the Nature of the Universe
- Didactic Poetry
Lucretius's On the Nature
of the Universe is an important example of a popular genre
of ancient literature, didactic poetry. The purpose of this genre
is to give instruction to the reader on various topics ranging
from farming to philosophy. Lucretius's purpose is to explain
to his readers and win them over as followers of this philosophy.
Because of the scope of Lucretius's poem, which includes both
the origin and dissolution of the universe, and also on account
of its meter (dactylic hexameter as in the Iliad), it
may be called an epic, but not in the same sense as the heroic
narratives of Homer
wrote On the Nature of the Universe Rome was experiencing
political disorder. Political strife had begun at Rome in the
late second century B.C. when attempts to enact land reform met
with resistance from the Roman Senate, which resulted in the
violent deaths of many advocates of land reform. From this time,
Roman politicians were divided into two loosely organized "parties":
the Populares, Roman aristocrats who presented themselves
as champions of the people, and the Optimates, aristocratic
defenders of Senatorial authority. In Lucretius's own lifetime
(c. 99-c. 55), an attempt by the Populares to have Roman
citizenship bestowed on Rome's Italian allies was met with violence
when the tribune who proposed discussion of this issue was murdered.
Soon afterwards, a dispute arose between two powerful Roman generals,
Marius and Sulla. Marius, who on occasion sided with the Populares
and Sulla, a staunch defender of the Senate, came into conflict
over an important command in the East. This strife resulted first
in Sulla's taking Rome by force to obtain the command and then,
after his departure to the East, the capture of Rome by Marius.
Three years, later after Marius's death, Sulla upon his return
again used military force to gain the upper hand at Rome. Each
victory by Marius or Sulla ended in the systematic murder of
their political enemies. The final victory of Sulla was marked
by an especially bloody massacre of his opponents. The violent
power struggle between adherents of the Populares and
Optimates undermined the free Republic and its constitutional
principles. As a result, the Roman Republic was in a period of
decline which ended in its ultimate destruction. Lucretius presents
Epicureanism to his fellow Romans as an answer to how one can
live a happy life in the midst of this political chaos.
IN READING, COMPREHENSION AND INTERPRETATION
as Homer begins his poems with an address to the Muse,
Lucretius begins his poem with an invocation to the goddess Venus,
the Roman counterpart of Aphrodite.
Since it is a central doctrine of Epicureanism that the gods
have no involvement with men, it is clear that Lucretius is addressing
Venus as a symbolic figure. Read lines 1-40 carefully, and explain
represents for Lucretius.
service did Epicurus do for man (62-79)? What does the example
of Iphianassa illustrate (80-101)? What fears ruin man's happiness
(102-111)? What special problem did Lucretius have in writing
a Latin poem about Greek philosophy (136-139)?
to Lucretius what is the first principle of Nature (150)? What
benefit does an understanding of this principle bring to man
(151-158)? Give one argument that Lucretius uses to support this
principle (159-214). What is needed for anything created to come
into existence (205-206)? What are all things made of (215-224)?
Why must these basic elements of matter be indestructible (225-237)?
Look up the modern scientific principle of conservation of mass
in a good reference work. How do lines 262-264 (see 2.303-307)
represent this principle?
arguments presented by Lucretius for the existence of atoms despite
their invisibility to the human eye (277-328). Why must empty
space (the void) exist (329-345; 426-428)? Give two examples
of void existing in created objects (346-369). What are the two
basic mutually exclusive realities in the world (430-448). Explain
the difference between a property and an accident (449-458).
Why are past events considered accidents of matter (459-482)?
to lines 1-13, what should a man avoid in order to be happy?
What general reference to contemporary events at Rome is evident
in these lines? What natural goal should our actions aim at (14-21)?
Are luxuries necessary for the enjoyment of pleasure (22-39)?
Explain your answer. What is the best means of ridding oneself
of superstitious fears (40-61)?
the two causes of the motions of atoms (83-85)? Why must atoms
always be in motion (89-108)? What does the analogy of motes
in a sunbeam illustrate (112-141)? Why does Lucretius believe
that the universe was not made for man by the gods (167-181)?
What is the natural movement of things having the property of
the "swerve" necessary to allow for the possibility
of creation (216-242)? Why is the "swerve" necessary
for free will (251-293)? Look up the modern scientific principle
of the Conservation of Energy in a good reference work. How do
lines 297-299 represent this principle? What do the examples
of grazing sheep and armies on maneuvers illustrate (308-332)?
What do the various examples of different creatures and natural
substances prove about atoms (333-397)? What is the reason for
the differences in the tastes and smells of various natural substances
(398-430)? What sense is the basis of all sensation (434-443)?
What accounts for the hardness of some natural objects and the
fluid nature of others (444-455)? How can a natural substance
like sea-water be fluid and bitter at the same time (464-477)?
kind of life do the gods lead as revealed by Epicurus to Lucretius
(14-24)? Why do men cling to superstition (48-54)? What is the
main reason men commit evil (59-93)? Explain your answer. Where
is the mind located (139-140)? What kind of pain can the mind
suffer (147-160)? How does Lucretius prove that the mind and
spirit are corporeal (161-176)?
does death bring to us (830-930)? What lesson for man is evident
in the simile of the banqueter (931-965)? Lucretius points out
that although the traditional myths which tell of famous sinners
being punished in the underworld are false, these sinners exist
in this life figuratively in the persons of various human beings
who suffer a hell on earth. Explain what Tantalus, Tityos, Sisyphus
and the Danaids each represent symbolically (978-1010). Why does
belief in an afterlife of punishment destroy man's happiness
(1014-1023)? What are the examples of Ancus, Xerxes, Scipio,
Homer, Democritus and Epicurus meant to prove (1025-1052)? What
is the point of the example of the restless man (1053-1075)?
Why is our continual desire for new pleasures not a good reason
for wanting to prolong our life (1076-1094)?
is the origin of animals, birds and the human race (783-825)?
Why did many monsters created by the earth become extinct (837-856)?
What qualities enabled other species to survive (862-877)? Look
up Darwin's theories of natural selection and survival of the
fittest in a good reference book and compare them to the view
presented in the last two passages. What are the similarities?
Are there any differences? Why could the famous monsters of myth
like the Centaur,
never have existed (878-924)?
briefly the life of primitive men (925-957). What kind of social
organization did they have (958-965)? What were the pleasures
and dangers of their life (966-998)? What advantages did they
have over men of more advanced civilization (999-1010)? What
was the result of men living in huts, wearing clothing, using
fire and the development of marriage and the family (1011-1018)?
What alliance did men finally establish (1019-1020)? Why was
this alliance necessary (1021-1027)? Why was language invented
(1028-1032)? How did men discover fire (1091-1101)?
of government was established first (1108-1109)? What led to
the elimination of this form of government (1120-1142)? What
kind of government replaced the first form and for what reason
(1143-1150)? How does violence and injury affect the wrongdoer
(1151-1160)? How does this argument illustrate the moral ideal
Lucretius refers to the process whereby men came to know of the
gods' existence. The visions of the gods that men see when awake
and in their sleep are not mere illusions, but the result of
the material images which come off the bodies of the gods and
enter the world from the interspaces between worlds where the
gods live. In exactly the same way as objects in the world are
perceived by men, the material images of the gods make contact
with the atoms of the souls of men and thereby enable men to
become aware of the gods' existence. According to Lucretius,
the mistake that men make is to believe that the gods live within
and are involved with the world. Why did men create religion
(1183-1193)? How do men suffer needlessly because of their religious
beliefs (1194-1240)? How does Lucretius define true piety (1202)?
section of the book (1241-1457) represents an attempt to demythologize
the development of arts and crafts. In myth various gods were
credited with the invention of these civilized techniques (e.g.,
[agriculture] etc.). According to Lucretius, how did men learn
the process of metallurgy (1241-1268)? What human endeavors encouraged
progress in metallurgy (1281-1296)? For what purpose were animals
tamed (1297-1349)? What connection does weaving have with the
use of iron (1350-1353)? Why were men the first weavers (1356)?
Why did they give up this task (1357-1360)? How did men learn
to practice agriculture (1361-1369)? to sing and play the flute
(1379-1387)? to create a calendar (1436-1439)? How do lines 1390-1411
represent a fulfillment of Epicurus's moral ideal? How do lines
1416-1435 represent a violation of same? By what general process
did man learn arts and crafts (1448-1457)? Explain how this explanation
differs from the mythological point of view.