is the ethical component that is of vital importance.

As many commentators have noted, the term "Epicure" (in the sense of a self-indulgent bon vivant or luxurious pleasure-seeker) is entirely out of place when applied to Epicureanism in general and to its founder in particular. By all accounts, Epicurus’ own living habits were virtually Spartan, and it is said that he attracted many of his disciples more by his solid character and agreeable temper than by his philosophical arguments. His moral philosophy is a form of hedonism, meaning that it is a system based on the pursuit of pleasure (Gr. ‘ēdonewhich it ,) identifies as the greatest good. But Epicurean hedonism is hardly synonymous with sensual extravagance; nor is it a matter (in St. Paul’s disparaging terms) of "let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die." It is instead a system that requires severe self-denial and moral discipline. For Epicurus places a much greater emphasis on the avoidance of pain than on the pursuit of pleasure, and he favors intellectual pleasures (which are long-lasting and never cloying) over physical ones (which are short-lived and lead to excess). As for self-indulgence, he argued that it is better to abstain from coarse or trivial pleasures if they prevent our enjoyment of richer, more satisfying ones.

In Epicurean ethics physical pain is the great enemy of happiness and is to be avoided in almost all cases. Mental anguish is even more threatening and potentially debilitating. It follows that the fear of death – and especially the superstitious belief in an after-life of eternal torment – can be particularly devastating source of anxiety and take a terrible toll on humanity, which is why Epicurus sets out so determinedly to crush it.


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The Design of the Poem

De Rerum Natura is an epic in six books and is expertly organized to provide both expository clarity as well as powerful narrative and lyric effects. In one respect, the poem represents the unfolding of a complex philosophical argument, and in many places the poet is challenged to explain abstract and often extremely prosaic technical material in a lucid and lively way. (At times during the poem he complains about the relative poverty of Latin as a philosophical medium compared to the technical richness of Greek.) At the same time, he must be careful not to overwhelm or upstage his philosophical presentation with a surplus of brilliant literary devices and gaudy stylistic displays. The basic organization is as follows:

Book 1: The poem begins with a justly famous invocation to Venus (the poet’s symbol for the forces of cohesion, integration, and creative energy in the universe). Presented as a kind of life principle, the Lucretian Venus is associated with the figure of Love (Gr. philia, the unifying or binding) force in the philosophy of Empedocles, and also identified with her mythical role as Venus Genetrix, the patron goddess and mother of the Roman people. In the remainder of the book the poet begins the work of explaining the Epicurean system and refuting the systems of other philosophers. He starts by setting forth the major principles of Epicurean physics and cosmology, including atomism, the infinity of the universe, and the existence of matter and void.

Book 2. This book begins with a lyric passage celebrating the "serene sanctuaries" of philosophy and lamenting the condition of those poor human beings who struggle vainly outside its protective walls. The poet explains atomic motion and shapes and argues that the atoms do not have secondary qualities (color, smell, heat, moisture, etc.).

Book 3. After a glowing opening apostrophe to Epicurus ("O glory of the Greeks!"), the poet proceeds with an extended explanation and proof of the materiality – and mortality – of the mind and soul. This explanation culminates in the climactic declaration, "Nil igitur mors est ad nos. . ." ("Therefore death is nothing to us."), a stark, simple statement which effectively epitomizes the main message and central doctrine of Epicureanism.

Book 4. Following introductory verses on the art of didactic poetry, this book begins with a full account of Epicurus’ theory of vision and sensation. It concludes with one of Lucretius’ greatest passages of verse, his famous (and caustic) analysis of the biology and psychology of sexual love.

Book 5. Lucretius begins this book with another tribute to the genius of Epicurus, whose heroic intellectual achievements, it is argued, exceed even the twelve labors of Hercules. The remainder of the book is devoted to a full account of Epicurean cosmology and sociology, with the poet explaining the stages of life on earth and the origin and development of civilization. This book includes the remarkable passage (837-886) in which the poet offers his own evolutionary hypothesis on the proliferation and extinction of life forms.

Book 6. Though partly unfinished, this book contains some of Lucretius’ greatest poetry, with effective technical explanations of meteorological and geologic phenomena and vivid descriptions of thunderstorms, lightning, and volcanic eruptions. The poem closes with a horrifying account of the great plague of Athens (430 BC), a grim reminder of universal mortality.


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Lucretius as a Philosopher

Critics universally recognize Lucretius as a major poet and the author of one of the great classics of world literature. But in part because of his accepted role as a spokesperson for Epicureanism rather than an originator, it has been more difficult to assess his merit as a philosopher.

In this respect, it is noteworthy that at least two important philosophers have voiced strong support for Lucretius’ status as a philosophical innovator and original thinker. In 1884, while still a young faculty member at the Blaise Pascal Lycee in Paris, the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) published an edition of De Rerum Natura with notes, commentary, and an accompanying critical essay. Throughout this work, Bergson commends Lucretius not only as a poet of genius, but also as an inspired and "singularly original" thinker. In particular, he points out that in his view the poet’s instinctive grasp of the physical operations of nature and his comprehensive, truly scientific world-view exceed anything found in the theories of Democritus and Epicurus.

The Spanish poet and Harvard philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) held a similarly high opinion of Lucretius’ power as a scientific thinker. Democritus and Epicurus, he argues, are mere sketch artists who offer no more than bare hints and vague outlines of a thoroughly imagined and truly scientifically conceived universe. It thus remained for the deeper, more visionary poet not just to flesh out their rough drafts in fine words, but in essence to actually create and give body to the entire Epicurean system. In Santayana’s view, Epicurus was but a supplier of half-baked ideas; it was Lucretius who was the true creator of scientific materialism and the real founder of Epicureanism.

Hyperbole aside, what both Bergson and Santayana are pointing to is the frequently underrated and misunderstood role of imagination in the production of almost all major systems of philosophy. Great philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Kant and Nietzsche (and Bergson himself) have never been simply logic mills or thinking machines, but bold thinkers with an imaginative "feel" for abstract reality. In this respect, even if we dismiss the assessments of Bergson and Santayana as extravagant, we can still accept Lucretius as a bona fide philosopher and not just as a poetical embellisher and interpreter.

Every philosopher has strengths and weaknesses; those of Lucretius are conspicuous. In addition to his powerful imagination, his main strength (not surprisingly) is his verbal skill and force of expression. He is one of the most quotable of philosophers, with a flair for striking images and tightly packed statements. A few samples:

On superstition:
"So powerful is religion at persuading to evil." 1. 101.

On luxuries:
"Hot fevers do not depart your body more quickly
If you toss about on pictured tapestries or rich purple coverlets
Than if you lie sick under a poor man’s blanket." 2. 34-36.

On life without philosophy:
"All life is a struggle in the dark." 2. 54.
"After a while the life of a fool is hell on earth." 3. 1023.

On new truths:
"No fact is so obvious that it does not at first produce wonder,
Nor so wonderful that it does not eventually yield to belief." 2. 1026-27.

On reason:
"Such is the power of reason to overcome inborn vices
That nothing prevents our living a life worthy of gods." 3. 321-22.

On the language of love:
"We say a foul, dirty woman is ‘sweetly disordered,’
If she is green-eyed, we call her ‘my little Pallas’;
If she’s flighty and tightly strung, she’s ‘a gazelle’;
A squat, dumpy dwarf is ‘a little sprite,’
While a hulking giantess is ‘divinely statuesque.’
If she stutters or lisps, she speaks ‘musically.’
If she’s dumb, she’s ‘modest’; and if she’s hot-tempered
And a chatterbox, she’s ‘a ball of fire.’
When she’s too skinny to live, she’s ‘svelte,’
And she’s ‘delicate’ when she’s dying of consumption. . .
It would be wearisome to run through the whole list." 4. 1159-1171.

Of all Lucretius’ intellectual strengths, perhaps none is more characteristic or stands out more impressively than his hard, clear commitment to naturalism. Throughout the poem he consistently attacks supernatural explanations of phenomena and resists the temptation to give in to some form of natural religion or "scientific" supernaturalism. The world, he argues, was not created by divine intelligence, nor is it imbued with any form of mind or purpose. Instead, it must be understood as an entirely natural phenomenon, the outcome of a random (though statistically inevitable and lawful) process. In short, whatever happens in the universe is not the product of design, but part of an ongoing sequence of purely physical events.

Lucretius’ principle philosophical shortcoming is that not only will he occasionally follow Epicurean doctrine to the point of absurdity (e.g., the supposedly tiny size of the sun and moon) but he will also introduce logical fallacies or scientific errors of his own (such as his claim that the atoms travel faster than light – 2. 144ff.). As Bergson points out, these howlers can usually be attributed to the defective method of ancient science, which, because it did not require that hypotheses be confirmed by experimentation, allowed even the wildest conjectures to pass as plausible truths. One further problem is that, for all his reliance on naturalistic explanations and his attempted reduction of metaphysics to physics, Lucretius at times seems to back away, if only ever so slightly, from a purely materialist world view. Indeed in his effusive descriptions of the creative power of nature, effectively symbolized by the figure of Venus, he seems almost (like Bergson) to postulate an immaterial life-force surging through the universe and operating above or beyond raw nature. To read this romantic streak into him is clearly a mistake. Lucretius remains a thorough-going naturalist. Yet when his verse is in high gear, one almost gets the impression that somewhere inside this staunchly scientific, fiercely anti-religious poet there is a romantic nature-worshipper screaming to get out.


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Influence and Legacy

Lucretius’ literary influence has been long-lasting and widespread, especially among poets with epic ambitions or cosmological interests, from Virgil and Milton to Whitman and Wordsworth. Not surprisingly, as one of the main proponents and principle sources of Epicurean thought, his philosophical influence has also been considerable. The extent of his communication with and influence on his contemporaries, including other Epicurean writers, is not known. What is known is that by the end of the first century A.D. De Rerum Natura was hardly read and its author had already begun a long, slow descent into philosophical oblivion. It was not until the Renaissance, with the recovery of lost Lucretian manuscripts, that a true revival of the poet became possible.

It is probably an exaggeration to say that the restoration and study of Lucretius’ poem was crucial to the rise of Renaissance "new philosophy" and the birth of modern science. On the other hand, one must not ignore its importance as a spur to innovative sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scientific thought and cosmological speculation. Greek atomism and Lucretius’ account of the universe as an infinite, lawfully integrated whole provided an important background stimulus not only for Newtonian science, but also (if only in a negative or contrary way) for Spinoza’s pantheism and Leibniz’s monadology.

Lucretius’ influence on early modern thought is most directly visible in the work of the French scientist and neo-Epicurean philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655). In 1649 Gassendi published his Syntagma Philosophiae Epicuri, a theoretical refinement and elaboration of Epicurean science. A Catholic priest with a remarkably independent mind, Gassendi seemingly had no problem reconciling his personal philosophical commitment to atomism and materialism with his Christian beliefs in the immortality of the soul and the doctrine of divine providence.

Every modern reader of De Rerum Natura has been struck by the extent to which Lucretius seems to have anticipated modern evolutionary theories in the fields of geology, biology, and sociology. However, to acknowledge this connection is not to say that the poet deserves accredited status as some kind of scientific "evolutionist" or pre-Darwinian precursor. It is merely to point out that, however we choose to define and evaluate its influence, De Rerum Natura was from the 17th century onward a massive cultural presence and hence a ready source of evolutionary ideas. The poem formed part of the cultural heritage and intellectual background of virtually every evolutionary theorist in Europe from Lamarck to Herbert Spencer (whose hedonistic ethics also owed a debt to the poet) – including (though he claimed never to have read Lucretius’ epic) Darwin himself.

Bergson’s early study of Lucretius obviously played an important role in the foundation and development of his own philosophy. In 1907 Bergson published Creative Evolution, outlining his bold, new vitalistic theory of evolution, in opposition to both the earlier vitalism of Lamarck and the naturalism of Darwin, and Spencer. It is hard not to see in the French philosophers’ concept of the Úlan vital a powerful life force akin to and strongly influenced by the immortal Venus of his great Latin predecessor. Bergson’s evolutionary philosophy influenced the later "process" philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and the teleological scientific theories of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), with the interesting result that it is possible to trace out a fairly direct, if unlikely, line of descent from Greek atomism through the pagan anti-spiritualist Lucretius to the Catholic naturalist Gassendi and then on, via the Jewish-Catholic Bergson, to the highly abstract theism of Whitehead and the "spiritualized" evolutionism of Father Teilhard. That Lucretius’ ideas wound up two thousand years after his death influencing those of a godly British mathematical theorist and a highly original and even eccentric French scientist-priest is remarkable testimony to their durability, adaptability, and persuasive power.


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In conclusion, it seems fair to say that, far from being a mere conduit for earlier Greek thought, the poet Titus Lucretius Carus was a bold innovator and original thinker who fully deserves the appellation of philosopher. While his literary fame clearly (and properly) comes first, and although his philosophical reputation is based largely (and again properly) on his role as one of the principle sources and prime exponents of Epicureanism, his own ideas, especially his evolutionary theories and his entirely naturalistic explanation of all universal phenomena, have exerted a long and important influence on western science and philosophy and should not be underestimated.

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The most authoritative manuscripts of De Rerum Natura are the so-called O and Q codices in Leiden. Both date from the 9th century. Recently, however, scholars have deciphered a much older and previously illegible manuscript, consisting of papyri discovered in Herculaneum and possibly dating from as early as the first century AD. All other Lucretian manuscripts date from the 15th and 16th century and are based on the one (no longer extant) discovered in a monastery by the Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini in 1417.


Lucretius: On the Nature of Things. W.H.D. Rouse, trans. Revised and edited by Martin F. Smith. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Bailey, C. ed. De Rerum Natura. 3 volumes with commentary. Oxford, 1947.

English translations:

Munro, H.A.J. (prose). Cambridge, 1864.

Latham, R.E. (prose). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1951.

Humphries, Rolphe. (verse). Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.

Copley, Frank O. (verse). New York: Norton, 1977.

Critical and scholarly studies:

Bergson, Henri. Philosophy of Poetry: The Genius of Lucretius. Wade Baskin, trans. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959.

Clay, D. Lucretius and Epicurus. Ithaca, NY, 1983.

Jones, H. The Epicurean Tradition. London: 1989.

Kenney, E. J. Lucretius. Oxford, 1977.

Santayana, George. Three Philosophical Poets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sikes, E.E. Lucretius: Poet and Philosopher. Cambridge, 1936.


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