On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura)
by Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 99 - c. 55 BCE)
This abridged presentation of Lucretius' famous six-book poem on nature focuses mostly on those passages essential to Epicureanism based on translations by Sisson and Rouse. The contents of these files are not public domain, but appear by permission of the copyright holders mentioned in the notices at the bottom of each page -- all rights reserved. About 50% to 60% of the text from each book is represented here; breaks in the text are demarcated by a numeric heading which corresponds to the line number of the Latin manuscript.
An unabridged public-domain translation is also available at MIT.
Out of the terrible shadows, it was you [Epicurus] who first raised a light
to show what is the proper measure of life;
I follow you, nothing better has come out of Greece,
and now, where the print of your foot fell, I place my own,
not in jealous competition but out of love
which constrains me to imitate you. For does the swallow
set herself against swans? Or the wobbling kid
think that she should go as fast as a racehorse?
You discovered nature, father: you gave us instruction
and left the whole matter set out in your writings
where, just as bees help themselves in the meadows,
we can replenish ourselves with your golden sayings;
Golden, in that they are of permanent value.
As soon as your theory, the product of an intellect
something more than human, began to make some noise,
the fears that haunt minds disappeared, the walls of the world
gave way, and I saw through all space how everything happens;
The pleasant retreats of the gods themselves could be seen,
untroubled by winds and with no clouds bring rain
to splash them, nor snow which the bitter frost has hardened
to make them skip: but always a cloudless ether
covers and smiles on them in a large light.
But I saw nothing at all of what we call Acheron
though the earth didn’t get in the way and prevent me from seeing
all that was happening in the space under my feet.
These things brought me a certain ethereal pleasure
and yet an awe that nature so by your insight
should be laid bare and every cover withdrawn.
Since I have made it clear what the principles
of everything are: elements of various shapes
floating in space and endlessly in collision,
by which means every kind of thing that there is can be made:
It now seems the moment to go on to the mind
and the soul and make their nature clear in these verses,
as well as to throw out headlong the idea of Acheron
which has disturbed human life to its depths for too long
spreading the blackness of death over everything
and leaving no pleasure as it should be, limpid and clear.
First I would say that the mind, or the intelligence,
in which the directing consciousness is situated
is no less a part of man than hand or foot
or the eyes, which are all to be found in all living creatures:
Although there is a whole crowd of experts who take the view
that the sense of mind has no particular seat
but is an essential habit of the body,
what the Greeks call harmony, which is said to make us
live with sense although there is no mind anywhere:
In the same way that good health is said to be in the body
although it is not a part one can identify,
so they think that sense of mind not a separate part:
And in that they seem to me completely mistaken.
It often happens that some visible part of the body is sick,
while a part that we cannot see makes us happy
and it sometimes happens exactly the other way around;
A man can be sad although his whole body feels happy:
In the same way as you can have a pain in your toe
without the slightest suspicion of a headache.
Besides, when the limbs are in a gentle sleep
and the body lies stretched out in a senseless load,
there is something else in us, which at the same time
flutters a thousand ways, and contains in itself
movements of joy and the empty cares of the heart.
Now I will show you that the soul is in the limbs
and that it is not by harmony that the body feels.
The proof is, a man can lose a great part of his body
and yet life will somehow carry on in his limbs;
On the other hand, when a little heat has gone out
and a little air has made its way through his mouth,
life may at once desert the veins and the bones:
The elements do not all have an equal part
in preserving life and holding the frame together
but the most important are those of wind and heat
which have a special role in keeping life in our limbs.
And since we have discovered the nature of mind
and of the soul, and that they are parts of a man,
harmony can be given back to the musicians
and not used for something without a name of its own.
Let someone else take the term. Pay attention to me.
and they are made out of a single substance,
but the counsel, so to speak, which dominates the whole body
is what we call the mind or the intelligence
and it is situated in or about the heart.
This is what leaps with fear; and in the same neighborhood
we are soothed by joy: this then is where the mind is.
All the rest of the soul is diffused through the body
and moves at the inclination of the mind.
The mind can know for itself and rejoice for itself
when a thing moves neither the body nor the soul,
and as when we feel a pain in the eye or head
it does not follow that the whole body suffers,
in the same way the mind can suffer by itself
or can feel joy, when the other parts of the soul,
throughout the limbs, have no sort of special sensation.
It is true that when the mind feels some vehement fear
the whole of the soul throughout all the limbs is in sympathy;
then we may see sweat and pallor all over the body,
the tongue will falter and the voice will choke,
there is mist in the eyes, ringing in the ears, the limbs faint
so that men will often go under from terror of mind.
It is not difficult to conclude from this
that soul and mind are connected; when the mind is struck
the rest of the body is shaken and struck in its turn.
The same line of reasoning suggests that the mind and the soul
are material: for they propel the limbs,
rouse the body from sleep or change facial expressions
and indeed control the movement of the whole man:
(None of which could happen at all except by touch
and for touch there must be a body): must it not be admitted
there is something of body about both the mind and the soul?
For the rest, you notice the mind suffers with the body
and shares all the sensations of the body.
If the point of an arrow, without quite killing a man,
pierces him and damages bones and nerves,
he is likely to faint and fall limply to the ground.
Once there, as it were the tide in his mind rises
and he feels a vague inclination to get up.
So the mind must partake of the nature of the body
since the impact of a weapon can make it suffer.
If you listen, I will explain this to you.
In the first place, the mind must be a very fine substance
composed of elements which are extremely small.
This you can see quite clearly from the following:
That nothing seems to equal the speed with which
the mind forms an intention and sets it going.
It must therefore be of such stuff that it can be moved
more rapidly than any object visible to us.
Anything so mobile must necessarily be composed
of elements which are both very round and small
so that they can be moved by the slightest impulsion.
Thus water flows on the slightest provocation,
being made of particles which are round and roll easily
whereas honey is altogether of firmer consistency;
The liquid is, so to speak, lazy and slow to act,
its matter is such that it sticks together more easily,
no doubt because of the nature of the particles
—not so smooth and not so fine or round.
The lightest breeze takes the top off a heap of poppy-seed
and before long there is nothing of it left,
But to move a heap of stones or of ears of corn
needs something stronger than that.
It is that the smallest and smoothest of bodies
are those which have the greatest mobility.
On the other hand those which are of greater weight
and of a rougher surface, have more stability.
Now as the mind is of extreme mobility
it follows that it must be composed of elements
which are small and smooth and round. And that, dear Memmius,
is what I call useful knowledge and you will discover that
it helps you to find your way through many problems.
are such that none of them can be isolated;
They are multiple properties of a single body.
It is the same sort of thing that you find in living creatures,
they have smell and color and taste: yet out of these
somehow a single body is made up.
So heat and air and the invisible power of breath,
mixed up, create one nature, together with
that mobile force which causes them to move
and so give sensitive movement to the whole body.
There is nothing in us that lies more deeply concealed
or more inside us than this fourth substance:
you might describe it as the soul of the soul.
Just as, in all our limbs and through the body
there is diffused the force of mind and soul
since they are composed of bodies which are small and scattered:
So this anonymous force, made of tiny particles,
hides itself; it is indeed the soul of the soul
and dominates the whole through which it is infused.
Just so must breath, air, heat, mixed up together,
work in the limbs, but so that some one element
predominates and so controls the whole.
The whole in fact does form a single entity;
For it would not do for heat or breath or air
to act on the senses singly and destroy the whole.
There is heat in the mind, which it takes up in anger;
You can see it then in the flashing of the eyes.
There is cold breath too, such as accompanies fear
and sends a shiver of horror through the limbs;
There is too something of that peaceful air
which brings the tranquil heart and serene face.
There is most of heat in creatures of violent heart
whose mind is easily inflamed to anger:
In that kind that is first of all the lion
who breaks his chest with roaring, or who anyhow
cannot contain the waves of anger within him.
There is more chilly breath in the mind of a deer
and that quickly fans cold air through its inner parts
which causes a trembling in every limb.
The ox’s nature is one with the peaceful air;
The torch of anger is never so lit in him
that he is covered by billowing clouds of smoke;
Not ever is he shot through with icy fear:
He is somewhere between the stag and the savage lion.
So it is with men: however education
may give them similar polish, yet each
retains traces of his first nature in his mind.
It is not to be thought that faults can be so eradicated
that one does not run too quickly into anger,
another not take fright readily, while a third
may take all things more easily than he should.
In many other things there are great differences
between men in their nature and behavior:
I cannot now explain the reasons for this,
nor find names for the shapes of all the elements
from which these many differences arise.
What, however, I think can be asserted
is that the traces of original nature
which reason cannot efface, are very few,
so that nothing can stop us living as the gods do.
This nature is contained in the whole body;
It is the body’s keeper and sees to its welfare;
There are common roots by which they stick together
and if you pull them apart, both are destroyed.
and their tenuous souls have both beginning and end;
It is long since my studies led me to that conclusion;
Now I hope to set it forth in a poem worth your reading.
You can treat both substances under a single name
and when I speak of the soul as being mortal
you can take what I say to apply to the mind as well;
The two are so interconnected, and really one substance.
much smaller than those of which water is composed,
or mist or smoke: it is in fact much more mobile
and it takes a much smaller impulse to get it moving:
An image of smoke or mist would be enough,
the kind of thing that happens when we are sleep
and dream of smoke billowing up from an altar;
No doubt these impressions are thrown off by objects:
Now, since whenever a pitcher is broken to pieces
you see the liquid pour out in every direction,
and since mist and smoke disappear into the air,
you can take it that the soul is spilt and perishes
faster, and dissolves more quickly into its elements
when once it has escaped from a human body.
If the body, which is a pitcher containing the soul,
can hold it no longer when it suffers a shock
or when the loss of blood has made it porous,
how can you believe air could keep a soul together
since air is much more rarefied than our bodies?
We feel indeed that our minds are born with the body,
grow with it and grow old as the body grows old;
For children have slight, weak bodies and lack direction
and their thoughts exhibit corresponding qualities.
Then, when they have grown to their full strength, their judgment
and their intelligence are greater too.
Later, when the body has been shaken by age
and the limbs have grown weaker and duller, then you will see
the wit limp, tongue talk foolery, and thoughts wobble.
Everything fails and all at once there is nothing.
It follows that the stuff of the soul dissolves
and disappears like smoke swept up in the air
for we see it comes with birth and grows with the child
and, as I have shown, it is worn out with old age.
There never was a dying man who felt his soul
go safe and sound away out of his body,
feeling it first pushing its way up his gullet.
It fails at first in some specific part
as all the senses do in their proper places.
But if our intelligence were immortal
it would not moan and groan at its dissolution
but rather find delight in leaving its garment,
like a snake shedding its skin.
And why is it that intelligence and reflection
are never produced in the head or the feet or the hands
but always stick in the place where they belong?
There is a place for everything to be born
and a place for it to continue in once it is made.
The organs and the limbs are so set out
that the reverse can never happen,
for such indeed is the order of things that flame
does not leap out of rivers nor ice from fire.
and can feel though separated from the body,
it ought to be provided with the five senses:
That is the only way we can represent
to ourselves souls wandering on the shores of Acheron;
And so the painters and writers of earlier centuries
have represented souls as still having senses.
But away from the body the soul can have no eye,
no nose, no hands, it can have no tongue or ears
and so it can have no feeling and no existence.
And since we feel certain that the whole of our body
has a sense of life, and that the whole is living,
if suddenly some force should cut it in two
and separate the one half from the other
there is no doubt that the soul would be divided
and cut in two at the same time as they body:
But a thing which splits and divides up into parts
certainly has no claim to be called immortal.
They say that when chariots with scythes on the wheels
cut off limbs in their indiscriminate way
a bit cut off can be seen wriggling on the ground
while the consciousness of the man from whom it is cut
is unaware of the pain, the blow is so swift;
And that his mind is so intent of the battle
that he tries to continue with what is left of his body
and does not notice his left arm, shield and all,
carried among the horses by wheels and scythes;
Another loses his right arm but presses forward;
another tries to get up when his leg is gone
and the foot is wiggling its toes on the ground near by.
A head cut off from a trunk still warm and living
looks like life and keeps its eyes wide open
until it has given up what remains of the soul.
And think of the snake, reared up upon its tail,
standing with tremulous tongue: if you take a sword
and cut the whole of its length into may pieces
each one will twist as long as the wound is fresh,
bespattering the ground with mess from its inside;
The head will make an attempt to bite the tail
to compensate for the burning wound it feels.
Shall we say that there are souls in all these pieces?
If we do, we are in effect asserting that one
creature has in its body a number of souls.
One is driven to saying that there has been a division
of a single soul, when the body has divided
and body and soul, both divided, are both mortal.
And then, if the soul is in its nature immortal
and creeps into the body when we are born,
why do we have no memory of an earlier life
and bear no trace of what we did in it?
For if the mind has undergone such change
that all recollection of things past is gone
it seems to me a state not far from death.
So one must say, the soul that was before
has died, and what we now have is a new one.
Indeed, to join the mortal and the eternal
and suppose that they can have feelings and actions in common
is imbecile. For what could be more incongruous,
or what could be more disjointed and inconsistent
than something mortal joined on to something immortal,
the two of them facing together the same cruel tempests?
must either, being of solid structure, reject blows
and allow nothing to penetrate them that could dissever asunder
the close-joined parts within, as the particles of matter are,
the nature of which we have shown before;
Or else the reason why they can endure through all time
must be that they are free from assaults, as the void is,
which remains untouched and unaffected by blows;
Or again because there is no extent of space around
into which things can disperse and dissolve,
as the universe is eternal, having no external place
into which its elements may escape,
nor bodies to fall upon it and demolish it with a strong blow.
Or is one perhaps to talk of the soul as immortal
because it is protected from mortal dangers?
Or things which threaten its safety do not approach it?
Or because those which do are somehow forced to withdraw
before we become aware of the harm they do?
That seems a long way off from the truth.
For besides the fact that the mind grows sick with the body
it is often tortured by the thoughts of the future
and suffers fear and is worn out by anxiety,
besides being bitten by remorse from its faults.
Add to this madness and the loss of memory
and add that it sinks into dark floods of lethargy.
once it is clear that the mind is mortal stuff.
And as in the time gone by we felt no ill
when the Carthaginians poured from all sides on us
and everything shaken by the tumult of war
bristled and trembled under the bay of the sky
and everyone was in doubt to which contestant
would fall the domination of land and sea:
So when we are dead and when our body and soul
which together make us one, have come apart,
nothing can happen to us, we shall not be there,
nothing whatever will have the power to move us,
not even if earth and sea got mixed into one.
And if our mind and soul after all do feel
when they have once been severed from the body,
it is nothing to us, for whom the bringing together
of body and mind is the thing that makes us whole.
If time should collect up all our matter again
after our death, and put it back in position
so that once again we were given the light of life,
it would not concern us in any way at all
once the line of recollection had been broken.
And now it does not concern us to know what we were;
Nor is it anything for us to worry about
what time should do with our substance in the future.
If you look backwards as it were across the distance
of all past time, and think what great variety
there is in the movements of matter, you may well imagine
that the elements have often been placed as they are now;
But what those things out of which we are made were like
is something our memories cannot at all recapture.
Life has been interrupted and all the wandering
movements have taken place far away from our senses.
A man who is going to suffer any evil
must live in the time when it is going to happen.
Death precludes this when it removes from the scene
the one on whom misfortunes are converging;
That shows that we have nothing to fear from death;
Nothing can happen to the man who is not there;
It is just the same as if he had never been born
when immortal death has taken his mortal life.
So when you see a man who grows indignant
that after death he will either rot away
or be destroyed by flames or by wild beasts
you may say this voice sounds false, and that he is feeling
some secret prick at his heart, although he pretends
to think he will be insensible after death,
he does not, to my mind, admit what he professes to admit;
He does not wholly uproot and eject himself from life,
but unconsciously thinks that there must be something left.
A living man who imagines that after death
vultures will eat him or wild beasts tear him up,
takes pity upon himself: he does not distinguish
sufficiently between himself and his corpse,
imagining another self with his sensibility
and so he bewails that he was created mortal
although in real death there would be no second self
alive to regret that the first self was dead
or to stand by while the corpse is bitten or burnt.
For if it is bad after death to be eaten by animals
I cannot see that it would not also be painful
to be put on the fire and so consumed by flames
or stifled in honey, or to grow stiff with cold,
lying upon a slab of freezing stone
or to feel a load of earth weigh down upon you.
"—Yet there will be no pleasant house for you to go to,
your wife and children will not be there to kiss you
and fill your heart with so much silent sweetness;
Nor will you be able to protect them anymore
with your prosperity—poor man!" they will say of you,
"For one fatal day will have taken the lot."
Though they do not add: "Nor will you want anything,
there is no craving for anything after death."
But if they realized this and followed it up,
their minds would be released from apprehension:
"You, as you now are in the sleep of death, will remain
for the rest of time, free from all pains and viles:
But we who, standing by your funeral pyre,
mourn you insatiably, no time will ever
take away from us this eternal grief."
But, one might ask, what is there that is so bitter
in this coming in the end to sleep and rest?
How can anyone mourn eternally for that?
There are those who, when they take their place at the table,
with cup in hand, and laurels around their heads,
say from the heart: "This pleasure will not last;
It will soon be over and we shall never have it again."
As if in death they would be preoccupied
with the thought that they felt themselves extremely thirsty
or indeed with any other regret whatsoever.
Nobody misses himself or the life he leads
when both his mind and body have fallen asleep:
For all we care that sleep might be everlasting,
there is no trace of any regret for ourselves:
And yet in sleep the elements have not left us
or wandered away from contact with the senses
and when the man awakes he collects himself.
Death must therefore concern us less than sleep
if anything can be less than nothing is.
Much greater confusion in the material elements
follows at death, and nobody wakes again
when once the chilling interval has occurred.
If nature found a voice and began to scold
this is the sort of thing she might say to any of us:
"What is all this fuss about because you are mortal?
Must you burst into tears? What is wrong with death?
If the life you have had so far has been quite pleasant
and everything has not gone down the drain with a rush,
why not depart like a guest who has had enough?
And, you fool, take your simple rest with a quiet mind?
But if all the pleasures of life have turned to nothing
and life is offensive, why do you want to add to it
days which will end as badly as those you have had?
Better to make an end of life and effort
for there is nothing new I can devise for you
that is likely to please you: the rest of life is the same.
If your body is not worn out and there is still some movement
in your arms and legs, still, nothing will ever change
although you should go on living for several centuries
or even supposing you did not die at all."
What could we reply but that nature has a good case
and that as she presents it every word is true?
If some poor wretch should complain of death more than he should
it serves him right if nature speaks even more sharply:
"No more blubbering, you moron; forget your complaints!"
And if it is a man of considerable age:
"You have gone feeble after having your life?
You want what you haven’t got and despise the present
and that is how your life has slipped away.
Now death stands at your pillow before you are ready,
you cannot leave because you’ve not had enough!
You are too old for everything; give it up!
Give way gracefully; you have to, anyway."
Perfectly right, and perfectly right to scold so;
For the old is always pushed out to make way for the new;
Nobody ever ends in the pit of Tartarus;
The matter is needed for the new generations,
all of which go the same way when their life is over,
those before you did so and others will follow.
So one thing will never cease to emerge from another
and life is for no one to keep but for all to use.
Now look back: all the time that ever existed
before we were born, was nothing at all to us.
It is a mirror which nature holds up for us
to show us what it will be like after our death.
Is it very horrible? Is there anything sad in it?
Is it any different from sleep? It is more untroubled.
The things they say happen to us in Acheron
happen all right, but they happen to us while we are alive.
There is no Tantalus, as the story is,
scared stiff by the fear that a rock might fall on him.
But in this life an empty fear of the gods
haunts men and they dread how their fortunes will fall.
There is no Tityos, pecked at by birds in Acheron;
They could never find enough to eat on him
to last them, as is supposed, for all eternity,
however big you may imagine his body,
not covering a mere nine acres with his limbs.
But even supposing they spread over the whole earth,
still he could not suffer an everlasting pain
or provide food forever out of his own body.
But Tityos is here with us; he is the lover
whose heart is eaten alive, that is anguish enough;
Or a man cut up by any other desire.
Sisyphus too is before us in this life.
He is the man who is always asking the people
for the rods and axes and always withdrawing defeated.
For seeking power is an empty request;
It is never given; to spend all your effort on that
is just like pushing a heavy stone uphill
and down it comes as soon as it gets to the top;
It finds its way back to the level as soon as it can.
Always to be feeding an ungrateful mind,
filling it with good things and never satisfying it
as the seasons fill us as they come round each year;
They bring their fruits and other delightful things
though we are never filled with what life can give us:
This is like those girls who, in the flower of their age,
it is said spend their time pouring water through a sieve
which in the nature of things can never be filled.
The furies, Cerberus, Tartarus in utter blackness
belching forth a horrible fire from its mouth,
are things which never were and never will be:
But there is fear of penalties in this life,
the most notable penalties for the most notable crimes,
as prison, beatings, hot irons, racks and fires:
Even if it does not come to this, there is conscience,
afraid to the point that it feels goaded and whipped
and does not see any end to the ills it suffers
and thinks that the punishments will go on for ever
and that after death they will be even more than he fears:
So the life of fools becomes a hell in itself.
This you may also usefully say to yourself:
The great kind Ancus came to the end of his days
and he was a better man by far than you are.
And many other important people have died
who exercised a great political influence,
even Xerxes, who threw a bridge of boats over the Hellespont
and so enabled his legions to go over dry-shod
as if a large and salty sea were nothing to him
and his cavalry could treat it with scorn, for all its roars:
He died, and his soul escaped the way they all do.
Scipio, a martial thunderbolt and terror of Carthage,
left his bones to the earth like the meanest slave.
So too the inventors of the arts and sciences,
the artists and poets, of whom Homer was chief
and yet he has gone to find his sleep with the others.
Then Democritus: when old age give its warnings
and he found that his memory had begun to fail,
he went to meet death of his own volition.
Epicurus died at the end of his brilliant life,
a man who was of more than human intellect,
who put out the stars as the sun does at its rising.
the time we shall spend in death; we have not the power
to give ourselves any less annihilation.
Bury as many generations as you like,
eternal death is still what waits for you;
It will be no less for the man who dies today
than it is for the man who died months or years ago.