Lucretius

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Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus, c. 94-c. 55 BC). Lucretius was a Roman Epicurean philosopher and poet, author of a six-book hexameter poem De Rerum Natura (DRN On the Nature of the Universe). In this he expounds Epicurean physics, based on the atomic theory of matter, and ethics, which seek to free the human mind from fear of the gods, death, and fate, caused by superstition (religio).

This is the single most important source for Epicureanism, and ranks as one of the greatest achievements of both Roman philosophy and Latin poetry. Generally Lucretius is ranked with, or second to, Virgil, as one of the finest of all Latin poets, and indeed Virgil, himself a former Epicurean, was heavily indebted to him as an inspiration and a source.

Very little is known directly about Lucretius' life. The only contemporary reference to him is in Cicero’s letter of Feb. 54 BC to his brother Quintus (QFr. 2.10(9).3) in which he praises the poems of Lucretius for showing flashes of genius and great artistry. This suggests strongly that De Rerum Natura was already published by this date.

De Rerum Natura has been one of the most influential of all works of ancient philosophy in the Western world, and was for long the main source for knowledge of Epicureanism. As such it has been one of the chief representatives of the anti-teleological view of the Universe: a view which denies any purpose in the world, and removes from the gods any authority or role in human affairs. In Epicureanism, there is no fate or pre-destination and any divine plan for the world is denied. All things happen through chance and physical necessity, but even physical determinism is rejected, and free will placed at the centre of the ethics. Thus, Lucretius has been one of the foremost influences in the development of the liberal temper in Western thought. He was deeply involved in the rise of Renaissance Humanism, and later strongly informed the work of Erasmus, Montaigne, Rousseau, Gassendi, and others. Lucretius’ fiercely anti-religious polemics and his anti-teleological account of creation inspired many anti-Lucretian Christian works, among them Sir Richard Blackmore’s Creation of 1712 and Cardinal Polignac’s Anti-Lucretius of 1745. His account of the origin of life by the random formation of creatures without any divine plan, and adaptation of species by extinctions in a struggle for life, remained the chief opponent of the creationist view until supplanted in the role by Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Lucretius argued that any idea that the world had been intelligently designed was simply a mistake: the world was too faulty to be the work of a god (tanta stat praedita culpa, 'with so many faults is it endowed', 2.181), and if it had been designed for anyone's benefit it was clearly for the benift of the animals rather than humans, since we, unlike the animals, are peculiarly ill adapted by nature to survive and thrive in this world.

There has recently been an upsurge of interest in ancient theories of the origin of species, exemplified by publications such as Gordon Campbell's [Lucretius on Creation and Evolution] [1](Oxford, 2003), and David Sedley's [Creationism and its Critics in Antiquity] [2](Berkeley, 2007). David Sedley's book is particularly valuable for the ancient perspective it offers on creationist theories.

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