Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The Nature of Things by Lucretius

Written in c.50 BC, this is an incredible philosophical piece by an Epicurean. The authors aim appears to be to rid the reader of superstition about how the world works, and help develop a better understanding concerning the nature of things, as once this is achieved, you can see clearly and without fear. For example, Lucretius argues that there is no need to fear death, as the soul cannot exist without the body, and so your existence will cease after your death. Had Lucretius met Hamlet, doubtless he would have told him in that sleep of death no dreams may come. Brilliantly, the Epicureans seem to have gotten a lot correct. Lucretius describes the existence and movement of atoms, how objects of differing weight will fall at the same speed in a vacuum, proposes that the universe is infinite (and that life will probably exist elsewhere in it), and perhaps best of all, evolution (5.837-854), describing how the fittest survived and bred. He also gets a lot wrong, such as how we see (4.158 ff.), describing how all objects continually throw off ‘gauzy films and flimsy shapes’, and the reason we can only see when there is light is because light creates ‘shining air’ that the atoms creating these films can travel through, whereas the dark air is too thick for the images to get through, which is quite an intriguing solution (4.337-351). Most of the time, however, when Lucretius is unsure he makes sure the reader knows, often giving them a whole host of possible explanations for a phenomena, such as lightning, or why the moon goes through cycles. For the latter, he proposes that half the moon glows, while half is dark, and the revolution of it creates the lunar phases, or that the moon emits light all the time, but there is another moon that we cannot see that crosses orbits, often blocking the light. Lucretius even hits upon the right answer, that the moon reflects the Sun’s light, but the amount it reflects varies according to the moon’s position (5.705 ff.). A great book, with the occasional philosophical insight (although it’s mostly what we would now deem science), and a lovely flowing translation by A. E. Stallings into rhyming fourteeners. 7.5/10.

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