On the Nature of the Universe

October 4, 2011

Gracious Living Day by DayI was reading the NY Times book review section last Sunday, when I came across an interesting article.

De rerum natura, 1483 copy by Girolamo di Matteo de Tauris

De rerum nature, 1483 copy by Girolamo di Matteo de Tauris

In his new book about the ancient Roman poet Lucretius, The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt tells the intriguing story of how chance can affect the course of thought and history.

Nobody would appreciate the irony more than Lucretius.

I read this Roman poet and philosopher as a freshman in college and have never forgotten him.

Only one of his works survives, De rerum nature, or, On the Nature of the Universe.

This epic poem was almost lost – but for the accidental discovery of the last copy by the Florentine scholar Poggio Bracciolini in an Italian monastery.

How amazing it is, isn’t it?

There was this one manuscript of a marvelous poem by a mysterious writer whose life we know almost nothing about, hiding on a shelf in a medieval monastery. The poem is found by a person who instantly understands the genius of its author.

Bracciolini made several copies of the manuscript and sent them to Florence where they were widely admired. Its Epicurean humanist philosophy had extensive influence on Renaissance thought and beyond – on Dante, Newton, Goethe, Darwin, Santayana and others.

What is this poem about?

Well, the title does not overstate the perimeters of the author’s undertaking.

De rerum nature tries to explain the ways the universe operates and to free the reader’s mind from the chains of superstition, ignorance and, finally – the fear of death.

The book is divided into two sections. The first part considers the meaning of physics, matter, atoms and their motions, time and space. The second part reflects on human psychology and understanding, perceptions of the physical world, free will, love, reproduction and much more.

Lucretius starts with the premise that there is a demonstrable, observable explanation for all natural phenomena; that physical existence in its entirety is composed of methodical but haphazard movements and interactions of tiny atoms in empty space.

At this point in time – the moment that I am aware of –  the atoms have coalesced to create me, this particular individual, observing this particular experience. Soon, the atoms will separate, following their particular laws of motion, and form a different amalgam. Lucretius explains death as a separation of atoms for the individual whose times has passed, the “dissipation of the individual’s material mind.”

Lucretius is not just an original thinker, but a poet of unsurpassed beauty and lyricisms.

Here are a few quotations, randomly selected:

  • Sic rerum summa novatur
    semper, et inter se mortales mutua vivunt.
    augescunt aliae gentes, aliae
    inuuntur,
    inque brevi spatio mutantur saecla animantum
    et quasi cursores vitai lampada tradiunt.
    • Thus the sum of things is ever being renewed, and mortals live dependent one upon another. Some nations increase, others diminish, and in a short space the generations of living creatures are changed and like runners pass on the torch of life.
      • Book II, line 75.
  • Nil igitur mors est ad nos neque pertinet hilum,
    quandoquidem natura animi mortalis habetur.
    • Therefore death is nothing to us, it matters not one jot, since the nature of the mind is understood to be mortal.
      • Book III, line 831.
  • Cur non ut plenus vitae conviva recedis
    aequo animoque capis securam, stulte, quietem?
    • Why dost thou not retire like a guest sated with the banquet of life, and with calm mind embrace, thou fool, a rest that knows no care?
      • Book III, line 938-9.
  • Quod siquis vera vitam ratione gubernet,
    divitiae grandes homini sunt vivere parvo
    aequo animo; neque enim est umquam penuria parvi.
    • But if one should guide his life by true principles, man’s greatest wealth is to live on a little with contented mind; for a little is never lacking.
      • Book V, line 1117.
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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Gordana Curgus October 4, 2011 at 11:06 am

wonderful article, thank you Liliana.

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Liliana October 4, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Thank you, Gordana. I hope all is well with you. Hugs.

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