Lucretius’ book is the foundation philosophy for modern society. It was written about 50 BC when Julius Caesar was doing his best to conquer the world. The Nature of Things by Lucretius was popular with intellectuals of that time, but when Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christianity, in 325 AD, the empirical arguments for why and how things worked began falling into disfavor and were replaced by church dogma. The goal of the Empire was reasonable enough, to stabilize society so people could live in peace, here on Earth, protected by civil laws. The churches founding philosopher, Saint Augustine’s arguments were for guiding people along the proper path to a postulated Heaven. These ideas soon prevailed and for over a millennium Lucretius’s book apparently wasn’t directly suppressed, but it was allowed to wither and vanish. In 1417 a single copy of the book was discovered and by a hundred years later several hand made copies were circulating. It was read and copied by many famous people of the Renaissance.
I bought The Nature of Things by A. E. Stallings shortly after Stephen Greenblatt spoke last month here in Bend, Oregon, about his recent book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, and have finally had time to finish reading it. I remember dipping into On the Nature of Things in the summer of 1955 when I did read The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I remember not liking the science of The Nature of Things, because the arguments were wordy and not convincing. But, this was some two thousand years of human progress later, and especially important was the progress based on his way of thinking about reality. That way must be compared to Christianity which is what became dominant.
This isn’t a book to be read these days for clarification about how the world works, and any first year basic science class in college will be much better and much easier to understand. What this book is really good for is looking at the minds of classic Roman Epicurean intellectuals. These were the practical Romans who made the Empire a wonder of the world. They set in motion a society that didn’t fully expire until the murder of the Russian Tsar and his Romanov family in 1917, two thousand years later.
The philosophical-style arguments are based on observation of physical reality, and the proofs of their validity are based on practical observations most adults would have experienced. Lucretius makes a valiant effort to steer clear of arguments based on unseen and unobservable fickle things like the Roman gods. He does speculate on the problems of dividing physical reality into ever finer particles and ends by demonstrating that at the smallest scale there are atoms. These atoms are permanent, and there are a moderately large number of different types of atoms, but not a huge number (II-480). In book V, he takes a fine swing at proving the infinity of the universe, and at the evolution of plants and animals. He wasn’t right by modern standards, but he has hit the subject in the right direction and it wasn’t until Copernicus, and Bruno for astronomy, and Linnaeus, Lamarck and Darwin that understanding of “things” got much better.
This is a book which will give you a much clearer perspective on the progress of humanity. It has been a much more difficult task for humanity to figure out how the world works than it would seem. Nowadays anyone can click the ON button on their TV remote and access vast amounts of stuff, but none of it would exist without Lucretius, because he set humanity on the right path for humans to understand the way things work.
There are an infinity of paths that go wrong, but Lucretius set us on a good one.