On The Critical Distinction Between “Events” And “Accidents”

In the course of preparing a presentation of De Rerum Natura with the translations of Cyril Bailey, H.A.J. Munro, and the original Latin in parallel, I came across a translation choice that could cause much confusion. In Book I, Line 449 through 482 (listed in full below), “eventa” is translated as “accidents” rather than “events.” These words have critically different meanings: accidents are the result of chance or fortune, but events is a much more general term, and means any happening or occurrence, whether the cause be natural, intentional, or otherwise. Given Epicurus’ care to insist that Fortune does not rule all things, it would not seem likely that Lucretius considered the Trojan War to be accidental. And since the passage begins with the more general observation that all things possess both (1) properties of their own, and (2) incidental aspects that result from passing circumstances, it seems highly unlikely that Lucretius intended for us to think of these things as fortuitous or the results of chance.

Given the critical importance of the issue of whether the universe is ruled by Fortune, Fate, the Gods, or by Nature, it is essential that we not consider something accidental unless it is truly fortuitous. This applies as much to the general affairs of life as it does to the formation of the universe — such things are not predominantly fortuitous, but rather should be correctly understood to be eventum resting on the laws of Nature, and subject to chance only to the extent that they are influenced by the free will of living beings.  Cassell’s Latin-English dictionary translates eventum as follows:

  • Eventum, -i, n. (evenio), 1. the issue, consequence of an action; causarum cognitio cognitionem eventi facit, Cic.; 2. an event, occurrence; causae eventorum magis me movent quam ipsa eventa, Cic.

One of the most significant passages in all Epicurean literature is the following from the Letter to Menoeceus, which R.D. Hicks translates in the Loeb edition as follows:

  • “Destiny, which some introduce as sovereign over all things, he laughs to scorn, affirming rather that some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency. For he sees that necessity destroys responsibility, and that chance or fortune is inconstant; whereas our own actions are free, and it is to them that praise or blame naturally attach. It were better, then, indeed, to accept the legends of the gods than to bow beneath the yoke of destiny that some philosophers have imposed. The one holds out some faint hope that we may escape if we honor the gods, while the necessity of the naturalists is deaf to all entreaties. Nor does he hold chance to be a god, as the world in general does, for in the acts of a god there is no disorder; nor to be a cause, though an uncertain one, for he believes that no good or evil is dispensed by chance to men so as to make life blessed, though it supplies the starting point of great good and great evil. He believes that the misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool. It is better, in short, that what is well judged in action should not owe its successful issue to the aid of chance.”

In sum, accidents can occur, but the important affairs of our lives are predominantly under our control by studying and applying the laws of Nature.  As Cicero recorded in On Ends :

  • “It is a fine saying by Epicurus that ‘the Wise man is but little interfered with by fortune; the great concerns of life, the things that matter, are controlled by his own wisdom and reason.'”

In light of these words from Epicurus himself, consider the translations below.  With all due respect to Bailey and Munro, substituting in each case Lucretius’ own word of eventa rather than a version of accido leads to a reading much closer to the meaning that it appears Lucretius intended:

Cyril Bailey Version H.A.J. Munro Version Lucretius Version
[449] For all things that have a name, you will find either properties linked to these two things or you will see them to be their accidents. That is a property which in no case can be sundered or separated without the fatal disunion of the thing, as is weight to rocks, heat to fire, moisture to water, touch to all bodies, intangibility to the void. On the other hand, slavery, poverty, riches, liberty, war, concord, and other things by whose coming and going the nature of things abides untouched, these we are used, as is natural, to call accidents. Even so time exists not by itself, but from actual things comes a feeling, what was brought to a close in time past, then what is present now, and further what is going to be hereafter. And it must be avowed that no man feels time by itself apart from the motion or quiet rest of things. [449] For whatever things are named, you will either find to be properties linked to these two things or you will see to be accidents of these things. That is a property which can in no case be disjoined and separated without utter destruction accompanying the severance, such as the weight of a stone, the heat of fire, the fluidity of water. Slavery on the other hand, poverty and riches, liberty war concord and all other things which may come and go while the nature of the thing remains unharmed, these we are wont, as it is right we should, to call accidents. Time also exists not by itself, but simply from the things which happen the sense apprehends what has been done in time past, as well as what is present and what is to follow after. And we must admit that no one feels time by itself abstracted from the motion and calm rest of things. [449] Nam quae cumque cluent, aut his coniuncta duabus rebus ea invenies aut horum eventa videbis. coniunctum est id quod nusquam sine permitiali discidio potis est seiungi seque gregari, pondus uti saxis, calor ignis, liquor aquai, tactus corporibus cunctis, intactus inani. Servitium contra paupertas divitiaeque, libertas bellum concordia cetera quorum adventu manet incolumis natura abituque, haec soliti sumus, ut par est, eventa vocare. tempus item per se non est, sed rebus ab ipsis consequitur sensus, transactum quid sit in aevo, tum quae res instet, quid porro deinde sequatur; nec per se quemquam tempus sentire fatendumst semotum ab rerum motu placidaque quiete.
[464] Then again, when men say that ‘the rape of Tyndarus’s daughter’, or ‘the vanquishing of the Trojan tribes in war’ are things, beware that they do not perchance constrain us to avow that these things exist in themselves, just because the past ages have carried off beyond recall those races of men, of whom, in truth, these were the accidents. For firstly, we might well say that whatsoever has happened is an accident in one case of the countries, in another even of the regions of space. Or again, if there had been no substance of things nor place and space, in which all things are carried on, never would the flame of love have been fired by the beauty of Tyndaris, nor swelling deep in the Phrygian heart of Alexander have kindled the burning battles of savage war, nor unknown of the Trojans would the timber horse have set Pergama aflame at dead of night, when the sons of the Greeks issued from its womb. So that you may see clearly that all events from first to last do not exist, and are not by themselves like body, nor can they be spoken of in the same way as the being of the void, but rather so that you might justly call them the accidents of body and place, in which they are carried on, one and all. [464] So when they say that the daughter of Tyndarus was ravished and the Trojan nations were subdued in war, we must mind that they do not force us to admit that these things are by themselves, since those generations of men, of whom these things were accidents, time now gone by has irrevocably swept away. For whatever shall have been done may be termed an accident in one case of the Teucran people, in another of the countries simply. Yes for if there had been no matter of things and no room and space in which things severally go on, never had the fire, kindled by love of the beauty of Tyndarus’ daughter, blazed beneath the Phrygian breast of Alexander and lighted up the famous struggles of cruel war, nor had the timber horse unknown to the Trojans wrapt Pergama in flames by its night-issuing brood of sons of the Greeks; so that you may clearly perceive that all actions from first to last exist not by themselves and are not by themselves in the way that body is, nor are terms of the same kind as void is, but are rather of such a kind that you may fairly call them accidents of body and of the room in which they severally go on. [464] Denique Tyndaridem raptam belloque subactas Troiiugenas gentis cum dicunt esse, videndumst ne forte haec per se cogant nos esse fateri, quando ea saecla hominum, quorum haec eventa fuerunt, inrevocabilis abstulerit iam praeterita aetas; namque aliud terris, aliud regionibus ipsis eventum dici poterit quod cumque erit actum. Denique materies si rerum nulla fuisset nec locus ac spatium, res in quo quaeque geruntur, numquam Tyndaridis forma conflatus amore ignis Alexandri Phrygio sub pectore gliscens clara accendisset saevi certamina belli nec clam durateus Troiianis Pergama partu inflammasset equos nocturno Graiiugenarum; perspicere ut possis res gestas funditus omnis non ita uti corpus per se constare neque esse nec ratione cluere eadem qua constet inane, sed magis ut merito possis eventa vocare corporis atque loci, res in quo quaeque gerantur.

Please submit all comments on the Comment Page.

Previous Article
Next Article