Lucretius Today Podcast Episode 078 – Ethical Issues In The Formation of Early Human Societies

Listen to “Episode 078 – Ethical Issues Arising In the Formation Of Societies” on Spreaker.

Welcome to Episode Seventy-Eight 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 visit where you will find our goals and our ground rules. If you have any questions about those, please be sure to contact us at the forum for more information. In this Episode 78 our goal was to read approximately Latin lines 1105 – 1240 of Book Five, but due to the important ethical implications of the subject we covered only a small part of that. So today our discussion will break well short of the material that we read, and we will come back next week to tackle the rest. Now let’s join Martin reading today’s text:

Browne 1743

[1117] But if men would govern their lives by the rule of true reason, to live upon a little with an even mind, would be the greatest riches. This little no man can fear to want; but men strive to be renowned and powerful, that their fortune may stand firm upon a lasting foundation, and the wealthy cannot fail to live at ease. All absurd! For those who labor to reach the highest honors make a very unhappy journey in the end. Envy, like a thunderbolt, strikes them from the pinnacle of their glory, and tumbles them down with scorn into an abyss of misery. So that it is much safer, as a subject, to obey, than to wish for empire and to govern kingdoms. Let those that will tire themselves in vain, and spend their blood and their sweat in climbing the narrow track of ambition (for the highest of them all are blasted with envy, as with a thunderbolt; and the higher they are, they are the more exposed) since they depend wholly upon others for their wisdom, and try things more by their ears than by their understanding. This is the present case; it always was so, and ever will be.

[1136] Those kings being slain, the former majesty of their thrones, and their proud sceptres, were laid in the dust; and the diadem, the noble ornament of kings, all stained with blood, is now trodden by vulgar feet, and weeps over its expiring honors; for we eagerly spurn at what we too much feared before. The government now returned to the rabble, and the very dregs of the people, whilst everyone reached at empire, and the supreme power for himself. And therefore the wisest among them taught the rest to settle a magistracy, and to establish laws, by which they would be governed. Men grew weary of living in a state of force, and were worn out with continual bickering among themselves, and therefore, of their own accord, more readily fell under the power of Laws and the bonds of justice; for every one, in his resentment, pursued his revenge with more violence than the equity of the laws would now allow him.

[1151] And therefore men were tired of this hostile way, which soured all their pleasures of life with the fears of punishment; for force and wrong entangle the man that uses them, and commonly recoil upon the head that contrived them. Nor is it easy for that man to live a secure and pleasant life who by his conduct breaks through the common bonds of peace. Though he has the cunning to deceive both gods and men, his heart always trembles for fear of being discovered; for men often talk in their sleep, and are said to reveal things when they are delirious by a disease, and to bring to light their plots that had been long concealed.

[1161] And now I’ll show the cause that first dispersed the notions of the gods throughout the world, and filled the towns with altars, and ordered solemn rites to be performed, and holy ceremonies now in use, when victims smoked on every sacred fire; and whence that fixed horror in the minds of men, that builds new temples to the gods in every corner of the earth, and compels men to celebrate their festivals: ’tis not so hard a thing to show the cause.

[1169] For men, in the beginning of the world, were used to see divine and glorious forms, even when awake; and in their sleep those images appeared in more majestic state, and raise their wonder. And these they thought had sense. They fancied that they moved their limbs and spoke proud words, suitable to the grand appearance they showed, and to the mightiness of their strength. They ascribed eternity to them, because a constant stream of images incessantly came on, in form the same (that could not change) and then, they could not die, because no power, they thought, could crush beings so strong in force, so large in size. And they thought them infinitely happy, because they were never vexed with the fears of death, and likewise in their dreams they saw them do things strange and wonderful with ease, and without fatigue.

[1183] Besides, they observed the motions of the heavens were regular and certain, that the various seasons of the year came orderly about, but could discover nothing of the causes of these revolutions, and therefore they had this resort: they ascribed every thing to the power of the gods, and made every thing depend upon their will and command. The habitation and abode of these gods they placed in the heavens, for there they saw the sun and moon were rolled about; the moon, I say, they observed there, and the day and the night, and the stars serenely bright, and the blazing meteors wandering in the dark, the flying lightning, the clouds, the dew, the rain, the snow, the thunder, the hail, the dreadful noises, the threatenings and loud roarings of the sky.

[1194] Unhappy race of men! To ascribe such events, to charge the gods with such distracted rage. What sorrows have they brought upon themselves? What miseries upon us? What floods of tears have they entailed upon our posterity? Nor can there be any piety for a wretch with his head veiled, to be ever turning himself about towards a stone, to creep to every altar, to throw himself flat upon the ground, to spread his arms before the shrines of the gods, to sprinkle the altars abundantly with the blood of beasts, and to heap vows upon vows. To look upon things with an undisturbed mind, this is Piety.

[1204] For when we behold the celestial canopy of the great world, and the heavens spread over with the shining stars; when we reflect upon the courses of the sun and moon, then doubts – that before lay quest under a load of other evils – begin to awake, and grow strong within us. What! Are there gods endued with so great power that can direct the various motions of all the bright luminaries above? For the ignorance of causes gives great uneasiness to the doubting mind of man. And hence we doubt whether the world had a beginning, and shall ever have an end; how long the heavens (the walls of this world) shall be able to bear the fatigue of such mighty motions, or whether they are made eternal by the gods, and so shall forever roll on, and despise the strong power of devouring age.

[1218] Besides, what heart does not faint with a dread of the gods? Whose are the limbs that will not shrink, when the scorched earth quakes with the horrible stroke of lightning, and the roaring thunder scours over the whole heavens? Do not the people and the nations shake? And proud tyrants, struck with fear of those avenging powers, tremble every limb, lest the dismal day were come to punish them for the baseness of their crimes and the arrogance of their speeches?

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