Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Importance of Lucretius

When I was scanning down the lists of authors and works for this reading project, I'm sure I went right over Lucretius.  The name sounds vaguely familiar but that's all.  Even when I've talked to people about what I'm reading, the name 'Lucretius' only brings back a blank stare.  (The same was true with Nichomachus!)  So how did he get into the great books?  Why should he still be read?
'The Nature of All Things' is very important for two related reasons.  Firstly, it set up the questions for the scientific revolutions of the Enlightenment age.  Lucretius firmly believed that everything was made up of atoms.  Things so small that they were beyond the proof of the tools of the day.  He had some idea of how they interacted with each other.  He dismissed other prominent theories.  Many, many scientists followed after him trying to prove or disprove his theories.  It's easy to sit here hundreds of years later and say, well of course he was on to something, but there was an actual conflict over atomic theory and who knows what the path would have been if his poem wasn't found.
Which leads to the second part.  The Humanists of the 14th and 15th century believed that they could recover the ancient glories of Rome if they understood how the Romans thought and what they believed.  They worked hard to find lost works, including the writings of Lucretius.  The Roman works led them to various Greek works and a repopularization of Aristotle and Plato.  The Humanities was born, and shortly after followed the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and our modern age.  We owe them much.

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