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De Rerum Natura

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DE RERUM NATURA, de ra-rum niitoo'ra ('On the Nature of Things)), a philo sophical poem of about 7,500 hexameter verses, conceived and written in the grand style that is part of the epic form, and dealing with the physical constitution and environment of human life with a view to the emancipation of that life from the tyranny of superstition and of mean desire. The doctrines set forth are those of Epicurus, whom the author reveres as the savior of mankind. Of this author, Titus Lucre tius Carus, we know practically nothing except through the revelation of his personality that is made in the poem itself. Saint Jerome, it is true, in his continuation of the Chronicle of Eusebius, says that Lucretius was born in 95 s.c., became insane through the effects of a love-potion, wrote in his lucid intervals "several books') which Cicero subsequently edited, and died by his own hand in his forty-fourth year. Every clause of this brief statement has been disputed and there is no general agreement as to the amount of truth that may be contained in it. It would seem, on the one hand, highly improbable that a poem should have been thus composed that exhibits on almost every page extraordinary acuteness of observation and reasoning. On the other hand, the passionate intensity which marks the style from beginning to end has suggested to many readers, as it did to DeQuincey, that the author was laboring under some abnormal strain, and the internal evidence is conclusive that the work did not receive final revision. But interesting as it would be to know something of the details of the poet's life, it is not likely that any such knowledge would materially change the idea that we have been able to form of him from his work. No poet was ever less autobiograph ical; no poet ever made a more complete revela tion of his essential self. The greater part of the poem is concerned with the proof of the existence and character of the laws of the physical universe. Yet Lucretius is interested in physical science primarily because it alone provides the necessary foundation for his doc trine of ethics. Observing everywhere in the history of the Mediterranean world the suffer ings of mankind due to belief in the power of anthropomorphic and capricious deities, he set himself the task that modern science has in fact accomplished, to prove that the reign of law is universal, that given causes produce given effects, and that no arbitrary interposition of an external power can modify in the slight est degree the chain of causation. It follows that man is master of his fate, that neither in this world nor in the next (for, the soul being atomic, there is no next) can the gods affect his life in any way for weal or for woe, and that therefore, if only he is willing to achieve knowledge of nature and control of himself, he may order his thought and action according to the dictates of reason and thus live a life "that is worthy of the gods." For though they have no power, the gods do exist. Somewhere in the interstellar spaces is their seat and there in "passionless tranquillity" they incarnate Epicurean perfection. No aspect of the poem is more striking or more engaging than the en thusiasm with which Lucretius dwells upon this conception of universal law and supports it by a literally amazing variety of evidence. Every

where in the poem there is evidence of a life passed in the open air. He draws instances in support of his reasoning from phenomena within the range of everyone's observation, from the sky, from the sea, from forest and stream, from the life of animals and of men. Yet he is equally at home in the stretches of infinite space and infinite time and reasons with no less absolute confidence about the world of the infinitesimally small, where the atoms that must forever elude the observation of the senses are laying the foundations of the visible universe. The poem shows, in fact, that he had to an extent that is surprising in a disciple of Epicurus a passion for knowledge for its own sake. But his supreme interest was, after all, in the nobility of feeling, thought and action that this rational understanding of nature's proc esses brings at last within the reach of men. Intellectually an aristocrat, he is yet essentially a social reformer, and is moved to the depths of his being by the pathos of human life. And the ever-present tragedy is especially poignant because it is quite unnecessary. The way of salvation is simple and obvious; yet it is ex tremely difficult to persuade men to follow it. Happiness, for which all mankind strives, con tinues to be sought by means that all experience proves will still, as heretofore, fail to secure it. Simplicity of living, riches gained not by in crease of possessions but by diminution of de sires, contentment found in fundamental human relationships, a life, in brief, devoid of ambition and largely contemplative, such an ordering of existence even in a world whose laws are, on the whole, austere, will gain for man real hap piness, and, at the worst, such happiness as is possible under the circumstances. For a ma ture mind cannot be content with fairy-tales. The facts of life and equally the fact of death must be faced uncompromisingly if man is to retain his self-respect. Rational beings will seek therefore a possible, not an impossible, happiness. Lucretius preaches this gospel of quietism with the fervor of an evangelist and the imaginative power of a great poet.

The poem has been finely translated into prose by H. A. J. Munro (4th ed., Cambridge 1886) and by C. Bailey (Oxford 1910) ; into verse by W. E. Leonard (New York 1916). Illuminat ing criticism may be found in the following works: Sellar, W. Y., 'Roman Poets of the Republic' (3d ed., Oxford 1889) ; Mackail, J. W., 'Latin Literature' (New York 1895) ; Duff, J. W., 'Literary History of Rome' (2d ed., London 1910); Santayana, G., 'Three Philo sophical Poets' (Harvard University 1910) ; Woodberry, G. E., 'Inspiration of Poetry' (New York 1910) ; Thomson,. A. K.,"Greek Tradition' (New York ; Masson, J., 'Lucretius, Epicurean and Poet' (2 vols., New York 1907, 1909). Consult also Mallock, W. H., 'Lucretius on Life and Death' (New York 1900) and Tennyson's poem 'Lucretius.' W. A. Merrill has edited the Latin text with an introduction and full commentary on all six books (New York 1907)