The Way Things Are: The De Rerum Natura

ISBN: 025320125X
ISBN 13: 9780253201256
By: Lucretius Rolfe Humphries

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About this book

..". [captures] the relentless urgency of Lucretius' didacticism, his passionate conviction and proselytizing fervour.' --The Classical Review

Reader's Thoughts


If I had to choose one ancient text for ancient / medieval people to look to as a guide for living I would probably choose this work. The physics and biology and neuroscience (particularly) are way off and the aesthetics are far more cold and austere than those of a mystery cult, but the depth at which Lucretius - and the other Epicureans before him - investigated the workings of the world is truly staggering compared to say Plato or even Aristotle. Along the same thread, the backbone of the philosophy is that everything has an explanation in nature, which is an idea far ahead of its time. An idea that wouldn't be adapted for another 1700 years in the West (and with phenomenal success when it was adopted). The other aspect of De Rerum Natura that I find rather inspirational is how Lucretius attempts to put philosophy and science into poetry. How come no one does this now? The universe is much more fantastic than even Lucretius imagined so it seems a waste that no one has capitalized by capturing the beautifully transcendent beauty of science in beautifully transcendent poetic verse since Lucretius. He must be given a lot of credit for trying in my opinion.

Viktoria Michaelis

There was a time, many centuries ago, when man believed that the Earth was the center of the universe, that the sun and stars revolved around this small planet and that everything could be explained away by referring to the gods. To a certain extent things have not changed: there are still those who believe man and 'his world' are the center of everything and that a god is to blame, or to thank, for whatever happens. Our understanding of other natural phenomena has, however, moved on with many scientific explanations as well as advancements in our understanding of the universe, of the stars, planets, of creation itself.This knowledge we possess today doesn't necessarily wipe out all that was believed two thousand and more years ago. What was believed then has a strong bearing on what we know now, and on how we, as a species, react to our surroundings, to events, what we believe and trust in.Titus Lucretius Carus wrote in a time when many widely differing schools of thought were being discussed as philosophical explanations for our world, when man was beginning to look deeply into our existence and question all manner of things in the world. The gods and their almost magical powers were beginning to fall into disrepute; massive and brutal empires were being built and destroyed; natural catastrophes filled man's thoughts with questions as much as with fear. The philosophers began to question all about them and to offer, as best they could, explanations for events ranging from creation through to daily lives.Lucretius followed the school of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and his beautiful poetical work attempts not just to explain the world from its earliest beginnings, but also to dispel the natural fear of death, to enhance relationships between men during their lives, and influence how man saw the gods of old. Whilst the language of this translation is difficult to work through, it brings a fascinating insight into the thoughts of the times - before Christ - and helps the modern reader understand what it must have been like to live, work and above all think in a time before scientific instruments, before space travel, before the advent of the major, overbearing religions.

Adamo Lanna

Troppo una figata quando comincia a prendere per il culo Giove e i suoi fulmini. La parte della peste pure è bella, così come quando spiega i fenomeni naturali, invece l'anima lì quasi dormivo, che a me le polpette filosofiche sono indigeste. Però devo dire la verità è un libro che dovevo leggere, anche perché spunta fuori in tutte le storie delle scienze e ahhh finalmente so di cosa stanno parlando.

Jim Robles

Someone has won a Nobel prize for figuring out that the universe is still expanding. The prize should be shared (see Book 1, Lines 1052 to 1072) with Lucretius. Actually given how long it has taken modern physics to catch up, the prize should just be given to Lucretius.Anyone who happens to believe that heavier atoms are carried straight through the void more swiftly than lighter ones, fall on them from above, and so cause the blows capable of producing the movements necessary for creation, is diverging far from the path of sound judgement. (see Book 2, Lines 228-230) I hope you did not think that Isaac Newton came up with the idea that heavy and light items fall through the void at the same rate?The Swerve is a remarkable anticipation of the statistical nature of mater/alpha decay/God does play dice with the Universe. Lucretius gives a more coherent explanation (Book 2, Lines 250-292) of how this aspect of the design of the universe leaves room for free will than Charles Hartshorne does.And so the destructive motions cannot hold sway eternally and bury existence forever; nor again can the motions that cause life and growth preserve created things eternally. (Book 2, Line 570)The Corybantes were Cybele's attendants! (Note, p. 51)For it is inherent in the very nature of the gods that they should enjoy immortal life in perfect peace, far removed and separated from our world; free from all distress, free from peril, fully self-sufficient, independent of us, they are not influenced by worthy conduct nor touched by anger. (Book 2, Line 650)To conclude, all of us are sprung from celestial seed; all are begotten by that same father, from whom mother earth, the giver of life, receives the limpid drops of moisture. (Book 2, Line 991) This ontological conclusion provides the basis for the ethics of our conduct in regard to others. It leads to the arrant rejection of today's tragically misguided liberal multiculturalism.. . . you are bound to admit that in other parts of the universe there are worlds inhabited by many different peoples and species of wild beasts. (Book 2, Line 1070)Death, then, is nothing to us and does not affect us in the least, now that the nature of the mind is understood to be mortal. (Book 3, Line 830)In Book 4 Lucretius fails to note that (account for?) mirrors do not reflect in the dark. Line 241 Therefore touch and sight must be effected by the same cause - (since we can recognize the same shapes by either touch or sight).In this connection, I am extremely anxious that you should carefully avoid the mistake of supposing that the lustrous eyes were created to . . . . (Book 4, Line 822). [When Epicurus attacked the teleological view . . . , his main target will have been Aristotle. But, given that the Stoics, . . . also held the teleological . . . see Cicero DND . . .And will not the man who, using words instead of weapons, subdued all these monsters and banished them from the mind rightly be considered worthy of a place among the gods? (Book 5, Line 50). . . the necessity for each thing to abide by the law that governs its creation . . . (Book 5, Line 60)For what benefit could immortal and blessed beings derive from our gratitude, that they should undertake to do anything for our sake? (Book 5, Line 169)There was only a newly formed, turbulent mass of primary elements of every kind; and these were discordantly waging a war that involved constant confusion of interspaces, courses, interlacements, weights, impacts, concurrences, and motions, because, owing to the diversity of their shapes and the variety of their forms, then could not all form lasting unions or intercommunicate appropriate motions. (Book 5, Line 440) A rich anticipation of Big Bang Theory.Although Lucretius realizes that the moon reflects the sun's rays, he is completely off on the size of celestial bodies. (Book 5, Lines 567 - 590). . . people marvel that nature does not increase the size of the sea, . . . (Book 6, Line 610). . . earth and sky contain enough harmful germs to allow a measureless amount of disease . . . (Book 6, Line 662) Lucretius anticipates the germ theory of disease? ? (see also Book 6, Line 1130)


Nice translation, although I can't read Latin to judge for real. De rerum natura is a kind of Roman self-help book, addressed to his friend Memmius, for getting you used to the atoms and void and the swerve of Epicurus and convincing you that this too shall pass, our bodies, souls, the world, etc. There are some stunning pre-scientific speculations, but as for the "philosophy" Lucretius declares for pure dogmatism and indoctrination, a sign of the deterioration of the discipline in Roman hands. He thinks he has found the ultimate truth (always a bad sign) and wants to pretty it up rather than really examine it. ((PS, the famous sexy parts seemed rather mechanical and perfunctory to me, the woman should lie this way, the man should enter her like this, sort of like a maintenance manual.))


When was the last time you read an ancient Roman text that predicts quantum theory and genetics, promotes sustainable agriculture, and is written in the form of an epic poem? Anyone? Anyone?Jesus Christ this was weird. And good. And nothing like it will ever be written again. I dig all wildly interdisciplinary, utterly anti-parochial writers (see also: Sebald, Vico, Browne), and Lucretius joins their ranks in my mind. A poetically beautiful, prescient, coruscant puzzle-box of a book.

Megan Villasenor

this book is very different from other books, but in a good way. it is written like a poem but can be read like a story at the same time. however, it is not an easy read. i am not a big believer in science compared to religion; however, for his time period he brought up some valid points. even though a lot of what he said was wrong he did get some of his theories right. i liked how Lucretius would say why other things were wrong and then what he thought the right way was: good counterarguments. i really like how Lucretius goes into great lengths to explain his reasoning and then at the end he says, "and now, since i have taught..." because it helps the reader condense what was being told.

Onyango Makagutu

Why these book is not part of basic reading classes in high schools I don't know.Great read.


Wow, this was a real surprise. Lucretius was just so shockingly ahead of his time. It's probably more important than Newton in terms of the sheer range of thought he originates. His conception of atomic theory is surprisingly accurate, down to recognizing that atoms are composed of about three different parts. He also figured out the law of conservation of matter, realized that the majority of matter is made up of empty space, recognized the basic principles of gravitation, heat, light, relativity, hell, he even realized that chaos and randomness played a role in atomic activity, several millennia before Heisenberg and Schrodinger. On top of that he tears down religious dogmatism as a means of understanding the natural world and replaces it with a system of secular observation and understanding, all while creating a totally original synthesis between hard science and humanism centuries before either would really be codified. Oh, and did I mention the whole fucking thing is a poem?


First, an apology for only giving it three stars. I am well aware that this is a brilliant piece of poetry, but my Latin is very poor, and I rapidly abandoned my initial plan of reading it in the original with the English translation alongside. In a way, though, I'm following Lucretius's advice: he explicitly says at one point that it's wrong to allow yourself to be swayed by beautiful words, and you should judge an idea on its merits. Reading him in my barbarian's tongue is certainly one way to do that.I have often debated the question of whether it is right to call atheism a religion, and with Lucretius it seems natural to argue that it is. The poem reminded me rather strongly of Dante - when I got to the bibliography, I was interested to see that Santayana had written a book comparing Lucretius, Dante and Goethe - but while Dante loves the One, Lucretius goes a step further and praises the Zero. His noble goal is to convince you that divine intervention is never required in order to explain what happens in the world, and that, if we just stop and and think carefully enough, we can liberate ourselves from irrational terror of the supernatural. Given that he's writing in the first century BC and science barely exists yet, this is ambitious indeed. But Lucretius has faith in his project; it's hard to avoid using the word. The rest of this review is in my book If Research Were Romance and Other Implausible Conjectures


My favorite book from antiquity. Though he gets some details wrong (obviously since they didn't have micro- or telescopes), it's amazing just how much this natural philosophy gets right. Written around 50 BC, this is the perfect ode to a secular, ethical philosophy that sings of evolution! Much more preferable to the Platonic or Stoic thought of it's time or the Dark Ages that came a few centuries later.


A very readable and poetic translation of De Rerum Natura. Unlike other translations I've encountered, Englert's translation attempts to preserve the poetry of Lucretius, rather than rendering it into a prose work. The notes and outline are helpful, and Englert is conscientious, informing the reader several times when he is altering the structure of the poem to increase readability.Lucretius' work in and of itself is interesting; it posits a world-system dramatically different from those that informed Christianity, as well as several other ancient philosophical systems of the world, such as the ones proposed by Plato and Aristotle. Further, De Rerum Natura is one of the few ancient documents we have concerning Epicureanism, a philosophy that posits pleasure (not in the hedonistic sense, but in the sense of satisfaction and delight in living) as the sole intrinsic good.


Lucretius wrote this explication and celebration of Epicureanism in the first century BCE. The text was lost for many years but apparently rediscovered during the Renaissance, and it has been influential ever since. There is probably no translation from the Latin that perfectly combines the poetic beauty and the philosophical insights of the original, although there have been many attempts to do so. I was particularly interested during this reading in having as clear a delineation of Lucretius’ arguments as possible, and so I chose the translation (with notes) by Martin Ferguson Smith. I discovered, in fact, that Smith was able to write surprisingly poetically, with alliteration and creative metaphors as well as pleasing meter, despite the prose format.The work is divided into six books, each addressing different topics. Lucretius appeals to the Muses for help and refers on occasion to the gods, but it is clear that he views them as being removed from the realm or concerns of the world and humanity, uninterested in and inattentive to them. In Book I, Lucretius outlines his theory of atomism, basing all of material existence on the presence of indivisible particles in a surrounding and interpenetrating void. His ideas are prescient, and if the theory cannot truly be described as a scientific one, it at least can be classified as a natural philosophy that he uses in subsequent books to develop a cosmology and anthropology. In Book II he further describes the motions and characteristics of atoms, their shapes and functioning, and he posits the evanescence of all material objects, including the earth and celestial bodies themselves. Book III describes the soul, comprised of both mind and spirit, that is limited to the existence of the body, having no existence apart from or subsequent to the latter, and in this book, the most interesting to me, he discusses death and why there is no reason to fear it. Any kind of personal afterlife is rejected. In Book IV Lucretius explains thought and sensation as well as various vital functions such as locomotion, sleep, nourishment, sex, and the like. He moves on in Book V to discuss the formation of the earth and astronomical phenomena, the beginnings of life on earth, and the development of civilization. Finally, in Book VI, he talks about meteorological phenomena and plagues, ending rather abruptly – was the work truly finished, or did Lucretius die before completing it?The work is interesting on several levels. It allows a view into an important philosophical tradition of the Greco-Latin period, Epicurianism, and it allows the reader to gain insights into how this particular philosophical school contrasted with other intellectual strains of the times. It is also interesting as a description of natural philosophical thinking that formed the background for subsequent more rigorous scientific reasoning. I found myself most interested in the portions of the work addressing philosophical issues of relevance to humankind in whatever era, including death and meaning in life. There are admittedly parts of the treatise that are less interesting, and many parts of Lucretius’ cosmology can now be seen as fanciful and scientifically not only implausible but obviously incorrect. Nonetheless, the work is well worth reading and is not so lengthy as to be tedious. It is an important work, the rediscovery of which several hundred years ago was fortunate.

William Herbst

This spring I read Greenblatt's book "The Swerve" which argues (unconvincingly) that the discovery of a manuscript of Lucretius'' De Rerum Natura led to the Renaissance. It made me recall a course I took on Lucretius many years ago at the CUNY graduate center. This summer, for a sight reading session with some other local Latin teachers I chose Lucretius' lines on the swerve to read and discuss. Wow - tough job working through the Latin and then trying to piece together the threads of what seemed to be to be a very tendentious argument. Not Lucretius as I remembered him but that was probably because we were dealing with a technical passage rather than one of the more poetic sections.


Philosophy is Supposed to be Fun!Cicero, because of his personal aversion to the Epicurean philosophy, didn't quite do it justice in his book The Nature of the Gods, which introduced the Greek philosophical schools to the Romans (He all but made the Epicurean the laughing-stock of all the other philosophers). However, he also prepared and edited the transcript of this book by Lucretius, arguably the best exposition of Epicureanism, as a counterpoint.Lucretius made a strong case for Epicureanism with epic poetry and systematic reasoning. His thoughts and presentation with creative use of analogies are eminently clear and logical to a modern reader, in spite of his relative lack of scientific knowledge. In this book, he sought to dispel the notion of gods governing the universe, and demonstrate the natural causes of all things based on a few premises, from thunderbolts to earthquakes, from the nature of disease to the nature of the mind, from the beginning of the earth to the development of society.Highly recommended for its epic scope, clarity of thought, beauty of narrative, richness of humor and compassion.

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