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sense of the supreme importance of his primary theme to bring about a violent dislocation of the structure of his work as a whole. Nothing could better show his sense of the supreme significance of his life's work.
Another thing that a teacher needs is self-confidence, a belief that he can and does meet, adequately, the demands of his high calling
In many passages of Lucretius we meet one or the other of these two convictions; in others we meet them together. A very few illustrations must suffice.1
In 1. 50-61 Lucretius announces his subject as follows: Apply now your ears, divorced from all other sounds, and devote all the acumen of your soul, freed from every other interest, to the true philosophy, lest, though to be of aid to you I have ordered these gifts of mine with loyal zeal, you none the less, before you understand them, quit them in disdain. (I would not have this happen), for the system I shall begin to unfold is a system supreme, touching the very skies and the gods; through it I will unfold the first beginnings of things, explaining out of what nature gives all things birth and increase, and into what, at their perishing, she resolves them again. As I set forth my system,
call these first-beginnings now matter, now the life-creating bodies of things, now the seeds of things, now first bodies, since out of them as primal sources all things have their being.
Then follows the first of his great tributes to Epicurus (1. 6279). His other tributes (3. 1-30; 5. 1-54; 6. 1-42) likewise are in point here as showing Lucretius’s sense of the profound importance of his message. In his note on 1. 51, Professor W. A. Merrill cites at least a dozen other passages in which Lucretius describes his system, and his alone, as the vera ratio (see also his Introduction, page 21).”
A striking passage is 1. 398-417. Lucretius has set forth his first three basic principles, (1) that nothing can be created out of nothing, (2) that nothing is reduced to nothing the indestructibility of matter, and (3) that there is void in all things. The discussion of the Third Basic Principle runs from 329-397. Then comes the passage I have especially in mind:
1 Limitations of space of themselves forbid any attempt at exhaustive treatment of my subject. The student of Lucretius can easily expand, himself, what is said here and below.
* This elaborate edition of Lucretius was published in 1907 (New York: American Book Company).
Wherefore, though with excuse after excuse you delay the admission, you must needs confess. Besides, by mentioning many another argument I can win belief for my words. But the trail I have blazed, faint though it is, is plain enough for a penetrating mind; with its help you could, unaided by me, learn all that remains to be known on this theme. For, even as mountain-ranging dogs often track out by scent the leaf-strewn lairs of the wild beasts when once they have set themselves to follow the traces which, though slight, are for them sure, so you, by yourself, unaided, will have power in regard to these themes to see point after point, springing one out of another; you will be able to win your way into the secret places where truth hides; and to draw it thence. But if you find the scent growing cold and so loiter on the trail, or, wholly losing the scent, leave the trail completely, I can promise you this: so generous are the floods my tongue will pour forth from the rich treasures of my soul that I fear lest sluggish old age will creep through our frames and loose within us the fastenings of life before on a single theme my verses shall send through your ears my whole array of arguments.
Take now the famous passage 1. 921-950:
Come now, learn what remains, and hearken as I speak even more clearly. Nor do I fail to see how dark, how mysterious are my themes. But with overmastering power a great passion for praise has pierced my mind and dashed into my soul a sweet love of the Muses. Inspired by this love, with unflagging powers of mind I traverse the haunts of the Muses, haunts where there are no paths, places ne'er trodden by the foot of man, It pleases me to make my way to fountains untouched, to drink their waters. It pleases me to gather flowers and to set on my head a garland wherewith the Muses have never veiled the temples of mortal man-first, because great are the themes whereof I teach, as I seek to free men's souls from the close-gripping bonds of religion; second, because on a theme so dark I am fashioning verses so bright, touching every line with the charm of the Muses. ...
Professor Merrill, (Introduction, page 21), rightly declares that “Lucretius has all the zeal of a missionary." No revivalist was ever more profoundly convinced that he was preaching the one, only, hope of salvation; none ever was more surely persuaded that he had proved, conclusively, what he had essayed to establish. This exhorter's fervor is nowhere better exhibited than in the great passage, 3. 830-869, in which Lucretius triumphantly sums up all that has preceded in his poem (the passage with which, as said above, the poem might most fittingly have closed).
In The Classical Weekly, 13. 1-5, 9-13, 17-21, 25-31, I published an Analysis of Lucretius, De Rerum Natura I-III. From that analysis I have learned many things. One is that Lucretius's
mind works over and over again in exactly the same way, a thoroughly workmanlike way. It is normal, alike in its regularities and its irregularities. By way of example, let us take his discussion of the First Basic Principle, ‘Nothing can be created out of nothing' (1. 149-214). The analysis of these 66 verses is as follows:
(a) Statement of the First Basic Principle (149-150: 2 verses). (b) Explanation of the importance attached to this principle: Men are
full of fears now because they cannot explain the universe sine numine divom (151-154). My First Basic Principle, by giving the explana
tion, removes these fears (155-158: 8 verses). (c) Proofs (159-214: 56 verses, less 3, 205-207, which constitute a sum
ming up, prematurely introduced):
sistence (159-173: 15 verses).
verses). (3) The fact that time is invariably necessary to the full develop
ment of things, plants and animals (184-191: 8 verses). (4) The fact that certain forms of sustenance are necessary to the
full development of things, plants and animals (192-198: 7
verses); (5) The limitations of growth in the case of various things, e. g.
men (199-204: 6 verses). (6) Summary, prematurely made, interrupting the series of proofs
(205-207: 3 verses). (7) The fact that cultivation always makes for fuller development
(208-214: 7 verses).
Here, as regularly elsewhere, Lucretius is careful (1) to state clearly what he expects to prove, and (2) to draw clearly the inferences suggested to him by the proofs. Indeed, he is overcareful, overeager, overquick in the drawing of the proper inferences; 4 the result is, often, a break in the orderly development of the argument, and an appearance of vain repetition, when, in reality, not yet ready finally to summarize and to draw his inferences, he is going on to a fresh proof or a fresh series of proofs. The premature drawing of the conclusion leads, at times, to re
'I have in mind here, as well as at the close of this paper, the famous statement in St. Jerome's Chronicle, that Lucretius, driven mad by a lovephilter, had, in his lucid intervals, written his great poem.
* For other examples of this tendency see 1. 234-237, 248-249, 278-279, 368-369, 1081-1082, 2. 442-443, etc.
statement of the point Lucretius is trying to prove: see e. g. 1.
prematurely introduced: see below):
(217-224: 8 verses).
(seeming) destruction (238-249: 12 verses). (4) The fact that what seems to be destruction is merely change of
the form of matter (250-261: 12 verses). (c) Summary and restatement: Matter is imperishable (262-264: 3
It must, however, be noticed that, of the 45 verses ostensibly devoted to proofs of this Second Basic Principle, 6 (234-237, 248249) are in reality summings up, as a translation will show:
But if all that while, that is, through all the ages past and gone, there have been certain things out of which the universe, as it now exists, has been replenished, so that it owes to them its present existence, those things, surely, were endowed with a never-dying nature; it follows, then, that things cannot return to naught. ... Nothing, therefore, returns to naught, but all things, when dissolved, pass back into the first-bodies of matter. These two series of verses dislocate the discussion by drawing inferences too soon. After further argument, in 250-261, we have the proper final summing up and restatement of the principle under discussion.
Let us consider further the direct proof of the Second Basic Principle. Four arguments are there presented. Now, the discussion of a matter of such tremendous importance to Lucretius's whole system should have been clearness and limpidity itself. That this is not the case translations of two of the arguments will make clear:
Argument (1) runs as follows: We must now add the statement, that nature breaks up each thing into its own first bodies; she never reduces anything to nothing, for, if anything were mortal, liable to death in all its parts, that thing would of a sudden be wrenched from our eyes, and pass away, since there would then be no need of a force capable of begetting a separation of its parts, and of loosening the fastenings that hold it together. But, as it is, since the seeds whereof things are fashioned are never-dying, it follows that, until some power confronts them that can, with a blow, lash them asunder, or can worm its way inwards through their empty spaces and break them apart, nature does not suffer even the appearance of destruction to take place.
This passage is very awkwardly put. What Lucretius means to say is that we have no evidence whatever that proves that annihilation-real annihilation-takes place; what we actually sees is merely disintegration, the resolution of things, by varying degrees of force, into their parts, parts which are themselves imperishable. We never see annihilation: therefore annihilation never takes place, in the visible or in the invisible world.
Argument (3) proceeds as follows:
Further, the selfsame force, the selfsame cause would annihilate all things indiscriminately, were not the atoms that hold them together neverdying, though they are, in the case of divers things, knitted together and intertwined with varying degrees of closeness, for, otherwise, a mere touch would be cause enough of death, since there would be no elements imperishable whose unions it would in each case require force to undo. But, as it is, since, though the atoms are bound together in divers ways, the atoms themselves abide with substance never-dying, objects remain with their bodies unharmed, until some power strong enough assails them, adapted to overcome the texture of each.
Manifestly, argument (3) is merely a restatement of argument (1). The whole passage (215-264) would gain greatly if the two arguments were combined, that is, if 238-247 were joined directly to 217-224, and the whole then condensed, so that, instead of 18 verses, but 12 at the most were given to the subject.
The passage just considered leads us to note that the power to set forth the same idea in varying ways is a power that every teacher needs; a form of expression clear as crystal and allcompelling to one mind leaves another cold and unconvinced. But this quality has its dangers. It is easy for a teacher here to have the defect of the quality, to mistake a changed presentation of an idea or of an argument for a new idea or a new argument. Lucretius's strength and weakness in this regard are brought out well several times by the passage in which he argues that the invisi
* As is well known, the Epicureans accepted the evidence of the senses.