LUCRETIUS

ON THE NATURE OF THINGS

Translated by Ian Johnston
Vancouver Island University
Nanaimo, British Columbia
Canada
2010
Minor Revision 2017

 

For copyright information please check the section headed Copyright below. For suggestion, corrections, comments, please contact Ian Johnston.
For an introduction to Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, use the following link: Lucretius Lecture.

 

For a Rich Text Format of the entire poem in a single document, please use the following link: Lucretius RTF.

 

CONTENTS

 

(For a more detailed description of the contents of each book, please consult the relevant opening page.)

 

BOOK ONE

[Invocation, Basic Principles, Elementary Particles, Rival Theories, Infinite Nature of the Universe]

 

BOOK TWO

[Importance of Philosophy, Motions of Elementary Particles, Shapes and Forms of Elementary Particles, Properties of Elementary Particles, Infinite Number of Worlds]

 

BOOK THREE

[Praise of Epicurus, Nature of the Soul, Mortality of the Soul, Men’s Fear of Death]

 

BOOK FOUR

[Images of Objects, Sense Perception, Body Functions, Human Sexuality]

 

BOOK FIVE

[Praise of Epicurus, Nature of the World, Movements of Celestial Bodies, History of Earth, Early History of Human Civilization]

 

BOOK SIX

 [Praise of Athens and Epicurus, the Atmosphere, Earthquakes, Volcanoes, the Nile, Avernian Regions, Magnets, Diseases, Plague in Athens]

 

 

TRANSLATOR’S NOTE

 

The translator of Lucretius faces a number of editorial choices because the poem was evidently never finally revised and prepared, so that there are a number of repetitions of passages, awkward transitions, and alternative readings for particular words. In many places the best order for the lines is a matter of debate. In addition, the gaps in the manuscript call for the missing material to be supplied as best one can. Hence, there is considerable variety from one possibility to another.

 

This translation is based primarily upon the Latin text of H. A. J. Munro, Fourth Revised Edition (London 1900). However, I have not followed all of Munro’s editorial decisions, especially where the removal and rearrangement of lines are concerned, and often I have made use of the suggestions of other editors about particular words, the arrangement of lines, and missing lines. Hence, I have frequently departed from Munro’s text, especially in response to alternatives offered by Bailey, Leonard, and Watson.

 

For the convenience of the reader who wishes to consult the Latin text, I have included the line numbers of the Latin text of William Ellery Leonard, because that is the most readily accessible version on the internet (at Perseus), even though there are some discrepancies between the line numbers in his text and in Munro’s. In the text of this translation, the numbers in square brackets refer to the line numbers in Leonard’s Latin text; the numbers without brackets refer to this English text. In the reckoning, successive partial lines count as one line.

 

I have supplied endnotes for two reasons: first, to inform the reader of a few details of my editorial decisions about the Latin text and, second, to provide a general commentary of some help to the reader encountering Lucretius for the first time. The commentary is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis but merely an occasionally useful supplement.

 

A list of references mentioned in the endnotes is provided further down this page, in section headed Acknowledgments.

 

COPYRIGHT

 

This translation may be downloaded for personal use in print or electronic form without permission and without charge. Teachers, students, and members of the general public may distribute this translation or parts of it in print or electronic or recorded form may do so without permission and without charge. They may also edit the translation freely to suit their purposes. However, any use of this translation for commercial purposes is not permitted without the permission of the translator.

 

BACKGROUND NOTE

 

Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 99 to c. 55 BC) was a Roman poet and author of De Rerum Natura [On the Nature of Things], which he appears to have completed but failed to revise and fully prepare for the reader. We assume from the words of the poem itself that Lucretius was a friend of Memmius, a prominent Roman political figure, to whom the work is addressed. Other than that, we know virtually nothing about him, other than a scurrilous story circulated hundreds of years after his death that he was driven mad by a love potion, created his poem in lucid intervals, and then killed himself.

On the Nature of Things is a long celebration of the philosophy of Epicurus, a view of life which claims that all natural phenomena are to be understood in terms of material atoms, that gods play no role in natural events or human affairs and have nothing to do with creating or sustaining the world, that the immortality of the soul is a myth fabricated by traditional religions for their own absurd and cruel purposes, and that the highest goal of life is the avoidance of unnecessary pain and the pursuit of appropriate pleasure, especially through contemplation. The poem is thus a long, impassioned plea for what we would now call classical humanism.

Most of On the Nature of Things is taken up with a wide-ranging materialist explanation for natural phenomena based on atomic theory, so that we can understand how the world works without reference to divine planning or intervention and can accept how we human beings, like all other things, including our minds and souls, are made up of material stuff which combined when we were born and which will dissolve back into particles when we die, as will the earth and our cosmos eventually. The notions of the immortality of the soul and of an afterlife of rewards and punishments are therefore specious.

It is important to recognize, however, that the greatness of the poem does not stem from its contributions to our scientific knowledge or from any complex arguments. It is a magnificent poem because it conveys to us both the excitement and passion of the speaker’s feelings for these materialistic ideas and the urgency with which he pursues his ethical mission of persuading his readers to live better lives. It is the most famous, long-lasting, and influential endorsement of Epicurean philosophy in our culture.

Lucretius offers us a vision of the world rather different from the one our scientific traditions present. His world is in constant motion, driven by the mechanical forces of production and dissolution, and intensely vital. At the heart of it lies the random movement of basic particles (atoms), so that there is nothing deterministic about why things occur the way they do. Nature has its regular phenomena, of course, but at the heart of it lie unpredictable motions. These can make our existence precarious and short-lived, but nature is also intensely beautiful, awe-inspiring, and worthy of contemplation. We should have the courage to accept this condition and reorient our lives so that we are not misled by false ambitious, unnecessary fears, and superstitions.

The poem has for centuries been extremely popular and influential. It played a vital role in the development of Latin poetry before Virgil and was an important text in those centuries when knowledge of Latin literature was an essential part of an educated person’s agenda. It exerted a significant influence in the development of modern science by encouraging natural philosophers to shift towards a vision of nature governed by matter in motion, without the constant supervision of divine presences. The list of those who have expressed their admiration and debt to Lucretius reads like a Who’s Who of Western culture, and that popularity continues today.

Readers who would like to read a more detailed introduction to the poem should consult the following web page: Lecture


 

 

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

 

The following list provides information about those works cited in the footnotes. It is not offered as a bibliography for readers who wish to consult a range of books about Lucretius.

 

Bailey, Cyril, translator. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1910.

 

Brown, Robert Duncan. Lucretius on love and sex: A Commentary on De Rerum Natura IV, 1030-1287 with Prolegomena, Text, and Translation. Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition, Vol. XV. New York: E. J. Brill, 1987.

 

Smith, Stanley Barney. Commentary in Cari, T. Lucreti. De Rervum Natvra. Libri Sex. Edited by William Ellery Leonard and Stanley Smith. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961.

 

Campbell, Gordon. Lucretius on Creation and Evolution: A Commentary on De Rerum Natura, Book Five, Lines 772-1104. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003.

 

Copley, Frank O., translator. Lucretius, The Nature of Things, Norton, New York, 1977.

 

Fowler, Don. Lucretius on Atomic Motion: A Commentary on De Rerum Natura, Book Two, Lines 1-332. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002.

 

Montserrat, Jesus M. and Luis Navarro. “The Water Cycle in Lucretius.” Centaurus 1991, Vol. 34: 289-308.

 

Munro, H. A. J., translator and editor. T. Lucreti Cari, De Rerum Natura, Libri Sex. Fourth Revised Edition. In Three Volumes. London: George Bell and Sons, 1900.

 

Kelsey, Francis, translator. T. Lucreti Cari, De Rerum Natura, Libri Sex, With and Introduction and Notes to Books I, III, and V. Second Edition, Allyn and Bacon 1889.

 

Serres, Michel. The Birth of Physics. Translated by Jack Hawkes. Edited, Introduced, and Annotated by David Webb. Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2000.

 

Watson, John Selby, translator. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things: A Philosophical Poem in Six Books, to Which is Adjoined the Poetical Version of John Mason Good, literally translated into English Prose. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1851.

 

A NOTE ON THE TRANSLATOR

 

Ian Johnston is an Emeritus Professor at Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo, British Columbia. He is the author of The Ironies of War: An Introduction to Homer’s Iliad and of Essays and Arguments: A Handbook for Writing Student Essays. He also translated a number of works, including the following:

Aeschylus, Oresteia (Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides)
Aeschylus, Persians
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound
Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes
Aeschylus, Suppliant Women
Aristophanes, Birds
Aristophanes, Clouds
Aristophanes, Frogs
Aristophanes, Knights
Aristophanes, Lysistrata
Aristophanes, Peace
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Abridged)
Cuvier, Discourse on the Revolutionary Upheavals on the Surface of the Earth
Descartes, Discourse on Method
Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy
Diderot, A Conversation Between D’Alembert and Diderot
Diderot, D’Alembert’s Dream
Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew
Euripides, Bacchae
Euripides, Electra
Euripides, Hippolytus
Euripides, Medea
Euripides, Orestes
Homer, Iliad (Complete and Abridged)
Homer, Odyssey (Complete and Abridged)
Kafka, Metamorphosis
Kafka, Selected Shorter Writings
Kant, Universal History of Nature and Theory of Heaven
Kant, On Perpetual Peace
Lamarck, Zoological Philosophy, Volume I
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things
Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy
Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals
Nietzsche, On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life
Ovid, Metamorphoses
Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men [Second Discourse]
Rousseau, Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts [First Discourse]
Rousseau, Social Contract
Sophocles, Antigone
Sophocles, Ajax
Sophocles, Electra
Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus
Sophocles, Oedipus the King
Sophocles, Philoctetes
Wedekind, Castle Wetterstein
Wedekind, Marquis of Keith.
 
Most of these translations have been published as books or audiobooks (or both)—by Richer Resources Publications, Broadview Press, Naxos, Audible, and others.
 
Ian Johnston maintains a web site where texts of these translations are freely available to students, teachers, artists, and the general public. The site includes a number of Ian Johnston’s lectures on these (and other) works, handbooks, curricular materials, and essays, all freely available.

The addresses where these texts are available are as follows:

 

https://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/


 http://johnstoniatexts.x10host.com/index.html


For comments and questions, please contact Ian Johnston.