Lucretius Today Podcast Episode 051 – More on “Images”

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Welcome to Episode Fifty-One 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. Be aware that none of us are professional philosophers, and everyone here is a self-taught Epicurean. 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.

In today’s podcast we will discuss the workings of images, and we will cover approximately Latin lines 110 – 229.

Browne 1743

There are therefore tenuous and fine shapes of the same figure with the things themselves, which, though they cannot singly be distinguished by the sight, yet being reflected, and swiftly and constantly repelled from the smooth plane of the glass, become visible, nor can any other reason be so properly offered why forms so like the things are returned to us. And now conceive, if you can, of what a tenuous and subtle nature an image consists, and for this reason, in the first place, because the seeds of things are so much beyond the reach and discovery of our senses, and are infinitely less than those bodies that escape the observation of the most curious eye; as a proof how subtle the first principles of things are, attend to these short observations. And first there are animals so exceeding small, that one third part of them cannot possibly by any means be discovered. What are you to conceive of the bowels of these creatures? Of their little hearts and eyes? What of their members? What are you to think of their limbs? How small are they? What besides of the seeds which compose the soul and mid, don’t you imagine how subtle and minute they are? Besides, herbs that exhale a sharp smell from their bodies, such as all-heal, bitter wormwood, strong southernwood, and four centaury, if you shake any of these ever so lightly you may be sure many particles fly off, and scatter every way, but without force, and too weak to affect the sense; yet how small and subtle are the images that are formed from these, no one can conceive or express.

But lest you should think that the images that fly off the surface of bodies are the only things that wander abroad, there are other shapes that are fashioned of their own accord, and are produced in the lower region we call the air; these are framed in various manners, are carried upward, and being very subtle and less compact in their contexture, are ever changing their figure, and assume all variety of forms. Thus we see the clouds sometimes thicken in the sky, darkening the serene face of the heavens, and wounding the air by violence of their motion; now the shape of giants seem to fly abroad, and project their shadows all round; and then huge hills, and rocks torn from the mountaintop, are born before the sun, and hide his light. Others again advance and represent the shape of monsters wandering through the sky. Now learn in how easy and swift a manner these images are produced; how they continually fly and fall off from the surface of bodies; for there is always a store of forms upon the outside of things ready to be thrown off.

These, when they light upon some things, pass through them, as a garment for instance; but when they strike upon sharp rocks, or upon wood, they are immediately broken and divided, so that no image can be reflected; but when they are opposed by dense and polished bodies, such as looking-glass, then nothing of this happens; for they can neither pass through this as through a garment, nor are they divided before the glass preserves their figure perfect and entire. Hence it is that these forms are presented to our sight, and place a thing ever so suddenly, and in a moment of time, before the glass, and the image instantly appears. So that you find there are subtle textures of things, and subtle images continually flowing from the surface of bodies; and therefore many of these forms are produced in a short space of time, and may be justly said to receive their being from a very swift motion.

And as the sun is obliged to emit many of its rays in an instant, that the whole air might be full of light, so many images of things must needs be carried off in the smallest point of time, and scattered every way abroad; for place your glass in what manner you please, the things appear in the same color and figure they really are. So often, when the face of the sky is most serene and bright, it becomes on all sides black and horrid of a sudden, that you would think the while body of darkness had left the regions below, and filled the wide arch of heaven, so dreadful does the night appear from driving clouds, and scatters gloomy terror from above, but how small in comparison of these clouds are the images of things no one can conceive or express.

And now, with how swift courage these images are carried on, how suddenly they make their passage through the air, how they outstrip dull time, wherever by various motion they intend their way, I choose in sweetest numbers than in tedious verse to show: As the swan’s short song is more melodious than the harsh noise of cranes, scattered by winds through all the air. First then, we observe that light things that are formed of small particles, are very swift in their motion; of this sort are the rays and heat of the sun, because they are composed of very minute seeds which are easily thrust forward, as it were, through the interjacent air, the following urging on the part that went before; for one beam of light is instantly supplied by another, and every ray is pressed on by another behind. By the same rule, the images may pass through an unaccountable space in a moment of time: first, because there is always a force behind to drive and urge them forward, and then their texture, as they fly off, is so thin and subtle, that they can pierce through any bodies, and, as it were, flow through the air that lies between.

Besides, if those corpuscles that lie in the inward parts of bodies are discharged from above down upon the earth, such as the light and heat of the sun; if these, we observe, descend in a point of time, and spread themselves through all the expansion of the air, and fly over the sea, the Earth, and the upper regions of the heavens; if these are diffused with such wonderful celerity, what shall we say? Those particles that are always ready upon the utmost surface of things, when they are thrown off, and have nothing to obstruct their motions, don’t you see how those may fly swifter, and go further, and pass through a much greater space in the same time than the beams of the sun take up to make their way through? Another notable instance which fully proves with how swift a motion the images are carried on is this: as soon as a bowl of clear water is placed in the open air, in starlight night, the shining stars are seen twinkling in the still water; don’t you see therefore in what point of time the images descend upon the earth from the upper regions of the air? Again then, and again, you must allow that particles are perpetually flowing fro the surface of bodies, which present themselves to our eyes and strike our sight: from some bodies a train of smells are always flying off, so cold is emitted from the rivers, heat from the sun, a salt vapor from the water of the sea that eats through walls along the shore, and sounds are always flying through the air. Lastly, as we walk upon the strand a salt taste offends our mouth; and when we see a bunch of wormwood bruised, the bitterness strikes upon the palate. So plain it is that something is continually flowing off from all bodies, and is scattered all about; there is no intermission, the seeds never cease to flow, because we still continue to feel, to see, to smell, and hear.