When they feign
That gods have stablished all things but for man,
They seem in all ways mightily to lapse
From reason’s truth … in no wise the nature of the world
For us was builded by a power divine-
So great the faults it stands encumbered with.
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Book II
The first time I heard of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, was reading Christopher Hitchens’ anthology of articles The Portable Atheist. It was here that I realized that Hitchens claimed to be part of the Epicurean philosophical school and to stand on the shoulders of giants like Lucretius, and that in some way the so-called new atheism was not so new: that many of the arguments that are today made by people like Hitchens and Dawkins are thousands of years old.
Lucretius was a proto-Hitchens, indeed. Persistently disdainful of superstition and of religion, the 1st-Century Roman poet insulted those who insisted that the Gods had created Earth for humankind (that is, the ancient creationists), calling them ignorant–as we see above, and that although the Earth was our mother, it was not a sentient being and any personification of her was merely poetry.
He also argued that there are too many faults with nature to have been made by perfect beings, and later in the fifth book he gives numerous examples of the ways in which nature does not seem to have been made for us: things like bad weather, weeds, catastrophes, wild beasts, etc.
Another contemporary set of arguments that echoes those from antiquity deals with the assertion by religious people that things were “made” por a purpose and, therefore, were evidence of a maker. In the following passage, Lucretius argued over 2,000 years ago that our eyes, ears, limbs, etc. “were created before they found their use”.
All such interpretation
Is aft-for-fore with inverse reasoning,
Since naught is born in body so that we
May use the same, but birth engenders use:
No seeing ere the lights of eyes were born,
No speaking ere the tongue created was;
But origin of tongue came long before
Discourse of words, and ears created were
Much earlier than any sound was heard;
And all the members, so meseems, were there
Before they got their use: and therefore, they
Could not be gendered for the sake of use.
But contrariwise, contending in the fight
With hand to hand, and rending of the joints,
And fouling of the limbs with gore, was there,
O long before the gleaming spears ere flew;
And nature prompted man to shun a wound,
Before the left arm by the aid of art
Opposed the shielding targe. And, verily,
Yielding the weary body to repose,
Far ancienter than cushions of soft beds,
And quenching thirst is earlier than cups.
These objects, therefore, which for use and life
Have been devised, can be conceived as found
For sake of using. But apart from such
Are all which first were born and afterwards
Gave knowledge of their own utility-
Chief in which sort we note the senses, limbs:
Wherefore, again, ’tis quite beyond thy power
To hold that these could thus have been create
For office of utility.
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Book IV
Much of the epic poem delves into possible theories that explain phenomena like thunder, earthquakes, orbits of planets, in natural terms in order to contradict prevailing superstitions of his days. Lucretius’ theories are obviously ancient and pre-scientific, but they represent a manifesto and a declaration of war against the twin degradations of religion and superstition.
There are instances where Lucretius comes quite close to fully scientific intuitions and understandings of nature. For instance, in Book V we find the reasoning that explains natural selection: when nature produces oddities, those creatures which are unable to eat, struggle, and reproduce, are naturally removed from the gene pool–a process which naturally leads only the best adapted to be able to pass on their genes.
And other prodigies and monsters earth
Was then begetting of this sort- in vain,
Since Nature banned with horror their increase,
And powerless were they to reach unto
The coveted flower of fair maturity,
Or to find aliment, or to intertwine
In works of Venus.
Among the proto-scientific explanations in De Rerum Natura, one of the most intriguing ones I found was from Book VI, where in verses 495-526 and 608-630 the cycles of rain and condensation are accurately described with opening verses such as: “Wonder how the sea never grows larger?”
Not only did Lucretius present scientific or proto-scientific ideas about the nature of things: he did so in a manner that was entertaining, artfully using Bible-like beautiful and poetic language, and using examples from nature in order to remain empirical: he observed how the sun dries our clothes, how water seeps through soil back to Earth, and how our streets dry up within a day after it rains, in order to account for the cycles of rain and condensation.
Now come, and how
The rainy moisture thickens into being
In the lofty clouds, and how upon the lands
‘Tis then discharged in down-pour of large showers,
I will unfold. And first triumphantly
Will I persuade thee that up-rise together,
With clouds themselves, full many seeds of water
From out all things, and that they both increase-
Both clouds and water which is in the clouds-
In like proportion, as our frames increase
In like proportion with our blood, as well
As sweat or any moisture in our members.
Besides, the clouds take in from time to time
Much moisture risen from the broad marine,-
Whilst the winds bear them o’er the mighty sea,
Like hanging fleeces of white wool. Thuswise,
Even from all rivers is there lifted up
Moisture into the clouds. And when therein
The seeds of water so many in many ways
Have come together, augmented from all sides,
The close-jammed clouds then struggle to discharge
Their rain-storms for a two-fold reason: lo,
The wind’s force crowds them, and the very excess
Of storm-clouds (massed in a vaster throng)
Giveth an urge and pressure from above
And makes the rains out-pour. Besides when, too,
The clouds are winnowed by the winds, or scattered
Smitten on top by heat of sun, they send
Their rainy moisture, and distil their drops,
Even as the wax, by fiery warmth on top,
Wasteth and liquefies abundantly.
But comes the violence of the bigger rains
When violently the clouds are weighted down
Both by their cumulated mass and by
The onset of the wind. And rains are wont
To endure awhile and to abide for long,
When many seeds of waters are aroused,
And clouds on clouds and racks on racks outstream
In piled layers and are borne along
From every quarter, and when all the earth
Smoking exhales her moisture. At such a time
When sun with beams amid the tempest-murk
Hath shone against the showers of black rains,
Then in the swart clouds there emerges bright
The radiance of the bow.
… In chief, men marvel nature renders not
Bigger and bigger the bulk of ocean, since
So vast the down-rush of the waters be,
And every river out of every realm
Cometh thereto; and add the random rains
And flying tempests, which spatter every sea
And every land bedew; add their own springs:
Yet all of these unto the ocean’s sum
Shall be but as the increase of a drop.
Wherefore ’tis less a marvel that the sea,
The mighty ocean, increaseth not. Besides,
Sun with his heat draws off a mighty part:
Yea, we behold that sun with burning beams
To dry our garments dripping all with wet;
And many a sea, and far out-spread beneath,
Do we behold. Therefore, however slight
The portion of wet that sun on any spot
Culls from the level main, he still will take
From off the waves in such a wide expanse
Abundantly. Then, further, also winds,
Sweeping the level waters, can bear off
A mighty part of wet, since we behold
Oft in a single night the highways dried
By winds, and soft mud crusted o’er at dawn.
Again, I’ve taught thee that the clouds bear off
Much moisture too, up-taken from the reaches
Of the mighty main, and sprinkle it about
O’er all the zones, when rain is on the lands
And winds convey the aery racks of vapour.
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Book IV
It is true that many descriptions of nature in Lucretius are obviously, sometimes embarrassingly, pre-scientific. However, contrast these beautiful and precocious attempts at a natural cosmology in a world drowned in superstition with the divinely-attributed explanations found in world mythology, or in the Bible, the Vedas, or the Qur’an. It becomes clear that Lucretius has given us one of the great jewels of ancient literature.
Please add Lucretius’ poem to your reading list, and–perhaps using as an excuse the occasion of the upcoming Hitchens-Jefferson Day–give others the gift of his writings.
… Nature, delivered from every haughty lord,
And forthwith free, is seen to do all things
Herself and through herself of own accord,
Rid of all gods.
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Book II