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the purity, and vigour, and force of comprehension which were displayed by Lucretius were rare in this school, and perhaps from the days of Lucretius to our own are not again to be met with. It is well worth the trouble, then, to look more closely into the work of this remarkable man,
The Introduction to this poem consists of an invocation to the goddess Venus, the giver of life, of prosperity, and of peace, which is marked by a picturesque mythological imaginativeness, a clear and yet profound reach of thought.
Here we are at once face to face with the peculiar Epikurean attitude towards religion. Not only the ideas of religion, but its poetical personifications are employed with an unmistakable fervour and devotion by the same man who, immediately afterwards, in the place quoted above, represents it as the strongest point of his system that it conquers the humiliating terror of the gods.
The early Roman conception of religion, which, in spite of the uncertainty of the etymology, yet certainly expresses the element of the dependence and obligation of man to the divine beings, must, of course, convey to Lucretius exactly what he most deprecates. He challenges the gods, therefore, and attacks religion, without, on this point, our being able to discover any shade of doubt or contradiction in his system.
After he has shown how, by the bold unfettered investigations of the Greeks—where he refers to Epikuros, for though he also celebrates Demokritos, he stands further away from him—religion, which once cruelly oppressed mankind, had been thrown down and trodden underfoot, he raises the question whether this philosophy does not lead us into the paths of immorality and sin.
He shows how, on the contrary, religion is the source of the grossest abominations, and how it is this unreasonable terror of eternal punislıments which leads mankind to sacrifice their happiness and peace of mind to the horrors of the prophets. 62
Then the first principle is developed that nothing can ever come from nothing. This proposition, which to-day would rather be regarded as a generalisation from experience, is, quite in accordance with the then scientific standpoint, to be posited as a directive principle at the foundation of all scientific experience.
Any one who imagines that anything can arise out of nothing, can find his prejudice confirmed every instant. He who is convinced of the contrary has the true spirit of inquiry, and will discover also the true causes of phenomena. The proposition is, however, established by the consideration that, if things could arise from nothing, this mode of development could, of course, have no limits, and anything might then arise from anything. In that case men might emerge out of the sea, and fishes spring from the soil; no animal, no plant, would continue to propagate itself only after its kind.
This view has so much truth in it, that if things could spring from nothing, we could no longer conceive of any absolute reason why anything should not arise; and such an order of things must become an ever-varying and senseless play of the birth and death of grotesque creations. On the other hand, the regularity of nature, which offers us in spring roses, in summer corn, in autumn grapes, will lead us to conclude that creation accomplishes itself through a concourse of the seeds of things taking place at a fixed time, and thence we may assume that there exist certain bodies which are common constituents of many things, as letters are of words.
Similarly it is shown that nothing, again, is really destroyed, but that the particles of perishing things are dispersed, just as they come together in order to constitute the thing
62 Here occurs, i. 101 (we cite “Tantum religio potuit suadere ma. from the edition of Lachmanu), the lorum." often-quoted and pregnant vers 3—
The obvious objection that we cannot perceive the particles which are gathered together or dispersed, Lucretius meets by the description of a violent storm. To make his meaning more clear, he introduces also the picture of a rushing torrent, and shows how the invisible particles of the wind produce effects as obvious as the visible particles of the water. Heat, cold, sound are in the same way adduced to prove the existence of an invisible matter. Still finer observation is to be seen in the following examples : Garments which are spread on a surfy shore become damp, and then, if they are placed in the sun, become dry, without our seeing the particles of water either come or go. They must, therefore, be so small as to be invisible. A ring worn on the finger for many years becomes thinner; the falling of water wears away stone; the ploughshare gets used away in the field; the pavement is worn away by the treading of feet; but nature has not made it possible for us to see the particles that disappear every instant. Just so no power of sight can discover the particles which come and go in all the processes of generation and decay. Nature, therefore, works by means of invisible bodies or atoms.
Then follows the proof that the universe is not filled with matter, that it is rather a void space in which the atoms move.
Here, again, the weightiest argument is supposed to be the a priori one—that if space were absolutely filled with matter, motion would be impossible, and yet this we perceive constantly. Then come the arguments from experience. Drops of water force their way through the thickest stone. The nourishment of living beings permeates the whole body. Cold and sound force their way through walls. Finally, differences of specific gravity can only be referred to the greater or smaller proportion of void space. The objection that, in the case of fishes, the water they displace goes into the space they leave behind them, Lucretius meets by maintaining that in this case it would be quite inconceivable that the motion should commence; for where is the water before the fish to go, while the void it is to occupy does not yet exist ? So, again, when two bodies start asunder, there must, for an instant, be a void between them. The facts cannot be explained by saying that the air is condensed and then again rarefied, for supposing this were so, it could only happen in case the particles could cohere more closely by filling up the void that previously held them apart.
There is nothing, however, besides the atoms and void. All existing things are either combinations of these two or an event of these. Even time has no separate existence, but is the feeling of a succession of occurrences earlier and later: it has not even so much reality as void space; but the events of history are to be regarded only as accidents of bodies and of space.
These bodies are all either simple—atoms, or 'beginnings,' as Lucretius usually calls them, principia or primordia rerum-or are compound; and if simple, cannot be destroyed by any violence. Infinite divisibility is impossible, for in that case, as things are so much more easily destroyed than they are reconstituted, the process of dissolution in the course of endless time would have proceeded so far, that the restoration of things would have become impossible. It is only because there are limits to the divisibility of matter that things are preserved. Infinite divisibility, moreover, would be incompatible with the laws regulating the production of things, for if they were not composed of minute indestructible particles, then all things might arise without fixed law and order.
This rejection of endless divisibility is the keystone of the doctrine of atoms and void space. After its assertion, then, the poet makes a pause, which is devoted to a polemic against different conceptions of nature, especially against Herakleitos, Empedokles and Anaxagoras. But we must note his praise of Empedokles, whose close relations to Materialism we have already dwelt upon. After a very lofty poetical eulogy of the island of Sicily, the poet proceeds :
“Now though this great country is seen to deserve, in many ways, the wonder of mankind, and is held to be well worth visiting, rich in all good things, guarded by large force of men, yet seems it to have held within it nothing more glorious than this man, and nothing more holy, marvellous, and dear. The verses, too, of his godlike genius cry with a loud voice, and set forth in such wise his glorious discoveries, that he hardly seems born of a mortal stock.” 63
Passing over the polemic, we come to the conclusion of the First Book, a discussion of the constitution of the universe. Here, true as ever to the example of Epikuros, he declines, above all things, to admit definite limits to the world. Let us suppose an extreme limit, and imagine a spear hurled with a strong arm from this limit: will it be stopped by something, or will it continue its course into the infinite ? In either case it is clear that we cannot conceive an actual limit to the world.
There is here a singular argument, that if there were fixed limits to the world, all matter must long ago have been collected on the floor of the limited space. Here we find a weak point in Epikuros's whole scheme of nature. He expressly combats the notion of gravitation towards the centre, which had already been accepted by many ancient thinkers. Unfortunately this passage of the Lucretian poem is very much mutilated; yet we may still see the essential features of the argument, and recognise the fallacy 63 I. v. 726-738:
Quae cum magna modis multis miranda videtur