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Lucretius on the Nature of Things

On The Nature of Things (De rerum natura) is a didactic poem by the Roman philosopher Lucretius (c. 99 – c. 55 BC) that seeks to explain Epicurean thought through verse. A didactic poem is one that is designed to both entertain and educate. Of Lucretius’ life little is actually known, and On The Nature of Things is his only surviving work.

The poem is comprised of 7400 dactylic hexameters, also known as the “heroic meter,” since both Homer’s works and the Aeneid by Virgil are in this meter. A dactyl has one long syllable followed by two short ones. Divided into six untitled books, De rerum natura explores the nature of the mind and the soul, the principles of atomism (the Greek idea that the universe is composed of atoms or void), as well as natural phenomena. Unlike most Roman thought, Lucretius stated that the universe was governed by chance, and not controlled by gods.

Lucretius on the Nature of Things

The first half of the book is an exploration of being and nothingness, space and matter, animus (thought) and anima (spirit). One of Lucretius’ more famous passages is the idea that nothing can be produced from nothing and nothing can be reduced to nothing.

Book four explores the human senses, sleep and dreams, plus love and sex. Book five, generally regarded as the most complete, explores the origin of the world, the movements of the heavens, and the rise of society. Book six explores various natural phenomena such as thunder, snow, rain, ice, earthquakes and diseases. The book ends abruptly with a discussion of the plague that swept Athens during the Peloponnesian War, which suggests that the poem was unfinished.

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