ROMAN NATURAL PHILOSOPHER
ca. 95 B.C.E. –ca. 55 B.C.E.
Little is known about Titus Lucretius Carus beyond what can be gathered from his poem De rerum natura. He was born in about 95 B.C.E. , but the exact date is uncertain. The exact date and circumstances of his death are also uncertain, but he probably died in or before the year 55 B.C.E. We do know from his poem that he believed the teachings of the Greek atomists, ranging from those of Democritus of Abdera (ca. 460 B.C.E. –ca. 362 B.C.E. ) to those of Epicurus (ca. 341 B.C.E. –270 B.C.E. ). Unlike the writings of Democritus or Epicurus, Lucretius's poem was one of the few literary works not lost to European peoples after the collapse of the classical world.
De rerum natura is a poem in the Latin language that gives a summary of the teachings of the Greek atomists. His starting point is a reliance on direct human experience of the natural world. From this starting point he reasons: "Nothing can ever be created by divine power out of nothing" (Lucretius, p. 31). Accordingly, if something could be created out of nothing, things would pop in and out of existence without any pattern at all. From that deduction Lucretius develops a philosophy that does not allow for occult forces, superstition, or magic. Beliefs such as these were pervasive in the Roman world during his lifetime. That philosophy also clearly sets "atomism" against any sort of theistic religion. This religious antagonism would continue to plague atomic theories until the modern era.
According to Lucretius: "All nature as it is in itself consists of two things—bodies and the vacant space in which the bodies are situated and through which they move in different directions" (p. 39). He addresses the question of the immense variety of material things found in nature by recognizing that there must be some way for atoms to combine and at the same time maintain their individual characters: "Material objects are of two kinds, atoms and compounds of atoms. The atoms themselves cannot be swamped by any force, for they are preserved indefinitely by their absolute solidity" (p. 41). Lucretius does not suggest that we directly experience atoms. He makes no claims as to the shapes of atoms or any other of their characteristics.
SEE ALSO Atoms .
David A. Bassett
Lucretius (1951, reprint 1977). On the Nature of the Universe, tr. by Ronald Latham. New York: Penguin Books.