book: “On the Nature of Things”

Lucretius, On the Nature of ThingsHow I wish, how I wish–O How I Wish I had read this book when I was fifteen. Never in my life and its perhaps two thousand books has any one reading proven so unexpectedly fulfilling for the present, and alas so inflicting of wincing remorse for all my years lessened, somewhat poorer, for not having read it. I closed the book a hundred times to reflect–to wonder agog at how anyone could have figured out so many important things two thousand years ago when a really round wheel was high-tech, and wondering still more about how the human race can stumble around running into the same old difficulties for a hundred generations, when this book was right there for the reading.

Let me start over.

The first third or so of the book expounds his famous “atoms and the void” hypothesis and very many consequences of it. Contrary to the legends, “atoms and the void” is not a claim that raw materialism is the only reality. It’s actually a chemical hypothesis that atoms exist (predating Niels Bohr by 2,000 years), and even more remarkably that there is void space in and between these very tiny atoms. When I read his explanation that olive oil is viscous because the bodies (atoms or molecules) are intertwined, but water is not viscous because the forms are smaller and not so intertwined, I almost dropped the book!–this is exactly correct, and a point some chemistry graduate students fumble even today.

Unfortunately some conjectures are more off the mark, for example, asserting that rounder molecules are sweeter (in fact they are more likely to be bitter). But in a way, this only points out the extremely strong influence of Aristotle and Plato (round figures are more perfect) in those times, and watching Lucretius more often than not escape the prejudices of his times is encouraging. Generally, people do not even perceive the prejudices and assumptions they live in. The phrase is “fish don’t know they’re in the water.” But Lucretius had an almost superhuman ability to see outside these assumptions, and to strive to see things for what they are, not what he was taught or indoctrinated to see.

Lucretius’s most precise tool was the gedankenexperiment–the thought experiment. Taking an initial observation to its logical conclusion, subject to everything else you can observe, and without judging the conclusion by common sense or propriety. When considering “what do we experience after we die”, he asks the obvious and symmetric question “what did we experience before we were born?” Oh my, proper folks won’t like that answer. Most people capable of even having that thought will drop it as though it’s dangerous, scalding. Which it is. But not Lucretius. He concluded that we probably experience nothing after we die, and then fearlessly extended some related thought experiments to conclude that the nature of the mind and soul are corporeal, a function of the body (which Descartes got wrong 1700 years later, and most people still get wrong today). He supported his suspicion that the soul is a brain function with observations as varied (and directly on-target) as a dog’s growling and barking while asleep, and how one’s thoughts and emotions are so influenced by (mere) bodily illness–and the blood chemistry the illness changes. This was startlingly correct, and against all theories of his day–and so correct that we moderns have built an entire antidepressant industry based on its details.

He deduced scientific principles that were very, very far ahead of Roman state of the art, including: conservation of mass; immutability of the elements (whatever the elements would turn out to be); immutability of the species; impossibility of spontaneous generation of life; the fallibility of sight, sound, and “what’s obvious” in investigating nature. And he did it not by guessing or claiming divine revelation or personal authority. He did it by cross-examining nature without mercy, and by trusting nothing, himself least of all.

The book is an absolute tour de force of accurate intellect, It’s an inspiration–unmatched in all my experience–to everyone who knows how hard it is to get things right and yet how important it is to try.

It’s a very spooky foretaste as well of the other great thought experimenter of all time, 2000 years later: Albert Einstein. Neither attempted physical experiments, but both observed the world and applied decades of their absolutely relentless, white-hot stare-downs of reality, and presented their correct and baffling findings without most of their contemporaries even understanding what they were talking about. Sure, they both got some things wrong (Einstein’s rejection of quantum mechanics), but the monumental scale of what they got right–and their explanations of how they figured it out in the first place–is rightfully their lasting legacy.

Sidebar regarding Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations : Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things is the book I thought Aurelius’s Meditations might be. But Aurelius, forgive me, comes across as a conformist and prig whose physical, scientific, social, and biological explanations ended in “Because God wanted it that way”, complete with attendant peer pressure to “fall in line like good boys and girls.” And the peer pressure would have been hard to ignore–he was a Roman Emperor. Now, I might have been smarter to expect just this from a writer who was, after all, not primarily a thinker but a government administrator very fond of order, quiet, and civic virtues. While I myself can be pretty fond of order, quiet, and civic virtue–no, not when it collides with my drive to question and probe. Whereas Lucretius’s mind and quill forayed into wherever dangerous territory his observation and logic took him. Marcus Aurelius was a good enough Stoic, right up to the point that it might suggest he stop spending his life rampaging across Europe and slaughtering whole peoples. One last dead giveaway: Lucretius, needing no external authority, wrote in his native Latin; Marcus Aurelius felt he needed to write in Greek, 200 years later, to be sure he was taken seriously.

A single caution to modern readers–the book is in heavily metrical verse, and translated to 1910-era literary English. It’s tough going for the first 15-20 pages. “Germs” mean atoms (or molecules), and words like “may’st” and “aught” might cause a stumble, but only the first time or two. After which the insights and jawdropping metaphors and conclusions come at you so fast, that the style begins to race by and make transparent sense. I found myself looking forward to reading it, and I missed the style badly when I had finished the book.

Titus Lucretius Carus can still speak perfectly well for himself, from 2,067 years ago (on the importance of molecular structure to physical properties, and on the constant motion of atoms even if not visible):

And thus may’st know it matters with what others
And in what structure the primordial germs
Are held together, and what motions they
Among themselves to give and get; nor think
That aught we see hither and thither afloat
Upon the crest of things, and now a birth
And straightaway now a ruin, inheres at rest
Deep in the eternal atoms of the world.

Five stars. A book that makes me glad I lived long enough to finally read it, and to recommend it. And which hereby takes its place in my Top 10 Books.

“On the Nature of Things”, Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus), ca. 58 BC. Metrical translation of William Ellery Leonard, 1916, which translation is highly recommended and available from several publishers (mine is a 1950 hardback from Everyman’s Library).

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