Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 18.djvu/854

This page has been validated.

relation Lucretius actually bears to science—that this summary of his principles was written.

Titus Lucretius Carus was born 96 b. c., and was thus the contemporary of Cicero, Cæsar, and Sallust. As with many other great men, little of his personal life is known. It appears that in his youth he studied philosophy at Athens in company with Cicero and other Romans afterward distinguished in politics and literature. Beyond this we know nothing certain of his life. He died b. c. 52, while Horace was still a schoolboy at Rome and Virgil had just reached the age of manhood. There is a story that his wife, fearing a decrease in his affection toward her, had given him a love-philter, which made havoc with his brain, and filled his mind with base thoughts, so that sooner than endure them he killed himself. This version of his death is well known through Tennyson's poem "Lucretius"; it, however, is a matter of tradition, and not of history.

From his life we now turn to his great work, "The Nature of Things." In this he lays down the whole system of the Epicurean philosophy, a system which has been more vilified and misrepresented than any other put forth by man. Its physical basis was the atomic theory, which was first promulgated by Leucippus. The real founder of the school was Democritus of Abdera, to whom Bacon awards a high place among great thinkers. The great exponent of these doctrines was Epicurus, from whom the system takes its name. He lived mostly at Athens in the third and fourth centuries before Christ, and was noted for his frugal and virtuous life. His moral principles did not consist in reckless indulgence of the senses, but in moderation in all things, and in avoidance of pain, whether moral, mental, or physical. This principle is continually set forth and illustrated by Horace, especially in his "Satires." In him the tenets of the Epicurean philosophy become the maxims of a prudent, intelligent man of the world.

But it is with the scientific aspect of this system, as set forth by Lucretius, that we have chiefly to do. Its principles are contained in six books of twelve or thirteen hundred lines apiece. It is best to take up the books in their order, as the argument is closely connected throughout.

The first book contains the broad principles of the atomic theory. After a beautiful passage describing the benumbing power of superstition, he asserts that the only means of overcoming this is found in the study of nature, and declares that the difficulty of the task shall not prevent him from attempting it. The first principle which he lays down is, that all matter is uncreated; or, as he expresses it, nothing can spring from nothing. For, if anything can spring from nothing, what need is there of these long processes of birth and growth and these aids to development? Why should all this labor be spent in vain, if anything could become what it is without labor? This is simply