So accustomed to the skies

Reflections on Lucretius’ epic poem and his love of natural philosophy.

I finally made it through Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things — a first century BCE poem that sets out to summarize and synthesize a comprehensive philosophy of… everything. It is a fascinating account of the natural world: fascinating not only for the sheer grandeur of the endeavor — over 7,000 lines of didactic poetry — but also for the revolutionary ideas of its time. In Lucretius’ account world, natural events occurred through randomness and chance, not at the whims of deities. The linchpin of the poem is the proposition of atoms: tiny, invisible, indivisible particles that compose everything. Like Epicurus before him, Lucretius had no way of testing the theory, only his reasoning and observation.

By today’s understanding, Lucretius is wrong in most of his scientific conclusion. He thinks that the sun is the same size as it appears in the sky, that the orbital difference between the stars and moon are caused by air currents, and that thunder is the result of clouds crashing into each other. One does not read On the Nature of Things today for its robust physics.

So why read Lucretius? Rooted in a specific moment of time — namely, first century BCE Rome — this poem reiterates a timeless truth: what you believe about the world is inseparable from how you live in it. For Lucretius, the theory of atoms was nothing short of psychological and emotional liberation: if the events of the world could be explained by the properties of these microscopic specks, then humanity would no longer be enslaved to the appeasement of the gods. As Lucretius saw it, the science of atoms yielded the end of fear. No longer were vengeful gods to be blamed for droughts and disasters. Sacrifices were no longer required to ward off divine wrath or win divine favour.

For me, the most endearing trait of Lucretius is his giddy, childlike awe with the world. Once he got it in his head that everything could have a natural explanation, he saw everything around him through a new set of eyes. His openness and curiosity are infectious. Even though his conclusions are wonky by the standards of contemporary science, I still often found myself shifting my gaze from the pages of the book to ponder the world through Lucretius’ eyes: Look, a tree. Trees are incredible. What do I actually know about trees? How do they work?

Now, however, people hardly bother to lift their eyes
To the glittering heavens, they are so accustomed to the skies. (II.1038-1039, trans. Stallings 2007:67)