Philosophy Week 10: Lucretius: On the Nature of Things 

By Craig Wright | 08 Jul 2022 | Week 10

Introduction 

Lucretius wrote a very modern treatise of the world in verse.1 This notional account of reality captures many aspects of the underlying nature of modern science. At the same time, it encapsulates many forms of Epicurean thought and philosophy2. Most importantly, it is a splendid shimmering enthusiastic poem. The magnificent poem by Lucretius is didactic whilst also encapsulating many acquisitive and modernistic structures of scientific discourse.3 While this poem, in some ways, can be seen as dark, we also see Lucretius celebrate the landscape of the world with moral fervour and aesthetic splendour that simultaneously borrows many ideas of Greek physics and concepts of the atomistic structure of matter. In a manner analogous to how we believe the composition of the universe is today, Lucretius creates a discourse that incorporates all particles of the world, starting from the first beginning or creation of the universe and formulating complex patterns of complexity that lead to life. These arrangements comprise the interactions that makeup existence.4 

The acceptance of life comes with a knowledge of death and ending. Therefore, while Lucretius unreservedly recognises and embraces life, it is remembered that it must be tinged with despondency and sadness. For, to live is also to die. The poetic description of reality captures a purely materialistic explanation of reality. For Lucretius, there are no metaphysical or supernatural explanations required. It is a world analogous to that of Ayn Rand in many ways. Yet, simultaneously in a world that embraces beauty and art.5 

This form of Epicurean distancing from the world and spirituality and avoiding argument may seem to lead to peace for some. Yet equally, it can be seen as the roots of Machiavellian political thought.6 Equally, this avoidance of God and the spiritual leads to its own form of religion. In creating a mythology of science like religion, an intolerant theology develops. In this, the atheist states that they don’t believe in God. Yet, they have merely created a God of infinity.7 An empty God. A nihilistic God.8 However, God nevertheless.9 

In analysing reality, Lucretius argues that we find that the cause of all things may be found in the things themselves. Lucretius does not acknowledge that we need more. For him, the ultimate end or purpose does not require a final cause and does not need more than life itself. In Epicurean form, Lucretius proselytises a world without the need for God or spirituality. Some, there is an emptiness in this view of reality. For others, it is sufficient. Neither perspective can be taken in isolation and said to be right. There are no ways of testing outside of time and the universe itself in this universe. So, ironically for Lucretius, even his own philosophy is a matter of faith and belief.10 

Rewriting and Originality 

As with Shakespeare, Lucretius provides a clear example of how an author may borrow from another and make something superior to which component he used.11 The title itself is not original. Both Empedocles and Epicurus wrote a treatise with this very name and on this very topic. Ennius created didactic poetry in this form, and there are aspects of the work of Lucretius that are taken Word for Word verbatim from each of these authors. Equally, we will see many Shakespearean stories covered later through this series of works documented against earlier Greek and Roman authors.12 

Yet, at the time of writing, such use of the works of others was not seen as plagiarism but rather a way of honouring those who went before. Unlike modern papers, all of the works of these other poets and philosophers would have been well known by anyone reading and commenting on the work of Lucretius. In this, nobody thought that the words he took and incorporated were his, but rather the act of how he incorporated these became part of the art.13 The distinction is the revivifying edifying poetic form of Lucretius. When taking the works of others, like Shakespeare, he made them more than they were.14 

We see this same reuse of stories in Shakespeare’s works of the great Romans. Whether Caesar or Anthony, each story existed and was well known before turning into a magnificent play. And equally, the works of Lucretius take the philosophy of Epicurus and construct a full account of this attitude then others could expound.15 In this, materialism is brought to its full and rounded form. Lucretius takes a form of materialism called atomism and constitutes this into a world of matter and void. Matter exists as particles that interact in an empty nothingness.16 

Empedocles developed an idea of atomic interactions.17 These ideas were developed further by Leucippus before being taken up by Democritus of Aberda and then being constructed into a material reality based on an infinite number of invisible yet highly interactive particles.18 In this model, some particles are different sizes from others, and some interact differently. Through this, we see a proto-concept of an elemental table. 

Such a materialistic approach allows for explaining all material and natural phenomena. Extended out, this provides psychological and physical processes, and interactions of rules can be created to measure all that can develop. These basic principles form an underlying structure that forms a complex interaction of particles that lead to the world. To Democritus and Lucretius, the body of the soul and all that can exist are components of atoms and energy. In this theory, life, death and existence are formed through the aggregation and disaggregation of particles and matter in other forms.19 

Unfortunately, these mechanistic explanations lead to a deterministic and mechanical universe where all things are already decided. In this existence, particle systems based on Newtonian interactions exist in a pre-quantum world. In some ways, Lucretius was a Deist. What gods may be to him are unconcerned with the world. They are a watchkeeper, a watchmaker, the one who winds and forgets.20 

The point, however, is not despondency. Rather, Lucretius aims to describe how people may achieve contentment in this world. Some aspects of this can be seen as Eastern and aligned to Buddhist thought integrated with a materialistic vent. This theory sees death as merely a dispersion of atoms and a lack of energy.21 The annihilation of sensation results, and hence to Lucretius, as with Epicurus, we see death is something not to be feared.22 

Democritus and Epicurus differed on several key points23. First, Epicurus noted that a clockwork universe that is completely regular and mechanical in a Newtonian sense is deterministic with no room for liberty or freedom. Epicurus rejected this and sought to argue that there must be some additional component that leads to uncertainty and chaos. Through this, liberty and freedom can devolve. As with Epicurus, Lucretius sought the distinction from the earlier materialists, creating a system that integrated a spontaneous and unpredictable series of movements and led to an inherent declination and oblique changes. These random events act as quantum uncertainty in this interpretation of the natural world.24 

Lucretius did not see his philosophy as dark; rather, he saw it as a cure for the spiritual malaise that many embraced at the time. The fear and mysticism that the average person embraced involved a dread and anxiety of death. It is this terror and rejection of the end of life that Lucretius sought to absolve. So instead, he created a world that he saw as serene and, in this, created therapy for those who feared.25 

While this work captures earlier Greek thought, it was written in Latin. Unfortunately, very few examples of Latin epic reverse in didactic exameter have survived. 

As Costa demonstrates, a strong theme of self-care exists throughout the work of the Epicureans, yet little underlies the philosophy to do with higher ideals.26 There is little in the aesthetic, and there is even less defined purpose within. In this, it can be seen as an idle upper-middle-class philosophy. While many in the upper social classes will embrace such a structure in modern society, it is because of the lack of direction and apathy held by these modern wealthy generations. Equally, the lack of an aristocratic ideal of direction has led to a loss of direction.27 

The Atomistic View of Structure 

The perspective of life in the work of Lucretius is rather nihilistic.28 We live, our atoms come together, we die, and they separate. There are no higher purposes in this, and you should just live the best life we can now. In this work, Books 1 and II deal with the materialistic and atomistic nature of reality, according to Lucretius. Book III argues that the soul itself is made of atoms and also disintegrates at death. Book IV documents a concept of perception, thought, and reproduction while equally denouncing sexual love. Book V presents an idea of the world and its origin. Book VI looks at natural phenomena ending with the plague at Athens based on the telling by Thucydides. 

The opening of the poem starts with praise for the fecundity of Venus. Then, it incorporates a series of thanking you’s for those that the poet knows and those that have helped as his patrons. In the knowledge of the nature of things as described in Epicurean manner, Lucretius believes that people will no longer suffer the crushing and disabling trepidation that he says would be inculcated through religion. Yet, he fails to note either that the majority of people would not accept such a world as anything but pointless and further fails to comprehend the deep nihilism in such a system.29 

Moreover, in trying to present the philosopher as a conquering hero, Lucretius and Epicurus portray a nihilistic existence but are purely random and fail to ask for explanations beyond anything that can be empirically tested. The logical positivist line of thought in modern scientific philosophy and the empirical skills and knowledge each follow such a path. It is the same path that Nietzsche said leads to the death of God and, in this, the decay of moral society.30 

There are aspects of the book that are well worth understanding. In describing how there must be “fixed seeds” or “first beginnings,” the poet pushes us to investigate knowledge and attempt to understand an object or thing’s particular form. Horses come from horses, and man comes from man, and these do not cross. It is also noted how many fixed conditions such as seasons, the raising and fall of tides and the cycles of growth are necessary. In this, we see the corollary of nothing comes from nothing. However, equally, nothing is totally destroyed. Yet, such an approach does not lead to peace.31 

As Lucretius notes, “nature dissolves everything back into its first bodies and does not annihilate things.” The distinction is what is a thing. As we know now, even atoms themselves may be destroyed and reformed. It is merely the energy that remains and can even be transformed. As such, the balance of energy and matter in the universe may stay in a fixed proportion, but this is very different from the statement that all things must exist. Further, such a series of statements preclude concepts such as justice, as these are merely ideas in empirical understanding. 

While Lucretius distinguishes between concrete things which may be destroyed in that the particles which make them are disassembled and reassembled into something else, he seeks to say that we should be comforted in that “the thing therefore never returns to nothing, but all things after disruption go back into the first bodies of matter”. This cycle is argued to be sufficient, and the rebirth of something new to replace us should be, to Lucretius, sufficient to make us content.32 

Ironically, despite the empirical bent to this work admittedly derived the conclusion from speculation and not observation. In many ways, the empirical concepts formulated on speculation require a level of knowledge that they do not themselves hold. For example, while we now know that atoms exist, we also understand that these change and alter in form.33 In this, the void accounts for the other aspect of the Lucretian space, and empty space is the medium of all things. According to this Epicurean theory, atoms in the void remain the two ultimate constituents of all existence. 

Finally, the universe of Lucretius must be infinite.34 It cannot be anything outside of the entirety of the universe, and whatever is bound and finite must always be within the infinite. Unfortunately for this theory, we know that the universe has boundaries. Yet, we see theories introduced that still attempt to appear scientific and extend existence into the infinite through an extended concept of multi-verse theory. Rather than gods, rather than the mystic that some of us feel, Lucretius seeks the universe without need of explanation because it implies an infinite void with infinite matter.35 

The Constant Processes of Motion And Change 

In Epicurean sense, all things constantly change in motion, perpetually developing and reformulating. In this, only the sum of all particles in the void remains the same. Through this, Lucretius would have us believe that all things are possible. All combinations could eventually occur because all things exist in a full infinity.36 These endless turbulent motions create all things endlessly.37 

In this, we again see the modern concept of a multi-verse. Although some call these theories physics, a multi-verse theory is unscientific and cannot be falsified. Moreover, there is no evidence, and importantly, such a process act outside of parsimony.38 For example, introducing infinity is a frequent answer to removing God.39 Yet, an empty methodology for doing the same. While it is true that nothing in the universe needs to be explained, such a model merely determines and states that the universe always existed and hence there is no need to question. Such dogmatic statements are antithetical to the scientific method. 

While some aspects of the work of Lucretius match the scientific principles of the day, it must be remembered that this is a work that is nearly two millennia old. In some ways, some aspects have also been implemented to fulfil a philosophical goal. For example, while the swerving of atoms posited by Lucretius can represent some of the motions conducted by atoms in quantum theory, implementing this change was to remove determinism and add free thought. The question then follows why free will and thought must be part of the universe if the universe is infinite.  

Importantly, there is a contradiction that many even today in formulating a system of an infinite universe with free will.40 In a system of infinite occurrences, all things have already occurred. All things will occur. All things will have occurred and will occur an infinitely large number of times again and again. In this, the very place for free will that was being added can be subtracted again and may be seen as a contradiction. The work of Lucretius is very interesting as a precursor to natural law theory and the proto-physics that eventually evolved. However, all of this integrates a form of natural law and creates a scenario where possible worlds are not merely a philosophical concept but rather a construction of reality. 

Nature and Materialism 

Lucretius brings about rails against the concept of what he calls the “pathetic fallacy” of emotions and feelings and notes that “whatever things we perceived to have sense, you must admit to be all composed of senseless first beings”.41 This is because living things are derived from nonliving material parts. And as such, to Lucretius cannot be any more than the whole. 

“A man may laugh though not made of laughing things, and think and reason in learned language though not performed of thoughtful and eloquent seeds, why cannot the things which we see to have sense, just as well be made up of a mixture of things altogether devoid of sense?” 

In this, the universe is said to have no purpose and reason. 

“For verily not by design did the first beings of things stationed themselves each in its right place guided by keen intelligence.” 

The Epicurean line of thought says that there are no purposes or reasons. We exist merely because we are here. This nihilistic form of empty explanation is said by writers such as Lucretius to make us happier.42 The rejection of divine providence in the work of Lucretius is not adverse to gods but rather forms a deistic religion if one must exist. In this, God would not be concerned with humanity.43 

“For the nature of God’s must ever in itself of necessity enjoy immortality together with supreme… Repose, far removed and withdrawn from our concerns; since exempt from every pain, exempt from all dangers, strong in its own resources, not wanting ought of us, it is never gained by favours nor moved by anger.” 

Which, again, is a contradictory position. If humanity can and does take an interest in areas outside of humanity and embraces and protects areas that are at times seemingly outside of our own long-term interest, why couldn’t God? Saying that something is all-powerful and hence has no reason in your opinion to have an interest is not the same as not having an interest and doesn’t follow. Many of the interests of epicureans existed outside of his survival in day-to-day happiness; this interest in beings other than themselves for no reason other than their own happiness is itself a contradiction to the point being made by Lucretius.44 

“If you will apprehend and keep in mind these things, nature free at once and rid of her haughty lords is seen to do all things spontaneously of herself without the meddling of the gods. For I appeal to the holy breasts of the gods who in tranquil piece pass a calm time and an unruffled existence, who can rule the some, who hold in his hand with controlling force the strong brands, of the immeasurable deep? Who can at once make all the different heavens to roll and warm with the eternal fires all the fruitful earth, or present in all places at all times, to bring darkness with clouds and shake with noise the heavens serene experience, to hurl lightnings and often throw down his own temples, and withdrawing into the desert is there to spend his region practising his fault which often passes the guilty by and strikes the innocent and an offending?” 

Lucretius brings us a question similar to that addressed by God in the Old Testament book of Job. However, the response is the opposite answer. Lucretius rejects the mysterious and the divine power and rather says that things are random and just happen or by themselves. This ends with an inevitable cycle of generation and decay. However, in this, nothing is new, and nothing is old in the same occurs endlessly in this universe. What you do today, you will do today an infinitely numbered times. 

While Lucretius says we should find solace and happiness in this, I see hell. Endlessly repeating the same errors and loops of mistakes, never learning and never improving, seems a nightmare. I do not see anything that could be worse.45 

Practical Motivations in Philosophy 

George Santayana criticised Epicurus “on the same irrelevant moral grounds on which it has usually been rejected”.46 While moral grounds have been argued to be completely irrelevant in philosophical and scientific speculation or knowledge, this leads to an empty discourse and ignores the nature of humanity. Many aspects of humanity, including emotion, are necessary for informing reason.47 Without emotion, we do not have logic. Without emotion, we cannot live an impassioned life.48 

Moreover, humanity has a deep underlying need to find the aesthetic and the spiritual. This requires deeper insight and not merely accepting the universe for what it is.49 The non-materialistic philosophy of Plato and Aristotle differ in this sense. However, while each author differs significantly, both Aristotle and Plato embraced the need for emotion. Lucretius has many similarities with post-modern philosophers, and his aesthetic is one that is merely an intellectual accepting the order of things. 

While Lucretius may want things different to how he says they are, he finds things are a certain way and thus merely accepts and celebrates the arrangement. However, as with Santayana, I see that Lucretius is anti-religious, and that bias distorts his view of the spiritual nature of humanity. Despite seeking something more in life itself, the Epicurean fails to understand the fully matured form of naturalism or to integrate the aesthetic and imaginative values of spirituality. Rather than accepting humanity as we are, it seeks to remove some of the mystique around death. 

Is Lucretius Scientific? 

Lucretius posits an infinite universe with matter and the void continuing through time and space. The existing universe does not fulfil this model, yet some wish to create such a system by implementing a continuum of universes in a multi-verse.50 Yet, despite the proselytisation of this concept, no evidence exists to support an infinite universe and theories of parsimony are violated. Moreover, the sum of things in an infinite universe need not stay the same. Where nothing is created and destroyed, the universe is static, but equally, such a system has no reason to continue. Such a system also denies entropy.51 

A balanced cosmic system cannot be equal, unchanging and infinite. The definitions of infinity may be varied, and there are multiple mathematical infinities a get; there is a contradiction and ambiguity in such a term when used to describe the universe and the way that is being done in this poem. However, there are definitional terms that are problematic as well. Lucretius may mean boundless. While infinity is often misused, a boundless system differs from an infinite system.52 

However, Lucretius also talks about atoms and particles being unlimited in number, which, when applied to matter and atoms, would contradict definitions based on a boundless description of the universe.53 Ultimately, Lucretius notes that the story of matter is unchangeable: 

“and no force can change the sum of things; for there is nothing outside, either into which any kind of matter can escape out of the universe or out of which a new supplier can arise and burst into the universe and change all of the nature of things and alter their motions.” 

We create a contradiction by setting both fixed limits assigned to things that bound someone on each side and noting that things are boundless. In true Aristotlean terms, I will note that contradictions do not exist in reality. So, the universe Lucretius posits is equally infinite, finite or both in different aspects throughout this work. This takes us into a metaphysical reality that the author sought to avoid.54 

Does the Swerve of Atoms Create Quantum Theory and Free Will? 

In a purely materialistic, empirical and atomistic view of reality, humanity is merely constituted of atoms, and all mental acts and thoughts can be explained through the movement of particles. Therefore, in incorporating the work of Epicurus, the freedom of will in humanity must be based on a spontaneous change in the decay of atoms. That is, a quantum state must degrade. Unfortunately, however, such an approach is wanting in many ways and, more importantly, not satisfying. 55 

As Lucretius would say, the decay of particles or swerve is set to create freedom and will. Yet, can a particle decay the scene as an inner cause of action, and can we say whether this contrasts with external force? Most importantly, in any boundless and eternal and infinite universe, if each possibility may occur from such a decay, then each decay must occur in every form an infinite number of times. From this, the argument for free will itself fails. While Lucretius and Epicurus sought to create a reality without God and spiritual force, they left an empty universe without explanation.56 

This system merely appears. Or rather, the universe was always there. Such an empty explanation or to enlighten. Moreover, Lucretius fails to incorporate and embrace free will and structures a system that must simply repeat over and over. I think, therefore, I am… In this, the universe of Lucretius fails to explain why.57 Further, this philosophy of emptiness and the now leads to a Nietzschean nihilism which leads many to a state of depression, knowing that anything they do is meaningless.58 

Rather than answering questions of consciousness and free will, the introduction of spontaneity or atomic decay and movement merely adds a level of unpredictably increasing the range of options that may occur in an infinite set of universes. While further options occur and every possible event may happen, this again precludes the existence of free will. Unfortunately, in seeking a system without spiritual and metaphysical externalities, Lucretius has made a system without meaning or purpose. Critically, it is a contradictory system that fails to explain any aspects of reality it seeks to incorporate.59 

Questions and Reflections 

In order to best understand and comprehend the work, we must question it and think about our understanding by challenging ourselves. Through this, we can learn how to question our own comprehension and whether we have been thorough in understanding what we have read. 

  • Why are Greek concepts difficult to express in Latin? 
  • War is often an accident. Describe how the Trojan War may be partly accidental. 
  • Which early Greek philosopher was obscure and was famous for not being known? 
  • What does nature require as a way of life? 
  • Describe the primary elements of matter according to Lucretius. 
  • What analogy is made between material atoms and the elements in Lucretius’ poem? 
  • What is meant by the term homoeomeria? 

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