What was Lucretius known for?
A Legendary Poet & Philosopher of the Roman Empire
Lucretius invokes both the senses of hearing and sight as he convinces people about his theories on the workings of the universe. The rhythmic sounds of poetry keep readers engaged, while the emphasis on sight convinces people of the reasoning behind properties of the universe.
Lucretius uses empiricism in On the Nature of Things (First Century BC) to explain the workings of the universe in an effort to limit the reach of religion and free his readers’ minds of fear and anxiety. Lucretius does indeed use the senses and his experience in the natural world to explain concepts of a broader scope. However, Lucretius places a premium on certain senses, such as sight, to get his message across to the reader. Interestingly, Lucretius also chooses the medium of poetry to convey both the workings of the universe and his message of epicureanism to his readers. Naturally, the sense most involved with the rhythmic tunes of poetry is hearing. The conflict between the senses he chooses to invoke creates an interesting dynamic in his work, and offers us an opportunity to grapple with the implications of his style and chosen medium. Without realizing these implications, it is likely to misinterpret his teachings in the poem. His messages on epicureanism could be misunderstood, leaving people without a sense of peace and pleasure for the rest of their lives. Lucretius emphasizes sight above other senses to explain the workings of the universe and convince people of epicureanism while attracting people to his work using the rhythmic tunes of his poetry.
It is important to clarify the concepts that will play a large role in this paper. In taking an empiricist’s approach to explaining natural phenomena, Lucretius includes many different types of senses in his poem. Lucretius uses empiricism throughout his poem to explain the findings of the natural universe. Empiricism is a philosophical theory that states all knowledge is derived from experiences from the senses. These senses include sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste.
Using the technique of empiricism, Lucretius’ main purpose of writing this poem was to convince people of Epicureanism. Epicureanism is the philosophical ideology in which one should live life in the pursuit of pleasure, which is achieved from the absence of fear and anxiety. There are many instances in which Lucretius brings up the senses to reason his theories about the universe and convince people to free their minds. For example, he says “we cannot touch it with our hands” (Book Five, 150) when referring to God to involve touch, and mentions “fires and firs” (Book 1, 912) to involve hearing. The role that these senses play in his poem is quite significant in his effort to sell epicureanism. When something seemingly beyond comprehension is explained with reason, this causes people to think. During Lucretius’ time, people blindly followed religion and credited God for everything they had no knowledge of. If Lucretius were to be able to find reason in these “incomprehensible” ideas, this would help people free themselves from the bounds of religion. Luicretius believed that being freed from religion meant shedding the fear and anxiety attached with it, allowing people to live with pleasure and peace. With this goal in mind, Lucretius turned to the senses to explain concepts that were beyond the grasp of most people during his time.
Among the five senses used in empiricism, Lucretius pays particular attention to sight. Lucretius explains properties of the world by connecting it to the senses in order to free people from the fear instilled by religion. In multiple instances through the poem, Lucretius draws on visual experiences to explain abstract ideas about the universe. His focus on sight is likely linked to the widespread belief of the intromission theory of vision. This theory states that the reason we see things is because a substance originating from the object physically travels through a distance to enter the eye. This theory assures people that they are not being deceived in what they see because an object must be there for it to emit a substance into the eyes. Through sight,
Lucretius explains the fundamental natures of the universe. In Book 1 of On the Natures of the Universe, Lucretius attempts to explain the fact that the universe is unbounded and infinite. In doing this, Lucretius states:
“Our eyes tell us that one thing bound another. Air fences in the hills, the mountains air, and land sets bound to sea, and sea to lands, But nothing outside it bounds the universe” (Book 1, 998-1001)
When Lucretius says “our eyes tell us”, he is clearly drawing on visual experiences when trying to explain the logic behind his claims. Lucretius uses these visual observations of boundaries to explain the infinity of the universe. Sight is inherently one of the strongest senses because people trust what they see. His readers are willing to accept visual observations as the foundation of his explanation. Although the comparison he draws between boundaries found on earth and the boundaries of the universe do not create a compelling argument by modern standards, it offers more logic than simply “God made it that way”. Lucretius simply wanted people to visually observe and make connections and conclusions based on experiences rather than blindly trusting religion.
Lucretius’ emphasis on sight to convey his message is met with opposition: hearing. The entirety of On the Nature of Things is written in the style of a didactic poem. Empiricism and Epicureanism were not completely new to the world when this poem was written. What makes this piece so special is the fact that it is written as a poem. Lucretius could have easily written this as a prose, and simply let the content of the writing get the message across. The use of poetry must have been a deliberate choice to convey a message. Lucretius even brags about this aspect of his writing, saying:
“Many new things have now been done, and lately musicians found out tuneful hormones. Yes, and the nature and order of this world in recent time has been discovered, and this I now myself the very first am found able to tell it in our native tongue”. (Book 5, 333-338)
Lucretius is obviously very proud of his ability to convey to the readers the workings of the universe in a new medium. Additionally, Lucreitus says,
“My purpose is with the sweet voices of pierian song to expound my doctrine, and as it were to touch it with the delicious honey of the muses; So in this way perchance my poetry can hold your mind, while you attempt to grasp the nature of the world, and understand the great design and pattern of its making”. (Book 1, 944-950)
Lucretius is seen clearly addressing the fact that his poem provides “sweet voices”. Is the whole purpose of writing these findings in poetry just to keep people engaged? When Lucretius says, “so in this way my poetry can hold your mind”, it sounds like the poetry is meant to keep people interested as they get the pleasure of sweet voices while they learn about the natures of the world. People during his time were very religious, and had a very firm mindset on how things worked. They were bound to certain ideals and fears that come with being so invested in their religion. Lucretius wanted to get his teachings across to as many people as he could, as he believed epicureanism could really enrich people’s lives. The medium of poetry could perhaps attract the most people and keep them engaged as they get to enjoy the rhythmic tunes of the writing.
Lucretius strategically puts an emphasis on sight while writing in a medium that brings attention to sounds. Although it may appear counterintuitive for Lucretius to focus on sight while expecting readers to listen, these two senses actually work together to enrich his work. The poetry Lucretius writes creates rhythmic tunes that are pleasant to listen to. This allows the readers to enjoy the material and stay engaged with the topic. The emphasis on sight helps convince people of the workings of the universe because of their strong belief in the reality of what they see. Together, these two dynamics of his poem fulfill Lucreitus’ purpose of freeing people’s minds through knowledge of the natural world.
The understanding of a writers’ intentions and motives is crucial in grasping everything the writing offers. It enriches the reader’s experience when they understand why Lucretius wrote in the form of a poem as they can appreciate the rhythmic tunes of the words. It is also important to acknowledge how Lucretius emphasizes the sense of sight as it allows us to understand how he reasoned with his readers. When we do not analyze these elements of historical texts, it is easy to ignore the significance of their impact during their time. With the scientific knowledge we have today, it is easy to discount Lucretius’ arguments and his legitimacy. However, after analyzing in depth his poem, it is undeniable that his reasoning skills and ability to connect with his audience is beyond his times.