Titus Lucretius Carus

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The Roman poet Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus) was a Roman contemporary of Julius Caesar and wrote a long poem which he called De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”). Little is known of him apart from his name and his poem, which nevertheless reveals much about his beliefs and his character.

His poem expounds the atomic theory of Democritus and the moral philosophy of Epicurus – the latter a rather stern code which involves not the pursuit of pleasure (a modern corruption of Epicurus’ meaning) but what we would call living a good secular life. His purpose is a moral one: to demonstrate that religion, superstition and other irrational beliefs have no place in a scientifically explicable universe; and in this universe gods (if they exist – and we have no way of knowing whether they do) have no part in human affairs.

He argues that the soul does not exist and that there can be no life after death. Fears of an afterlife or divine displeasure are, he maintains, illusory and to live in dread of them is unnecessary and harmful. In the original Latin hexameter, “Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum” (“So potent was religion in impelling to evil”).

Given such a theme, one might expect his poem to be dry and joyless. But it is not. He puts the case for a humane rationalism, and against religious or ideological dogma, with immense logical skill and passion. His poem displays a love of life, knowledge of the natural world and an awareness of man’s place in the universe as a whole. The world about us, whether it be the stars or the animals in the fields, is to him the real miracle. In many ways Lucretius is one of the very first Enlightenment Men.

The above text is by Sir David Blatherwick from the "Humanist Heroes" series on the HumanistLife website.

Sources and Links

Humanist Life [Humanist Heroes]
Wikipedia biography
Stanford biography and ideas
Latin Library [De Rerum Natura, Latin text]
Google Books [On the Nature of Things, in book form]
Google Books [On the Nature of Things, in verse form]
MIT Classics [On the Nature of Things, in text form]