LUCRETIUS


ON THE NATURE OF THINGS

 


Translated by Ian Johnston
Vancouver Island University
Nanaimo, British Columbia

2010 


For Table of Contents and information about this translation, including copyright, please use this link: Contents.


BOOK ONE


[Invocation to Venus; plea for peace; dedication to Memmius; tribute to Epicurus; tyranny of religion; example of Iphigeneia; importance of resisting religion with reason; tribute to Ennius; Lucretius defines his task, acknowledges difficulty of using Latin; first principle: nothing is made of nothing; second principle: nothing is reduced to nothing; existence of invisible particles; presence of empty space (void); explanation of movement; sense experience as criterion of truth; no third form of nature; properties and accidents; time does not exist; primary elements are permanent; basic particles make hard and soft objects; primary particles cannot be broken up; criticism of Heraclitus; tribute to and criticism of Empedocles; criticism of Anaxagoras; analogy of elements to letters in words; infinity of matter and space; no common pull to the centre.]


Mother of Aeneas’ sons, joy of men and gods,                   INVOCATION TO VENUS
nourishing Venus, who beneath the stars
that glide across the sky, crams full of life
ship-bearing seas and fruitful lands—through you
are conceived all families of living things
which rise up to gaze upon the splendour
of sunlight, and when you approach, goddess,
winds and sky clouds scurry off; for your sake,
artful earth puts forth sweet flowers; for you,
smooth seas smile, calm sky pours glittering light,                 10             [10]
and once day’s face reveals the spring, winds blow
freely from the west, bringing fertility,
and air-born birds whose heart your power strikes
give first signs of you, goddess, and your approach.(1)
Then herds of wild beasts leap in carefree fields,
swim through raging rivers—so seized with joy
and eagerness, all follow you, no matter
where you lead—from there through seas and mountains,
roaring streams, leafy homes of birds, and fields
now turning green, as you inspire all hearts                          20
with tempting love and, through desire, bring out                                 [20]
new generations, each in accordance
with its kind. And because you, by yourself,
guide natural things and lacking your support
nothing rises in the godlike regions
of the light, and nothing rich and worthy
of our love comes into being, I yearn
for you to be my partner as I write,
attempting verses on the nature of things,
for my Memmius, whom you, goddess,                               30
have willed at all times to be excellent,
a splendid man in everything he does.(2)
So for him, divine lady, give these words
all the more everlasting grace. Bring in
a universal lull meanwhile which calms
all brutal works of war on sea and land,                                             [30]
since you alone can succor mortal men
with tranquil peace, for Mars, the lord of war,
who controls the savage acts of battle,
will often hurl himself onto your breasts,                              40
conquered by the eternal wound of love,
and there, with his smooth neck leaning back,
he gazes up, goddess, his mouth open,
and feeds his eyes, greedy with love, on you;
as he reclines, his breath hangs on your lips.
While he is there, goddess, from above allow
your sacred body to flow around him.
O splendid lady, let pleasing words pour
from your lips, seeking sweet peace for Romans,                                [40]
since at a time of crisis in our land,                                      50
we cannot do this work with peace of mind,
nor in these events can the noble son
of Memmius neglect the common good.(3)

 

For the whole nature of gods, in itself,                                NATURE OF THE GODS
must for all time enjoy the utmost peace—
far removed and long cut off from us
and our affairs, and free from any pain,
free from dangers, strong in its own power,
and needing nothing from us, such nature
will not give in to those good things we do                           60
nor will it be moved by our resentment.(4)

 

As for the rest, you must direct yourself,                             INSTRUCTIONS TO MEMMIUS
with unbiased ears and judicious mind
quite free from care, to proper reasoning,                                           [50]
so that you do not scorn and throw away
my gifts to you, laid out with true good will,
before you grasp them. For I will begin
to set down for you the highest matters
of heaven and gods, and I will disclose
the first principles of matter, the ones                                  70
nature uses to produce, increase, sustain
all things, and into which she changes them
once more, when they disintegrate. These things,
in explanatory accounts of them,
we are accustomed to call “materials”
and “the generating bodies of things”—
to name them “seeds of things,” using the term                                    [60]
“primordial elements,” since they come first,
and from these things all objects are derived.(5)

 

When to all eyes men’s life lay foully crushed                      80
throughout the land beneath the heavy burden                     EPICURUS
of religion, who, from heavenly regions
would show her head, menacing mortal men
with her hideous face, a Greek man was the first
who dared raise his mortal eyes against her,
the first one to oppose her, undeterred
by stories of the gods, by lightning strikes
or menacing rumbles from the heavens.
Instead, with even greater eagerness
he roused his spirit’s keen intelligence,                                 90            [70]
to answer his desire to be the first
to break the narrow bolts of nature’s doors.(6)
And so the living power of his mind
won out, and he moved forward, far beyond
the flaming bulwarks of the world, and then,
in his mind and spirit, made his way through
the boundless immensity of all things.(7)
From there, triumphant, he brings back to us
what can come into being and what cannot,
and finally the processes by which                                      100
the power of each thing has boundary stones,
a deep-set limit. And so religion,
in its turn cast down, is thrown underfoot.
This victory makes us heaven’s equals.


But I fear in these matters you perhaps                                               [80]
may think you move into first principles                               SACRIFICE OF IPHIANASSA AT AULIS
of an wicked way of thinking, starting
down an impious road—whereas, in fact
that same religion has too often spawned
profane and criminals acts, like that time                              110
at Aulis, when leaders chosen by the Greeks,
preeminent men, horribly defiled
the virgin Trivia’s altar with the blood
of Iphianassa.(8) Once the bands of wool
were wrapped around the young girl’s hair and hung
down both cheeks equally, and once she saw
her father standing right by the altars
looking gloomy and, there beside him, priests                                     [90]
hiding the knife, with people gazing on,
weeping at the sight of her, she sank down,                         120
kneeling on the ground, struck dumb with terror.
The hapless girl had been the very first
to award the king the name of father,
but at such a time that was no help to her.
For men’s hands lifted her and bore her on,
trembling, to the altars—and not so that,
with a solemn ritual completed,
a loud bridal hymn could now escort her,
but so she, quite pure in her defilement,
even at the time of her own wedding,                                  130
might fall a wretched victim to a blow
from her father’s hand in that sacrifice,
to ensure a happy, successful trip                                                       [100]
was granted to the fleet. That shows how much
religion can turn mankind to evil.


And even for you the time will come when,                          RELIGIOUS SUPERSTITIONS
overpowered by prophets’ horror stories,
you seek to move away from us. No doubt,
they can now make up many dreams for you
which could disturb a life of principle                                  140
and with fear upset all your good fortune—
and rightly so. For if men could perceive
there is a set limit to their troubles,
they would, with some reason, have strength enough
to resist religion and prophets’ threats.
But now, since we must fear that, when we die,
we will be punished for eternity,
there is no means, no possibility,                                                         [110]
of fighting back. For people do not know
the nature of the soul—whether it is born                            150
with them, or, by contrast, is inserted
at their birth, whether it perishes with us,
dissolved in death, or whether it visits
the shades of Orcus, his enormous pools,
or whether, as our Ennius said in song,
it sets itself, by divine influence,
in other animals. He first brought back
from lovely Helicon a wreath of leaves
that never fades—its fame is spoken of
by families of men in Italy.(9)                                               160
And yet after this, Ennius explains,
setting it down in deathless poetry,
there are truly regions in Acheron                                                       [120]
where our souls and bodies do not remain,
but only certain phantoms, strangely pale.
From there, he says, in front of him arose
the ghost of always flourishing Homer,
which started to shed salty tears and then
to describe in words the nature of things.


And so we must with proper reasoning                               170
look into celestial matters—explain
the reasons for the wandering of the sun
and of the moon, the force which brings about
everything that happens on the earth;
and, in particular, we must employ                                                     [130]
keen reasoning, as well, to look into
what makes up the soul, the nature of mind,
and what it is that comes into our minds
and terrifies us when we are awake
and suffering some disease or in deep sleep,                        180
so that we seem to see and hear right there,
before our eyes, those who have met their deaths,
whose bones the earth now holds in its embrace.

 

I am not unaware how difficult
it is to clarify in Latin verse
obscure matters discovered by the Greeks,
above all since we must deal with many things
employing new words, because our language
is impoverished and the subject new.
But your own excellence and the pleasure                           190            [140]
I look forward to from your sweet friendship
are prompting me to finish any work,
no matter how demanding, urging me
to stay awake throughout the peaceful night,
seeking words and verse where I can at last
hold up a clear light for your mind, and you
can see into the hidden core of things.


And so this terror, this darkness of mind,                            FIRST PRINCIPLE: NOTHING CAN COME FROM NOTHING
must be dispelled, not by rays from the sun
or bright shafts of daylight, but by reason                            200
and the face of nature. And we will start
to weave her first principle as follows:
nothing is ever brought forth by the gods                                            [150]
from nothing.(10) That is, of course, how, through fear,
all mortal men are held in check—they view
many things done on earth and in the sky,
effects whose causes they cannot see at all,
and so they assume that such things happen
because of gods. Hence, once we understand
that nothing can be produced from nothing,                         210
then we shall more accurately follow
what we are looking for, how everything
can be created and all work can be done
without any assistance from the gods

.
For if things were made from nothing, each type                                 [160]
could be produced from any other thing,
with no seed required. To start with, humans
could spring up from the sea, races of fish
arise from land, and birds burst from the sky;
domestic beasts, other cattle, all kinds                                 220
of savage creatures of uncertain birth
would live in farm land and the wilderness.
The same fruits would not be produced from trees
with no alterations—no, they would change,
and any tree could carry any fruit.
In fact, were there no procreant bodies
for each one, how could anything possess
a fixed and constant mother? But now, because
each object is produced from certain seeds,
it grows out of them and comes to regions                           230
of the light from places in which its stuff,                                             [170]
the primary elements of each, belongs.
For this reason, it is impossible
for all things to be produced from all things,
since there are in specific substances
powers which make those substances distinct.


And why do we see roses coming out
in spring, grain when it gets hot, and grape vines
ripening under autumn’s influence,
if not because, when certain seeds of things                         240
have fused together at their proper time,
whatever is created then appears,
while the season favours it, and the earth,
full of life, safely brings out tender things
to regions of the light? But if these things                                             [180]
were made from nothing, then they would spring up
suddenly at random, at strange moments
of the year, because then there would not be
any primal matter which could be checked
from a productive union at a time                                        250
that was unfavourable. And what is more,
if they could increase in size from nothing,
there would be no need of time for growing
once seeds had joined together. For young men
might suddenly be produced from infants,
and groves of trees might come up from the ground,
arising unexpectedly. These things,
quite obviously, just do not happen—
all things mature gradually [at set times],
as is appropriate, [since they all grow]                                260
from certain seeds, and as they get bigger,
they maintain their kind, so you can understand                                   [190]
that every individual thing is fed
and grows from its own particular stuff.(11)
And what is more, without seasonal rains
during the year, the earth could not produce
her delightful fruits; then, too, without food
animal nature could not reproduce
the species and maintain its life. From this,
you can all the more easily believe                                       270
that many things have many elements
in common—just as we see with letters,
which are the same in many words—rather
than thinking any substance could exist
without its primary matter.(12)             

                                 
                                                   And further,
why could nature not have created men
so big that they could make their way on foot                                     [200]
across the sea, with their own hands tear down
great mountains, and in life expectancy
outlast many human generations,                                         280
unless the reason is that certain stuff
has been designed to make specific things,
and that determines what can be produced? 
Therefore, we must acknowledge that nothing
can be produced from nothing, since with things
there is a need for seeds, from which each one
is made and can be brought into the air,
into the gentle winds. And finally,
since we perceive that cultivated lands
are preferable to those left on their own                              290
and, when worked by hand, yield better produce,
we clearly see that there are in the earth                                              [210]
primordial elements of things, which we,
by turning over fertile ground with ploughs
and taming the land’s soil, stir into birth.
If there were no seeds, you might well observe
that things become much better on their own
without our work.   

 

                             To this we can also add                          SECOND PRINCIPLE: NOTHING IS TURNED INTO NOTHING
that nature dissolves all things back again
into their own elements and does not                                   300
turn matter into nothing.(13) If anything
were destined to die, including the parts
of which it is composed, then all matter
would be quickly snatched away before our eyes
and vanish. For no force would be needed
which could bring about the dissolution
of its parts and sever their connection.                                                [220]
As it is now, since everything consists
of ageless seeds, nature does not let us
witness the death of anything, until                                       310
force intervenes to cut it into pieces
with some blow or to penetrate inside,
through the empty spaces, and dissolve it.

And if time totally destroys those things
it takes away by aging, consuming
all their matter, how does Venus send back
into the light of life those families
of creatures, each according to its kind?
When they are restored, how does artful earth
offer them food, nourish, and strengthen them,                     320
meeting each one’s needs? How do its own springs                            [230]
and distant rivers flowing far and wide
keep the sea supplied? How does the aether
feed the stars?(14) The infinity of time
and days gone by should have destroyed all things
made up of mortal elements. But if
those elements which make up and renew
the total sum of things have been around
though all the ages of those years long past,
then we can be assured they do possess                             330
an immortal nature. And thus, no things
can be converted into nothing.

 

Indeed, unless some everlasting stuff                                   PERMANENCE OF FIRST ELEMENTS
kept substances more or less connected
in a mutual matrix, one common force                                                 [240]
and cause could generally destroy all things,
for then, in fact, a touch would be enough
to kill, as is obvious, if there were
no substance in a body which endured,
if it were combined seeds which any force                           340
was bound to break apart. But as it is,
since different networks of first elements
unite together and since their substance
endures forever, things continue on,
their bodies unimpaired, until the time
an opposing force with sufficient strength,
a power which can undo their structure,
encounters them. Thus, there is no substance
which is reduced to nothing—but all things,
once dissolved, go back to material stuff.                            350

 

Lastly, the rains vanish, when the aether,                                             [250]
our father, has poured them into the lap
of earth, our mother. But then glistening crops
spring up, the branches on the trees turn green,
and trees themselves grow bigger and become
weighed down with fruit. Moreover, from this rain
our race is fed, as well as those of beasts.
Thus, we see happy cities filled with youth
and leafy woods full of young birds singing
on every side, and fat, weary cattle                                     360
set their bodies down in joyful pastures,
and dazzling white liquid milk flows out
from swollen udders; thus, new offspring play
on unsure limbs, frolic on tender grass,                                                [260]
with fresh milk stirring their young hearts. And so,
what seems to disappear does not all leave—
nature renews one thing from another
and does not allow objects to be born
without the help of something else that died.

 

Come, I have been teaching you that matter                        370
cannot be created out of nothing                                         INVISIBLE ELEMENTS ARE MATERIAL SUBSTANCES
and, in the same way, once it is produced,
cannot be reduced to nothing, and yet,
in case you should perhaps still start to doubt
my words, because our eyes cannot perceive
the elementary particles of things,
learn more about those bodies you yourself
must grant exist in what cannot be seen.                                              [270]
First of all, the power of wind, once roused,
lashes harbours, annihilates huge ships,                                380
scatters clouds. Sometimes in swift, whirling storms,
it drives across the plains, covering them
with giant trees, and assaults mountain tops
with blasts that splinter wood—that’s how fiercely
the wind howls out in passionate anger,
screaming and threatening with a frantic howl.
And therefore we can have no doubt that winds,
although invisible, are bodies, too.
They sweep sea and land as well as sky clouds,
jolt and ravage them with sudden whirlwinds.                      390
They rush on ahead and spread destruction,                                       [280]
just as water, whose nature is delicate,
suddenly carried in a flooding stream,
gorged with massive run-off from heavy rains
down towering mountains, races on, hurling
broken branches of the trees together,
whole trees, as well—strong bridges cannot stand
against the sudden power of the flood
as it charges on. In that way, swollen
with so much rain, the river then attacks,                             400
with its massed, violent force, foundations
of the bridge—with a mighty roar it spreads
devastation, rolling immense boulders
underneath its waves, obliterating
whatever blocks its flow. And that, therefore,
must be how blasts of wind are carried, too.                                       [290]
When, like powerful rivers, they swoop down
any place they wish, they drive things forward
and pummel them with repeated onslaughts.
Sometimes they seize things in a twisting whirl                     410
and carry objects instantly away
in a spiraling vortex. That is why,
to make the point again, winds are bodies,
although unseen, for in the way they act
and in what they do, we find they rival
great streams, which clearly are material stuff.

 

Then, too, we sense the different smells of things,
yet never glimpse them coming to our nostrils.
Our eyes do not perceive a fiery heat,                                                [300]
nor can they see the cold. As for voices,                             420
we are not used to viewing them. But still,
all must consist of corporeal stuff,
since they can strike our senses, for unless
there is bodily substance, no object
can touch or itself be touched. Moreover,
clothes hung up on a beach with breaking waves
get wet, but these same garments, once spread out
dry off in sunlight, yet no one has seen
how water moisture makes its way to them
or how, by contrast, influenced by heat,                              430
it escapes again. The moisture, therefore,
is broken up in tiny particles
our eyes cannot through any means make out.                                     [310]

 

There’s more: with many yearly solar orbits,
a ring worn on the finger, through long use,
wears out underneath, and dripping water
falling from the eaves hollows out a stone;
and on a ploughshare, the blade’s curving edge,
though composed of iron, when used in farm land,
thanks to some concealed effect, gets smaller.                     440
We know people’s feet wear down paving stones,
and bronze statues beside the gates reveal
that their right hands are being eroded
by people touching them so frequently,
when they salute them and then walk on by.
So we see these things are getting smaller,
as they are rubbed, but the jealous nature
of our vision prevents our noticing
at any moment matter moving off.                                                       [320]

 

Finally, whatever material stuff                                            450
time and nature little by little add
to things, forcing them gradually to grow,
the sharpness of our straining eyes can see
none of it, nor, once more, what wastes away
through old age and decay. Nor can you see
what rocks hanging by the sea and eaten
by corrosive salt lose in each moment.

Hence, nature works with unseen particles.                       

 

However, nature does not hold all things
in corporeal matter densely packed                                    460
on every side. For in material stuff                                                      [330]
there is a void—in many instances
a useful point to know; it will not let you
roam around in doubt, always seeking out
the total sum of things and losing faith
in what I say. So, then, there is a void—
intangible, empty, vacant. If not,
if this were not there, there would be no way
that anything could move, because substance
has this property—it stands in the way,                               470
it obstructs—this would be present in it
all the time, acting against everything.
Therefore, nothing at all could move forward,
since nothing else would first make room for it
by giving way. But now, on sea and land,                                           [340]
and in the celestial sky, we notice
before our eyes many things being shifted
in various ways by various means, and these,
if there were no void, would not so much lack
restless motion, of which they were deprived,                     480
as have no means at all of being born,
since matter, everywhere a compact mass,
would have remained inert.        

 

                                             Besides, although
things may be thought as solid as you please,
nonetheless, from what follows you may see
they have matter made up of elements
spaced far apart. For in rocks and caverns
liquid moisture flows, and every object
weeps many drops; food gets distributed
through the whole body in all living things;                           490            [350]
orchards grow and, in due time, deliver
their fruit, because nourishment is sent up
from the lowest roots to the entire plant
through all the trunks and branches; voices move
through walls, fly through closed rooms in houses;
stiff frost penetrates right into our bones.
If there were no empty spaces through which
these substances could pass, there is no way
you would notice things like that occurring.

 

And then, why do we see some things weigh more              500
than other things, when there is no difference
in their size? For if in a ball of wool                                                     [360]
there is just as much matter as in lead,
they should weigh the same, since material stuff
has the property of pushing all things down,
but, by contrast, the nature of a void
continues on without weighing anything.
And so, the object which is just as large
and yet seems lighter clearly demonstrates
that it contains in it more empty space;                                510
whereas, the heavier object indicates
that it has more material stuff inside
and far less void. Thus, there can be no doubt
the thing which we, with our keen argument,
are seeking out, what we describe as void,
exists, mixed in with substantial matter.

 

I am forced, in dealing with these issues,                                             [370]
to counter in advance what some men teach,
so that it cannot lead you from the truth.
They claim that when fish push their way forward                520
water gives way, opens liquid channels,
because fish leave behind an empty space,
into which water, as it moves aside,
can flow—in this way, other substances
can also move among themselves, change spots,
although all matter is completely packed.
This concept clearly has been taken up
through faulty reasoning. For where, I ask,
could the fish move forward, if the water
did not give them room? In what direction                           530            [380]
could the water shift aside, if the fish
could not swim forward? So we must, therefore,
either deny that any substance moves,
or else assert that material substance
has empty space mixed with it—from that fact
each thing’s motion gets its initial start.
Lastly, if two wide bodies placed together
quickly separate, then quite obviously
the air must occupy all empty space
which is created there between the two.                              540
And yet, however fast the flow of air,
as it blows in from all around, it still
would not be able to fill all the space
at once—air must fill one location first                                                [390]
and then take over every place in turn.
Now, once these bodies have shifted apart,
if someone perhaps thinks that this occurs
because the air has made itself compact,
he is in error, for then a vacuum
is produced which did not exist before,                               550
and, in the same way, what was previously
empty space is filled. In such a process
air cannot become more dense, and even if
that were possible, it would not, I think,
be able, without empty space, to draw
into itself and keep its parts united.(15)

 

For this reason, though you may hesitate
and call many things in doubt, nonetheless,
you must grant there is a void in matter.
Besides, I could remind you of the truth                              560            [400]
of what I have described by scraping up
many arguments. But for a keen mind
these small tracks will be enough—using them,
you yourself can recognize the others.
Just as dogs, with their noses, often find
the lair of some wild beast which roams the hills,
once they have found the right tracks on the path,
although the den was hidden in the leaves,
you yourself will be able, on your own,
in these matters to understand one thing                              570
after another, make your way inside
each obscure hiding place, and then from there
draw out the truth. But, Memmius, if you                                            [410]
are slack or shrink a little from these things,
I can make you the following simple pledge:
from the riches in my heart, my sweet tongue
will pour out cups drawn from such great sources,
that I fear a slow old age will steal up
across our limbs, unfastening those bands
of life in us, before the full supply                                        580
of arguments on any single subject
in these verses has poured into your ears.

 

But now, to get back to weaving in words
what I have started: all things in nature
thus in themselves are made up of two things,                                     [420]
material substances and empty space
in which these substances are placed and move
in various directions. Matter exists—
sense perception shared by all tells us that.
If faith in sense is not first firmly set,                                    590
if it does not prevail, there is nothing                                   IMPORTANCE OF SENSE EXPERIENCE
to which we can appeal in what we claim,
by any form of mental reasoning,
about the truth of things we cannot see.(16)

 

Then, once again, if space, which we call void,                    NATURE IS ONLY MATTER AND EMPTY SPACE
and place did not exist, then materials
could not be situated anywhere
or move at all in different directions
a point we have considered just above.
Moreover, there is nothing you can claim                            600            [430]
is separate from all matter and distinct
from empty space—some third form of nature,
as it were, which someone might discover.
Whatever will exist, must, in itself,
be something. No matter how large or small
its size may be, so long as it exists,
if it can make contact, however slight
and delicate, it will increase the sum
of substantial things and be included
in the total. If it cannot be touched,                                     610
cannot, in any of its parts, prevent
matter in motion from passing through it,
quite clearly it will be that empty space
we call void. Furthermore, whatever stuff                                           [440]
inherently exists, will have to act
or else to suffer when other matter
acts upon it, or else it will be there
so matter can exist and act in it.
But nothing can act and be acted on
unless it has corporeal substance,                                       620
and nothing can offer room for motion
unless it is empty, vacant space. Thus,
apart from void and matter, there can be,
in the whole sum of things, no third nature
left by itself, which at any time might fall
under our senses or which anyone
could ascertain with mental reasoning.

 

For you will find whatever things we name                          PROPERTIES AND ACCIDENTS
are either properties, that is, attached                                                 [450]
to these two things, or else you will perceive                       630
they are their accidents, mere chance results.
A property is something which cannot
ever be separated or cut off
without destroying something by its loss—
like a stone’s weight, water’s fluidity,
and a fire’s heat.(17) But on the other hand,
with slavery, poverty, wealth, freedom,
warfare, harmony, and other things which,
whether present or absent, do not change
the nature of a thing, our custom is                                      640
to call them, as is fitting, accidents.

 

Then, too, time in itself does not exist.                                 TIME
From things themselves our senses comprehend                                  [460]
what has been accomplished in the past,
what is present now, then what will follow
afterwards. We must concede that no one
has a sense of time in and of itself,
apart from things in motion or at rest.
What’s more, when people claim “the ravishment                HISTORICAL NARRATIVES
of Tyndareus’ daughter” or “the rout                                   650
of Trojan races in the war” are real,
we must take care they do not compel us
to say perhaps that in and of themselves
these things exist, when time, which cannot now
be summoned back, has carried away
men of that generation, those for whom
events like these were merely accidents.(18)
One could say that whatever things are done
are accidents—in one case of the Trojans,                                          [470]
in another of the place itself. Furthermore,                           660
if there was no material stuff in things
and no place or space in which all actions
happen, then Helen’s beauty would never
have lit the fire of love which then blazed through
the Phrygian chest of Paris, igniting
the glorious struggles of that savage war,
nor would the wooden horse have secretly
delivered in the night those sons of Greece
born from its belly and then set on fire
the citadel of Troy. Thus, you can see                                 670
that each event has no being—does not,
in any fundamental way, exist
the way that corporeal matter does,
nor can we describe it as existing                                                        [480]
in the same way as empty space—instead
you can with justice label all events
accidents of the body and the place
where each of them occurs.                        

 

                                  Bodies, therefore,                             PERMANCE AND SOLIDITY OF PRIMARY ELEMENTS
are, in part, primary elements of things,
in part, those elements in combination.                                680
There is no force which can eradicate
the primary elements—their solid stuff
will finally endure, although it seems
hard to think that one can find in matter
any object with a solid body.
For lightning from the heavens penetrates
walls of houses—noises and voices, too;                                            [490]
iron thrust into fire glows white hot, and stones,
when subjected to fierce heat, crack apart;
when heated, gold loses hardness and melts;                        690
icy bronze, once overpowered with fire,
turns liquid; heat and penetrating cold
flow through silver when, as is our custom,
we lift up our cups and our hands feel both,
as water drops pour out from up above.(19)

 

So, given all that, we see that nothing
in matter is firm. But since true reason
and the nature of matter require it,
just listen, while in a few lines we show
that things with solid, eternal bodies                                    700            [500]
do exist—we shall prove that they are seeds,
primary elements of matter, from which,
in the grand total of created things,
all objects now are made. To begin with,
since we have shown that nature has two parts,
consisting of two very different things,
matter and space in which all things occur,
each of them must be purely what it is,
in and of itself. Where there is empty space—
what we call a void—there is no matter;                              710
and similarly, where there is matter
there is no way there can be empty space.
Thus, the primary elements are solid                                                   [510]
and without void. Furthermore, since there is
in created things a void, there must be
solid space around it. There is nothing
which, by proper reasoning, can be shown
to hide an empty space, contain a void
inside itself, unless you will concede
what holds it consists of something solid.                             720
But nothing can contain a void in things
except material stuff in combination.
Thus, matter, which consists of solid bodies,
can be eternal, although all the rest
may be dissolved. Besides, if what we call
empty space did not exist, the universe                                                [520]
would then be solid. But unless there were
certain bodies filling whatever space
they occupy, then all existing things
would consist of empty space, a vacuum.                            730
Thus, there is no doubt that material stuff
is distinct from void. Both things alternate.
Space is not completely full of matter,
and yet not wholly empty. Hence, there are
certain elements which can fill their space
and mark off what is full from what is void.
These elements cannot be broken up
by an external blow or be dissolved
by piercing their inside, nor can they yield
to any other method one might try,                                      740            [530]
a point I showed you somewhat earlier.
For it does seem that without empty space
nothing could be smashed apart or broken
or cut in two and split, or let in moisture
or seeping cold, or penetrating fire—
actions by which all objects are destroyed.
The more each thing contains a void inside,
the more it falters under these attacks
deep within it. So if first elements
are, as I have shown, solid, without void,                            750
then they must be eternal.

 

                                       Furthermore,
if material stuff had not been eternal,                                                    [540]
all things would have been utterly reduced
to nothing long ago—and things we see
would have been reborn from nothing. But since,
as I have previously explained, nothing
can be produced from nothing and, further,
what has been produced cannot be reduced
to nothing, then first elements must be
made of everlasting stuff, into which,                                   760
when its time is over, every object
can be dissolved, so matter is produced
for the renewal of things. Thus, elements
are entirely solid—since otherwise
there is no way they could have been preserved
through ages of infinite time till now,                                                    [550]
in order to restore things once again.

 

Besides, if nature had set no limits
to things being destroyed, particles of stuff
by now would have been constantly reduced,                      770
worn out by time gone by, so that nothing
made from them at any specific time
could complete its entire span of life.
We see that anything can be dissolved
more quickly than it can be assembled
once again, and therefore all those objects
which the long, endless succession of days
in times past had to this point smashed apart,
by demolishing and dissolving them,
could never, in the time that yet remains,                              780            [560]
be restored. But now determined limits
have been clearly set to the destructions,
since we see all things are recreated
and, at the same time, a fixed period
assigned to things according to their kind,
in which they can attain their bloom of life.

 

To this we add that, although materials                                 HARD AND SOFT SUBSTANCES
consist of elements completely solid,
yet one can still explain how everything
which is soft could be created from them—                         790
for example, air, water, earth, and fire—
the processes by which these are produced
and the force by which each one carries on,
because, briefly put, there is empty space
intermixed in things. But if, by contrast,                                               [570]
the primary elements of things were soft,
no reason could be given for the way
strong flint and iron could be created,
for their whole nature would entirely lack
starting principles for its foundation.                                     800
Thus, elements are strong, simple, solid.
When they form more compact concentrations
then all things can contract and demonstrate
their strength and power.(20)

 

                                   And furthermore,
if no limit had been set for breaking
elements, some particles of matter
would still have had to last through endless time
without being attacked by any danger.                                                [580]
But since they would exist as fragile stuff,
endowed that way by nature, then it seems                          810
inconsistent that they could have lasted
an infinite time through all the ages
assaulted by countless blows. Moreover,
since limits have now been given for growth
of things, each in accordance with its kind,
and for the ways they keep a grasp on life,
since it has been determined and sanctioned
by laws of nature what each thing can do
and what it cannot, and since none of that
has changed and everything remains the same—                  820
so much so that in their young different birds
display particular body markings
of their species and maintain the pattern—                                          [590]
we can be sure as well that things must have
a body of unchanging matter. For if
the primordial elements of things could,
in any way, be overpowered and changed,
then we would also have no certainty
about what could or could not come to be
and, in addition, about the principle                                     830
by which each thing has its power defined,
its fixed boundary stones, and species could not,
time after time, bring back their parents’ nature,
manner of life, food, and movements, each one
following its own kind.                                      

 

                                              In addition,                          BASIC ELEMENTS CANNOT BE BROKEN DOWN
since there are always extreme particles
[which in objects are the tiniest things
we see, there should, in the same manner, be
a smallest point] in those things which our sense                                  [600]
cannot perceive—and that point, quite clearly,                     840
has no parts and consists of the smallest
element in nature; it has never been
isolated on its own and cannot be
in future, since it is itself a part,
the single primary part, of something else.(21)
Then other parts like it and still others
in a series fill, in a compact mass,
the substance of that corporeal stuff.
Because they cannot exist on their own,
these parts must adhere to certain places                             850
where there is no way they can be detached.
Thus, primary basic stuff is purely solid—
a close-packed mass of smallest elements,                                          [610]
not combined in an aggregate of parts,
but rather with a unitary force
which is eternal. Nature does not let
any part be separated from them
or diminished, reserving them as seeds
for objects. And furthermore, if there were
no smallest body, the minutest stuff                                     860
would be made up of infinite pieces,
since, as you see, the half of any part
will always have its own half, and nothing
will bring the process to an end. And thus,
between the total sum and the smallest things
what difference will there be? Nothing at all
will distinguish them, for though the universe,                                       [620]
the total sum of things, is infinite,
the smallest particles there are will still
equally consist of infinite parts.(22)                                      870
But since true reasoning rejects this claim
and asserts the mind cannot believe it,
you must concede, admitting there are things,
the very smallest natural elements,
which have no pieces, and since these exist,
you must also grant that they are solid
and last forever. And then if nature,
creative mother of things, were accustomed
to forcing all things to be broken down
into smallest particles, she could not                                    880
restore things now from those same particles,                                      [630]
because things not endowed with any parts
do not possess the properties required
for generative stuff—different bondings,
weights, collisions, combinations, motions,
through which all actions happen.(23)

 

                                                      That is why                 HERACLITUS
those who claim that the substance of matter
is fire and that the grand sum of all things
consists of fire alone seem to have strayed
far from valid reasoning. Of these men,                               890
Heraclitus is the chief, the first one
to head the charge, a man celebrated
for obscure speech, but more with simpletons
than with serious Greeks seeking out the truth.(24)                               [640]
For foolish people would rather admire
and adore everything they see concealed
in cryptic sayings, and consider true
the ones with power to contact our ears
agreeably, painted with pretty sounds.
How, I ask, can substances be different                              900
if they are made from fire, pure and unmixed?
There would be no point in making hot fire
more dense or rarefied, if parts of it
had the same nature all the fire still has.
In condensed parts heat might be more intense,                                   [650]
and less where parts were scattered and dispersed.
But you can conceive nothing more than this
which could be created from such causes,
much less could the huge diversity of things
exist from fire compressed and rarefied.                              910
There’s more: if they admit there is a void
mixed into things, fires will then be able
to be condensed or be left rarefied,
but because they see many things in that
which contradict their doctrine, they avoid
admitting that pure empty space exists
in matter—afraid of complications,
they lose the true path and do not perceive,
by contrast, that without void in matter                                                [660]
all things become compressed, a single mass                       920
produced from all things, and this mass could not
send out quickly from itself a single thing,
the way warming fire throws off light and heat.
And so you see that fire does not consist
of compressed parts.(25) 

 

                           But if perhaps they think
that fire, combining in some other way,
can be extinguished and change its matter,
then clearly, if they do not at some point
check their faith in this, all heat will, of course,
utterly decline to nothing—all things                                     930
which are produced will be made from nothing.
For when something is changed and moves beyond                             [670]
its limits, that is the immediate death
of what it was before. Thus, in their belief,
as you see, something must be left unchanged,
so that matter does not wholly revert
to nothing and the full supply of things
does not come to bloom reborn from nothing.

 

Now therefore, since there are undoubtedly
particles whose nature always is the same,                          940
and, when they come and go or modify
their arrangement, things then change their nature
and corporeal stuff converts itself,
you may understand that these particles,
these elements of matter, are not fire.
For there would be no point if some of them                                       [680]
detached themselves and left, or if others
were added on, or if the arrangement
of some of them were changed—if all of them
still were to retain qualities of fire,                                       950
what they created would, in every case,
be nothing but fire. As I judge these things,
the truth is this: there are certain bodies
whose combinations, movements, arrangement,
positions, and shapes produce fire—and when
their arrangement changes, they change nature;
they are not like fire or anything else
which can send particles to our senses
and affect by contact our sense of touch.(26)

 

Moreover, to say that all things are fire                               960             [690]
and in the total quantity of things
no substance is real but fire, a statement
Heraclitus makes, seems totally absurd.
On the basis of his sense experience,
he goes against his senses, subverting
those things on which all concepts we believe
depend and through which he himself has come
to recognize what he calls fire. He thinks
his senses truly know that fire exists,
but does not think they know all other things                       970
which are no less clear. This appears to me
empty and inane. For what will we then
appeal to? What could be more sure to us
than our senses as a way of noting                                                      [700]
what is true and what is false? And besides,
why would anyone sooner get rid of
everything and then want fire to remain
the only substance, rather than claim fire
does not exist, but other stuff remains?
Both assertions seem equally absurd.                                  980

 

Thus, those who have thought the material                           EMPEDOCLES
of stuff is fire and the whole sum of things
can be made of fire and those who have held
that air is the first principle through which
things are produced, those, too, who have maintained
that water on its own can fashion things
from itself or that earth makes all matter
and changes into natural substances                                                    [710]
of all things seem to have strayed very far,
a long way from the truth.(27) Add those as well                  990
who compound the primordial stuff of things,
linking air and fire, and earth and water,
and those who think that all things can arise
from these four elements—from fire and earth
and air and water. Among them, first comes
Empedocles of Agrigentum, born
within the coasts of that three-sided island
around which the Ionian Sea, flowing
in huge twisting coves, shoots up salty foam
from its green surf, and the ocean, rushing                           1000
in a narrow strait, with its waves divides                                              [720]
the island rim from shores of Italy.
Huge Charybdis is here, and here the growls
of Etna threaten, as, in her anger,
she once more gathers up her flames, so that
her power may yet again vomit fires
bursting from her gullet and hurl once more
her luminous flames up to the heavens.(28)
This great region, although it seems worthy
of admiration by the human race                                         1010
for many reasons and, so people say,
is somewhere one must visit, its produce
richly fertile, and strongly defended
by the power of its people, this place,
nonetheless, does not seem to have contained
anything more excellent within it
than this man, anything more sanctified,                                               [730]
wonderful, and loved. In fact, even now
the verses from his godlike heart set down
and expound his celebrated findings                                    1020
in such a way he hardly seems created
from the human race. But he and those men
we talked about above, far inferior
to him and lower by several degrees
in eminence, although they did find out,
in an excellent and inspired manner,
many things and furnished explanations,
as if from temples deep within their hearts,
with more sanctity, far more true reason,
than the Pythia speaking from the tripod                              1030
of Phoebus and his laurel—nonetheless,
in dealing with first elements of things                                                  [740]
these men fell into error—being great men,
their heavy fall here was significant.(29)

 

Firstly, because they allow for movement                            ERRORS OF OTHER MATERIALISTS
but take empty space away from matter,
and they leave soft and thin material stuff—
air, sunlight, fire, earth, animals, and plants—
but still do not mix any vacancies
into their matter, and finally they set                                     1040
no end at all to splitting elements,
no limit to their being broken up,
nor does matter, in any way, possess
some particles of minimum extent,
although we do see an ultimate point
in every object, which to our senses                                                   [750]
appears the smallest thing we can perceive,
so that you can infer from this that things
we cannot see have their ultimate points,
the smallest particles which make them up.                          1050
In addition to this, since they assert
the first material stuff is soft, things which
we see being born are made entirely
of perishable substance, so the sum
of all matter must revert to nothing,
the full supply of objects must arise
and grow up from nothing. How far these claims
are from the truth you will know already.
What’s more, in many ways their elements
are incompatible and venomous                                          1060
to one another. And thus, when they meet
they will either perish or run apart,                                                      [760]
like those moments when, once a storm begins,
we notice how the lightning, rain, and winds
scurry off in various directions.

 

Moreover, if everything is produced
from four elements and if all matter
dissolves again into these elements,
how can they be called the primordial stuff
of things, rather than reversing the idea—                            1070
making things the primordial material
of these four elements? For they are made
from one another and change appearance
and their total nature with each other
all the time. If you happen to believe                                                   [770]
that the elements of fire and of earth
and airy breezes and drops of moisture
come together so that, in combining,
their natures do not change, then you will see
that nothing could be created from them,                             1080
no living thing, no inanimate body,
like a tree. In fact, all things in this heap
of various materials piled up
will display their natures—air will appear
mixed together with earth, heat with moisture.
But primary elements producing things
must use a secret, hidden influence,
in case some factor may predominate                                                 [780]
which could resist and check created things
so they cannot exist with their true nature.(30)                      1090

 

Moreover, these men, in fact, take their start
from heaven and its fires and then make fire
first change itself to windy air; from air
water is produced, then earth from water,
and all things revert back again from earth—
first moisture, then air, then heat. And these things
do not stop changing into one another,
passing from sky to earth, and then from earth
to aetherial stars. But there is no way
primordial stuff should do this. For something                      1100
unchanging must remain, so as to stop                                                 [790]
all matter from being totally reduced
to nothing. For when something is transformed
and goes beyond the limits set for it
that brings instant death to what it was before.
And thus, since these four basic elements
we talked about above go through changes,
they must consist of other particles
which cannot be transformed in any way,
in order to prevent, as you can see,                                     1110
all things being utterly reduced to nothing.

 

Why not conclude instead that there exist                             ELEMENTS IN DIFFERENT COMBINATIONS MAKE DIFFERENT THINGS
certain bodies endowed with such a nature
that, if they should happen to create fire,
the same elements, with a few removed                                              [800]
or added, their structure and motion changed,
could make breezy air, and in this manner
all matter be transformed to other things?
“But plain facts,” you say, “clearly indicate
all things grow and are nourished from the earth                  1120
up into the air, and if the season
is not kind to them, bringing rain showers
at favourable times, so orchards sway
under moisture from the storm, if the sun,
for his part, does not favour them and bring
his heat, no crops or trees or living things
could grow.” That is quite true. And we also,
lacking help from soft moisture and dry food,
would lose our bodies—all life then would drain                                  [810]
from bones and sinews. There can be no doubt                   1130
that certain substances help and feed us,
as certain other foods feed other things.
Since many common primary elements
of many things are evidently mixed
in several ways in many substances,
therefore various things provide nourishment
for other different things. But frequently
what really matters is what elements
combine with and how they are organized,
what motions they both impart and absorb                          1140
amongst themselves, for the same elements
make up sky, sea, lands, rivers, and the sun,                                       [820]
the same elements form crops, trees, animals—
but moving and combined with different ones
in different ways. 

 

                      And why not? Everywhere
in these very verses of mine you see
many words have many shared elements,
though you must admit that words and verses
differ in what they mean and how they sound.
That’s how much basic elements can do,                             1150
if one merely changes their arrangement.
But the primordial elements of things
can make more combinations and, from that,
create the whole variety of things.

 

Now let us also scrutinize that work                                                   [830]
by Anaxagoras, the one Greeks call                                   ANAXAGORAS AND HOMOEOMERIA
the homoeomeria—what we lack
in our native speech does not allow us
to proclaim that word in our own language,
but it is easy to describe in words                                       1160
the matter it contains.(31) For first of all,
that homoeomeria of things,
as he calls it, works like this: bones are made
from miniscule, extremely tiny bones
and, in the same manner, flesh is produced
from tiny, minute particles of flesh,
blood by many drops of blood collecting.
Gold, he thinks, can be made of bits of gold,                                       [840]
earth form a compact mass from little earths,
fire from fires, water comes from water,                              1170
and similarly with all other things—
that’s what he imagines and understands.
But he does not concede there is a void
anywhere in matter or a limit
to cutting matter up. And that is why,
with these two principles, he seems to me
to be as much in error as those men
we talked about above. Now add to this
that he conceives primordial elements
as too weak, if, indeed, they are primordial                         1180
when they exist with a given nature
similar to things themselves and, like them,                                          [850]
suffer and perish, and nothing saves them
from destruction. For what in them survives
violent pressure so they escape death
in the very jaws of doom? Which of them—
fire or water or air? Or blood or bone?
In my view, not one—for essentially,
all stuff will be just as perishable
as all those things we clearly see dying,                                1190
defeated by some force, before our eyes.

 

But no matter can revert to nothing
or rise up out of nothing—I appeal
to what I have proved before. Furthermore,
since food feeds us and makes our bodies grow,
we can know that veins, blood, bones, [and sinew                              [860]
are made of particles unlike themselves.](32)
Or if they say all food is a mixture
of materials and contains small bits
of sinews, bones, and veins, and particles                            1200
of blood, it will then follow, one believes,
all nourishment, solid and liquid, too,
is made up of various materials,
a compound mix of bones, nerves, veins, and blood.
Besides, if all those bodies which grow up
from earth exist in earth, it must be the case
that earth consists of all the different things
springing up from earth. Apply this thinking,                                        [870]
and you may use this language once again:
if fire, smoke, and ash lie concealed in wood,                      1210
then wood must be made of up of substances
unlike itself. Further, all those bodies
which earth feeds, it makes grow [from materials
different in kind from those which come from earth.
So, too, those substances which wood sends out
are fed] by matter of a different sort
than those which come from wood.(33)

 

                             Here there remains
a slender chance to avoid the issue,
which Anaxagoras appropriates
for his own purposes, so he may claim                                1220
that all things are secretly intermixed
with everything, but what people notice
is the one mixed in the most, the one placed
at the front and more readily perceived.
This, however, is very far removed                                                     [880]
from truthful reasoning. For in that case,
we would also expect that grain, when crushed
by force of threatening stone, would often show
some sign of blood or of those substances
nourished in our bodies. In the same way,                           1230
we should also expect that, when we rub grass
between two stones, blood should often drip out,
water should frequently give off sweet drops
mixed with the rich taste of milk from udders
of wool-bearing sheep. And undoubtedly,
when we crumble clumps of earth, we should see
types of grass, grain, and leaves—very small ones—
hidden scattered in the soil. Finally,                                                     [890]
in pieces of wood which we break apart
we should see ash and smoke and fire hidden                      1240
in tiny particles. Since obvious facts
show this does not occur, we may be sure
there is in substances no such mixture
of matter, but there must be common seeds
of many substances concealed in things,
combined in many ways.                                      

 

                                    “But,” you may say,
“often in high mountains it does happen
that with tall trees the very tops of them,
if they are close by, are rubbed together,
an action forced on them by strong south winds,                  1250
and then, like a flower, a fire blossoms,                                               [900]
and the trees burst out in flames.” That is true.
But fire is not contained inside the wood—
instead there are numerous seeds of heat,
and when rubbing brings these seeds together,
they produce fire in the trees. However,
if ready-made flames were concealed in wood,
fires could not be hidden for very long—
they would consume the forest everywhere,
burn up the trees to ashes. Now, therefore,                         1260
do you not see what we just said above,
that frequently the essential issue
is what these same primordial particles
are combined with and in what position
and what motions they impart and receive                                           [910]
among themselves, that the same elements
interchanging things a little, produce
fire and wood? In the same way, words themselves
consist of elements a little changed
among themselves when we use different terms                   1270
to denote firs and fire. And finally,
if you now think that all things you observe
in objects you perceive cannot be made
unless you assume primary elements
endowed with a nature like those objects,
then those primary elements of matter,
by this line of reasoning, will perish,
as you see. What will happen is like this:
convulsed with cackling laughter they will shake
and wet their face and cheeks with salty tears.(34)               1280           [920]

 

Come now, listen more clearly, and then learn                     THE POET'S PURPOSE
what still remains. I am not unaware
how obscure the issues are, but great hope
of praise with her sharp thrysus has smitten
my heart and with that has infused my breast
with sweet love of the Muses—inspired by that,
my mind alive, I am now wandering
through trackless regions of the Pierides,
where no man’s foot has ever gone before.(35)
It gives me joy to approach those fountains                         1290
no one has tasted and to drink from them.
I love to pick fresh flowers and collect
a splendid garland for my head in places
where the Muses have not yet crowned the brows                              [930]
of any man. Firstly, because I teach
important things and seek to free the mind
from constricting fetters of religion.
And then because the verses I compose
about dark matters are so luminous,
investing all things with poetic grace.                                   1300
And that, too, does not seem unreasonable.
For just as healers, when they try to give
young children foul-tasting wormwood, first spread
sweet golden liquid honey round the cup,
so at this age the unsuspecting child,                                                   [940]
with honey on his lips, may be deceived
and in the meantime swallow down the drink
of bitter gall—he may have been misled,
but he is not hurt—with this deception
he may be restored instead, grow stronger.                         1310
In the same way now, since this reasoning
seems generally too bitter for those men
who have not tried it and the common crowd
shrinks back in fear, I wanted to explain
my argument to you in these verses,
sweet-spoken Pierian song, as if I were
sprinkling it with poetry’s sweet honey,
if, with such a method, I could perhaps
get your attention on my verse, until
you perceive the entire nature of things—                            1320
how it is shaped and what its structure is.                                            [950]

 

But since I have revealed that particles,                               THE SUM OF MATERIAL STUFF IS INFINITE
the most solid bits of matter, always
move to and fro and never-ending time
does not destroy them, come now, let us see
whether or not the total sum of them
has any limit; let us survey as well
that empty region we have discovered,
or the place and space where all things happen,
and learn whether, in its entirety,                                         1330
it is wholly limited or stretches
to infinite, immeasurable depths.

 

All that exists, then, has no boundaries                                 THE MATERIAL UNIVERSE IS LIMITLESS
in any direction, for if it did,
it would have to have something outside it.                                          [960]
We see there can be no end to something,
unless there exists something beyond it
which sets that limit, so one may observe
where our natural senses cannot follow
any further. Now, since we must admit                               1340
that nothing exists outside the total,
it has no boundary—it is without end,
without limit. And it does not matter
where in it you stand—whatever station
someone occupies, he leaves the total
just as infinite in all directions.

 

Further, if we suppose all existing space
is now finite and if a man ran through
to its ultimate limit and then hurled                                                       [970]
a flying spear, would that spear thrown full strength             1350
fly out very far in the direction
it was sent, or do you think that something
could stop and block it? For you must concede
and grant one of these two alternatives.
Either one of these cuts off your escape,
forcing you to agree the universe
lies open without limit. For whether
there is some object which obstructs the spear
and prevents it going out where it was sent
and reaching its goal, or whether that spear                         1360
is carried forward, its flight did not start
from any limit.(36) I will continue                                                        [980]
in this manner: wherever you may place
the furthest edge, I will raise a question:
What then happens to the spear? As it stands,
there cannot be an end point anywhere,
and room to fly will always lengthen out
the escape route of the spear. Finally,
before our eyes, we perceive that objects
set fix boundaries for objects: mountains                             1370
are limited by air, air by mountains,
land limits sea, and, on the other hand,
sea limits all the land. But still, there is                                                 [1000]
nothing outside the universe which might
set boundaries in place.(37)

 

                                And furthermore,
if all the space of the whole universe
were enclosed on all sides with set limits
and were finite, by now supplies of matter,
given their solid weight, would have flowed down
from all sides together to the bottom,                                  1380
and so underneath the vault of heaven
nothing could take place, and there would not be
a heaven at all or light from the sun,
because all material, by sinking down                                                 [990]
for countless years, would by this time lie there
in a common heap. But now, as you can see,
no rest is given to first particles
of matter, for there is no foundation,
no bottom, to which they could, as it were,
flow down and find a resting place. All things                      1390
move everywhere, always in constant motion—
material stuff is stirred up and supplied
from down below out of infinite space.
This, therefore, is the nature of deep space
and its extent—bright lightning in its course
could not pass through it—though sliding forward
for unending tracts of time, its motion,
as it proceeded, would not diminish
the remaining distance it still had to go.
That shows how much immense space lies open                  1400
on all sides for things, free from all limits
everywhere in all directions.                 

 

                                                  Besides,
nature herself makes sure the universe
cannot set limits to itself—she compels
matter to be enclosed within a void,
and void, in turn, to be bound by matter.                                            [1010]
With this reciprocal relationship
she therefore makes the total infinite,
or else one of the two, if the other
did not limit it, in its unmixed form                                       1410
would then extend out beyond all measure.
[But I have shown above that space spreads out
without limit; thus, matter, too, must be
infinite, for if the void were endless,
and the total sum of matter finite,](38)
neither sea nor earth nor sky’s bright spaces,
nor mortal races, nor sacred bodies
of the gods could endure for very long,
not even for the short space of an hour,
since, with their combined masses forced apart,                   1420
supplies of matter would be carried off
and scattered through huge areas of space,
or what is, in fact, more likely, matter
would never have united and therefore
would never have produced a single thing,
since, in its dispersed condition, it would                                             [1020]
be incapable of forming compounds.
For clearly the first particles of things                                  FIRST PARTICLES ORGANIZED RANDOMLY
did not all place themselves in due order
by their own planning or intelligence,                                   1430
nor did they through some agreement assign
the motions each of them should have. Instead,
since there are many of them and they change
in many ways through all the universe,
they are pushed, energized by collisions,
for a limitless length of time, and then,
having gone through every kind of motion
and combination, they at length fall into
those arrangements which make up and create
this totality of things, which also,                                         1440
once suitably set in patterned motion,                                                 [1030]
has been preserved through many lengthy years.(39)
It makes rivers with large flows of water
refresh voracious seas, and earth, once warmed
by sun’s heat, restore what it produces,
races of living creatures grow and thrive,
and, in the aether, gliding fires live on.
There would be no way they could act like this,                  CONSTANT RESUPPLY OF ELEMENTARY PARTICLES
unless supplies of matter kept arising
from infinite space, stuff which they then use                        1450
to restore, over time, what has been lost.
For just as the nature of living things
loses bodily substance and decays,
as soon as it lacks food, so everything
would have to waste away, as soon as matter,
diverted for any reason from its path,
failed to provide abundant fresh supplies.(40)                                       [1040]

 

Nor can external impacts from all sides
hold together the complete totality
of all materials which have united.                                       1460
True, they can often strike and hold in place
some section, until other particles
arrive which can make up the total sum,
but still, sometimes particles are compelled
to bounce off and in that very moment
give the primary elements space and time
to escape, so they can be carried off,
free from being linked up in combinations.
Thus, to repeat myself, many particles
must spring up. And yet to be capable                                1470
of keeping the number of those impacts                                              [1050]
at a sufficient level, there must be
infinite amounts of matter on all sides.(41)

 

In these things, Memmius, stay far away                             MATTER DOES NOT PRESS TO THE CENTRE
from having faith what some people say—
that all matter presses to the centre
of the universe and for this reason
the substance of the world remains in place
without any collisions from outside,
and that the bottom and the top cannot                               1480
be forced apart in any direction,
since all matter sinks towards the centre—
if you believe that anything can stand
upon itself—and that all heavy things
on the lower part of earth press upward
and remain there, placed upside down on earth,
just as we now see images of things                                                    [1060]
in water. Similarly, they believe
that animals walk around with their heads
hanging downward and cannot fall off earth
into a lower region of the sky,                                             1490
any more than our bodies can fly up,
of their own accord, to some location
in the heavens. When they observe the sun,
we perceive night stars, and they share with us,
each in turn, time determined by the sky,
and pass nights in length equal to our days.(42)
But vain [error has made these dreams for fools,
which they embrace with faulty reasoning.
There can be no centre where all extends                            1500          [1070]
an infinite distance. And if, in fact,                                        THE UNIVERSE HAS NO CENTRE
a mid-point did exist, nothing at all
could rest there for that reason, any more
than it could be, for some other reason,
driven far away.](43) For all place and space
which we call void must let heavy bodies
pass, without distinction, to wherever
their motion carries them, through the mid-point
or through some places not in the centre.
And there is not any spot where bodies,                              1510
once they have arrived there, can lose the force
of weight and stand motionless in the void,
and what is void must not provide support
for anything, but let material through,                                                  [1080]
as the nature of empty space demands.
Thus, matter cannot, through this reasoning,
be held in combinations, overcome
by some desire to move towards the centre.
Besides, they do not believe all bodies
press towards the centre, but only those                              1520
of earth and water, [both what comes to earth
as rain] and what the body of earth holds,
that is, water from the sea and great floods
from mountains. But at the same time they claim,
by contrast, that soft breezes of the air
and fire’s heat diffuse out from the centre,
and that is why all the aether flickers
with constellations all round, and sun’s flame
throughout the deep blue heavens gets its food,                                   [1090]
because all heat flying from the centre                                  1530
collects there. Nor could, they say, top branches
on the trees produce any leaves at all
[if nature did not gradually send food
to each of them from earth through stems and boughs.
The reasons they set down are incorrect—
and besides, they contradict each other.

 

Since I have shown that space is infinite,
and, with space infinite, matter must be, too,](44)                                [1100]
so that world’s walls do not, like wings of flame,
suddenly disperse, scattering themselves                              1540
through the enormous void, and other parts
do not, in a similar way, follow them,
and the innermost regions of the sky
do not fall down and, underneath our feet,
earth does not at once withdraw and all things
disappear, with substances being dissolved
in piled-up ruins of sky and matter,
parts scattering through the cavernous void,
so in an instant nothing remained of them
but blind elements and abandoned space.                            1550          [1110]
For wherever you first assume a lack
of primary particles, that place will be
the door of death for things, since through that place
the whole mass of material elements
will rush out and disperse.            

 

                                               In this way,
if you understand these matters, led on
without much trouble, [you will be able
to recognize the rest all by yourself],
for one fact will clarify another,
and dark night will not blind you to the road                        1560
or stop you seeing nature’s final ends,
and things will light a lamp for others things.(45)

 

 

ENDNOTES

 

(1) Aeneas is the legendary founder of the Roman people, and Aeneas’ sons are the Romans. The goddess of love, Venus, is his mother. [Back to Text]


(2) Gaius Memmius was a leading politician in Rome (tribune in 66 BC), and evidently a friend of Lucretius (other than the poem we have no reliable details of their relationship). When his political career collapsed, he retired to Athens and Mytilene. He died around 49 BC. [Back to Text]


(3) Lucretius appears to have written these lines at a time of growing political crisis in Rome, during the consulship of Caesar and his political alliance with Pompey (c. 60 BC). He had already lived through the civil war between Sulla and Marius (in 82 BC). [Back to Text]


(4) The passage “For the whole nature of the gods . . . resentment” (54 to 61 in the English) reappears in Book 2 (line 646 in the Latin). Many editors and translators omit them from this opening part of the poem. It seems likely, too, that after line 54 (line 43 in the Latin) a few lines have been lost, in which a transition is made to Memmius. [Back to Text]


(5) Lucretius for some reason wishes to avoid the Greek word atom and its Latin equivalent, atomus. It may be that, given his desire to show how his Latin, in spite of its limitations, is capable of explaining “obscure” Greek ideas, he does not wish to use a Greek word very familiar to many of his readers. Whatever his reasons, I have not used the word atom in the text of this translation for the reason given above and also because the English word atom immediately conveys to the modern reader a great deal more information than the Greek word did to Lucretius or to his readers (e.g., electrons, protons, nucleus, and so on). [Back to Text]


(6) The “Greek man” is Epicurus (341-270 BC), a Greek philosopher, founder of the school of philosophical thought called Epicureanism. None of his work remains, except for some fragments. [Back to Text]


(7) Lucretius commonly uses the term world (mundus) to refer to the part of the universe more or less visible from earth. It does not mean earth, which is part of this world, or the entire universe, which contains many worlds. As Lucretius makes clear later in the poem, this world is a sphere enclosed in fiery aether. Hence, as Bailey observes, the expression about the bulwarks of the world is to be taken literally. [Back to Text]


(8) Homer gives Agamemnon’s eldest child the name Iphianassa. However, the girl is usually called Iphigenia. Smith suggests that Lucretius uses the Homeric name in order to give his poem more epic weight. Agamemnon, the leader of Greek expedition to Troy had offended the goddess Artemis, who then sent contrary winds to prevent the fleet assembled at Aulis from sailing. The prophet Calchas told Agamemnon he would have to sacrifice his daughter in order to get favourable winds. In some versions of the story Agamemnon lured Iphigenia to Aulis by telling her she was going to be married to Achilles. Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter, and the fleet sailed to Troy. Trivia is another name for the Greek goddess Artemis or her Roman equivalent, Diana. [Back to Text]


(9) Quintus Ennius (239-169 BC) was a Latin poet and playwright, none of whose works survives except in fragments. He was considered the first great Latin poet. Orcus is the Roman god of the underworld. [Back to Text]


(10) This is the most important basic principle of Epicurean materialism: everything is composed of matter and must be made by the actions of matter, without divine miracles which produce a physical object out of nothing at all. [Back to Text]


(11) I follow Munro’s suggested emendation of the text in lines 188-189 of the Latin. The additional words are in square brackets. [Back to Text]


(12) Lucretius here introduces one of his favourite analogies, comparing the letters of the alphabet used in the formation of words with the primary particles used in the formation of substances. The analogy is all the more pertinent in Latin because the world elementum (plural elementa) refers to both letters and particles. [Back to Text]


(13) The second basic principle of Epicurean materialism is stated here: no substance can be reduced to nothing. [Back to Text]


(14) Aether (or ether) is the material stuff which fills space, surrounding and containing all planets and stars. Since the stars are burning fires, they must be fed. [Back to Text]


(15) The point in this rather awkward example seems to be that the idea of air being compressed or made less dense requires one to believe in empty space between the basic particles of air. If there is no empty space and air is all compact particles, how could it be compressed? And if it could be, that would create a vacuum somewhere where there was no void before. [Back to Text]


(16) Central to this argument for Epicurean materialism is a faith in sense perception as the criterion of truth. Only by contact with material things (i.e., sense perception) do we learn what is true and test our theories about what we cannot sense. Lucretius returns to this basic principle a number of times. [Back to Text]


(17) I follow Munro in omitting line 454 in the Latin. [Back to Text]


(18) Tyndareus’ daughter is a reference to Helen of Troy, who was carried off from her home in Sparta to Troy by Paris, a prince of Troy. The point of these historical examples is to stress that the only reality is physical matter and void. What happens to material things (as in historical events) is simply an “accident.” Matter and space are primary because without them no “accidental” event would have occurred. [Back to Text]


(19) Watson notes that Lucretius is referring here to the common habit of holding up a silver goblet with some wine in it, so that hot or cold water could be poured into it (hot in winter, cold in summer). [Back to Text]


(20) If the primordial particles were soft, there would be no way of accounting for hard objects, because the basic stuff of matter would contradict this idea. The notion of hard basic particles and empty space, by contrast, allows one to explain the different qualities of “hard” and “soft.” [Back to Text]


(21) There is general agreement that some lines are missing before line 600 in the Latin. Following other translators and commentators I have used the two-line restoration by Munro, placed between square brackets. At this point Lucretius is establishing that there must be ultimately irreducible particles making up the smallest parts of corporeal matter. These small particles cannot exist by themselves and are bound indissolubly together, so that the smallest part of corporeal stuff, made up of combinations of particles, cannot be divided (just as an atom is made up of different parts; it is a compound of particles but cannot be broken down into those particles). In this analogy the logic is a bit odd: he claims that because visible objects have a minimum size, beyond which we cannot see them, then it is reasonable to conclude that invisible elementary particles must have a minimum size. He uses the same analogy a few pages later. [Back to Text]


(22) The logic here, though not uncommon, is erroneous, claiming, as it does, that anything which is made up of an infinite number of parts is equal to any other thing similarly composed. [Back to Text]


(23) The argument here is that the infinite division of matter would eventually produce particles which lacked the range of properties essential to those physical actions which create the objects of this world (for example, an atom, which is an indivisible unity of smaller particles, if divided up into those particles, could not function as an atom has to do if compounds are to be created and things produced from those compounds). [Back to Text]


(24) Heraclitus (c. 535-475 BC) was an important and influential Ionian philosopher from Ephesus in Asia Minor, who taught (among other things) that fire is the single primordial element and that the world is continuously changing. Only fragments of his work remain. [Back to Text]


(25) The “they” mentioned here are the followers of Heraclitus, those who believe that fire is the single, basic, primary stuff. The major objection is one commonly made against those materialists who tried to identify a single basic substance as the primary matter out of which all things are made (water, fire, air, and so on): What causes can one think up which could create the diversity of the world from this one substance? And the objection to the absence of a void in matter is that then, as demonstrated earlier, no particles could move, since all space would be occupied. [Back to Text]


(26) This summary statement indicates the main point about the basic particles. They are not like any particular substance in nature, but their different combinations produce the various things we see (like fire). This idea enables one to explain how the same basic stuff can create such an enormous variety of objects. [Back to Text]


(27) Anaximenes of Miletus (c. 585-c. 525 BC) taught that the primary material of stuff was air; Thales of Miletus (c. 624-c. 546 BC), considered in many quarters the founder of philosophical and of scientific thinking, taught that it was water. [Back to Text]


(28) Empedocles (c. 490-430 BC), a Greek philosopher who lived in Sicily, proposed the well-known theory of the four elements (earth, air, water, fire). Fragments of his work survive. The Ionian Sea in ancient times was often thought of as extending past south Italy to Sicily. Charybdis is a whirlpool in the strait between Italy and Sicily, Etna an active volcano on the island of Sicily. [Back to Text]


(29) The Pythia was the priestess of Apollo (also called Phoebus Apollo or Phoebus) at Delphi who issued prophecies in answers to questions. She sat on a tripod. The laurel was sacred to Apollo. [Back to Text]


(30) The point here is that the fundamental elements of things should have no individual characteristics which dominate in the production of things. The “nature” of something created emerges from the combination and arrangement of fundamental particles which make it up but which themselves have no overt characteristics (their influence is “secret” and “hidden”). The “four element” theory of Empedocles requires that the physical characteristics of air, water, earth, and fire enter into the objects which they form by combination. [Back to Text]


(31) Anaxagoras (c. 500 BC-428 BC), a Greek philosopher from Asia Minor, maintained that the central concept in nature was nous (mind) and that all things existed as infinitely small particles of themselves. Homoeomeria means composed of similar parts). [Back to Text]


(32) A line is missing after line 860 in the Latin. As many commentators and translators have done I insert (in square brackets) a translation of the Latin suggested by Lambinus. [Back to Text]


(33) There is a missing line or two in the Latin after line 873. I have followed the suggestion of Munro, who inserts two lines (indicated by the square brackets). Lucretius is exploring a problem arising from Anaxagoras’ ideas. As Munro explains, if crops and trees grow out of earth, then the earth does not consist of little particles of earth (as the theory demands), but of miniature trees, crops, and so on. If flames and ash come from wood, then wood does not consist of miniature particles of wood, but of tiny bits of flame and ash (i.e., things unlike or different from wood). The case is the same with food. If food supplies all the things needed for the different parts of the body, then food does not consist of tiny particles of food, but of minute bits of bone, sinew, blood, and so on. Or else the things which are produced from earth and wood (like crops and fire) must come from things unlike themselves. The parent material (earth, food, wood) cannot be made up both of small particles of itself and of small particles of all the things which that material produces or feeds or turns into. [Back to Text]


(34) The logic of this mockery perhaps rests on the idea that (as Kelsey suggests) since matter contains all things in miniature, it also contains human beings, who will find these ideas so ridiculous that they will laugh themselves to death. Some have suggested the jump in thought is so abrupt that there might be some lines missing. [Back to Text]


(35) The thyrsus is a plant stalk used during ecstatic rites of the god Bacchus; here it refers to poetic inspiration. The Pierides is another name for the Muses, derived from the place near Mount Olympus where they were alleged to have been born. [Back to Text]


(36) If the spear is blocked, then something beyond space is limiting its flight, and if the spear continues on, then obviously it is moving beyond the limits of space. [Back to Text]


(37) I have followed Munro in transposing lines 998 to 1001 in the Latin to a position a few lines earlier. The line numbers in square brackets are therefore in an odd sequence. [Back to Text]


(38) Many editors suggest there is a gap here of one or two lines. I follow the Latin suggested by Munro. The translation of these lines is in square brackets. [Back to Text]


(39) Here Lucretius is firmly rejecting any form of inner vital cause in matter or of divine purposefulness in nature. The basic material stuff of things is formed by chance collisions and movements of primary particles over infinite time. Munro notes that Lucretius’ phrase magnos annos (here translated as lengthy years) is probably a reference to the so-called Great Year, an enormous expanse of time equivalent to many thousands of solar years. [Back to Text]


(40) If space were infinite and the supply of matter finite, then matter would spread throughout infinite space and never combine. [Back to Text]


(41) The supply of elementary particles must be infinite; otherwise these particles could not form lasting aggregates and compounds. They would be detached from combinations (by the impact of other particles striking objects) and spread themselves through infinite space, without being replaced in numbers sufficient to keep the combinations of matter intact. [Back to Text]


(42) As Copley notes, Lucretius seems here to confuse gravity, the force which pulls particles to a common centre within a celestial system (a concept which he rejects) with the idea that the universe, being infinite, cannot have a centre. [Back to Text]


(43) The lines in square brackets are the translation for three lines missing parts in the manuscripts. I have followed the Latin suggested by Kelsey and Munro. [Back to Text]


(44) A number of lines are missing here. I have adapted the English reconstruction suggested by Munro in order to maintain the sense of the passage. [Back to Text]


(45) I follow Munro’s suggestion here that some words have been lost, and I adopt his suggestion for the Latin.  [Back to Text]

 

 

 

Link to On the Nature of Things, Book Two

 

Link to On the Nature of Things, Table of Contents