Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers

Lucretius, Titus Lucretius Carus (about 98-55 B.C.)

"Nature does all things spontaneously, by herself, without the meddling of the gods.

"The nature of the universe has by no means been made through divine power, seeing how great are the faults that mar it."

"Too often in time past, religion has brought forth criminal and shameful actions.... How many evils has religion caused?"

-- Lucretius

Titus Lucretius Carus was a Roman poet and philosopher. His only work that we know of is De Rerum Natura, On the Nature of Things, which is considered by some to be the greatest masterpiece of Latin verse - deeper than any other poet; more moving, imaginative than any other philosopher. Stylistically however, most scholars attribute the full blossoming of Latin hexameter to Virgil. The De Rerum Natura however, is of indisputable importance for its influence on Virgil and other later poetry. The main purpose of the work was to free men's minds of superstition and fear of death.

It achieves this through expounding the philosophical system of Epicurus, whom Lucretius immortalizes. Lucretius identifies superstition with the notion that the gods created our world or interfere with its operations in any way. Fear of such gods is banished by showing that the operations of the world can be accounted for entirely in terms of the purposeless motions of atoms through empty space, instead of in terms of the will of the gods.

The fear of death is banished by showing that death is annihilation, and so, as a simple state of nothingness, death can be neither good nor bad. Lucretius also famously puts forward the 'symmetry argument' against the fear of death. In it, he says that people who fear the prospect of eternal non-existence after death should think back to the eternity of non-existence before their birth, which really wasn't so bad after all.

Lucretius compares his work as a poet to that of a doctor. Just as a doctor may put honey on the rim of a cup containing bitter but healing medicine, so too Lucretius cloaks hard philosophical truths in sweet verse to make them go down more easily. De Rerum Natura faithfully transmits Epicurean physics and psychology. Lucretius was one of the first Epicureans to write in Latin.

We know very little about Lucretius' life; one source of information (generally considered unreliable) is St. Jerome, who mentions Lucretius in the Chronica Eusebia. According to Jerome, Lucretius was born in 94 BC, and died at the age of 44. He claims that Lucretius was driven mad by a love-philtre and that the work was written during the intervals of his insanity, before he killed himself.

These claims about Lucretius' life have been discredited for three main reasons: firstly, the Epicurean philosophy expounded by Lucretius sets great store on reason and discourages romantic attachments; secondly, it would have been exceedingly difficult for Lucretius to compose a sustained poetic masterpiece if were raving mad most of the time; and finally, it seems likely that Jerome, as one of the early church fathers, would have wanted to discredit Lucretius's philosophy, which includes disbelief in any kind of life after death and in any divinity concerned with man's welfare.

Cicero implies in one of his letters to his brother that they had once read Lucretius' poem. This is the last mention of Lucretius until Aelius Donatus, in his Life of Virgil, while stating that Virgil assumed the toga virilis on October 15, 55 BC, adds "it happened on that very day Lucretius the poet died." If Jerome is accurate about Lucretius' age (44) when he died, then based on other evidence that confirms 55 BC as Lucretius' year of death we can then conclude he was born in 99 BC. Also, the work has several allusions to the tumultuous state of political affairs in Rome and its civil strife.

However, the only certain fact of Lucretius' life is that he was either a friend or a client of Gaius Memmius, to whom he dedicated his poem On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura). This poem is also unfinished, although Jerome says that Cicero "amended" it -- which may mean he edited it for its eventual publication.

Lucretius attempts in this poem to present a total Epicurean worldview. Ranging from the nature of matter to sex, politics, and death, the poem is encyclopedic, and is considered one of the masterpieces of Latin verse.

His use of the hexameter is very individualistic and ruggedly distinct from the smooth urbanity of Virgil or Ovid. His use of heterodynes, assonance, and oddly syncopated Latin forms create a harsh acoustic. The sustained energy of Lucretius' writing is unparallelled in Latin literature, with the possible exception of parts of Tacitus's Annals, or perhaps Books II and IV of the Aeneid.


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