Notes on Lucretius

Bruce MacLennan

I. Six Philosophies of Life

A. Philosophy in the Late Classical Period

0. Socrates (469-399)

1. Academics* (the Academy)

Plato (427-347)

Carneades (214-129)

2. Peripatetics* (the Lyceum)

Aristotle (384-322)

3. Cynics

Antisthenes (fl. 406)

Diogenes of Sinope (412-323)

4. Stoics* (the Stoa)

Zeno of Citium (335-265)

Chrysippus (280-208)

Cicero (106-43)

Epictetus (60-117 CE)

Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE)

5. Epicureans* (the Garden)

Leucippus (fl. 440)

Democritus (460-370)

Epicurus (341-270)

Lucretius (96-55)

6. Pyrrhonists ("Skeptics")

The word "skeptic" refers to examination.

Pyrrho (361-270)

Sextus Empiricus (fl. 200 CE)

B. Six Fundamental Universal Orientations to Life

These philosophies represent fundamental and universal existential attitudes.

E.g., the universal Epicurean attitude: to reduce and discipline desires, to abandon pleasures mixed with pain, & to return to the simple and pure pleasure of existing. (after P. Hadot)

Some Polarities:

tension vs. relaxation

engagement vs. detachment

enthusiasm vs. reserve

certainty vs. criticism

passion vs. indifference


C. Nature of Classical Philosophy

1. Ends

a. Wisdom (Sophia) and the Sage (Sophos)

Wisdom: vision of the cosmos as it is & a mode of living in accord with cosmic logos; to be properly at home in self, city & world.

b. The Philo-Sophos as Lover of Wisdom

Philosophy: "an activity that through discussion and reasoning secures the happy life." (Epicurus)

c. Unending Pursuit of Sophia

2. Means

a. Manner of Instruction

"Empty are the words of that philosopher who offers therapy for no human suffering." (E.)

"Our only occupation should be the cure of ourselves." (E.)

b. Threefold Division of Philosophy

i. "Logic": Theory of Knowledge Right Discourse

ii. "Physics": Theory of Nature Right Thought

iii. Ethics: How to Live Right Action

c. Spiritual Exercises

i. General

ii. Outer Practices

• Self-Mastery

• Fulfillment of Duties

• Need for Rules to be Ready at Hand

An example is the Tetrapharmakos (Fourfold Medicine) of Epicurus: "God presents no fear, death no worries; and while the good is readily attainable, evil is readily endurable."

iii. Inner Practices

• Memorization

• Meditation

Active use of mind to achieve self-transformation.

— "View from Above"

— Meditation on Death

"Meditare mortem" is from Epicurus.

— Inner Discourse

— Examination of Conscience

— Examination of Dreams

• Other Exercises: reading, research, investigation, listening

iv. Theoretical Texts and Other "Discourse" (Logoi)

Theories are intellectual exercises in service of spiritual exercises.

The goal is not to transmit information, but to have a specific psychological effect.

"To form rather than to inform."

Always a complement to oral discourse.


II. Atomism and Epicureanism

A. Democritus & Atomism

B. Epicurus

Disciples included women and slaves.

C. Epicureans in the Late Roman Republic

D. Later History & Influence of Lucretius

1. Late Classical Period

a. Virgil: The Aeneid has more than 200 passages reminiscent of DRN.

b. Horace & Ovid

c. Fronto (Teacher of Marcus Aurelius)

d. The "Lucretian Dark Ages"

By Augustine’s time (5th cent. CE), Epicureanism was almost dead. Lucretius was essentially lost from c.400 to c.1400.

2. Renaissance

a. Poggio (1380-1459) rediscovered Lucretius’ DRN in 1417.

b. Lucretius influenced:

Botticelli (1444-1510) Primavera, Montaigne (1533-1592) Essays, Spenser (c. 1552-99) Faerie Queene, Giordano Bruno (c.1548-1600): infinity of universe, worlds, etc.

3. Seventeenth Century

a. Atomic theory influenced:

Francis Bacon (1560/1-1626), Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), Newton (1642/3-1727), Leibniz (1646-1716), Boyle (1627-1691).

b. Hobbes (1588-1679)

c. Molière (1622-73): his translation of DRN has been lost but for a few fragments.

d. Some others: Dryden, Corneille, Racine, La Fontaine.

4. Eighteenth Century & Later

a. Voltaire (1694-1778)

b. Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-86)

c. Philosophers: Rousseau, Buffon, Diderot, André Chénier.

d. Kant (1724-1804): the nebular hypothesis

e. Goethe (1749-1832)

f. Others:

Byron, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Matthew Arnold, Victor Hugo, Flaubert, Villon, Lamartine, Anatole France, De Quincy, Ruskin, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell, Heine, Thomas Jefferson, Poe, Whitman.

g. Analogies with contemporary scientific worldview


III. Lucretius’ Epicureanism

A. Canonic ("Standards")

1. Criteria of Truth (IV.353-63, 379-86, 469-521)

a. Sensations

A sensation (impression) is ipso facto true, and therefore the primary standard of truth in both science and ethics.

b. Preconceptions (prolêpses)

Sensations accumulate to form a preconception, essentially a prototype.

The basis of scientific knowledge.

c. Feelings (pathê)

Primarily pleasure & pain.

Determine choice and avoidance.

2. Scientific Methodology (V.509-33, 703-11)

B. Physics

1. Atoms and Void (I.419-44)

a. Conservation (I.159-73, 225-37, 670-1)

• Nothing is created

• Nothing is destroyed

b. There are atoms

• Nature of Atoms (I.503-98)

• Minimal parts (I.599-634, 746-52)

• Primary vs. secondary attributes (I.445-84)

macro- & microscopic properties (II.381-407, 478-531, 730-833)

c. There is void (I.334-90)

2. Atomic Motion (II.80-124, 142-64)

a. Downward motion

b. The swerve (II.216-50)

c. Couplings between atoms

3. Cosmology (IIl.823-57, 1052-1104, V.156-234, 837-77)

4. Sensation, Imagination & Memory (IV.230-8, 256-68, 722-822)

5. Psychology (III.136-76, 262-322, 417-62, 624-33, 806-29, IV.877-91)

a. Thought

b. Free will and the "Epicurean swerve" (II.251-93)

"It would be better to subscribe to the legends of the gods than to be a slave to the determinism of the physicists," (E.)

c. Problems

• attention

• source of mental images

• abstract thought

6. Death (III.830-911, 966-1023, 1087-94)

7. The Gods (V.146-55, 1161-1225)

C. Ethics

1. Pleasure (hêdonê) and Pain (IV.622-32)

a. Two Kinds:

Kinetic: from satisfying desire

Static: from equilibrium

b. Pleasure is also a spiritual exercise

"He who has forgotten yesterday’s good fortune is already an old man." (E.)

2. Desires (II.1-61, VI.1-28)

• Empty (unnatural): eliminate

• Natural:

– Unnecessary: moderation

– Necessary: easy to satisfy, self-limiting, no bad consequences.

"Thanks be to blessed Nature that she has made what is necessary easy to obtain, and what is not easy unnecessary." (E.)

3. Tranquillity (Ataraxia)

One of the principal desires & pleasures (II.1-61)

The static pleasure of the mind.

4. Utilitarian Virtues

Prudence, honor, justice, etc. increase pleasure

5. Epicurean Friendship

a. There was a special "Epicurean Friendship"

b. An "immortal blessing"

c. The wise make a compact to love their friends no less than oneself

d. Exercises associated with friendship

• public confession of faults

• mutual correction in fraternal spirit

• examination of conscience

6. Social Contract (V.925-38, 953-61, 1011-27, 1105-57)

The ideal society would be like the Garden of Epicurus

7. Religious Reform (VI.68-79)

The wise do not worship the gods, but by participating in religious ceremonies are better able to receive the simulacra of them, and thus witness perfect tranquillity.



Hadot, P. (1995) Philosophy as a Way of Life, ed. and with an intro. by A. I. Davidson, tr. by M. Chase. Blackwell.

Hadzsits, G. D. (1963) Lucretius and his Influence. Cooper Square Publishers.

Jones, W. T. (1970) The Classical Mind, 2nd. ed. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Long, A. A., & Sedley, D. N. (1987) The Hellenistic Philosophers, Vol. 1: Translations of the Principal Sources, with Philosophical Commentary. Cambridge University Press.

Discussion Questions

(1) Do you think that pleasure, in the sense L. uses it, can be an adequate basis for the good life, for the virtues, and for social institutions?

(2) To what extent do you think that Lucretian (Epicurean) physics is needed as a foundation for Epicurean ethics? How might L. physics helpyou to lead a better life?

(3) Do you agree with L. that fear of death/hell leads to ambition, avarics, political intrigue, crime, etc. etc.?

(4) What do you think about the end of L.’ poem (VI.1090-1286)?

(5) L. got many things correct from the perspective of modern science (and a few very wrong!). How do you account for the fact that L. got so much correct without recourse to instruments and extensive scientific research? Was it just dumb luck?