Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Books I-III

On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura), by Titus Lucretius Carus. Penguin Classics (2007). Translated by A.E. Stallings. 336 pages. Written circa 50 BCE. Read at Barnes and Noble.

...Who can hold sway
Over the measureless universe?
Who is there who can keep
Hold of the reins that curb
The power of the fathomless deep?
Who can juggle all the heavens?
And with celestial flame
Warm worlds to fruitfulness?
And be all places at the same time for all eternity,
To cast a shadow under dark banks of clouds,
Or quake a clear sky with the clap of thunder?
What god would send down lightning
To rend his own shrines asunder?
Or withdraw to rage in desert wastes,
And there let those bolts fly
That often slay the innocent and pass the guilty by?

Every year, in at least one class I teach, I try to squeeze in an activity where we create a timeline -- to scale -- of the history of the universe. It takes a very long strip of paper indeed (lengths of entire hallways) to have increments that accurately show us the difference between billions, millions, thousands, and then decades of years. Even a classroom's length is not enough to zoom in a thousandfold, and then a thousandfold again. And then to think that all of human existence comprises a mere millimeter there! All those generations, all those lives! Billions of souls we do not know, who, as Updike wrote, blanketed the earth -- tiny beads of ego, like coral, whose lights have winked out before us. Lucretius reminds us: that is the simple reality of the future, for both good and bad. It is as neutral and as complete as the eons before our lives.

Nothing can befall us, we who shall no longer be,
Nor more our senses, no, not even if earth and sea
Were confronted with one another...

Also loved this translation, excerpted in a New Yorker article:

So, when our mortal frame shall be disjoin’d,
The lifeless lump uncoupled from the mind,
From sense of grief and pain we shall be free;
We shall not feel, because we shall not be.
Though earth in seas, and seas in heaven were lost,
We should not move, we only should be toss’d.
Nay, e’en suppose when we have suffer’d fate
The soul should feel in her divided state,
What’s that to us? for we are only we,
While souls and bodies in one frame agree.
Nay, though our atoms should revolve by chance,
And matter leap into the former dance;
Though time our life and motion could restore,
And make our bodies what they were before,
What gain to us would all this bustle bring?
The new-made man would be another thing