Today I am launching a new ebook entitled An Introduction to the Nature of Things. Its primary feature is a full transcription of De Rerum Natura as translated by H.A.J. Munro in the nineteenth century, which I consider to be one of the better translations. I have also included an introductory set of selections of the poem with additional contextual material which might be of help to someone who is not familiar with Epicurean philosophy. It may be downloaded for free here.
Here’s the introduction to the book:
Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura – On The Nature of Things – is the most detailed exposition of Epicurean thought remaining from the ancient world, and it is one of the most important works of Western civilization.
But despite its widely-acknowledged significance, De Rerum Natura has largely been lost to the reader for whom it was written: the ordinary man who seeks a basic understanding of the world and his place in it.
Most English editions, especially those that seek to preserve the poetic form, are very difficult reading for those who are not already familiar with Epicurean philosophy. Lucretius started with a difficult subject and rendered it into poetry with an eye on beauty of speech rather than on ease of understanding. It is also true that our poem was composed in a language that has fallen into such disuse that few can translate it with ease.
But there is an even greater chasm between Lucretius and the modern reader. The common understandings of the average Roman citizen of 50 BC have been wiped away by centuries of competing philosophies and religious views. Thus readers today often become hopelessly befuddled when Lucretius immediately launches into the details of his argument without providing the foundational context that he took for granted in his own time.
The problem of context was expressed very well by another admirer of Epicurus, Lucian, in his dialogue Hermotimus, or The Rival Philosophies. Lucian expressed the issue as follows:
There is a story that some sculptor, Phidias, I think, who, seeing a single claw, calculated from it the size of the lion, if it were modeled proportionally. So, if some one were to let you see a man’s hand, keeping the rest of his body concealed, you would know at once that what was behind was a man, without seeing his whole body.
But tell me; when Phidias saw the claw, would he ever have known it for a lion’s if he had never seen a lion? Could you have said the hand was a man’s, if you had never known or seen a man? Why are you dumb? Let me make the only possible answer for you—that you could not; I am afraid Phidias has modeled his lion all for nothing; for it proves to be neither here nor there. What resemblance is there? What enabled you and Phidias to recognize the parts was just your knowledge of the wholes—the lion and the man. But in philosophy—the Stoic, for instance—how will the part reveal the other parts to you, or how can you conclude that they are beautiful? You do not know the whole to which the parts belong.
Lucian – from Hermotimus, Or, The Rival Philosophies
As a small step toward dealing with the problem of context, this book has been prepared for the new student who has never grasped the “whole” of Epicureanism.
I have sought to address the problem of context by dividing the material here into two sections, both based on the monumental work of H. A. J. Munro (1819-1885), professor of classics at Trinity College, Cambridge, England.
The introductory version of the poem presented in Section I provides newly-composed narrative material as a bridge between the limited knowledge of the new reader and the full translation of the Munro version. Section I is not a new translation, nor should it be considered an attempt to improve the Munro version. It is largely a simplified reformulation of excerpts from Munro’s text, chosen to emphasize the fundamental concepts of Epicureanism, and supplemented with original material –clearly indicated in italics – which provides background and context for the beginning student of the poem.
To repeat for emphasis, neither the chapter titles nor any text included in italics were a part of the original work of Lucretius or Munro’s translation. While these additions have been composed to conform fully with Epicurean doctrine and the spirit of the poem, the italicized text has no parallel in the original work of Lucretius.
The complete English translation prepared by Munro is included as Section II of this volume. The reader should be aware that unlike other editions of Munro which preserve his “somewhat unusual punctuation and occasional obscurities,” I have modernized spellings (for example, “showed” rather than “shewed”), and altered punctuation to conform better to current usage. I have also separated long paragraphs into their component sentences, which I find more suitable for reading in digital format. The reader is urged to crosscheck all questions arising from the text in Section I against the full translation in Section II, and even this section should be verified against Munro’s Latin text and extensive notes which are freely available at Google Books.
The effort required to perform adequately the task undertaken here would consume a lifetime, and the deficiencies of the current volume are plainly apparent. Many of the topics of De Rerum Natura have been completely omitted from the introductory Section I, and those that remain are often highly compressed. However, my plan is to continue revising this work and issuing future editions over time, and I hope to correct as many of these omissions as possible. Suggestions for future editions will be warmly appreciated.
The study of Nature is an activity that brings pleasure as it proceeds, and it is with great pleasure that I make this work available to others, even in its present form. I hope this work will be some assistance to some who might not otherwise pursue their own study of the Nature of Things, and that others will produce vastly superior works on this subject, just as Lucretius heeded the lessons of Epicurus and left to us the most important poem ever composed.
Cassius Amicus, August, 2011