Lucretius: The Poet/Philosopher

Titus Lucretius Carus (99-55 B.C.) as described by Will Durant was a Roman poet who wrote …some of the loftiest poetry that any age has ever known [and] …expressed the grandeur of the world in its detailed variety and its congregated power. Here at last nature won the citadels of literature, and rewarded her poet with a force of descriptive speech that only Homer and Shakespeare have surpassed.   

We can have a taste of that poetic power with Lucretius’ description of human suffering. We recognize that what he is describing is the behavior of people who are identified with their false selves, a description which is vivid and universally recognizable. There is a weight on their minds, and a mountain of misery lies on their hearts…For each, not knowing what he wants, seeks always to change his place, as if he could drop his burden….So each man flees from himself; but, as one might expect, the self which he cannot escape cleaves to him all the more against his will. He hates himself because, a sick man, he does not know the cause of his complaint. Any man who could see that clearly would cast aside his business, and before all else would seek to understand the nature of things.   

How well did Lucretius understand “the nature of things?” He was off to a good start when he seemed to realize that Simple Reality would have to have an indestructible foundation. We recognize that foundation to be pure indestructible energy. He came close to saying that “atoms” were …indestructible, unchangeable, solid, resilient, soundless, odorless, tasteless, colorless, infinite. They interpenetrate one another to produce endless combinations and qualities… His observations were clearly intuitive and on target with the descriptors “infinite” and “indestructible” and with the ability to change form he would only have needed to add that the energy itself was without form.

Next, he sees the limitations of the intellect in understanding anything beyond the ephemeral and insubstantial illusion of P-B. Reason cannot be the test for truth, for reason depends upon experience—i.e., sensation.  

Before the birth of Christianity, Lucretius said that the kingdom of heaven is here and now and that suffering of humanity originates in the pursuit of money, fame and power. But there is no hereafter. Hell is here in the suffering that comes from ignorance, passion, pugnacity, and greed; heaven is here in the “serene temples of the wise.” 

Romantic love, a major delusion especially in the West, comes under a persuasive attack by Lucretius. Marriage is good, but passionate love is a madness that strips the mind of clarity and reason. “If one is wounded by the shafts of Venus—whether it be a boy with girlish limbs who launches the shaft, or a woman radiating love from her whole body—he is drawn toward the source of the blow, and longs to unite.” No marriage and no society can find a sound basis in such erotic befuddlement.

The greatest of the philosophic poets espoused principles of a worldview that did not fit into the ongoing story that Rome was writing for itself, a narrative based on a fear-driven survival strategy. Romewanted an ethic that would make a virile and martial people rather than humanitarian lovers of quiet and peace; and a political philosophy that, like those of Virgil and Horace, would justify Rome’s imperial mastery.  It was not long before Lucretius was forgotten like many of the mystics before and after him.

The U.S., the current “Rome,” is mesmerized by its collective false self and is expressing “an ethic that would make a virile and martial people rather than humanitarian lovers of quiet and peace.” American imperialism couched in the delusional language of the self-deceived will arrive at the same ignominious end chosen by the denizens of the Eternal City. However, there is still time for us to choose differently.

Luckily for us the source of Lucretius’ wisdom is alive and well in each one of us today, the same as it ever was, as compelling and captivating as it has ever been. Expressed in Simple Reality, will it again be admired by a few and forgotten by the many? How long can we ignore our deepest yearnings for transformation; how long dare we choose to support illusion over truth, violence and ugliness over beauty?


References and notes are available for this article.
For a much more in-depth discussion on Simple Reality, read
Simple Reality: The Key to Serenity and Survival, by Roy Charles Henry, published in 2011.

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