Reading Lucretius (99 – 55 BC) is a challenge. The syntax is far more difficult than Ovid or Vergil, but Lucretius was still experimenting with hexameters, a type of poetry taken over by the Romans from the Greek. Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer more or less, wrote his didactic poems in this meter and so did Parmenides and other Greek philosophers. Lucretius had a difficult subject and is clearly wrestling with putting his thoughts in the right meter – and he succeeded. But I wonder how many Romans would have understood his Latin, both for syntax and ideas. This is clearly Latin for the well-educated Romans with a background in Greek verse and philosophy. Suppose such a Roman would go to a shop and ask for something in this kind of Latin, I think the shopkeeper would have considered him as a kind of madman.
Lucretius admired Epicurus, who based his philosophy on the materialistic views of Leucippus and Democritus: everything consists of atoms, including the soul and the mind and as a consequence both will dissolve after death. In his De Rerum Natura Lucretius explains and advocates this atomistic philosophy and in this text he proofs that soul and mind are not immortal.
This is not a beginner’s text, so I have not explained every word. I my commentary I have tried to be as economic as possible.
Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 3,417- 444
Nunc age, nativos animantibus et mortalis
esse animos animasque levis ut noscere possis,
conquisita diu dulcique reperta labore
digna tua pergam disponere carmina vita.
tu fac utrumque uno subiungas nomine eorum
atque animam verbi causa cum dicere pergam,
mortalem esse docens, animum quoque dicere credas,
quatenus est unum inter se coniunctaque res est.
Principio quoniam tenuem constare minutis
corporibus docui multoque minoribus esse
principiis factam quam liquidus umor aquai
aut nebula aut fumus; nam longe mobilitate
praestat et a tenui causa magis icta movetur,
quippe ubi imaginibus fumi nebulaeque movetur;
quod genus in somnis sopiti ubi cernimus alte
exhalare vaporem altaria ferreque fumum;
nam procul haec dubio nobis simulacra geruntur
nunc igitur quoniam quassatis undique vasis
diffluere umorem et laticem discedere cernis,
et nebula ac fumus quoniam discedit in auras,
crede animam quoque diffundi multoque perire
ocius et citius dissolvi in corpora prima,
cum semel ex hominis membris ablata recessit;
quippe etenim corpus, quod vas quasi constitit eius,
cum cohibere nequit conquassatum ex aliqua re
ac rarefactum detracto sanguine venis,
aëre qui credas posse hanc cohiberier ullo,
corpore qui nostro rarus magis incohibens sit?
nativos animantibus et mortalis / esse animos animasque levis ut noscere possis = ut noscere possis animos animasque levis animantibus matovos et mortalis esse
animantibus: the participle animans denotes all living beings
animos animasque: Lucretius makes a distinction between the mind (animus) and the soul (anima) governing the vital principles.
levis…mortalis = leves …mortales
conquisita diu dulcique reperta labore / digna tua pergam disponere carmina vita = pergam disponere carmina, conquisita diu dulcique reperta labore, digna tua vita
conquisita diu dulcique reperta labore: sought for a long time and found by sweet labour (Lucretius refers here to the difficult but also pleasant labour of composing his poem. For the student Latin reading Lucretius is often hard labour…)
pergo perrexi perrectus: to continue
dispono disposui dispositum: to arrange
(carmina) digna tua vita: mind that dignus governs the ablative! tua vita: a formal expression for saying ` for you’, in this case Memmius to whom De rerum natura was dedicated.
tu fac utrumque uno subiungas nomine eorum / atque animam verbi causa cum dicere pergam, = tu fac iungas sub uno nomine utrumque eorum (i.e. animus and anima) atque cum dicere pergam `animam’ verbi causa
verbi causa: for example
quoniam principio docui: what follows is the first of 29 proofs that soul and mind are mortal, occupying the remainder of book three. docui: refers to lines 277-33o, in which Lucretius told Memmius that the soul consists of atoms.
principium: particle, atom
aquai = aquae
nam longe mobilitate / praestat et a tenui causa magis icta movetur: refers to the argument in 3.184-5, saying that the mind moves more quickly than anything visible, because it is moved by images of things. The idea is that we do not imagine things, but that images are made of particles emanating from existing things making an impression in our mind.
quippe ubi: as of course when
in somnis: in dreams
sopio sopivi sopitum: the bring to sleep, lull
cernimus alte / exhalare vaporem altaria ferreque fumum: we see the altars exhaling steam high up and smoke send up
procul haec dubio nobis simulacra geruntur: without any doubt these are brought to us as images (some editions have feruntur for geruntur, but the meaning is the same.)
quassatis vasis: the example of broken vases is on purpose, as a vase containing water is like our body containing the soul.
undique (everywhere) goes with diffluere
latex laticis (m.): fluid
in corpora prima: in its primal parts (i.e. the soul is a agglomeration of various atoms which at death will dissolve.)
quipped etinem: therefore indeed
cohibere (animam): to hold the soul together
rarefacio –feci –factum: to make thin
detracto sanguine venis: abl. abs.
aëre qui credas posse hanc cohiberier ullo, / corpore qui nostro rarus magis incohibens sit? = qui credas hanc cohibiberier ullo aëre, qui incohibens sit magis rarus nostro corpore?
qui credas: how could you believe
cohiberier = cohiberi
incohibens (animam) sit: could hold the soul together (incohibens is an emendation for the manuscript reading incohibescit. Both words are unattested elsewhere. An emendation is necessary as the idea must be that we with our `thick’ body can contain the soul, but air, with its `thin’ (rarus) body can’t.)
Translation by William Ellery Leonard, 1916
Now come: that thou mayst able be to know
That minds and the light souls of all that live
Have mortal birth and death, I will go on
Verses to build meet for thy rule of life,
Sought after long, discovered with sweet toil.
But under one name I'd have thee yoke them both;
And when, for instance, I shall speak of soul,
Teaching the same to be but mortal, think
Thereby I'm speaking also of the mind-
Since both are one, a substance inter-joined.
First, then, since I have taught how soul exists
A subtle fabric, of particles minute,
Made up from atoms smaller much than those
Of water's liquid damp, or fog, or smoke,
So in mobility it far excels,
More prone to move, though strook by lighter cause
Even moved by images of smoke or fog-
As where we view, when in our sleeps we're lulled,
The altars exhaling steam and smoke aloft-
For, beyond doubt, these apparitions come
To us from outward. Now, then, since thou seest,
Their liquids depart, their waters flow away,
When jars are shivered, and since fog and smoke
Depart into the winds away, believe
The soul no less is shed abroad and dies
More quickly far, more quickly is dissolved
Back to its primal bodies, when withdrawn
From out man's members it has gone away.
For, sure, if body (container of the same
Like as a jar), when shivered from some cause,
And rarefied by loss of blood from veins,
Cannot for longer hold the soul, how then
Thinkst thou it can be held by any air-
A stuff much rarer than our bodies be?