Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things: Poetry, Materialism, and Pleasure
Wildly ambitious, Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura) offers one of the fullest—and more prescient—classical accounts of the natural world. Beginning from the simple foundation of atoms and void, Lucretius produced a physics, cosmology, and philosophy that encompasses everything from perception, thinking, and dreaming, to the origins of life, the emergence of human civilization, and the nature of erotic desire and reproduction. In reducing the physical world to atoms, Lucretius, as the poet Vergil wrote, “cast beneath his feet all fears,” rejecting a theistic worldview and offering instead a liberatory conception of human action and possibility. What is the nature of the atom, the nature of the world, and the nature of the soul? How does a materialist understanding of the world release us from our most fundamental fears—of the gods and of death—and make pleasure the sole end of life?
In this course, we will read and discuss the whole of Lucretius’ epic of atoms and the void. We will ask: what, for Lucretius, motivates human decision and action? What is the role of the “swerve” within Lucretius’ system and its relation to questions of free will? What sort of morality follows from Lucretius’ atomistic world picture? How does Lucretius define pleasure? Is pleasure the highest good? We’ll also give sustained attention to Lucretius’ work as poetry: what classical forms did Lucretius draw on, and how does Lucretius’ poetic invention “honey the cup” of his materialist teachings? We’ll also discuss excerpts from some of Lucretius’ primary materialist and philosophical predecessors—Democritus, Empedocles, and Epicurus—as well as take a comparative look at the atomic theory of the Vaisheshika school of ancient Sanskri philosophy. How can we situate Lucretius in the history of Western philosophy?
Course ScheduleTuesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
March 02 — March 23, 2021