Article on Ancient Atomism

My article on ancient atomism appears at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala website.  In particular, I undertake a reading of Lucretius’s great poem On the Nature of Things, a strange mixture of bold speculation that anticipates modern physics and cosmology more interesting perhaps for its fairly concerted critique of sacrificial religion.  I offer a sample –


Posterity knows only a little about Lucretius and much of what it knows it gleans from autobiographical references in his poem.  The poem itself is paradoxical.  Alleging to explicate, for the sake of a potential recruit, the scientific truths discovered by Epicurus, the truths that will redeem life for the one who accepts them, On the Nature of Things couches itself in the language of insistent evangelism, making of its intellectual hero, as George Santayana noted in his study of Lucretius in Three Philosophical Poets, a secular saint.  The poem attests a powerful experience on the part of its author, which can only be described as spiritual conversion, which he then wishes to foster in another.  Already in the generation just after Epicurus, his followers acquired the habit of referring to him under the honorific of soter or “savior,” an etiquette that imitated in turn a propaganda device of Alexander’s successors, the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasts.  Lucretius, whose time and place knew the afflictions of political breakdown, picks up this thus slightly tainted habit.

5 thoughts on “Article on Ancient Atomism

  1. Good article. I would clarify a bit about the relationship between Lucretius and Virgil. While Virgil was obviously deeply read in Lucretius, he wasn’t really an Epicurean, at least by the time his major poems were written. Virgil, however chastened by his reading of Lucretius, is a genuinely religious poet, and his attitude towards the gods is very different than that of Lucretius.

    You might want to read this Robert Royal article.

  2. I’d also challenge the idea that Lucretius is no longer influential to this day. Certainly that is not the case among poets and critics of poetry. Harold Bloom, for example, refers constantly to Lucretius. Going back to the 19th and early 20th century, Lucretius was also a huge influence on Walt Whitman, Giacomo Leopardi, Wallace Stevens, A.R. Ammons and many others.

    Lucretius provides a good example for modern poets on how to be a great poet in a materialist universe that seems utterly unpoetc. Here are some of the strategies he models:

    1. Cheat. Use religion, just like Lucretius opens his poems with an invocation to the goddess Venus.
    2. Personify the heck out of everything. Most of the parts in the poem dealing with the atoms would be deadly dull without the use of personification to keep things, ahem, lively.
    3. Attack religion. Attacking the gods is almost as good as praising them, as far as poetry goes. This strategy is used by a lot of other poets, who don’t like religion. See Shelley in Prometheus Unbound or Swinburne in Atalanta (“. . . the supreme evil, God”) I’m reminded of a great quote from the poet James Dickey about the pleasures of tearing down, “This looks like a burnt out wasteland.” “Not if you’re the one going through it with a blowtorch.”
    Of course, being angry with the gods (or God) means you’ve implicitly ascribed at least a degree of existence to them. You still believe. It’s kind of a backhanded acknowledgement of their reality.
    4. Go with amateur anthropology. It’s the most human and least scientific of the sciences. If you can’t personify trees, or atoms, you can still personify people.

  3. It is procedurally dubious to blame Shelley and Swinburne on Lucretius. Lucretius was a far more subtle thinker than they, and a far more mature one. I have made the case for Lucretius as representative of one of the later stages in a prodigious effort by which spiritually sensitive people in antiquity thought their way out of immemorial cultic religiosity and groped towards something that transcended it. Hence my carefully placed references to Walter Pater in the opening of the essay and to St. Augustine at the end.

    Lucretius is not angry with the gods. He acknowledges their existence and admires them. He says that men should imitate them, especially their non-violence. This sentiment ties in with his critique of sacrifice, which, outside of the Hebrew scriptures, is one of the earliest. Lucretius is a harsh judge of superstition, as was the author of The Confessions and The City of God.

    Wallace Stevens, incidentally, was a student of George Santayana. Stevens assimilates the Lucretian critique of sacrifice in such poems as “The Idea of Order at Key West” and “A Primitive like an orb.”

    Harold Bloom is as bad a reader of On the Nature of Things as was Karl Marx or Walt Whitman. Bloom is a self-proclaimed Gnostic. Lucretius is as far from a Gnostic as one can get.

    • Lucretius is sensitive but not particularly spiritual. He`s not angry at the gods, but he is angry at religion. The gods have a kind of attenuated existence, but all attempts to interact with them tend to result in despicable acts. I can`t see him as a proto-Christian.

      • Lucretius is revolted by the sacrificial character of cultic religion, as exemplified by the murder of Iphigenia at Aulis. If, like me, you are revolted by the murder of Jesus on the Cross at Calvary, then you and I have something in common with Lucretius.


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