Intro to Book Review of Ontology of Motion: On the Subject of Definitions

Ontology of Motion, by Thomas Nail, is–among other things–a theory on the nature of things. It’s also a much-needed work of exegesis of De Rerum Natura in service of a fully immanent materialist and scientific cosmology. It’s also a re-interpretation of Lucretius, that seeks to explain the laws of nature relying more on motion than on the forces known to physics.

The author is attempting to reconcile Lucretius with quantum physics. In doing so, he assumes atomism (the idea of discrete particles, as opposed to what he calls “flows”) is obsolete, but this view is far from settled: Victor Stenger wrote a defense of classical atomism, and many more have questioned both the mystical interpretations of quantum physics, and the ease with which it can be misconstrued.

From the onset, the author understands that he is writing a counter-history. He understands that he is about to present an unorthodox interpretation of a work that has been vilified by Platonist-, Socratic-, and Christian-influenced forces in academia, and seems to echo Michel Onfray’s lone-voice-in-the-desert rhetoric.

“… the history of De Rerum Natura is part of a subterranean current of philosophy that has been systematically decimated throughout Western history”. – Thomas Nail, Ontology of Motion, page 4

On Definitions

We must start from the beginning. Words have meaning, and their meaning must correspond with concrete things that are observable in nature by our faculties. This is so important and fundamental, that it is the very first teaching that we find in the very first Epitome of Epicurean philosophy, followed by the second point, on the importance of reliance on our senses and faculties. Every student in the ancient School had to thoroughly study the Epistle to Herodotus prior to graduating to more complex subjects.

In the first place, Herodotus, you must understand what it is that words denote, in order that by reference to this we may be in a position to test opinions, inquiries, or problems, so that our proofs may not run on untested ad infinitum, nor the terms we use be empty of meaning. For the primary signification of every term employed must be clearly seen, and ought to need no proving; this being necessary, if we are to have something to which the point at issue or the problem or the opinion before us can be referred. – Epicurus, in his Letter to Herodotus

Another founder of this tradition, Polyaenus, devoted a treaty to Definitions. The idea is that every word that is used must have a clear correspondence in nature, in reality, as is evident to our faculties. – Reasonings About Epicurus’ On Nature (Book 18): Against the Use of Empty Words

One of the first problems of Ontology of Motion has to do with the word translations into English that are chosen for Latin terms used in the original work by Lucretius.

For instance, why is conjunctio not translated as conjunction? They seem to be the same word, yet in English the author translates conjunctio as “properties”. To the author, corpora means particles, and rerum are things, or bodies. I’m not sure that this is consistent with what I know about the word in Latin, but at least one Greek speaking Epicurean agrees with this translation of corpora as particles. Ι believe Lucretius used the word corpus (plural of corpora- corporis, which means “bodies”)–and this would correspond to the Spanish word cuerpo, which also means body. Epicurus used the Greek word «σώματα» (sómata) for “atoms”, and «σωματίδια» (somatídia), or “little bodies”–these have the same root as the word “σώματα” (sómata, bodies).

The classical model requires atoms to be discrete particles, and the smallest particles. But according to the author, the description of the universe as infinite requires that it be infinitely large and infinitely small, and as such, he claims that “there can be no smallest fold” (p 156). The author translates solida (from DRN 2:157) as flow, rather than the natural and expected translation that would have to do with solid. In page 188, he says that duplex translates as fold. I appeal to anyone who knows Latin to verify these translations. I do not know Latin, but Spanish is a daughter language and we do have the verb doblar (to fold, as in clothes), which might be etymologically related to duplex. Elsewhere, he also translates iuncta as folds. Either way, concerning the denial that atoms are the smallest discrete particles and the claim that the “infinitely small” exists, I believe this to be an innovation on his part. In Book I, Lucretius identified the seeds/bodies/elements as indivisible:

[593] Besides, because the utmost point or the extreme of every body something is the eye cannot discern, it is not made of parts, but is in nature what we call the least; which never exists of itself, divided from body, nor ever can, because it is the very first and last of something else. For ’tis by heaping up such parts as these, one by another, that complete the being of every body. Since then they can’t subsist apart, and separate, they must needs stick close, nor be divided by the utmost force. These seeds therefore are in their nature solid, and simple, formed of smallest parts bound close; not tied together by united seeds of various kinds, but in themselves entire, eternally unmixed and pure, from which nature will suffer nothing to be forced or lessened, reserving them as first seeds, to form and to repair those things that die.

[609] Again, suppose there was no least, the smallest bodies must be composed of parts boundless and infinite; the half of every being must then contain another half, so there would be no end of still dividing; and where would be the difference between the smallest and the largest bodies? None in the least; for though the whole be entirely infinite, yet bodies that are smallest would contain infinite parts alike, which, since true reason exclaims against, nor will allow the mind to give assent, you must, convinced, profess that there are bodies which are void of parts, and are by nature least; since such there are, you must admit them solid and eternal.

This last passage I paraphrased in the Self-Guided Study Curriculum at, while explaining that this doctrine was elaborated by the first Epicureans while searching for a refutation to a paradox by the pre-Socratic Zeno:

In response to the paradox of Zeno, they thought that if the particles could be cut to infinity, that would mean that all objects would have an infinite number of atoms. And we know that this is not the case because an object with infinite number of atoms would be of infinite size, and that is not what we see. Therefore, there must be a limited amount of atoms in each thing, and therefore there must be a point at which the particles are so small that they are no longer divisible: the a-tom (“in-divisible”).

And so the laws of nature require that, at some point, something must fit the original definition of the atom: that which can not be divided. Again, we find these Lucretian ideas (which the author of Ontology of Motion thinks are original to him) in Epicurus’ Epistle to Herodotus:

Furthermore, among bodies some are compounds, and others those of which compounds are formed. And these latter are indivisible and unalterable (if, that is, all things are not to be destroyed into the non-existent, but something permanent is to remain behind at the dissolution of compounds): they are completely solid in nature, and can by no means be dissolved in any part. So it must needs be that the first beginnings are indivisible corporeal existences.

We will next explore the importance of Herodotus as a source for Lucretius, and the fatal error of ignoring Epicurus as the original source for Lucretius.

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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1 Response to Intro to Book Review of Ontology of Motion: On the Subject of Definitions

  1. Pingback: Book Review of Ontology of Motion | Society of Friends of Epicurus

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