On the Nature of the Universe

On the Nature of the Universe

On the Nature of the Universe

On the Nature of the Universe

Synopsis

This is a new verse translation of Lucretius's only known work, a didactic poem written in six books of hexameters. Melville's particularly literal translation of the use of metaphor is especially helpful to those looking at the text from a scientific or philosophical point of view.

Excerpt

'All nature, as it is in itself, consists of two things: there are bodies and there is void in which these bodies are and through which they move.' This statement could have come from the opening of any textbook of natural science before the modern elaboration of subatomic physics: in fact it is a translation of two lines by a Latin poet writing over 2,000 years ago, who based his account of the world on the theories of a Greek philosopher living over 200 years earlier still. Lucretius' On the Nature of the Universe, as its title suggests, gives an account of the world, the universe, and everything in terms of atomic physics. (The Latin title De rerum natura is even more general: it means literally 'On the Nature of Things'.) As the only detailed account of ancient atomism to come down to us more or less intact, it has been enormously influential on the development of both science and philosophy: and the account of the development of human civilization in Book 5 of the work has been of similar importance, through Rousseau and others, in the development of modern social science. In the light of this, it is easy simply to marvel at the poem's anticipations of modern ideas. But the work invites many other readings: as the product of first-century BC Rome and a key text in our constructions of the end of the Roman Republic, as a philosophical meditation on human happiness, and as perhaps the greatest didactic poem ever written in any language. The power of the work resides above all in the intersection of the reading practices which these different classifications invite.

We know less about the life of T. Lucretius Carus, the author of On the Nature of the Universe, than about almost any other Latin poet. His full name is given only in the manuscripts of his work, and nothing is known of his place of birth or social status, though both have been the subject of much speculation. The only secure date is a reference in a letter of Cicero (To his Brother Quintus 2. 10(9) 3) written in February 54 BC. In this Cicero praises Lucretius' poemata as possessing both flashes of genius (ingenium) and great artistry (ars)--that is, as combining the qualities of . . .

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