Lucretius (ca. 94-ca. 55 B.C.), full name Titus Lucretius Carus, was a Latin poet and philosopher. His one work, De rerum natura, a didactic poem in hexameters, renders in verse the atomistic philosophy of Epicurus, forerunner of the modern-day atomic theory.
Almost nothing is known of the life of Lucretius. The medieval chronicler Jerome is the only source of information. After giving his subject's birth date, Jerome declares that Lucretius was made insane by a love potion and composed his poetry during intervals of lucidity, with later emendations by Cicero. Lucretius committed suicide, according to Jerome, in the forty-fourth year of his life (50 B.C.)
Despite Jerome, the date of Lucretius's death is more commonly assigned to 55 B.C., because Donatus, the 4th-century biographer of Virgil, says that the poet assumed the toga of manhood on the very day Lucretius died. Cicero also comments in a letter to his brother Quintus in 54 B.C. that "The poems of Lucretius are, as you say in your letter, touched by flashes of genius and all the same composed with great skill." It is assumed that Cicero would have had Lucretius's poem in hand only after the letter's death. If Jerome is correct as to Lucretius's age at death (44 B.C.) and Donatus as to the year, the poet was born in 99 B.C.
Lucretius is generally considered to have belonged to one of Rome's old aristocratic families, although some scholars have concluded from the name Carus that he was a slave in a Lucretian household or, at best, a freedman.
As to the story of Lucretius's insanity from a love potion, it is supported by a passage at the end of book 4 of De rerum natura (On the Nature of the Universe) in which the poet violently attacks the lovemaking of men and women—which he describes rather fully. No other direct or indirect evidence exists. The work itself is dedicated to Memmius, a patron of literature who dabbled in verse. Memmius was a Roman magistrate in 58 B.C. and afterward governor of the province of Bithynia.
De rerum natura, some 7,400 lines long, is divided into 6 books. The title translates the Peri Physeos of Epicurus, whom Lucretius acknowledges as his master and praises in the most lavish terms.
Book 1 begins by invoking Venus, appealing to Memius, praising Epicurus, and listing the wrongs committed in the name of religion, the reasons for accepting Epicurus, and the difficulty of treating Greek philosophy in Latin verse. Next, the poet sets forth the atomic theory of Epicurus (derived from Democritus). Nothing comes from nothing and nothing can be destroyed. Matter exists in imperceptible particles (atoms) separated from one another by space. The atoms are solid, indivisible, and eternal. Lucretius then refutes the rival systems of Heraclitus, Empedocles, and Anaxagoras and proves that the universe is infinite and that its two components are also infinite, atoms in number, space in extent.
Book 2 contains Lucretius's most explicit reference to the moral theory of Epicurus. It also deals with the motion of the atoms, maintaining that their "slight swerve" (exiguum clinamen, book 2: line 292) causes free will. Lucretius passes to the shape of the atoms and the effects their various forms create. The number of shapes is not infinite, but the number of any given shape is. The atoms lack secondary qualities, that is, color, heat, and sound, and are without sensation. Finally, Lucretius shows that there is an infinite number of worlds and describes their formation and destruction.
Book 3 treats of the soul, its nature, composition, and fate. In the first two books Lucretius's purpose is to dispose of human fear of the intervention of gods into the world by proving that the universe is material and all events are due to the movement and combination of atoms. In book 3 he counteracts the fear of death and of punishment after death by proving that the soul, too, is composed of matter and is dissolved at death into atoms. The book ends with a triumphant passage on the mortality of the soul and the folly of the fear of death.
In book 4 the poet deals with the nature of sensation and thought: sight is the result of emanations of atoms from an object which pass into the eye. The remaining senses and the mental processes function in an analogous way. Next, the poet refutes the teleological view of creation, treats of the will, sleep, and dreams, and ends the book with a violent attack on the passion of love (which makes men do unreasonable things).
Books 5 and 6 are an appendix in which the atomic principle is applied in detail. Book 5, after praise of Epicurus and an attack on the religious view, describes the beginning and end of this world and certain problems of astronomy. The poet then accounts for the origin of life on earth, the creation of man, and the development of civilization.
Book 6 begins with a eulogy to Epicurus. It deals with miscellaneous celestial and terrestrial phenomena and proves that they have physical causes, thus opposing popular superstition, which interpreted unusual occurrences as divine signs. A treatment of pestilences leads him to a long (150 lines) description of the plague at Athens in 430 B.C. on which the work closes.
Throughout his work Lucretius attacks religion and the fear of death, for him the causes of all evils on earth. He upholds the powerful light of intellect, which has discovered the true nature of the universe. Specifically, it is Epicurus who, through the "living force of his mind" (1:72), penetrated beyond the "flaming walls of heaven," traversed the measureless universe in his imagination, and then set forth what can and cannot come into being and how each thing has its powers limited (1:62-79).
Religion, says Lucretius, has been responsible for such monstrous acts as the sacrifice at Aulis of the pitiful Iphigenia, young daughter of King Agamemnon. The fear of death and of punishment after death is the cause of avarice, ambition, cruelty, and other forms of wickedness. This fear can be dispelled only by an understanding of the "outer appearance and inner working of nature" (3:31-93). Lucretius maintains that it is necessary to use the charm of poetry to explain the nature of the universe just as doctors, when attempting to persuade children to drink bitter medicine, smear the rim of the cup with honey (1:933-950, 4:6-25).
Liberated by philosophy from superstitious fears and the fear of death, man achieves ataraxia, a state in which he is free of disturbances of all kinds. He has gained, Lucretius says, a lofty and serene sanctuary, well fortified by the teaching of the wise, from which he may view others in their futile struggle to reach the top in human affairs.
The fervor of Lucretius's arguments, especially the violence of his attack on love at the end of book 4, does not seem to stem from a completely tranquil mind. Yet his poetry is at times magnificent, his hexameters, although not as lithe and graceful as Virgil's, have a powerful and austere majesty. Above all, Lucretius's effort to free men, by science and the power of intellect, from the dark and irrational fears which enslave and torture them has earned him a place among the benefactors of humankind.
Further Reading on Lucretius
Works on Lucretius include George Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante and Goethe (1910); George D. Hadzsits, Lucretius and His Influence (1935); E. E. Sikes, Lucretius, Poet and Philosopher (1936); Henri Bergson, The Philosophy of Poetry: The Genius of Lucretius, edited and translated by Wade Baskin (1959); Alban D. Winspear, Lucretius and Scientific Thought (1963); Donald R. Dudley, Lucretius (1965); and David West, The Imagery and Poetry of Lucretius (1969).