Lucretius Today Podcast Episode 056: More on The Operation of the Senses

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Welcome to Episode Fifty-Six of Lucretius Today. I am your host Cassius, and together with my panelists from the forum, we’ll walk you through the six books of Lucretius’ poem, and discuss how Epicurean philosophy can apply to you today. We encourage you to study Epicurus for yourself, and we suggest the best place to start is the book, “Epicurus and His Philosophy” by Canadian professor Norman DeWitt. For anyone who is not familiar with our podcast, please check back to Episode One for a discussion of our goals and our ground rules. If you have any question about that, please be sure to contact us at for more information.

Book 4, Latin Lines 522 – 632

Brown 1743

And now, in what manner each of the other senses distinguishes its proper object is a subject of no great difficulty to explain. And first, sound and all voices are heard when they enter the ears, and strike with their bodies upon the sense; for we must allow that sound and voice are bodies, because they have power to make impression upon the sense; for the voice often scrapes the jaws, and the noise makes the windpipe rough as it passes through. When the seeds of words begin to hurry in a crowd through the narrow nerves, and to rush abroad, those vessels being full, the throat is raked and made hoarse, and the voice wounds the passage through which it goes into the air. There is no question then but voice and words consist of corporeal principles, because they affect and hurt the sense. You are likewise to observe how much a continual speaking, from morning to night, takes off from the body; how much it wears away from the very nerves and strength of the speaker, especially if it be delivered in the highest stretch of the voice. Of necessity therefore voice must be a body, because the speaker loses many parts from himself. The roughness then of the voice depends upon the roughness of the seeds, as the smoothness is produced from smooth seeds; nor are the seeds from the same figure that strike the ears when the trumpet sounds with grave and murmuring blasts, as when the sackbut rings with its hoarse noise, or swans in the cold vales of Helicon sing out with mournful notes their sweet complaint.

When therefore we press out this voice from the lungs, and send it abroad directly through the open mouth, the nimble tongue, with curious art, fashions it into words, and the motion of the lips assists likewise in the formation of them. And when the distance is not long from whence any voice proceeds, the words must of necessity be plainly heard and articulately distinguished, for in this case the voice preserves its proper frame and figure; but if the interjacent space be more than it should be, the words must needs be confused by reason of the length of air, and the voice be disordered as it passes through. Hence it is that you may hear a sound only, but discover nothing at all of the meaning of the words, the voice becomes so broken and obstructed. Besides, one sentence delivered from the mouth of a bawling cryer strikes the ears of all about him; for the one general voice, that is pronounced instantly, breaks instantly into innumerable little voices, and so reaches every particular ear, giving a proper form and a distinct sound to every word. But that part of the voice that does not reach the ear is diffused through the air to no purpose, but there dies; some parts strike upon solid places, and being reflected return a sound, and sometimes disappoint us with the echo or image of the word. If you well consider this, you will be able to account to yourself and others why, in solitary places, the rocks regularly return words the same with those we speak, while we seek our companions wandering over the dark mountains, or call after them aloud when they are dispersed and lose their way. I myself have seen places that return six words for one; the hills so reverberate the words from one another that they severally repeat them and send them back. The neighboring people fondly imagine such places to be frequented by goat-footed satyrs and nymphs, and tell stories of the fawns. They say that the dead silence of the night is disturbed by their late revels and wanton sports, that they hear the sound of music, and the soft notes of the harp, as the artist touches and sings to it together; that the swains all about can distinguish when Pan, shaking his garland of pine-leaves upon his head, with long-hung lip, runs over the hollow reeds, and so his pipe prolongs his rural song. They speak of many other strange sights, and monstrous fables of the same kind; lest, perhaps, they should be thought to dwell in places where the gods never come, and therefore they invent their wonderful tales like these; or they are induced by some reason or other, as mankind in general are mighty eager after prodigies.

In short, it is nothing strange that those places through which the eye can see nothing, that through such the voice can pass and strike the ears. We can converse together in different rooms, when the doors are shut, as we frequently do, because voice can pierce safely through the crooked pores of bodies, which images cannot, for they are broken if the passages are not straight; such are the pores of glass through which all sorts of images freely find way. Besides, the voice divides itself into several little voices, and these are broken again into others, as soon as the first single voice breaks into many more, like a spark of fire that leaps abroad into a thousand; so that all places about, even those behind you, are filled with voice, and are moved by the sound; but all images direct their course through straight passages as soon as they are thrown off from bodies, and therefore no one can see anything over his head; you hear words that are spoken without, yet even these, as they pass through the doors that are shut, grow weak, and strike the ear in a confused manner, so that we seem to hear a sound than to distinguish the words.

Nor is the account of the tongue and palate, by which we taste, a subject of greater nicety or more difficult to explain. And first, we perceive a taste in the mouth when we squeeze the juice from our food by chewing, as if we were to press a sponge full of water in our hands to make it dry; then the juice we draw out is spread over the pores of the palate, and through the crooked passages of the spongy tongue. When the seeds of this flowing juice are smooth, they gently touch, and affect all the moist and sweating surface of the tongue with sweet delight; but the seeds, the more rough and sharp they are, the more they stimulate and tear the sense. And then the pleasure of taste we feel no further than the palate; when the food is driven down through the jaws and divided among the limbs, the pleasure is gone; nor is it of any concern with what meat our bodies are nourished, if you can but digest what you eat, and separate it among the members, and preserve the moist tenor of the stomach.

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