6 August 2019: Lucretius Series #2: the smallest true thing

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Lucretius Series #2: The Smallest True Thing

            I’m pushing myself to do multiple entries for each book, so that I can dig a little deeper into each. Here, then, is the second installment of a series on The Nature of Things by Lucretius, written circa 50 BCE (or the year of the consulship of Paullus and Marcellus for short). For this entry, I’ll be focusing more on the verse translation by A.E. Stalling, specifically on the first half or so of the first book of this long poem, titled “Matter and Void.”

            It is useful for me to track what Lucretius is doing. Given that this is philosophy, as well as poetry, how does he lay out his argument? What kind of evidence does he muster, and why? In my last entry, I talked about the invocation of Venus, perhaps mostly as a generative principle, as opposed to Mars, or the destructive principle. From this, Lucretius moves onto the point that the gods, in that they exist, exist at a remove from human life. This move, which would seem to undercut his invocation, helps to situate it on an allegorical level for readers.

Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, circa 1485

Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, circa 1485

From here we seem move on to the meat of Lucretius’s “true philosophy:” that the universe is composed of atoms:

We term them in philosophy, according to our needs,

Matter, atoms, generative bodies, elements and seeds,

And first beginnings since it is from these that all proceeds. (5, lines 59-61)

And just to give a sample again about what these atoms and seeds look like in the original, here’s the Latin:

…quae nos materiem et genitalia corpora rebus

reddunda in ratione vocare et semina rerum

appellare suëmus et haec eadem usurpare

corpora prima, quod ex illis sunt omnia primis (6, lines 58-61)

Here’s Rouse (revised by Smith):

…which, in discussing philosophy, we are accustomed to call mater, and bodies that generate things, and seeds of things, and to entitle the same first bodies, because from them as first elements all things are. (7)

I want to think more going forward about seminal vs germinal, and the gendering (conceptual not grammatical) of this atomic matter. I don’t have anything big yet, but I’m always reading with an eye out for this stuff, and I’m curious to find out to what extent the generative matter of the universe is conflated with the generative matter of, uh, people—or not! Especially since this project is under the sign of Venus.

            Lucretius reserves unfolding his cosmology further until he has explained the dangers of superstition (Stallings explains that she chooses to translation religio as alternately superstition or religion). In order to do this, he uses the story of the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father Agamemnon as an example of how a belief in the gods can pervert the care of a parent for a child. It’s interesting to me to think about this alongside both the Oresteia of Aeschylus, in which the Furies, associated with the lex talionis (eye for an eye vengeance), are transformed into the Eumenides, and the uses to which Freud and the psychoanalytic tradition have put mythological narratives, like those of Oedipus or Elektra. The former is generally thought of as a story about the emergence of impartial justice, but it’s not justice that Lucretius is after, but truth, which for him included the indivisibility of atoms, and which seems to have acted as a kind of stabilizing force—certainly more stable than justice.

            Lucretius anticipates and directly addresses the sway that religion has, locating its power in the way that produces anxiety about the fate of the soul in the afterlife. As such, part of his campaign of demystification involves harkening to natural phenomena—report of which our admittedly fallible senses deliver to us—and their implications about the nature of the soul.

            Some of the most striking passages of this book for me are when Lucretius touches on language, as when he denounces the inadequacy of the language in which he writes, Latin:

Nor does it fail me that discoveries—obscure and dark—

Of Greeks are difficult to shed much light on with the spark

Of Latin poetry, chiefly since I must coin much new

Terminology, because of our tongue’s dearth and due

To the novelty of subject matter. (7, lines 135-139)

Or when he explains compound substances by likening them to the rearrangement of letters to form words:

…And without solid nourishment and fresh

Water to sustain us we should quickly lose our flesh,

And life would fray from every bone and sinew. For it’s plain

That it is certain substances that feed us and sustain,

While other things are fed on other substances—no doubt

Since many basic particles common to things are mixed about

In different ways. So different things need different sustenance.

And how these atoms are arranged makes all the difference—

Their position and formations, and what moves they give and


From one another, for the selfsame atoms go to make

The heavens and the sea, the land, the rivers and the sun,

The same make crops, trees, animals—but by their combination

In different ways with different elements move differently.

Furthermore, all through these very lines of mine, you see

Many letters that are shared by many words—and yet

You must confess that words and lines from this one alphabet

Have sundry sounds and meanings. Letters only have to change

Their order to accomplish all of this—and still the range

Of possibilities with atoms is greater. That is why

They can create the universe’s rich variety. (26-27, lines 809-829)

            As I proceeded through the first half of “Matter and Void,” I pulled out what seemed like some main principles of Lucretian philosophy:

1.     That “nothing can be made from nothing.” (Every time I read some variation of this sentiment, this Billy Preston song pops into my head.)

2.     That “Nature doesn’t render anything to naught,” which could be put anachronistically as “matter cannot be created or destroyed”

3.     However, the void exists, and like love and strife, matter and void in combination comprise everything that exists.

Reading these, I’m struck by how thoroughly they correspond to my sense of a contemporary scientific perspective (not that I would really be one to judge), so it’s interested when I move from parts that feel prescient, to those moments where Lucretius doesn’t quite get it right—from our perspective, anyway—such as his notion that time doesn’t exist.

            One of the joys of this work is in the richness of the examples Lucretius uses, like this passage, written in support of the rationality of belief in substances and processes invisible to the naked eye (incremental growth and decay):

Moreover, clothing hung out by a breaker-beaten shore

Grows damp, but if you spread it in the sun, it dries once more.

Yet how the moisture came and went, you cannot see at all—

And so the water must evaporate in drops so small

They escape detection by our eyes. Year after circling year,

The ring upon a finger thins from inside out with wear.

The steady drip of water causes stone to hollow and yield.

The curving iron of the ploughshare fritters in the field

By imperceptible degrees. The cobbles of the street

We see are polished smooth by now from throngs of passing


And at the city gates, right hands of statues made of brass

Are worn away by touches of the greeting hands that pass.

And thus we see things dwindle by their being rubbed away—

But what is lost at any given moment, we can’t say

Because our stingy sense of sight will never let us see. (12, lines 298-321).

The Nature of Things is FULL of images like these. There is so much information contained in the part about the worn right hand of the statue, and not only as evidence of imperceptible change. It’s also a vivid observation of human behavior. Can you read this line without imagining Lucretius, standing still amid by a busy city gate, watching people as they engage in the everyday act of touching a bronze statue’s hand for luck? For me as a contemporary reader, this is still the honey on the rim of the cup of the medicine of truth!

            The worn bronze hand (so to speak) is a way in for me, someone who is prone, if not to superstition, at least to being beguiled by myth. Lucretius is one of the more persuasive examples of the idea that the world, as is, is magical enough, if you are a good noticer.


            Why am I reading this, again? Curiosity? Good poetry? Maybe I find it calming? A friend sent me Michael Silverblatt’s interview with Ariana Reines, in which she talks about the emptying out of words like TRUTH and FREEDOM, by events like the second gulf war. (For me this is part of what makes someone like Hannah Arendt, who I’ve written about here before, both difficult and alluring to read—her appeals to words that now seem flat and hollow, at least to Reines and I.) In The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt locates Lucretius in a time of violence, uncertainty, and political instability. The Roman Republic was dissolving into empire. Who wouldn’t go looking for something stable? And Lucretius, unable or at least disinclined to find stable ground in the society around him, found himself beyond the human world, divides the things of the world until he finds the smallest true thing.

Zoe Tuck