The Ancient Library
 

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.LUCRETIUS,

of his family and connections, from the days of the chaste wife of Collatinus, a narrative of his journey to Athens for the prosecution of his philosophical studies, an account of the society in which he there lived, of the friendships which he there formed, of the preceptors from whose lips he derived his enthusiasm for those tenets which he subsequently expounded with such fervid faith, of his return to his native country, and of his life and habits while enjoying the charms of literary ease and peaceful seclusion. But the whole of these parti­culars are a mere tissue of speculations,—a web of conjectures originally woven by the imagination of Lambinus and afterwards variously embroidered by the idle and perverse ingenuity of a long line of commentators.

The period about which his piece was published can be reduced within narrow limits. The allusion to the unhappy dissensions by which his native country was distracted, have been supposed to bear special reference to the conspiracy of Catiline, but the expression u patriai tempore iniquo" is so ge­neral that it is' applicable to any portion of the epoch when he flourished. From the manner, how­ever, in which Cicero, in a letter to his brother Quintus, written B. c. 55,, gives his opinion on the merits of the poem, we may fairly conclude that it had been recently published ; and, taking into account the slowness with which copies were mul­tiplied, the conjecture of Forbiger becomes highly probable, that it may have been given to the world in the early part of the year b. c. 57, when the machinations of Clodius were producing a degree of disorder and anarchy almost without example even in those stormy times.

The work which has immortalised the name of Lucretius, and which, happily, has been preserved entire, is.a philosophical didactic poem, composed in heroic hexameters, divided into six books, ex­tending to upwards of seven thousand four hundred lines, addressed to C. Memmius Gemellus, who was praetor in b. c. 58 [memmius], and is entitled De, Rerum Natura. It has been sometimes repre­sented as a complete exposition of the religious, moral, and physical doctrines of Epicurus, but this is far from being a correct description. ' The plan is not by any means so vast or so discursive, and although embracing numerous topics requiring great minuteness of detail, and admitting of great variety of illustration, is extremely distinct, and possesses almost epical unity. Epicurus maintained that the unhappiness and degradation of mankind arose in a great degree from the slavish dread which they entertained of the power of the Gods, from terror of their wrath, which was supposed to be displayed by the misfortunes inflicted in this life, and by the everlasting tortures which were the lot of the guilty in a future state, or where these feelings were not strongly developed, from a vague dread of gloom and misery after death. To remove these apprehensions, which he declared were founded upon error, and thus to establish tranquillity in the heart, was the great object of his teaching ; and the fundamental doctrine upon which his system reposed was, that the Gods, whose existence he did not deny, lived for evermore in the enjoyment of absolute peace, strangers to'all the passions, desires, and fears, which agitate the human heart, totally indifferent to the world and its inhabitants, unmoved alike by their virtues and their crimes. As a step towards proving this position he called

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LUCRETIUS.

to his aid the atomic theory of Leucippus, by which he sought - to demonstrate thalt the material universe is not the result of creative energy on the part of the Supreme Being, but that all the objects in which it abounds, mineral, vegetable, and animal, were formed by the union of ele-mental particles which had existed from all eter­nity, governed by certain simple laws; and that all those striking phaenomena which, from their, strangeness or mighty effects, had long been re­garded by the vulgar as direct manifestations of divine power, were merely the natural results of ordinary processes. To state clearly and develope fully the leading principle of this philosophy, in such a form as might render the study attractive to his countrymen, few of whom were disposed to take any interest in abstract speculations, was the. task undertaken by the author of the De Rerum Natura, his work being simply an attempt to show that there is nothing in the history or actual con­dition of the world which does not admit of explana­tion without having recourse to the active interpo­sition of divine beings. The poem opens with a magnificent apostrophe to Venus, whom he ad­dresses as an allegorical representation of the re­productive power, after which the business of the piece commences by an enunciation of the great proposition on the nature and being of the gods (57—62), which leads to a grand invective against vthe gigantic monster superstition, and a thrilling picture of the horrors which attends his tyrannous sway. Then follows a lengthened elucidation of the axiom that nothing can be produced from nothing, and that nothing can be reduced to nothing (Nil fieri ex nihilo, in nihilum nil posse reverti) ; which is succeeded by a definition of the Ultimate Atoms, infinite in number, which, together with Void Space (Inane), infinite in extent, constitute the universe. The shape of these corpuscules, their properties, their movements, the laws under which, they enter into combination and assume forms and qualities appreciable by the senses, with other preliminary matters on their nature and affections,; together with a refutation of objections and opposing hypotheses, occupy the first two books. In the third book, the general truths thus established are applied to demonstrate that the vital and intellectual principles, the Anima and Animus, are as much a part of the man as his limbs and members, but like those limbs and members have no distinct and independent existence, and that hence soul and body live and perish together; the argument being wound up by a magnificent exposure of the folly manifested in a dread of death, which will for ever extinguish all feeling. The fourth book—perhaps: the most ingenious of the whole—is devoted to the theory of the senses, sight, hearing, taste, smell, of sleep and of dreams, ending with a disquisition upon love. The fifth book, generally regarded as the most finished and impressive, treats of the origin of the world and of all things that are therein, of the movements of the heavenly bodies, of the vicissitudes of the seasons, of day and night, of the rise and progress of man, of society, and of political institutions, and of the invention of the various arts and sciences which embellish and ennoble life. The sixth book comprehends an ex­planation of some of the most striking natural appearances, especially thunder, lightning, hail, rain, snow, ice, cold, heat, wind, earthquakes, volcanoes, springs and localities noxious to animal life, which

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