What Lucretius Wrought1

KEY TERMS: Epicureanism -- the open society -- atomism -- dualism -- natural selection -- evolutionary roots of morality -- friendship -- hedonism -- homosexuality -- female equality

It is not often that a translator has been as renowned as the great thinker whose ideas he immortalized, but that seems to have been the case with Lucretius, a Roman poet of the first century AD. During his short life he devoted his remarkable literary gifts to reformulating and transmitting anew a centuries-old vision. It was a vision of the "open society" -- and of the empirical inquiry method necessary for sustaining it -- as the only lasting protection against authoritarianism. The man whose philosophy he rescued from near obscurity was Epicurus, a philosopher and teacher who had spelled out a sophisticated naturalistic world view in Greece during the third century BCE. The Epicurean world view had challenged the reigning dualistic orthodoxies as well as the mystery cults -- with their inevitable mysticism, asceticism and pessimism -- characterizing the period of turbulent change that followed the death of Alexander the Great. Everywhere, as their old political system crumbled, people were substituting dreams of otherworldly perfection for what they had been persuaded was merely a transitory corporeal existence. Lucretius, writing in another "time of troubles" when the Roman Republic was being threatened from within, clearly found in the works of Epicurus an inspiration and a potential solution to the follies of his own age.

The Hellenistic philosopher had produced over 300 "rolls" or books, but only his Letters and Principal Doctrines have survived. We can credit three great writers with keeping Epicurean thought alive in spite of the "book burnings" of the following centuries. Although the lasting influence of Epicureanism is no doubt largely due to the power of Lucretius' poetry, two later authors also played an important role. One was a Greek satirist and prose writer of the second century CE known as Lucian. The second was the Greek biographer Diogenes Laertius who died at the close of the third century. In fact, other than Lucretius' masterful epic poem, the chief source on the great philosopher's life and work is considered to be the Life of Epicurus, put together by Diogenes from subsequently lost records. Nonetheless, Lucretius is by far the most celebrated secondary source of Epicurean thought. "I am treading new ground for a poet"2, he had written, "It is my great purpose to free men's minds from superstition and [to accomplish this] I am adorning obscure thoughts with the beauty of poetry." Most scholars conclude that it is largely due to the success of Lucretius in achieving that goal that "Epicurus' pronouncements have come down through the centuries without their relevancy diminished or their wisdom impaired."3

What was it that so attracted Lucretius to these pronouncements that he chose to devote the entirety of his all-too-brief professional life to ensuring that they would be readily available to posterity? What was it that had previously caused these ideas (after the great teacher's death in 271 BCE) to be spread by successors and followers throughout the Greco-Oriental world as well as to Rome and Africa? What subsequently motivated Diogenes Laertius to devote his talents to reviving and consolidating the message even as the mighty Roman Empire was disintegrating? What enabled Epicureanism to survive as an organized movement for a further two centuries, until it was outlawed and driven underground by Christian Rome?

Most of the insights were not new. One can trace a direct line from Thales in the closing days of the seventh century BCE through Democritus in the fifth century to Epicurus two hundred years later. Like his famous Hellenic precursors, Epicurus was an atomist. Also, like them -- and the Buddha and Confucius as well -- he did not actually deny the existence of the gods. He defined their function, however, as strictly ethical in that they represented ideals for humans to strive toward. Also like the Buddha and Confucius he was, above all, concerned with defining a world view that allowed for a meaningful moral role for humankind.

De Rerum Natura, Lucretius' great poem interpreting and extolling Epicurean thought, comprises six books in all. Each book is ordered into self-contained sections, designed to develop and drive home a major set of ideas. The first book begins with a joyous (and presumably metaphorical) hymn to Venus, and then presents an introduction to atomic theory. The universe is explained as consisting of an infinite number of atoms, small, indivisible, eternal particles, moving in a space infinite in extent, and periodically uniting into compounds. The second book explains Epicurean ethics and the infamous "atomic swerve". (This is widely considered to represent the chief weakness of Epicurean thought. In an attempt to rescue a sovereign human will from the determinism of Democritus, he postulated the strange notion of uncaused swerves in streams of atoms.) The third book returns to the more lasting insights of Epicurus. It covers the structure and essentially mortal and material nature of the soul, and the reasons why the premise of mind-body dualism is untenable. The fourth book discusses the Epicurean theory of perception and the role of sex in human behavior. The fifth provides an overview of the origin of the cosmos, of life, and of the development of civilization -- all within an evolutionary frame of reference. The sixth book offers a eulogy to Epicurus and to Athenian civilization in general, and ends with a dark story of calamitous happenings and forebodings about the future.

Initially, it is the beauty of Lucretius' poetry that strikes the reader. Gradually, however, the power of the ideas begins to overshadow the music of the words. All in all, De Rerum Natura demonstrates the two chief accomplishments of Epicurus as a philosopher: (1) his reliance on a combination of reason and sensation for explaining natural phenomena -- rather than on abstract rationalizations grounded in mythology; and (2) his repudiation of the teleological view of nature and of dualism. Truth cannot be found in messages from another world, the philosopher maintained, nor in the neo-Platonic, purely deductive "sciences" of music, geometry and astronomy of his day, " which, starting from false premises, cannot be true".4 He was obviously attacking the ideas of Socrates and Plato -- and of Aristotle as well -- when he wrote, "Fools admire and like all things the more which they perceive to be concealed under involved language, and determine things to be true which can prettily tickle the ears and are varnished over with fine-sounding phrases".5 He taught, instead, that truth is derived from the relations among phenomena as they are observed in nature.

There is no divine interference in the natural order of things, according to Epicurus. Far from having been created by the gods, he said, this world has endured for an infinite time. ( "We can see that nature, free from divine tyranny, can accomplish all by itself."6) He insisted that the soul is a corporeal entity that does not survive the death of the body. Following certain of the earlier Greek naturalists, he also spelled out the crude beginnings of a theory of natural selection in evolution -- anticipating the discoveries of Charles Darwin by over two thousand years. For example: "And many races of living things must have died out and been unable to beget and continue their breed. For, in the case of all things, either craft or courage or speed has from the beginning of its existence prohibited and preserved each particular race.7

Epicurus was particularly prescient in his understanding of cultural change. In fact, he was the first known thinker to systematically apply the concept of evolution to human culture. He traced the evolution of language from its roots in the simple gesturing and vocalizing basic to all animal communication. He explained the evolutionary source of religion in similar terms. "And now what cause has spread over great nations the worship of ... the gods?... [People] would see the different seasons of the years come round in regular succession and could not find out what causes this to be done; therefore they would seek a refuge in handing over all things to be guided by their god. And they placed in heaven the abodes and realms of the gods, because night and moon are seen to roll through heaven and because ... [it is the source of rain and thunder and lightning]."8

He believed that religion has done great harm to humankind whenever it has tended to exacerbate a fear of death, and then -- in a vain attempt to lessen this artificially induced fear -- to buttress the incredible and dangerous belief in individual immortality. As Lucretius put it, "Even if time were able to gather up our matter after death and put it once more into a condition it now is, and if the light of life were to be given to us again, this result would not concern us at all, once the chain of self-consciousness has been snapped asunder."9

Epicurus' overriding concern was the need to spell out a naturalistic basis for morality, to replace that which was grounded in supernatural directives. He believed that the roots of this could be found in the sensations of pleasure and pain common to all living organisms. The sensation of pain would have been a signal to animals and early humans to avoid whatever had preceded it, he said. The lasting experience of pleasure would have functioned similarly in the opposite direction. (It is easy to recognize in all this the seeds of the Utilitarianism of Enlightenment times.) A major source of lasting pleasure for humans is friendship, Epicurus thought. Indeed, the highest Epicurean ideal was a "platonic" relationship among equals in which the discussion of ideas and the celebration of life's simple pleasures was unhindered by the constraints introduced by sexual preoccupations. Happiness was viewed as the greatest good, but it was an enduring happiness derived from concern with consequences for self and others -- not measured merely in momentary pleasure. (For Epicurus, this was why reason is an essential part of the process.) Pleasure, in turn, was defined as "freedom from pain and care".10 All this is very different from the hedonism of which Epicurus was subsequently accused by Cicero, who was the source of the vituperative misrepresentation of Epicureanism that prevailed until the onset of the Renaissance era.

It is impossible to appreciate the significance of Epicurean friendship as the ultimate source of happiness (and the corresponding downplaying of sexual relations) without some understanding of the culture in which the great philosopher came to manhood. Homosexuality had been becoming increasingly widespread in Greek society for some centuries. By the time of the death of Alexander the Great, the celebrated cultural norm among the citizenry was a pattern of older married man and youthful male lover(s) -- with a wife who was relegated to the role of mere household manager and child rearer. Epicurus had become convinced that the predominance of homosexual relations in his era was beginning to destroy the value of, and the very possibility for, authentic friendship among men.11 He also believed that it was the chief cause of his culture' downgrading of the female. He seems to have concluded that the best way to promote female equality was to replace the homosexual ideal with that of intellectually based friendship across the genders. Consequently, Epicurus welcomed women to his school on an equal footing with men -- something that was then so revolutionary that he was universally reviled for it.

This was only one of the many Epicurean teachings that aroused enmity in Roman and early Christian times. A biographer notes that, "For a thousand years the Christian church was successful in burying Epicurus in a sepulchre in hell."12 But not totally. Horace and Virgil had been influenced by him and wherever their poetry was read, some Epicurean ideas lived on -- continuing to survive in small pockets of the Byzantine Empire and, later, in the early Islamic one. It was not until the Renaissance began in Italy, however, that Western Europeans once more had access to Epicurean thought. One of the first declared Epicureans was Lorenzo Valla, who was papal secretary to Pope Nicholas V in the early fifteenth century. He wrote at some length on the subject, explaining that the charge of hedonism with which the philosophy had been saddled was totally unwarranted.13Then, in 1473, Lucretius' now-famous poem was printed in Brescia on one of the new printing presses. Epicurean ideas began to infiltrate the monasteries, and were encountered and greatly admired by Erasmus. In 1523 the work of Diogenes Laertius was printed in Basel. Later that century, Giordano Bruno was forced to leave the Dominican order for the sin of harboring Epicurean beliefs. He was burned at the stake on February 17, 1600. This was the climate in which Michel de Montaigne read Lucretius and dared to express, in his Essays, his own version of an Epicurean philosophy that would eventually help to lay the foundations for modern scientific humanism.


  1. This essay is the third in a series of articles by Pat Duffy Hutcheon on the evolution of modern humanism published in Humanist in Canada (Winter 1997/98), p.20-22.
  2. Lucretius, De Rerum Natura. Ed. and Trans. Cyril Bailey. (Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 756.
  3. Panichas, George A., Epicurus (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967), p. iv.
  4. Ibid., p.101.
  5. Lucretius, De Rerum Natura. Ed. And Trans. H.A.J. Munro. (Cambridge: Deighton Bell and Co., 1886), p.15.
  6. Bailey, p.971.
  7. Munro, p.136.
  8. Ibid., p.144-5.
  9. Ibid., p.77.
  10. Bailey, p.796.
  11. Panichas, p.119.
  12. .Ibid., p.135.
  13. .Burns, Edward M., Western Civilizations, 4th edition.(New York: W.W. Norton, 1955) p.357.