Lucretius Today Podcast Episode 077 – The Formation of Language and Early Human Societies

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Welcome to Episode Seventy-Seven 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 questions about those, please be sure to contact us at for more information. In this Episode 77 we will read approximately Latin line 1028 – of Book Five. We will talk about how nature prompted humans to form languages and the beginnings of organized society. Now let’s join Don reading today’s text:

Latin Lines 1028-1105

Browne 1743

[1028] Nature compelled them to use the various sounds of the tongue, and convenience taught them to express the names of things, like children, before they can well speak are forced to make use of signs, and are obliged to point with their finger to the objects that lie before them, for every creature is sensible what faculties it has, and how to use them. So calves, before the horns appear upon their foreheads, will butt fiercely, and push with them, when they are enraged; and the whelps of panthers and lions will defend themselves with their claws and feet and teeth when their claws and teeth are scarce to be seen; and all kind of birds, we observe, trust to their wings and rely upon the fluttering support of their pinions.

[1041] But to think that one man gave names to all things, and that men from thence learnt the first elements of speech, is absurd and ridiculous; for why should one man distinguish every thing by a name, and use the various accents of the tongue, and at the same time another not be as capable of doing this as he? Besides, if others had not the use of words among them as soon, how could they be made acquainted with the use of them? Or by what art would this one man make them known and understand what he designed? One alone could not compel the rest, and by force make them learn the catalogue of his names. He could not prevail by reason, or persuade men so unfit to hear, to do so as he directed; nor would they bear with patience, or by any means endure, to have the strange sounds of unintelligible words any longer ratting in their ears to no purpose.

[1056] And then, what is there so very wonderful in this, that men, to whom nature has given a voice and a tongue, should, according to the various knowledge they had conceived of the great variety of things, distinguish each of them by a proper name; when mute cattle, and the several kinds of wild beasts, express their passions by different voices and sounds, when their fear, their grief, or their joys are strong upon them? And that they do so you may observe from evident examples.

[1063] For when fierce mastiffs are at first provoked, they snarl, and grin, and shew their hard white teeth, and threaten, in their rage, with lower sounds than those they read the air with when they bark and roar aloud; but when they gently lick their whelps, with their soft tongue, or toss them with their feet, or seem to bite, and fondly gape as if to eat them up, but never touch them with their teeth, they show their pleasure with a whining voice. Not so as when they howl, left by themselves at home; or when they whimper, with their crouching bodies, to shun the coming blow.

[1073] And does not the horse with different neighings fill the air when, hot in blood and in the prime of youth, he is sorely galled with the spurs of winged love, and rages in his lust among the mares, and, eager to engage, with open nostrils snuffs the scent? Does he not shake his trembling limbs and neigh, for other reasons, with far other sounds?

[1078] And then, the feathered race, the various kinds of birds, the hawk, the osprey, and sea gulls, that live and seek their food in the salt waves, they throw out other notes at other times, than when they strive for food and fight for prey; and some will change their hoarse voice according to the different qualities of the air, as the long-lived ravens, and the flocks of crows, when they are said to call for rain and showers, and sometimes to cry for wind and storms.

[1087] If therefore the different perception of things will compel these creatures, mute as they are, to send out different sounds, how much more reasonable is it that men should be able to mark out different things by different names?

[1091] You may desire, perhaps, to be satisfied in other inquiries. Know then that thunder first brought down fire to the earth. All the fire in this lower world is in a great measure derived from thence; for many things, we observe, are set on fire by lightning, when the vapors fly out from certain quarters of the heavens, and the branches of trees, pressing hard upon one another, when they are driven backward and forward by the winds, grow hot, and by the violent agitation burst out into a rapid flame; and sometimes the boughs and bodies of trees, by rubbing together, will kindle and fly out into a blaze. And thus fire might be produced from either cause. But the sun first taught mankind to dress their food, and soften it by heat; for they observed the fruits in the fields grew tender and ripe by the warmth and power of his rays.

[1105] And so those who had more wit and sense taught their neighbors every day to leave their old diet, and their former way of life, to enter upon a new course, and use the benefit of fire. And now their kings began to build cities, and to raise castles, as a defense to themselves, and refuge in time of danger. They divided the cattle and the fields and gave to every one as he excelled in beauty, in strength, and understanding; for beauty and strength were then in great repute, and bore away the prize. At last riches and gold were found out, which soon took away the honor from the strong and beautiful; even the brave and beautiful themselves
commonly follow the fashion of the rich.

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