The full translations of De Rerum Natura by Cyril Bailey and Hugh Munro are now online! Please click here to go to our dedicated site for Lucretius!
Other than the contents of the biography by Diogenes Laertius, our most reliable source of information on Epicurean philosophy comes from Lucretius’ famous poem. On The Nature of Things is sweeping in scope and detail, but in the end it is essentially a presentation of the Epicurean method for answering the most common and troubling questions about the nature of life and of the universe.
Lucretius develops his argument in great detail, but gives minimal introduction to the method of his approach. It will therefore assist the new reader immensely to first review Epicurus’ own Letter to Menoeceus and Cicero’s Defense of Epicurus.
More important even than anything else, however, is to grasp Epicurus’ method of thought. Rather than accept the authority of religion’s divine revelation or Plato’s abstract “reason,” Epicurus attacks each problem by first examining the relevant facts which can be grasped by direct observation.
First and always, the search for answer to any question must begins by establishing the basic parameters of the matter through the five senses, the passions, and the anticipations. Then, and only then, does Epicurus enlist the aid of reason to draw additional conclusions by deduction from those facts which he has already established to be true.
Unfortunately Lucretius does not begin his work with a discussion of this method, as his audience would already have been familiar with Epicurus’s introductory volume entitled the Canon of Truth. That work no longer survives, but the basic framework of the method can be deduced from ancient sources, many of which are collected in this website’s Introduction to Epicurus’ Canon of Truth.
Once the reader understands the method, it will become clear why so much of On The Nature of Things is devoted to the details of natural phenomena. Such descriptions are not superfluous; they are the starting points for all deductive reasoning, because they are the evidence of Nature for which we have a clear view. It is only after we have grasped those things which we know to be true that we may deduce
the truth of other things — such as the nature of the soul and the “origin” of the universe — about which our information is limited.
This method of evaluating reality was the Epicurean key to avoiding the errors of religion and of the false philosophers. Epicurus freely admitted that this method is insufficient to establish answers to all questions, but he stressed that it was sufficient to eliminate the false contentions of the priests and the Platonic philosophers. Thus the ultimate point of On The Nature of Things is that for all the questions
which trouble the minds of men there are Natural answers. Because we can be confident that Natural answers exist (even if we are not sure of all the details), we need not be concerned that the Gods, Fate, or Fortune deprive us of control over our own lives. While the particular details of the answer to any question might need revision if additional information was discovered, Epicureans would have been confident that any revision would always remain within the domain of Natural explanations.
The full text of the poem is available in many translations, but not so many are available in full on the internet. I often refer to both the Loeb edition and that of Cyril Bailey, but my favorite remains that of H. A. J. Munro. A PDF of Munro’s version is available here, and the text is also available in full in the navigation pane to the left, or at the following links:
I have collected a more up-to-date set of links to various versions of Lucretius on my NewEpicurean Library page.
The remainder of this page is devoted to a paraphrase of significant passages of the poem prepared with the twin goals of clarity and fidelity to the meaning of the original.
De Rerum Natura – On The Nature of Things
VENUS, mother of Aeneas’ nation, darling of men and gods, who beneath the stars of heaven fills with your presence the ship-carrying sea and the corn-bearing land! Through you every kind of living thing is conceived, rises up, and beholds the light of the sun. Before you flee the winds and the clouds of heaven. … For you the earth puts forth sweet-smelling flowers; for you the waves of the sea laugh and heavens shine with outspread light. Throughout seas, mountains, rivers and plains you strike fond love into the hearts of all, and you inspire them with desire to continue their races.
Since you are sole mistress of the nature of things, and without you nothing rises up into the divine light, and nothing grows to be glad or lovely, I ask that you help me in writing these verses on the nature of things….
 For what follows, withdraw from other cares and employ true reasoning, with undistracted ears and keen mind, lest you abandon with disdain the gifts I set out for you before you understand them. For I will explain to you the ultimate system of the universe and of the gods, and I will open up to you the first beginning of all things — those things out of which nature creates, grows, and nourishes all things, and into which nature likewise dissolves them back after their destruction. These first beginnings we call “matter” or the “seeds of things” or the “first beginnings” or “atoms” because from these elements all things are made.
 When human life – before the eyes of all – lay foully prostrate upon the earth, crushed down under the weight of religion, which glowered down from heaven upon mortal men with a hideous appearance, one man — a Greek — first dared to lift up his mortal eyes and stand up face-to-face against religion. This man could not be quashed either by stories of gods or thunderbolts or even by the deafening roar of heaven. Those things only spurred on the eager courage of his soul, filling him with desire to be the first to burst the tight bars placed on Nature’s gates. The living force of his soul won the day, and on he passed, far beyond the flaming walls of the world, traveling with his mind and with his spirit the immeasurable universe. And from there he returned to us – like a conqueror — to tell us what can be, and what cannot, and on what principle and deep-set boundary mark Nature has established all things. Through this knowledge, superstition is thrown down and trampled underfoot, and by his victory we are raised equal with the stars.
 In this I fear, however: that you may imagine that you are entering onto unholy grounds, and treading the path of sin. On the contrary, very often it is religion itself that gives birth to sinful and unholy deeds.
Thus in Aulis the chieftains of the Danai, foremost of men, foully polluted the altar with Iphianassa’s blood. Recall how she saw her father standing sorrowful before the altar, while beside him the priests hid the knife, and how she saw her countrymen shed tears at the sight. Speechless in terror, she dropped down on her knees and sank to the ground. Even in such a moment it was no help to her that she had been the king’s first-borne and first to call him “father.” For lifted up in the hands of the priests she was carried, shivering, to the altar — not to the performance of the bridal rites, but rather, in the very season of marriage to fall a sad victim by the sacrificing stroke of her father, that in this way a happy and prosperous departure might be granted to his fleet.
So great are the evils to which religion can persuade!
 You yourself at some point, overcome by the terrorizing tales of the priests, may seek to fall away from us. For indeed, how many dreams they imagine for you — enough to upset all the calculations of your life and trouble all your fortunes with fear! And they dream up this everlasting torment for good reason, because if men were to see that there is a fixed limit to their woes, they would be able to withstand the terrors of religion and the threats of their priests. As it is, men have no means of resisting those threats, since they believe that they must fear everlasting punishment after death. For men cannot determine the nature of their souls, whether it is born with them, or finds its way into them at their birth from somewhere else, or whether it perishes with them when they die, or visits the gloom of Hell….
Therefore we must grasp firmly the principles by which the sun and moon go on in their courses, and the force by which every thing on earth proceeds. But above all we must find out by keen reason the nature of the soul and of the mind, and what may explain the visions we sometimes see when we are awake, or under the influence of disease, or when we are buried in sleep, so that we seem to see and hear speaking to us face to face those who are dead and whose bones the earth holds in its embrace. ….
 Your terror and darkness of mind must be dispelled — not by the rays of the sun and glittering shafts of the day, but by the study of the law of nature.
We shall begin with this first principle: nothing ever comes from nothing by divine power. In truth, fear holds all men in check, because they see many things go on in earth and in the sky, and they fail to understand the cause, believing those things to be done by divine power. Once we shall have seen that nothing can be produced from nothing, we shall then ascertain the explanation of these things, both the elements out of which every thing can be produced and the manner in which all things are done — without the hand of the gods.
 If things came from nothing, any thing might be born of anything, for nothing would require seed. Men, for instance, might instantly rise out of the sea, fish out of the earth, and birds out of the sky. Nor would the same fruits grow from the same trees, but would change, and any tree might bear any fruit. For if there were not first-beginning bodies for each, how could things have a fixed unvarying origin? But in fact because all things are produced from fixed seeds, each thing is born according to the nature of its own seeds. It is for this reason that all things cannot be gotten out of all things, because within particular things reside distinct powers and characteristics. Why do we see the rose bloom in the spring, corn in the summer, and vines in the autumn, if not because it is the nature of their fixed seeds to spring forth at the proper time?
But if such things came from nothing, they would rise up suddenly at uncertain and unsuitable times of year, inasmuch as there would be no first-beginnings to keep them from bursting forth in an unwelcome season. Nor would time be required for the growth of things after the seeds have come together, if things could grow from nothing. Little babies would at once grow into men, and trees would spring out of the ground in a moment. But we see plainly that none of these events ever comes to pass, since all things grow step by step at a fixed time, as is natural, and this is because they all grow from a fixed seed which follows its own nature. Without fixed seasons of rain, the earth is unable to put forth its produce, nor can anything sustain its own life if separated from its own food. Thus you may hold with conviction that distinct basic elements compose the many things that we see, in the same way that we see distinct letters of the alphabet composing many different words.
Again, why could Nature not produce men of such size and strength as to be able to wade on foot across the sea, tear apart great mountains with their hands, and outlive many generations of men? The reason we never see such things is that unchanging first-beginnings have been assigned for all that exists, and the nature of all those things that can arise from these first-beginnings is fixed. We must admit therefore that nothing can come from nothing, since all things require seed before they can be born. Just as we see that fields that are tilled surpass those that are untilled, we may infer that there are in the soil first-beginnings which we stimulate to rise by our labor. If these first-beginnings did not exist, you would see all sorts of things arise from the fields spontaneously and in greater perfection without the the need for our labors!
 Next, we observe that over time Nature dissolves everything back into its own first bodies, but that Nature does not totally annihilate anything. If all things were made up of parts that could perish entirely, we would see things snatched away to destruction in an instant from before our eyes. No force would be needed to disrupt their parts and undo their fastenings. In fact, however, all things consist of imperishable elements, and we see that Nature destroys nothing until a thing encounters a force sufficient to dash it to pieces by blows or by being pierced and broken up from within.
 If time utterly destroys things when they age, and eats up all their elements to nothing, out of what does Venus bring back into the light of life all living things, each after its kind? Or, as we see that living things are brought back, out of what does the earth give them nourishment and growth? Out of what do the earth’s fountains and rivers keep full the sea? Out of what does nature feed the stars? For infinite time has gone by already, and the passing of days would necessarily have consumed all things to nothing if they were composed of mortal elements. So if despite the eternity of time that has gone by those things which we see today continue to exist, then those things are no doubt composed of immortal elements which cannot return to nothing.
 And now to resume the thread of my design: All nature is founded on two things: (1) bodies and (2) empty space, or void, in which these bodies are placed and through which they move about. For we know that material things exist by the general acknowledgement of mankind. Unless, at the very first, we firmly ground our conviction that the material things we perceive directly do in fact exist, there will be nothing to which we can appeal to prove anything by the reasoning of the mind, especially in regard to those things that we only perceive indirectly. In the same way, we must acknowledge that if void and empty space do not exist, bodies could not be placed anywhere nor move about in any direction, as we see that they do move.
Moreover there is nothing which you can affirm to exist except matter and void – nothing which would constitute a third kind of nature. For whatever exists as an entity must itself be composed of these two things. If a thing exists at all and can be touched in however slight a way, no matter how large or small it may be, it must be counted as a part of the total sum of material things. But if a thing is intangible and unable to hinder any thing from passing through it on any side, then this is what we call “the void.” Whatever exists as an entity will either do something itself or will allow other things that do exist to do things to it. But nothing can do or allow things to be done to it unless it has a material existence, and nothing can furnish room in which material things can act except the void. Thus besides void and material things no third nature can exist, because no third nature can at any time be observed by our senses or conceived by our reasoning minds.
 To say as one philosopher does that all things are fire, and that nothing really exists except fire, is sheer insanity. For this man takes his stand on the side of the senses at the same time that he fights against the senses. His argument challenges the authority of the senses, on which rests all our convictions, even his own conviction about this fire (as he calls it) that is known only to himself. For what he is saying is that he believes that the senses can truly perceive fire, but he does not believe they can perceive all other things, which are not a bit less clear! Now this is clearly as false as it is foolish, for to what shall we appeal to resolve the question? What more certain test can we apply but that of the senses to judge truth and falsehood? Why should anyone choose to abolish all other things that we see and choose to leave only fire? Why not abolish fire, and hold that all nature is composed of all other things besides fire? It would be equal madness to affirm either one or the other position.
[ Now mark and learn what remains to be known and hear it more distinctly. My mind does not fail to perceive how dark these things are — but the great hope of praise has smitten my heart, and at the same time has struck into my heart sweet love of the muses. Now, inspired by those muses, I travel in thought the pathless fields never yet walked by any man. I approach and drink from untasted springs, and I gather for my head a crown of flowers from places where the muses have never before crowned the brows of men. I do this because I teach great things, I endeavor to release the mind from the bonds of religion, and I do so by means of verses inlaid with the charm of the muses themselves.
And I compose in verse for the same reason that doctors, when dispensing nauseous wormwood to children, first smear the rim of their medicine-cup with honey. Doctors do this so that the unthinking child may take the bitter medicine at least as far as his lips, and drink it up, fooled but not betrayed, but brought to health again by double-dealing. In my case, since my doctrine seems somewhat bitter at first, and many shrink back from it, I set forth to you our doctrine in sweet-toned verses, overlaid with the pleasant honey of the muses, so that by such means I may engage your mind on the truth of these verses until you clearly perceive the essential nature of things./p>
It is sweet, when winds trouble the waters on the great sea, to behold from land the distress of others, not because it is a pleasure that any should be afflicted, but because it is sweet to see from what evils you are yourself exempt. It is sweet also to look upon the mighty struggles of armies arrayed in battle without sharing yourself in the danger. But nothing is more welcome than to hold lofty and serene positions that are well fortified by the learning of the wise. From here you may look down upon others and see them wandering, going astray in their search for the correct path of life, and contesting among themselves their intellect, their station in life, and striving night and day with tremendous effort to struggle up to the summit of power and be masters of the world.
O miserable minds of men! O blinded hearts! In what darkness of life and in what great danger you pass this term of life, whatever its duration. How can you choose not to see that Nature craves for herself no more than this: that the body feel no pain, and the mind enjoy pleasure exempt from care and fear?
We see that by nature the body needs but little — only such things as take away pain. Although at times luxuries can provide us many choice delights, Nature for her part does not need them, and never misses it when there are no golden images of youths throughout the house, holding in their right hands flaming lamps to light the nightly banquet. Nature cares not a bit when the house does not shine with silver or glitter with gold, or when there are no paneled and gilded roofs to echo the sound of harp. Men who lack such things are just as happy when they spread themselves in groups on soft grass beside a stream of water under the limbs of a high tree, and at no great cost pleasantly refresh their bodies, especially when the weather smiles and the seasons sprinkle the green grass with flowers. Nor does fever leave the body any sooner if you toss about under an elegant bedspread amid bright purple linens than if you must lay under a poor man’s blanket.
Since treasure is of no avail to the body, any more than is high birth or the glory of kingly power, by this we see that treasure and high birth are not necessary for the mind either. When you see your legions swarm over the battleground, strengthened front and rear by powerful reserves and strong cavalry, well armed and in high spirits, do you find that these scare away the fears of religion, and that fear of the gods flees panic-stricken from your mind? Or do you find that when you see your navy sail forth and spread itself far and wide over the waters, does that drive away the fear of death and leave your heart untroubled and free from care?
We see that this is laughable, because in truth the real fears and cares of men do not run from the clash of arms and weapons. If these same fears trouble kings and caesars, and if their fears are not quieted by the glitter of gold or the brilliance of the purple robe, how can you suspect that these matters can be resolved by reason alone, when the whole of life is a struggle in the dark?
For even as children are terrified and dread all things in the thick darkness, thus we in the daylight fear at times things not a bit more to be dreaded than those which children shudder at in the dark and imagine to be true. Therefore this terror and darkness of mind must be dispelled, not by the rays of the sun and glittering shafts of day, but by a clear view of the law of Nature.
 But some in opposition to our views, and ignorant of the nature of things, believe that without the providence of gods nature could not vary the seasons of the year and bring forth crops. Such men do not see those things that are done through the agency of divine pleasure, the guide of life, which leads men to continue their race, through the arts of Venus, that mankind may not come to an end. Now when they suppose that the gods designed all things for the sake of men, they seem to me in all respects to have strayed most widely from true reason. For even if I did not know what atoms are, yet judging by the very arrangements of heaven I would venture to affirm and maintain: This World has by no means been made for us by divine power, so great are the defects with which it stands encumbered.
 This point too, we should understand: when bodies are borne downwards through void by their own weight, at quite uncertain times and uncertain places they push themselves a little from their course: you can only just call it a change of inclination. If they did not swerve, they would all fall down, like drops of rain, through the deep void, and no clashing would have been begotten nor blow produced among these first-beginnings, and thus nature would never have produced anything.
But if anyone happens to believe that heavier bodies are carried more quickly sheer through space and fall from above on the lighter bodies and so beget blows able to produce begetting motions, he goes most widely astray from true reason. For whenever bodies fall through water and thin air, they quicken their descents in proportion to their weights, because the body of water and the subtle nature of air cannot retard everything in equal degree, but more readily give way and are overpowered by the heavier. On the other hand, empty void cannot offer resistance to anything in any direction at any time, but must, as is its nature, continually give way. For this reason all things are moved and borne along with equal velocity through the unresisting void, though they are of unequal weights. Therefore heavier things will never be able to fall from above on lighter nor of themselves to beget blows sufficient to produce the varied motions by which nature carries on things. Wherefore again and again I say bodies must swerve a little; and yet not more than the least possible; lest we be found to be imagining oblique motions, and this the reality should refute. For this we see to be plain and evident, that weighty things cannot travel obliquely when they fall from above at least so far as can be perceived. But that nothing swerves to any degree case from the straight course, who is there that can perceive?
Again, is all motion forever linked together, and does new motion always spring from another in a fixed order? If first-beginnings do not, by swerving, make some commencement of motion to break through the decrees of fate, so that one cause does not follow another cause from eternity, how have all living creatures here on earth wrested from the fates the power by which we go forward whichever way the will leads, by which we likewise change the direction of our motions neither at a fixed time nor at a fixed place, but when and where the mind itself has prompted? Beyond doubt in these things a man’s own will determines each beginning, and from this beginning motions travel through the limbs.
Do you not also see, when the gates are thrown open at a given moment, that the eager powers of the horses cannot start forward so instantaneously as their minds desire? The whole store of matter throughout the body must be sought out in order that, stirred up through all the frame, it may follow with undivided effort the leading of the mind. By this you see that the beginning of motion is born in the heart, and the action first commences in the will of the mind and is next transmitted throughout the body and frame.
Quite different is the case when we move on, propelled by a stroke inflicted by the compulsion of another. In that case, it is quite clear that all the matter of the whole body moves against our inclination, until the will has reined it in throughout the limbs. Do you see then in this case that, though an outward force often pushes men on and compels them frequently to advance against their will, there yet is something in our breast sufficient to struggle against and resist it? And when, too, this something chooses, the matter of the body is compelled to change its course through the limbs and frame, and after it has been forced forward, it is reined in and settles back into its place.
For this reason in first-beginnings too you must admit that besides outside blows and weight there is another cause of motion, from which our power of free action has been begotten within us, since we see that nothing can come from nothing. Weight alone would require that all things were overmastered and caused by blows from outward forces. But the mind itself does not feel an internal necessity in all its actions, and it is not overmastered and compelled to bear and put up with this. Rather, the freedom of the mind is caused by a minute swerving of first beginnings at no fixed place and no fixed time.
Nor was the universe as a whole ever more closely massed nor held apart by larger spaces between; for nothing is either added to its bulk or lost to it. For that reason the bodies of the first-beginnings in times gone by have always moved in the same way in which now they move, and they will ever hereafter be borne along in like manner, and the things which have been begotten will be begotten after the same law and will grow and will wax in strength so far as is given to each by the decrees of Nature. No force can change the sum of things; for there is nothing outside the universe, either into which any matter from the universe can escape, or out of which a new supply of matter can arise and burst into the universe and change the Nature of things and alter their motions.
 For by nature of the gods must always in themselves of necessity enjoy immortality together with supreme repose, far removed and withdrawn from our concerns. This is because a god is exempt from every pain, exempt from all dangers, strong in its own resources, not wanting anything of us, and it neither gains by favors nor is moved by anger.
And if any one thinks proper to call the sea Neptune and corn Ceres and chooses rather to misuse the name of Bacchus than to utter the term that belongs to that liquor, let us allow him to declare that the earth is mother of the gods, if he will in truth forbear from staining his mind with foul religion.
The earth however is at all time without feeling, and because it receives into it the first-beginnings of many things, it brings them forth in many ways into the light of the sun. And so the woolly flocks and the martial breed of horses and horned herds, though often beneath the same sky slaking their thirst from one stream of water, yet have all their life a dissimilar appearance and retain the Nature of their parents and severally imitate their ways each after its kind. So great is the diversity of matter in any kind of herbage, so great in every river! And hence, too, any one you please out of the whole number of living creatures is made up of bones, blood, vein, heat, moisture, flesh, sinews; and these things again differ widely from one another and are composed of first-beginnings of unlike shape.
Furthermore, whatever things are set on fire and burned, have stored up in their bodies, if nothing else, at least those particles out of which they radiate fire and send out light and make sparks fly and scatter embers all about. If you will go over all other things by a like process of reasoning, you will thus find that they conceal in their body the seeds of many things and contain elements of various shapes. Again you see many things to which are given at once both color and taste together with smell; especially those many offerings which are burned on the altars. These must therefore be made up of elements of different shapes; for smell enters in where color does not pass, color is sensed in one way, and taste in another; so that you know they differ in the shapes of their first elements. Therefore different forms unite into one mass, and things are made up of a mixture of seeds.
 Moreover, throughout these very verses of ours you see many elements common to many words, though yet you must admit that the verses and words are different and composed of different elements. Only a few letters that are in common run through them, and no two words or verses one with another are made up entirely of the same, and as a rule they do not all resemble one the other. In the same way, although in all things there are many first-beginnings common to many things, yet they can make up together a quite dissimilar whole, so that men and corn and trees may fairly be said to consist of different elements.
And yet we may not suppose that all things can be joined together in all ways. If that were possible, then you would see prodigies produced everywhere, such as forms springing up half-man half-beast, tall branches sprouting from an animal’s body, limbs of land-creatures joined with those of sea-animals, and even chimeras which breathe flames from noisy mouths. It is plain to see, however, that nothing of the sort occurs, since we see that all things are produced from fixed seeds, and a fixed mother can preserve the mark of her kind. This you must realize takes place due to a fixed law of nature. For the particles of food suitable for each thing pass into the frame and join together to produce the appropriate motions of the organism. But on the other hand we see Nature throw out on the earth things that are alien, and many things are ejected from the body as if impelled by blows – those I mean which have not been able to join on to any part, nor when inside the body to feel in unison with and adopt the vital motions of that body.
But lest you should happen to suppose that living things alone are bound by these conditions, such a law keeps all things within their limits. For even as all created things are in their whole nature unlike each other, thus each must consist of first-beginnings of unlike shape; not that a small number of things that are of a like form, because as a rule all things do not resemble one the other. Since the seeds differ, there must be between the atoms a difference in the spaces between their passages, their connections, their weights, their collisions, and their motions; all which not only separate living bodies, but hold apart the lands and the sea, and separate the heaven from the earth.
 Apply now, I entreat you, your mind to true reason. For a new question struggles earnestly to gain your ears, a new aspect of things to display itself. But there is nothing so easy which is not at first more difficult to believe than afterwards; and nothing so great or so marvelous that all do not gradually lose their wonder at it.
Look up at the bright and unsullied hue of heaven and the stars which it holds within it, wandering all about, and the moon and the sun’s light of dazzling brilliancy: if all these things were now for the first time suddenly and unexpectedly presented to mortal men, what could be named that would be more marvelous than these things, or that men beforehand would believe to be possible? Nothing, I think — so wondrous and strange would be the sight.
Yet weary as all are to haven seen these things, how little any one now cares to look up into heaven’s glittering quarters. Cease therefore to be dismayed by the novelty which causes you to fearfully reject reason from your mind. Instead, weigh the questions with keen judgment, and if they seem to you to be true, surrender to them, or if they are appear false, gird yourself for battle with them. For since the sum of space is unlimited beyond the walls of this world, the mind seeks to apprehend what there is out there, and the spirit ever yearns to look forward to that toward which the mind’s thoughts reach in free and unembarrassed flight.
It is you– you who were first able amid such thick darkness to raise on high so bright a beacon and shed light on the true interests of life. It is you I follow, glory of the Greek race. And I now plant my footsteps firmly in those you have left, not because I desire to rival you, but because the love I bear for you causes me to yearn to imitate you. For why should a swallow contend with swans, and what likeness is there between the racing of goats with tottering legs and the powerful strength of horses?
You, father, are the discoverer of things, and you furnish us with fatherly precepts. Like bees sipping from flowers, we, O glorious one, in like manner feed from out thy pages on golden maxims – golden I say – that are most worthy of endless life. For as soon as your philosophy, issuing from your godlike intellect, has begun to proclaim the Nature of things, the terrors of the mind are dispelled, and the walls of the world fly open. I see things in operation throughout the whole universe – I see the divinity of the gods as well as their tranquil abodes which neither winds shake nor clouds drench with rain nor snow harms with sharp frosts. An ever cloudless sky canopies them, and they laugh a with light shed in all directions. Nature supplies all their wants, and nothing ever impairs their peace of mind.
But on the other hand the regions of Hell are nowhere to be seen, though earth is no bar seeing all things which are in operation underneath our feet throughout the universe. At the sight of all this a kind of godlike delight mixed with awe overcomes me, to think that Nature by your power is laid open to our eyes and unveiled on every side.
So far, I have shown in what way all things have their first beginnings, of such diverse shapes, which fly spontaneously on in everlasting motion, and how all things are produced out of these. Next, my verses much clear up the nature of the mind and soul, and drive the dread of Hell headlong away, since that dread troubles the life of man from its inmost depths, and overspreads all things with the blackness of death, allowing no pleasure to be pure and unalloyed.
For as to those boasts that men often give out, that “disease and a life of shame are more to be feared than Tartarus’ place of death,” or that “they know the soul to be of blood or wind,” according to how their choice happens to direct, or that “they have no need at all of our philosophy” – you may perceive for the following reasons that all these boasts are made for the sake of glory than because those things are really believed. For we see that such men, no matter their boasting that they have no need of philosophy, go on offering sacrifices to the dead, slaughtering black sheep, making libations to the gods, and turning their thoughts to religion ever more earnestly, even when their religion has failed to prevent them from being exiled from their country, banished far from the sight of men, living degraded by foul charges of guilt, and sunk into every kind of misery.
You can best test the man when he is in doubt and danger, and when he is amid adversity learn who he really is. For then, and not until then, are the words of truth are forced out from the bottom of his heart. His mask is torn off, and the reality is left. Avarice and blind lust for honors lead unhappy men to overstep the bounds of right, and as partners and agents of crime to strive night and day with tremendous effort to struggle up to the summit of power. Such sores of life are in no small measure fostered by the dread of death. For foul scorn and knawing needs are seen to be far removed from a life of pleasure and security, and are thought to be the same as loitering before the gates of death.
And men are driven on by an unreal dread, wishing to escape and keep the gates of death far away. They amass wealth by civil bloodshed and greedily double their riches, piling up murder on murder. Such men cruelly celebrate the sad death of a brother, and hate and fear the tables of their relatives. Often, from the same fear, envy causes them to grieve, and they moan that before their very eyes another person is powerful, famous, and walks arrayed in gorgeous dignity, while they are wallowing in darkness and dirt. Some wear themselves to death for the sake of statues and a famous name. Often men dread death to such a degree that hate of life and the sight of daylight seizes them so that in their sorrow they commit suicide, quite forgetting that this fear of death was the source of their worries. Fear of death prompts some men to forsake all sense of shame, and others to burst asunder the bonds of friendship, overturning duty at its very base. Often men even betray their country and their parents in seeking to escape the realms of Hell. For even as children are flurried and dread all things in the thick darkness, thus we in the daylight fear things not a bit more to be dreaded than what children shudder at in the dark and fancy to be real. This terror and darkness of mind must be dispelled, not by the rays of the sun and glittering shafts of day, but by the study of the law of Nature.
 First I say that the mind, which we often call the understanding, in which dwells the directing and governing principle of life, is no less part of the man than hand and foot and eyes are part of the whole living creature.
 We are not however to suppose that the nature of the mind is single. For a certain subtle spirit mixed with heat quits men at death, and then the heat draws air along with it, for there is no heat which does not have air mixed with it, as its nature is rare, and many first beginnings of air must move about through it. Thus the nature of the mind is proved to be threefold; and yet these things all together are not sufficient to produce sensation; since the nature of the case does not allow that any of these can produce sense-giving motions and the thoughts which a man turns over in his mind.
Thus some fourth Nature must be added to these. This fourth nature has no name, and nothing exists more nimble or more fine or of smaller or smoother elements than this. This fourth nature transmits the sense-giving motions through the frame; for it stirs first, as it is made up of small particles. Next the heat and the unseen force of the spirit receive the motions, then the air and all things are set in action, the blood is stirred, and every part of the flesh is filled with sensation. Last of all, whether it be pleasure or pain, the feeling is transmitted to the bones and marrow. No pain can lightly pierce to the bone, nor any sharp malady make its way in, without all things being so thoroughly disordered that no room is left for life, and the parts of the soul fly abroad through all the pores of the body. But in most instances a stop is put to these motions on the surface of the body, and for this reason we are able to retain life.
Now I will try to explain in what way these things are mixed together, by what means they are united, and when they exert their powers. The poverty of my native language deters me against my will, but I will touch upon them in summary fashion to the best of my ability:
The first-beginnings are by their mutual motions interlaced in such a way that none of them can be separated by itself, nor can the function of any first-beginning go on when divided from the rest by any interval – for these functions provide their several powers when of one body. Even so, in any flesh of living creature without exception there is smell and some color and taste, out of all of which is made up one single body. Thus the heat and the air and the unseen power of the spirit mix together to produce a single nature and a nimble force which transmits to the body the origin of motion, and by this means means sense-giving motion first arises through the body. This Nature lurks secreted in the body’s innermost depths, and nothing in our body is farther beneath all sight than this, which is the very soul of the soul.
In the same way as the power of the mind and the function of the soul are latent in our limbs and throughout our body, and each part is formed of small bodies, this nameless power made of minute bodies is the very soul of the soul, reigning supreme in the whole body.
 In many other aspects there must be differences between the varied natures of men and the tempers which follow from these, though at present I am unable to set forth the hidden causes of these or to find names enough for the different shapes of the first-beginnings, from which shapes arise the diversity of things. What I think I may affirm, however, is this: those traces of the different natures which reason is unable to expel from us are so exceedingly slight that there is nothing to hinder us from living lives worthy of gods.
 So invariably truth wins over false reason and cuts off all retreat from the assailant, and by a two-fold refutation puts falsehood to rout.
 Death is nothing nothing to us, concerning us not at all, since the nature of the mind is mortal. Think how in times gone by we felt no distress when the Carthaginians from all sides came together to do battle, and all things were shaken by war’s troubling uproar, shuddering and quaking beneath high heaven, and mortal men were in doubt which of the two peoples it would be whose empire would fall by land and sea. So the same applies when we ourselves shall be no more, when our body and soul are separated, out of the both of which we are formed into a single being. You may be sure that for us, who shall then be no more, nothing whatever can happen to excite sensation, not if earth itself should be overturned to mingle with the sea and the sea with heaven.
And even supposing the nature of the mind and power of the soul do have feeling, after they have been severed from our body, that is still nothing to us, who by the marriage of body and soul are formed into one single being. And even if time should gather up after our death that material from which we are made and put it once more into the position in which it now holds, and give the light of life to us again – even this result even would not concern us at all. This is because the chain of our self-consciousness has been snapped asunder, just as we now have no concern about any life which the material from which we are made might have held before our birth, nor do we feel any distress about that prior life. When you look back on the whole past course of immeasurable time, and think how many are the combinations which the motions of matter take, you may easily believe that the very same seeds from which we are now formed have often before been placed in the same order in which they now are. And yet we can recall no memory of this — a break in our existence has been interposed, and all the materials from which we are made have wandered to and fro, far astray from the sensations they once produced.
For he to whom evil befalls must exist as his own person at the time that evil comes, if the misery and suffering are to happen to him at all. But since death precludes this, and takes away the existence of him on whom evil can be brought, you may be sure that we have nothing to fear after death. He who does not exist cannot become miserable, and once death has taken away his mortal life, it does not matter at all whether he has lived at any other time.
Therefore when you see a man bemoaning his hard life, worrying that after death he shall either rot with his body laid in the grave, or be devoured by flames, or by the jaws of wild beasts, you may be sure that there lurks in his heart a secret fear, though he may declare that he does not believe that any sense will remain to him after death. Such a man does not really hold the conclusion which he professes to hold, nor believe the principle which he professes. For such a man may profess that his body is fully dead, but yet unconsciously imagine something of self to survive, and worry that that birds and beasts will rend his body after death, moaning for his end. Such a man does not separate himself from what remains after he has died, and instead he fancies himself to be those remains, and he stands by and impregnates those remains with his own sensations.
For this reason he makes much of bemoaning that he has been born mortal, and he does not see that after death there will be no other self to remain and lament to itself that hehas met death, and to stand and grieve that he is lying there mangled or burnt. For if it is an evil to be pulled about by the devouring jaws of wild beasts after death, I cannot see why it should not be just as cruel a pain to be laid on fires and burn in hot flames, or to be placed in honey and stifled, or to stiffen with cold, stretched on the smooth surface of an icy slab of stone, or to be pressed down and crushed by a load of earth above.
Some men say to themselves:
“No more shall my house admit me with glad welcome, nor a virtuous wife and sweet children run to be the first to snatch kisses and touch my heart with joy. No more may I be prosperous in my doings, a safeguard to my own. One disastrous day has taken from me, luckless man, all the many prizes of life.”
But these men do not add:
“And now no longer does any craving for these things beset me either.”
For if these men could rightly perceive this in thought, and follow up the thought in words, they would release themselves from great distress and apprehension of mind:
“You, even as you are now, sunk in the sleep of death, shall continue so to be so for all time to come, freed from all distressful pains. But we who remain, with a sorrow that could not be healed, wept for you when close you turned to an ashen heap on your funeral pile, and no length of days shall pluck from our hearts our ever-during grief.”
To those who mourn for the dead, this question should be asked:
“What is there in death so extremely bitter, if it comes in the end to sleep and rest, that anyone should pine over the dead in never-ending sorrow?”
This too men often love to say, when they have reclined at table, cup in hand, and shaded their brows with crowns:
”Short is this enjoyment for poor weak men; presently it will have passed and never after may it be called back!”
Such men say this as if, after their death, their chief affliction will be thirst and parching drought, burning them up, luckless wretches, or craving for any thing else. What folly! No one feels the need for himself and life when mind and body are together sunk in sleep. For all we care, this sleep might be everlasting, and no craving whatever for ourselves would move us. And yet those first beginnings throughout our frame wander far away from their sense-producing motions before a man starts up from sleep and collects himself. Death therefore must be thought to concern us much less than sleep, if less there can be than what we see to be nothing during sleep, for a greater dispersion of our first-beginnings follows after death, and no one wakes up once the chill cessation of life has come.
If Nature could suddenly utter a voice and address us in person, she might use words such as these:
“Why do you, O mortal, go on to such length in sickly sorrow? Why do you bemoan and bewail death? For have you had a good life, and do you say that the life you have lost has been welcome to you, and that your blessings have not all been poured as if into a perforated jar, from which they have run through and been lost to no avail? If your life has been so blessed, why not then depart from life like a guest filled with food and drink as if at the end of a party, and with relief that it is over enter upon untroubled rest?”
“But if on the other hand you have had a bad life, and all that you enjoyed has been squandered and lost, and if life is a grievance to you, why seek to continue that life any longer, to be wasted in its turn and utterly lost for nothing? Why not rather make an end of life and its troubles? For there is nothing more which I can contrive for you to give you pleasure. All things are always the same, and even if your body is not yet decayed with age nor worn out and exhausted, yet all things will remain the same, even if you should outlast all men now living — even if you should never die!”
What answer could we give to Nature, but that her case is well-founded and that she pleads it honestly and well?
If, however, a man more advanced in years should complain about his death more than is right, would Nature not with even greater cause raise her voice in words such as these:
“Away with thy tears, rascal; a truce to your complaining. Your death comes after full enjoyment of all the prizes of life. Because you nevertheless yearn for what you do not have, and despise what you do have, life has slipped from your grasp unfinished and unsatisfied. And now, before you expected it, death has taken its stand at your bedside, before you can take your departure satisfied and filled with good things. Give up those things that are unsuited to your age, and with good grace and nobility get up and go: you must.”
Nature’s charge would be brought with good reason, for old things must give way and be supplanted by the new, and new things must ever be replenished out of old things. No one is delivered over to the pit and black Tartarus to be utterly destroyed — matter is needed for future generations to grow. All of these, too, will follow you when you have finished your term of life, just as all those that have come before and after, no less than you, have and always will come to their own ends. Thus one thing will never cease to rise out of another — life is granted to none to possess forever, to all it is only a loan. Think how the bygone antiquity of everlasting time before our birth was nothing to us. Nature holds those ancient days up to us as a mirror of the time yet to come after our death. Is there anything in this that looks appalling, anything that appearsf gloomy? Is this not a rest more untroubled than any sleep?
To be sure, those things which are fabled to exist deep in Hell do in fact exist for us in this life:
In truth there is no Tantalus, poor wretch, numbed by groundless terror as the story goes, fearing a huge stone hanging in the air above him. In life, however, a baseless dread of the gods terrifies men, and the falling rock they fear is the bad luck that chance brings to each one.
Nor do birds eat away into the breast of Tityos in Hell nor could they find during eternity enough food to peck from his large breast. However huge the bulk of his body, even if with outspread limbs he took up the space not of nine acres, as the story goes, but of the whole earth — even so he would not be able to endure everlasting pain and supply food from his body forever. But in our own world we know men such as Tityos: those who, groveling in love, or torn by troubled thoughts from any other passion, are eaten up by bitter anguish as if by vultures.
In life, too, we have a Sisyphus before our eyes. Such is the man who is bent on seeking political office, constantly seeking political power, but who always retires defeated and disappointed. To ask for power, empty as it is, but to never find it despite the constant chase for it — this is forcing uphill a stone which, after all one’s effort, rolls back again from the summit and in headlong haste finds once again the levels of the plain.
Then there are those men who are always feeding their insatiable desires, who can never to fill full and satisfy it with good things, as do the seasons of the year for us, when they come round and bring their fruits and varied delights. These men are never filled with the enjoyments of life, and so they are like the maidens of legend, who keep pouring water into a perforated vessel which in spite of all their work can never be filled.
In addition, Cerberus and the Furies are idle tales, and Tartarus as well, belching forth hideous fires from his throat. Such things have never existed anywhere, and in truth can never exist. But there is in life a dread of punishment for evil deeds: the prison, the frightful hurling down from the rock, the scourgings, the executioners, the dungeon of the doomed, and the torches. And even when these do not come, yet the conscience-stricken mind torments itself with fear of the fire and the lash, and sees no end to such punishment fearing that those very evils will be enhanced after death.
In these ways, the life of fools at length becomes a hell here on earth.
This too you may sometimes say to yourself, “Even worthy Ancus has seen his eyes close to the light, and he was a far better man than you. And since then many other kings and potentates have been laid low. Even that great king who once paved a way over the sea as a path for his legions to march, and taught them to pass on foot over the roaring of the sea, trampling on it with his horses, had the light taken from him and shed forth his soul from his dying body. Even the son of the Scipios, thunderbolt of war, terror of Carthage, yielded his bones to earth just as if he were the lowest laborer. Think, too, of the inventors of all sciences and arts, think of those such as Homer, who was without a peer, but yet now sleeps the same sleep as the others. Then there was Democritus who, when he found that his memory was failing him in old age, offered up himself to death. Even Epicurus himself, who surpassed in intellect all other men and quenched the light of all rivals, as the sun quenches the stars, passed away when his light of life had run its course.
Will you then hesitate and think it a hardship for you to die? You for whom life is not far from death even while you yet live and see the light of day? You, who spends the greater part of your time in sleep, and snore even when you are wide awake, and never cease seeing visions? You, who have a mind troubled with groundless terrors, and cannot discover what it is that troubles you? You, pitiful man that you are, pressed on all sides with many cares, who constantly stray due to the tumbled wanderings of your mind?
If, just as men feel the weight of the load on their minds which oppresses them, they would understand from what causes this load is produced, and why such a weight lies on their hearts, they would not spend their lives as we see most of them do. Such men never know – any one of them – what they want, and thus always seek a change of place as though they might there lay down their burdens. Men who are sick of being home often issue forth from their mansions, but just as suddently come back to it, once they find that they are no better off abroad. Such men race to their country-house, driving his horses in headlong haste as if hurrying to bring help to a house on fire. But then the moment he reaches the door of his house he yawns, and sinks heavily into sleep, seeking forgetfulness, or even in haste goes back again to town.
In this way each man flies from himself, but as you may be sure is commonly the case, he cannot escape from himself, which always clings to him against his wishes. Such a man hates himself because he is sick, but does not know not the cause of his sickness. For if he could rightly see into these matters, giving up all other distractions, he would study to learn the Nature of things, since the point at stake is his condition – not for one hour – but for eternity: the state in which all mortals must pass all the time which remains after death.
Once more, what evil lust for life is this which constrains us with such force to be so troubled by doubt and danger? A set term of life is fixed for all mortals, and death cannot be avoided — meet it we must. Moreover, we are always engaged in the same pursuits, and no new pleasure is available by living on. But so long as we crave what we lack, that desire seems to transcend all the rest. When once it is obtained, we then crave something else, and ever does the same thirst for life possess us, as we gape for with open mouth.
It is quite doubtful what fortune the future will bring with it, or what chance will bring us, or what end is at hand. Nor, by prolonging life, do we take one moment from the time we pass in death, nor can we by worrying spend a moment less in the eternity of death. You may live as many generations as you please during your life, but nonetheless everlasting death will await you. For the man who ended his life today will be no less time in nonexistence than the man who died many months or many years ago.
I TRAVERSE the pathless haunts of the Pierides never yet walked by feet of man. I love to approach the untasted springs and to drink from them, and to cull fresh flowers and gather for my head a distinguished crown from spots where the muses have never yet veiled the brows of any man. This is because I teach of great things and work to release the mind from the tight bonds of religious fears, and because on a dark subject I pen lucid verses overlaid with the muses’ charm.
And I teach through verse for good reason: Physicians, when they propose to give nauseous wormwood to children, first smear the rim of the bowl with the sweetness of honey, so that the unthinking child will be fooled as far as his lips, and drink up the bitter medicine. Though fooled, such child is not betrayed, but rather by such means recovers health and strength. In the same way, since this doctrine seems bitter to those by whom it has not been tried, and the multitude shrinks back from it in dismay, I have resolved to set forth to you our doctrine in sweet-toned verse, and overlay it with the pleasant honey of the muses. By such means I aim to engage your mind on my verses, until such time as you come to understand the Nature of things and thoroughly grasp the the use of this knowledge.
 Many are the other marvels … we see which seek to shake the credit of the senses. But such efforts are quite in vain, since the greatest part of these cases deceive us on account of the opinions which we add ourselves, taking things as seen which have not been seen by the senses. For nothing is harder than to separate those facts that are clearly true from those that are doubtful, which the mind adds itself.
And if a man contends that nothing can be known, he knows not whether this contention itself can be known, since he admits that he knows nothing. I will therefore decline to argue the question against him who places his head where his feet should be. And yet granting that he knows his contention to be true, I would still put this question: Since he has never yet seen any truth in things, how does he know what “knowing” and “not knowing” are? What has produced his knowledge of the difference between the true and the false, and between the doubtful and the certain?
You will find that it is from the senses that comes all knowledge of the true, and that the senses cannot be refuted. For that which is of itself able to distinguish the false from the true must from the Nature of the case be proved with a higher certainty. Well, then, what can fairly be accounted of higher certainty than the senses? Shall reasoning founded on the senses be able to contradict those same senses, when that reasoning is wholly founded on the senses? If the senses are not true, then all reasoning based on them is rendered false. Shall the ears be able to take the eyes to task, or the sense of touch take ears to task? Shall the sense of taste call in question the sense of touch, or the nostrils refute it or the eyes controvert it? Not so, for each separately has its own distinct office, each its own power. We therefore must perceive what is soft and cold or hot by one distinct faculty, and by another perceive the different colors of things and thus see all objects which have color. Taste too is a separate faculty; smells spring from one source, sounds from another. It therefore must follow that any one sense cannot confute any other. Nor can any sense take itself to task, since equal credit must be assigned to it at all times. What therefore has at any time appeared true to each sense, is true.
And so if you find your reason is unable to explain the cause why things which, seen close at hand, are square, but at distance appear round, it is better, if you are at a loss for a reason, to state an erroneous cause, than to let slip from your grasp on any side those things which are manifestly true, and in so doing ruin the groundwork of belief and wrench up all the foundations on which life and existence rest. For not only would all reason give way, but life itself would at once fall to the ground unless you choose to trust the senses, shunning the precipices and errors of this sort that are to be avoided, and pursuing the opposite. All that host of words drawn out in array against the senses is quite without meaning.
Once more: As in a building, if the rule first applied by the builder is awry, and the square is untrue and swerves from its straight lines, and if there is the slightest hitch in any part of the level, all the construction must be faulty, all must be awry, crooked, sloping, leaning forwards, leaning backwards, without symmetry, so that some parts seem ready to fall, and others do fall, all ruined by the first erroneous measurements. So too, all reasoning of things which is founded on false interpretations of the senses will prove to be distorted and false.
 Everyone as a rule fall towards their wound, and their blood spurts out in the direction from whence comes the blow by which we are struck. And if he is at close quarters, the red stream of blood covers the foe.
Thus he who is struck by the weapons of Venus, whatever be the object that hits him, inclines to the direction from where he is wounded, and yearns to unite with it and join body with body, a mute desire giving a presage of the pleasure to come.
This pleasure is called by us Venus; from that desire comes the Latin name of love. From this desire first trickles into the heart a drop of Venus’ honeyed joy, succeeded soon by chilly cares, for even when that which you love is away, still images of it are at hand and its sweet name is present to the ears.
But it is best to flee such images, and scare away all that feeds love, and turn your mind to another object. It is best to distract your passions elsewhere and not keep your thoughts set on the object of, for in so doing you lay up for yourself cares and unfailing pain. For the sore gathers strength and becomes stronger by feeding, and every day the madness grows in violence. The misery then becomes aggravated unless you erase the first wounds by new blows, and heal them when yet fresh, roaming elsewhere after Venus, or transfering to something else the emotions of your mind.
And he who shuns love is not without the fruits of Venus, but rather seeks to enjoy only those blessings which are do not bring with them any pain. It is certain that the pleasure from such things is more unalloyed for the healthy-minded than for the love-sick, for in the very moment of enjoyment the burning desire of lovers wavers and wanders undecided, and they cannot tell what first to enjoy with eyes and hands. What they have sought they tightly squeeze, causing pain of body, and often imprinting their teeth on the lips, clashing mouth to mouth in kissing. In such cases the pleasure is not pure, and there are hidden stings which cause pain and spring those germs of frenzy.
But Venus with light hand breaks the force of these pains during love, and the fond pleasure mingled therein reins in the bites, for one hopes that from the same body from whence springs their burning desire their flame may likewise be quenched. But Nature protests that the very opposite is the truth, for the passion of love is the one thing of all in which, the more we have of it, the more the breast burns with desire.
Meat and drink are taken into the body, and because they can fill up certain fixed parts of it, the craving for drink and bread is easily satisfied. But from the face and beauty of man nothing is given into the body to enjoy but flimsy images; a sorry hope which is often snatched away by the wind. When he is asleep a thirsty man seeks to drink, and though the water does not quench the burning of his thirst, he still seeks the image of waters and toils in vain as he drinks in the midst of an imaginary stream. In the same way Venus mocks lovers with images, for gazing upon bodies cannot satisfy them, nor can lovers with their hands wandering undecided over the whole body rub anything off the soft limbs of the beloved.
At last they unite and enjoy the flower of youth, the body now anticipating delight, with Venus is in the mood to sow the fields of woman, and they greedily clasp each other’s body and suck each other’s lips and breathe in, pressing teeth on each other’s mouth. Yet all this is in vain, since they can rub nothing off nor join their whole bodies, strive as they might to do so, as they are greedily held in the chains of Venus while their limbs melt, overpowered by the pleasure.
At length when the gathered desire has passed, there follows for a brief while a short pause in the burning passion. But then the same frenzy returns, along with the old madness, even though they are at a loss to know what they really desire to get, and cannot find a way to conquer that mischief, and in such utter uncertainty they pine away by a hidden wound.
Then too they waste their strength and ruin themselves by the labor, passing their lives at the beck of the other. Meanwhile their estate melts away and is turned into Babylonian gowns; they neglect their duties and their good name staggers and sickens. On her feet laugh beautiful Sicyonian shoes, yes, and large emeralds with green light set in gold, and a sea-colored dress worn constantly drinks in the sweat.
The noble earnings of their fathers are turned into hair-bands, head-dresses, or sweeping robes and Alidensian dresses. Feasts are set out with rich coverlets and foods, games, cups, perfumes, crowns, and garlands are prepared. But all this is in vain, since out of the well-spring of these delights rises up something bitter, to bring pain amid the very flowers. Either the conscience-stricken mind begins to gnaw itself with remorse to think that it is passing a life of sloth and ruining itself in brothels, or else the lover launches forth some statement of doubtful meaning with words that cleave to the love-sick heart and burn like living fire, or else the lover fancies that she casts her eyes too freely, or looks upon another, and he sees in her face faint traces of a smile.
Such evils as these are found even in love that is lasting and highly prosperous. Even worse, in crossed and hopeless love are so many ills that you may seize them with your eyes closed, as they are past numbering. Thus it is better to watch out for these perils beforehand, in the manner I have prescribed, and be on your guard not to be drawn in to the danger. For to avoid falling into the snares of love is easier than getting out of the net and breaking the strong meshes of Venus after you are caught.
And yet even when you are entangled and held fast, you may still escape the mischief, unless you stand in your own way and overlook all the defects of the mind and body of the person you woo. But men often do this, blinded by passion, and they attribute to the beloved advantages which are not really theirs.
We therefore see women who are manifestly ugly to be objects of endearment, held in the highest admiration. Some lovers jeer at others and advise them to seek the help of Venus, since they are troubled by a disgraceful passion, and often give no thought to their own lover’s ugliness. The lover thinks that the beloved who is filthy and smelly “does not have the love of cleanliness,” the beloved who is stringy and wizened is considered to be “a gazelle;” the beloved who is dumpy and dwarfish is considered to be “from top to toe one of the graces;” the beloved who is big and overgrown is considered to be “awe-inspiring and full of dignity;” the beloved who is dumb is considered to be “bashful;” the beloved who is teasing and gossiping is considered to be “a shining lamp;” the beloved who cannot live from want of flesh is considered to be “a slim darling,” and the beloved who is half-dead with cough is only “slight” – and it is tedious to attempt to report other things of this kind.
However, even if she is of such great dignity of appearance that the very power of Venus shines from all her limbs – remember that there are others too. Remember that you lived without her before you met, and she does all things the same as does an ugly woman, fumigating herself, poor wretch, with nauseous perfumes, her very maids running from her and giggling behind her back. Nevertheless the lover, when shut out, often in tears, covers the threshold with flowers and wreaths, and anoints the haughty doorposts with oil of marjoram, imprinting kisses, poor wretch, on the doors. If he were once admitted, however, and only one single breath should waft his way, he would seek specious reasons for departing, and the long-burning wound would fall to the ground, and he would see his folly, in that he had attributed to her more than is right to concede to a mortal. And our Venuses are well aware of this, so all the more they hide from those whom they wish to retain in the chains of love with the utmost pains all that goes on behind the scenes of life. But all this deception is in vain, since you may still draw forth into the light all these things that are in her mind, and see the truth behind her smiles.
Yet if she is of a fair mind and not troublesome, overlook these games and make allowance for human failings. For the signs of a woman are not always deceptive when she locks the man’s body in her embrace and joins it hers, and holding it and sucking his lips into her lips, drinking in his kisses. Often she does it from the heart, and seeking mutual joy courts him to run the complete race of love. And in no other way could birds, cattle, wild beasts, sheep and mares submit to bear the males, except because the very exuberance of nature in the females burns and joyously draws in the males. Do you not see how those whom mutual pleasure has chained together are often both tortured in their common chains? How often in the highways do dogs, desiring to separate, eagerly pull different ways with all their might, while all the time they are held fast in the strong fetters of Venus! This they would never do unless they experienced mutual joy that is strong enough to force them into the snare and hold them in its meshes. And for this reason again I repeat – there is a common pleasure.
 Sometimes, not by any divine grace or arrows of Venus, a woman of inferior beauty comes to be loved, for the wife sometimes by her own acts and accommodating manners and by elegant neatness of person readily habituates you to pass your life with her. Moreover, habit renders love attractive; for that which is struck by repeated blows, however light the force, yet after long course of time is overpowered and gives way. Do you not see also that falling drops of water after long course of time can even scoop a hole through stone?
WHOSE genius is able to frame a poem worthy of the grandeur of these discoveries? Who is so great a master of words as to be able to compose praises equal to those which he who won such prizes and left them to us deserves? I think no mortal man is up to the task. For if we must speak in terms that the acknowledged grandeur of his discoveries demands, we must consider him a god. For it was he who first discovered that plan of life which is now termed wisdom, and who by trained skill rescued life from such great fog and thick darkness, and who anchored it safely in so perfect a calm and in so brilliant a light. Compare the godlike discoveries of others in ancient times. Ceres is famed for showing mortals the use of corn, and Liber for showing men the vine-born juice of the grape, but life might well have subsisted along without these things, as we are told some nations even now live without them. But a happy life is not possible without a clean heart, and so with greater reason this man is deemed by us to be a god, from whom come those sweet balms of life which even now are distributed over great nations and gently soothe men’s minds.
If you shall suppose that the deeds of Hercules surpass these, you will be carried far away from true reason. For how could the great gaping jaws of the Nemean lion harm us now, or even the bristled Arcadian boar? What could the bull of Crete do, or the Hydra of Lerna, with its venomous snakes? How could the triple-breasted might of threefold Geryon that dwelt in the Stymphalian swamps do us injury, or the horses of Thracian Diomede breathing fire from their nostrils? What harm could the serpent which guards the bright golden apples of the Hesperides, fierce and dangerous of aspect, girding the tree with his enormous body beside the Atlantic shore – what harm could it do to us, as we never go there and no barbarian ventures to approach it?
It is the same with all other monsters of this kind which Hercules destroyed — if they had never been vanquished, what harm could they do, I ask, even if they were now alive? None, I think, for the earth even now abounds with wild beasts throughout the mountains and forests, and yet these are places which we have it within our power to shun.
But unless the heart is cleared, what battles and dangers find their way into our lives! What poignant cares inspired by lust tear apart the pitiful man, and what mighty fears and turmoil are caused by pride, lust, and wantonness? What disasters they they bring about, and what sloth does luxury bring! He who subdued all these and banished them from the mind by words, not by arms – does he not deserve to be ranked among the gods? All the more so because he delivered many precepts in beautiful and god-like phrases about the immortal gods themselves, and opened up to us by his teachings all of the nature of things.
While walking in his footsteps I follow his reasoning and teach by my verses by what law all things are made, and by what necessity there is for them to continue in that law, and how impotent things are to annul the binding statutes of time. Foremost among these teachings is that the Nature of the mind has been formed and born along with the body, and the mind is unable to endure unscathed through eternity, and that it is mere images which mock the mind in sleep, when we seem to see those who have departed life.
The order of my design has now brought me to the point where I must proceed to show that the world also was formed of mortal bodies which have been born from other things. I will also show in what way the union of matter founded the earth, the heaven, the sea, the stars, the sun, and the ball of the moon. I will also show what living creatures sprang out of the earth, and I will show that others never existed. I will show in what way mankind began to use speech according to the names conferred on things, and in what way the fear of the gods gained an entry into men’s hearts which is maintained to this day. Further, I will make clear by what force Nature guides the course of the sun and the moon; so that we will not imagine that these traverse their orbits between heaven and earth of their own free will, or by the will of any gods for the purpose of furthering the increase of crops and living creatures.
Even those who have been taught correctly that the gods lead a life without care may nevertheless wonder by what plan all things are carried on, above all in regard to those things which we see in the sky overhead. Wonderment at such things brings the poor wretches to believe in hard taskmasters whom they believe to be almighty, as they do not know what can be, and what cannot be — in short, by what system each thing has its powers defined and its boundary-mark set.
 It is sheer folly to say that the gods, for the sake of men, have set in order the glorious Nature of the world, and therefore it is proper to praise their work, and to believe that the world will be eternal and immortal. It is likewise folly to hold that it is unholy to state that those things which are alleged to have been established on everlasting foundations by the forethought of the gods in ancient days will one day be utterly overturned from top to bottom. All figments of the imagination of this kind, Memmius, are sheer folly.
For what advantage could our gratitude bring to immortal and blessed beings in return for which they would take the world in hand to administer it? And what novel incident induced those beings, up to that time so long at rest, to desire to change their former lives? For it seems natural that one who is annoyed by old things should rejoice in a new state of things, but for a being to whom no ill has befallen in eternity gone past, when it passed a pleasant existence, what could have kindled a desire to change? Did life lie groveling in darkness and sorrow until the first dawn of the birth of the universe? What evil would it have been for us never to have been born? Whoever is born wants to continue in life so long as pleasures continue, but for him who has never tasted love, and never been entered on the lists of life, what harm would it have been never to have been born? From where was first implanted in the gods a pattern for creating all things, as well as the preconception of men, so that they knew and saw in their minds what they wanted to create? And in what way was the power of first-beginnings ever determined, and in what way they change their mutual arrangements, unless Nature herself gave the model for making things?
For by Nature the the first-beginnings of things, many in number, and in many ways, impelled by collisions from eternity past, and kept in motion by their own weight, have been carried along and united in all manner of ways, thoroughly testing every kind of production possible by their mutual combinations. Thus we should not consider it strange that all things have fallen into their present arrangements, and have come into courses like those out of which the sum of things we now see is carried on by constant renewing.
But even if I did not know what first-beginnings of things are, yet judging by the very arrangement of heaven and by many other facts I would venture to affirm that the Nature of things was by no means made for us by any divine power, so great are the defects with which it is encumbered.
In the first place, of all the space which the vast reach of heaven covers, a portion is occupied by mountains and forests of wild beasts. Rocks and wasteful seas take up and hold wide apart the coasts of different lands. Nearly two thirds of the earth suffers from burning heat and the constant fall of frost. What is left for tillage, nature would overrun with thorns, unless the force of man fought against it, and accustomed himself for the sake of a livelihood to groan beneath the hoe and to cut through the earth by pressing down on the plow. If we did not turn up the clods by laboring on the soil, our plantings would not come up into the clear air. Even then, at times when things earned with great toil put forth their leaves, either the sun bums them up with excessive heat, sudden rain or cold cut them off, or the blasts of the winds waste them by furious hurricane.
If all things were designed for us by the gods, why does Nature give food and increase to the terrible wild beasts that are dangerous to mankind both by sea and land? Why do the seasons of the year bring disease with them? Why does untimely death stalk the earth? Observe that the baby, soon as nature sheds him forth from his mother’s womb in to the light, lies naked on the ground, like a sailor cast away by the cruel waves, speechless, wanting everything needed for life. He fills the room with a rueful waling, as well he might, given that his destiny is to go through so many ills in life. But the young of the flocks, the herds, and the wild beasts grow up needing no rattles, and no need to be addressed in the fond broken accents of the fostering nurse. Young animals do not ask for different dresses according to the season, nor do they need weapons or walls to protect themselves.
 Centaurs never have existed, and never can there exist things of twofold nature, with double body formed into one frame out of alien limbs, because the faculties and powers of the different parts are not sufficiently similar. However dull of understanding you may be, you may learn this from what follows.
First, observe that a horse when three years old is in the prime of his vigor. Far different is a boy, and often even at that age he will call in his sleep for the milk of the breast. Later, when in advanced age the horse’s lusty strength and limbs ebb, then and not until then does the flower of age commence for a boy, and clothe his cheeks in soft down. I tell you this that you will not believe that out of the seed of a man and a horse Centaurs can be born, or that Scyllas with bodies half of fish and half of dogs, or any such other similar thing whose limbs we see cannot harmonize together. For these neither come to their flower at the same time, nor reach the fullness of bodily strength, nor lose it in advanced old age, nor burn with similar passions, nor have compatible manners, nor feel the same things as giving pleasure.
Thus we see bearded goats fatten on hemlock which is poison for a man. Since flame will scorch and burn the bodies of lions just as much as any other kind of flesh, how could it be that a single chimera with the body of a lion, a dragon, and a goat could breathe fire from its mouth? This is why he is wrong who imagines that when the earth was first formed such living creatures could have been begotten, resting upon the futile thought that the world was “new.” Such men babble out many similar things, saying that rivers ran with gold and that trees blossomed with precious stones, or that men were born with such giant frame that they could wade on foot across seas and whirl heaven about them with their hands. The fact that there were many seeds of things in the earth when it first brought forth living creatures does not prove that the earth could have produced beasts of different kinds mixed together. The limbs of different living things cannot be formed into a single frame, because the kinds of plants and trees which even now spring of the earth are not seen to be produced with the several sorts woven into one, but each thing goes on after its own fashion, and all preserve their distinctive differences according to a fixed law of Nature.
 Were a man to order his life by the rule of true reason, a frugal subsistence joined to a contented mind is for him great riches, for never is there any lack of a little. But men desire to be famous and powerful in order that their fortunes might rest on a firm foundation, and that they might be able by their wealth to lead a tranquil life. This is in vain, since their struggle to mount up to the heights of power renders their path full of danger. Even if they reach it, envy, like a thunderbolt, strikes men from the summit and dashes them down with ignominy into the roar of Tartarus. The highest summits, and those elevated above other things, are often blasted by envy as if by a thunderbolt, so it is better it is to obey in peace and quiet than to wish to rule with supreme power and be the master of kingdoms. Therefore let such men wear themselves out to no purpose and sweat drops of blood as they struggle on along the road of ambition, since they gather their knowledge from the mouths of others and follow after hearsay, rather than following the dictates of their own feelings. This course does not prevail now, nor will it prevail in the future any more than it has prevailed in the past.
 What cause has spread over great nations the worship of the gods, and filled the towns with altars? What cause has led to the performance of the sacred rites which are now in fashion, and which implant in mortals a shuddering awe to raise new temples to the gods over the whole earth, and to crowd them on festive days?
Even in earliest days the races of mortal men would see glorious forms while awake, and in sleep forms of yet more marvelous size of body. To these they would attribute life, because they seemed to move their limbs and to utter lofty words suitable to their glorious aspect and surpassing powers. And they attribute to them immortality, because their faces would continue to appear before them and their forms abide, and because they would not believe that beings possessed of such powers could be overcome by any force. And men believed them to be preeminent in bliss, because none of them was ever troubled by the fear of death, and because in sleep they would see them perform many miracles, yet feel no fatigue from the effort. And men would see the heaven and seasons of the years come around in regular succession, but could not find out the cause, and so they sought a refuge by handing over all things to the gods, and supposing all things to be guided by their approval. And men placed the abodes of the gods in heaven the sun, the clouds, the rains, the winds, and all things of that sort are seen to wander through the heavens
How unfortunate for men that they they charged the gods with control of the universe and coupled with that power bitter wrath! What groanings did they then beget for themselves, what wounds for us, what tears for our children’s children! It is no act of piety to be seen with veiled head, turning to a stone and approaching every altar, falling prostrate on the ground, spreading out the palms before the statues of the gods, sprinkling the altars with the blood of beasts, and linking vow on to vow. Rather, true piety is to be able to look on all things with a mind at peace.
When we turn our gaze on the heavens far above the glittering stars, and direct our thoughts to the courses of the sun and moon, into our hearts, burdened as they are with other ills, the fear of the gods enters, we begin to believe that the power of the gods is unlimited, and that they wheel the stars about in their varied motions. This is because the lack of power to solve the question troubles the mind with doubts, and we wonder whether there was ever a birth-time of the world, and whether likewise there is to be any end, and how long the world can endure this strain of restless motion, or whether by the grace of the gods with an everlasting existence the world may glide on through eternity and defy the power of immeasurable ages.
Who is there whose mind does not shrink with fear of the gods, whose limbs do not cower in terror, when the earth rocks with the appalling thunderstroke and the roaring runs through the heavens? Do not peoples and nations quake, and are not proud monarchs smitten with fear of the gods, worrying that for some foul transgression or unrighteous word the time of final reckoning has arrived? When the fury of the wind passes over the sea and sweeps over its waters the commander of a fleet, along with his mighty legions and elephants, does he not vow to seek the mercy of the gods and ask in prayer with fear and trembling for a lull in the gales and for favorable winds? Even so the commander asks in vain, for regardless of his prayers he is often is caught up in the furious hurricane and carried to the shoals of death. Constantly some hidden power seems to trample on human grandeur, and treads under its heel to make sport for itself the renowned rods and cruel axes. And when the whole earth rocks under their feet and towns tumble with the shock, is it any wonder that mortal men abase themselves and ascribe to the gods marvelous powers here on earth that are sufficient to govern all things?
In days of legend, the renowned city of Athens first showed suffering men the use of corn-producing crop, and showed them a new model of life based on laws. Athens was also the first to bestow on man the sweetest solaces of existence, by giving birth to a man who showed himself gifted with great genius, who poured forth all knowledge from his truth-telling mouth, and whose glory, on account of his godlike discoveries, is spread abroad among men and reaches high as heaven even now that he is dead.
For this man saw that the things which men’s needs demand for life had all been provided, and that life, so far as was possible, was placed on a sure footing. He saw that men were great in riches and honors and glory, and that they swelled with pride in the high reputation of their children. Yet he saw also that all these riches did not quiet men’s hearts, and that their troubles plagued their lives with no respite, and that they were constrained to complain of their great distress. Seeing these things, he perceived that the vessel itself caused the corruption, and that by its corruption all the things that were gathered into it, however salutary, were spoiled. He saw that this was partly because the vessel was leaky and full of holes, so that it could never by any means be filled full, and partly because the vessel was befouled, so to speak, with a nauseous flavor that contaminated everything which it took in.
He therefore cleansed men’s heart with true precepts, and showed the limit to lust and fear, and he explained the chief good toward which we all strive and the direct course by which we might arrive at it. He showed too what evils Nature allows to exist by chance or force in mortal affairs, and from which gates you must sally out to battle each one. Then he also proved that the melancholy tumbling billows of care that plague the hearts of man for the most part need not arise. For even as children are flurried and dread all things in the thick darkness, so we in the daylight fear at times things not a bit more to be dreaded than what children imagine and shudder at in the dark, and fancy to be real. This terror and darkness of mind must be dispelled, not by the rays of the sun and glittering shafts of day, but by the study of the law of Nature. And now the more eagerly I go on in my verses to complete the web of my design.
Since I have shown that the heavens had a birth and are mortal, and since I have unraveled most of all the things which must by nature go on within it, hear further what remains to be told.
Once more I will mount the illustrious chariot of the muses, and ascend to heaven to explain the true law of winds and storms, which men foolishly lay to the charge of the gods. I will tell how, when the winds are angry, they raise fierce tempests, and when there is a lull in their fury, how that anger is appeased, and how the omens presaged their fury have thus been appeased. I will at the same time explain all those other things which mortals observe upon earth and in heaven which abase their souls with fear of the gods. Such things weigh men down and press them to earth because ignorance of their causes constrain men to submit things to the empire of the gods, and to give over to the gods the kingdom of the universe.
For we observe that even those who have been rightly taught that the gods lead a life without care are carried back again into their old religious scruples, if they fear how all things are carried on overhead. Such men, poor wretches, take unto themselves hard taskmasters, whom they believe to be almighty, because they do not understand what can be, and what cannot be, and on what principle each thing has its powers defined and its boundaries marked. And these men are led all the farther astray by blind reasoning.
Unless you drive from your mind with disgust all these things, and banish far from you all belief in things degrading to the gods and inconsistent with their peace, then holy gods, having their majesty lessened by you, will do you harm. This is not because the supreme power of the gods can be outraged and in their wrath will resolve to exact vengeance against you, but because you will fancy to yourself that they do send billows of wrath against you, even though in reality they enjoy full calm and peace. Nor will you be able to approach the altars of the gods with a calm heart, or will you be able to receive with tranquil peace of mind those images of the diving form which are carried from them into the minds of men. And what kind of life follows after this you may easily conceive.
But I write this poem in order that most truthful reason may drive these things far away from us. Though much has already gone forth from me, much still remains and has to be embellished in smooth-polished verses. I must speak of the law and sights of heaven that must be grasped; of storms and bright lightnings, and of what they do and from what cause they are carried along. All this has to be sung that you will not mark out the heaven into quarters and be startled and distracted on seeing from which of them the fires flash, or to which of the two halves those fires take themselves. I must show in what way the heavenly fires gained entrance within walled places, and how, it gets itself out from these. And so, muse Calliope, solace of men and joy of gods, do point out to me the course ahead as I race toward the white boundary-line of the final goal, that under thy guidance I may win the crown with great applause.
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