On the Nature of Things

Translated by Ian Johnston
Vancouver Island University



[For Table of Contents and information about this translation, including copyright, please use this link: Contents. Note that in the following text the numbers in square brackets refer to the Latin text of William Ellery Leonard. The superscript numbers are links to endnotes provided by the translator]


[Importance of philosophy; properties of particles: motion caused by weight and impact; weight of particles; collisions, rebounds, combinations; density of matter formed by combinations; wandering particles; no divine providence; examples of matter moving in sunlight; no particles move upward on their own; swerve of particles in their descent; weight does not affect speed in empty space; swerve linked to free will; continuity of motion in particles; importance of the shape of particles; different shapes of particles linked to different sensations; shapes of particles are not infinite in number; compound matter has particles of different shapes; earth as mother of all things; reference to Cybele; not all combinations of all particles take place; nature of gods; particles lack colour, heat, cold, taste, smell, but create objects with these characteristics; sensible objects are produced from insensible particles; necessary existence of other worlds; natural life cycle of all things, including the earth; decline of the earth]

How pleasant it is, when windstorms lash
the mighty seas, to gaze out from the land
upon another man in great distress—
not because you feel delightful pleasure
when anyone is forced to suffer pain,
but because it brings you joy to witness
misfortunes you yourself do not live through.
It is also sweet to watch great armies,
opposing forces in a war, drawn up
in the field, when you are in no danger.
But nothing brings more joy than to live well
in serene high sanctuaries fortified
by wise men’s learning—where you can look down
on other men, see them wandering around
in all directions, roaming here and there,
looking for a path in life, competing
in their natural gifts, striving for honours,
seeking with all their effort night and day
to rise to the top, to win great power.
O wretched minds of men, O blinded hearts!
In what living darkness, what great dangers,
you spend your lives, however long they last!
Do you not notice nature barking out
her one demand, that pain be kept away,
divorced from body, so that, free from care,
free from fear, she may derive enjoyment
in her mind from a sense of pleasure?
Hence, we see that for our body’s nature
only a few things are truly needed—
the ones which do away with any pain.

Now, although there are also many things
which can more agreeably at times
provide us many pleasures, for her part
nature does not seek them—if houses lack
golden statues of young lads with right hands
holding flaming torches out, so that light
may be provided for nocturnal feasts,
if the home does not glitter with silver
or gleam with gold, or if harps do not make
gilded panels on the ceiling echo,
nonetheless, when, in their own company,                                       
men lie beside a river on soft grass,
under the branches of a towering tree,
and, with no great effort, enjoy themselves,
they restore their bodies, especially
when the weather smiles and annual seasons
scatter flowers across the greening turf.
If you are tossing on embroidered sheets
dyed deep purple, hot fevers will not leave
your body faster than if you are forced                                            
to lie on common bedding. That is why,                                           
since riches, high rank, and ruling glory
are of no advantage to our bodies,
it therefore follows that we must assume
they also bring no profit to our minds,
unless perhaps, when you see your legions
marching keenly onto the Campus fields,
as if going off to war, with many men
held in reserve and strongly reinforced
with cavalry, and you draw up troops                                              
armed and ready, all equally inspired
with a common will, or when you observe
your ships swarming out, spreading far and wide,
then your religion, shocked by these events,
runs from your mind dismayed, and timid fears
of death leave—your heart is clear, free of care.
But if we see this is sheer foolishness,
a mockery, that, in fact, those worries,
the fears that follow men, are not afraid
of noisy weapons or of brutal spears—                                            
they boldly live with kings and those who rule
in our affairs and have no reverence
for glittering gold or glorious splendours
of purple garments—then why do you doubt
that all power to help us with these things
belongs to reason? That is especially true,
since our whole life is struggling in the dark.
For just as children in the dead of night
tremble and are afraid of everything,
so we, too, in the daylight, sometimes fear                                      
things which should no more frighten us than those
which scare children in the dark, those terrors
they believe will happen. Therefore, this fear,
this darkness in the mind, must be dispelled,
not by the sun’s rays or shafts of daylight,
but by the face of nature and by reason.

Come now, I will explain how, through motion,
creative matter in material stuff
produces various things and, once produced,
breaks them down, then how a force compels them                       
to act this way, and what motive power
has been given to them, so they can travel
across huge empty space. So remember
to set your mind on what I have to say.

For clearly matter in its compact form
does not stick together, since we observe
every object getting smaller—we see,
over a long expanse of time, all things,
as it were, melting—old age removes them
from our sight. However, the total sum                                           
100      [70]
we see remains unchanged, and this is why:
when particles leave, they diminish things
they are moving from and increase the size
of what they are moving to. They force one
to decay but, by contrast, they compel
the other one to grow. But nonetheless,
they do not stay there. So in this manner,
the grand sum of things always is maintained.
By mutual exchange among themselves
mortal men live on: one race increases,
another is reduced. In no time at all,
generations of living creatures change
and, like racers, hand off the torch of life.

If you think primary elements of things                                                                                    [80]
can cease moving and, in a state of rest,
produce new motions in material stuff,
you are meandering a long, long way
from proper reasoning. Those particles,
first elements of things, since they travel
through empty space, must all be moved along                               
by their own weight or perhaps by impact
with other particles. And when they meet
in numerous collisions at high speed,
what happens is they quickly bounce apart
in various directions. That is not strange,
for they are very hard, with solid weight
and nothing from behind obstructing them.
So that you may more readily discern
that all corporeal matter is pushed
here and there, recall there is no bottom                                        
130       [90]
to the whole universe, nor any point
where primary particles stand still, for space
is without limit, without boundaries,
and, in its immensity, stretches out
in all directions everywhere. This point
I have discussed at length—it has been proved
by flawless reasoning.

                             This being the case,
it is clear that elementary particles
throughout deep empty space receive no rest.
Instead, always driven by different motions,
some, after colliding, bounce very far,
others rebound a short way from the blow.
All those pushed to closer, denser unions
spring back short distances and get caught up
in their own united combinations.
These form powerful basic roots for rock,
brute stuff of iron, and other things like them,
not very numerous, which wander off
through enormous empty space. All the rest
fly far apart and rebound long distances,
with large gaps between them. These particles
provide us glorious sunlight and thin air.
And through the huge void many more of them,
thrown from matter in combination, move on,
or, if absorbed, are still quite unable
to link their movements. As I perceive it,
an illustrative image of this matter
is always moving right before our eyes.
For look carefully whenever sunlight
pours its piercing rays into dark places                                            
of the house: in light from those very rays
you will see many tiny particles
in empty space mixed up in many ways,
as if waging war in endless battles,
group by group, not conceding any pause,
constantly stirred up by their collisions
and their moving apart. From this image
you can infer how primary elements
of stuff are constantly being tossed around
in huge empty space. That shows how small things                         
can illustrate large concepts and provide
traces by which they can be understood.
So it is all the more appropriate
for you to turn your mind to those bodies
one observes moving in great disorder
in the sun’s rays, because such confusion
shows there is also motion in matter
going on underneath, hidden and unseen.
For you will see many particles there,
struck by invisible blows, change their path,
                                                             180      [130]
as they are pushed, forced to reverse themselves,
sometimes in one way, sometimes another,
in all directions everywhere. No doubt,
this roaming motion in all particles
comes from primordial elements of things,
for in themselves these primary elements
are moved, and then from that motion bodies
in small compounds, those which are, as it were,
closest to the force of primary matter,
are set in motion by the impulses                                                    
of blind collisions with those particles,
and then they themselves stir compound bodies
of slightly larger size. And thus, motion
rises from basic particles and goes,
little by little, up to our senses,
so that those things we can see in sunlight
are shifted, too, although the impulses
which make them move are not clearly seen.

And now, Memmius, from what follows here
you may briefly learn what speeds are given                                   
to material bodies. When Dawn first spreads
new light upon the earth and various birds
fly in pathless woods through delicate air,
filling whole regions with their liquid song,
we see how the sun, suddenly rising
at such a moment, is in the habit,
as it pours forth, of clothing everything
with its light—that is clearly manifest
to all. However, that clear light and heat
which the sun sends out do not travel through                                
an empty space. That is why they are forced
to move more slowly, while they, so to speak,
cut through waves of air. Particles of heat
do not move one by one but are combined,
joined together in a mass, and therefore
slow each other down and at the same time
are hindered by external matter, and thus
they are forced to move at a slower rate.
But all primary stuff is simple solids,
and when these move through vacant empty space,
no outside object slows them down, and so,
with all their parts a unit, they are carried,
moving forcefully, to the single place
towards which they began. It is quite clear
they have to travel at the highest speed,
carried at much faster rates than sunlight,
rushing through much greater areas of space
in the same period of time it takes
bright sunlight to fill up the heavenly sky.

[ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]                                             230

. . . nor do [gods] follow each primordial element
to see the reasons everything takes place.

But some men oppose these views, ignoring
[that particles of matter on their own
keep on moving—time does not wear them down.]
They claim that without power of the gods
nature could not, in ways which match so well
the needs of man, change seasons of the year,
produce the crops, and other things as well,
which sacred pleasure urges mortal men                                         
to undertake, while she herself, life’s guide,
leads on and coaxes them to reproduce,
through acts of Venus, their generations,
lest the human race die out.
6 When they think
gods produced each thing for human beings,
they seem, in all respects, to have fallen
a long, long way from proper reasoning.
For even if I were quite ignorant
about primordial elements of things,
I would, on the basis of the sky itself                                               
and many other reasons, dare to claim
and to assert the nature of the world
was not, in any way, designed for us
by the power of gods, for as it stands,
it has enormous flaws. But these issues,
Memmius, we will clarify for you
later on—at this point I will explain
what there is still left to say on motion.

In my argument, this is now the place,
I think, to confirm for you that nothing                                          
made of corporeal stuff is able,
through its own force, to be carried upward,
or to rise—in case those fire particles
give you a false idea, for they are born
and grow in upward motion. Moreover,
shining crops and trees also grow upward,
though all their weight, however much they have,
is carried downward. And when fires jump up
towards the roof and rushing flames consume
beams and rafters in the home, you must not think                        
they do this on their own, without some force
driving them. It is the same sort of thing
blood does when emitted from our bodies—
it arches high up, with violent spurts,
spattering gore. Have you not also seen
the force with which liquid water spits up
planks and timbers? For the more we force them,
with many of us pushing them straight down—
and that is difficult, it takes great force—
the more eagerly water throws them out                                         
and sends them back, so they leap up, rising  
more than half their length. But we do not doubt,
I think, that these objects, given the weight
inherent in them, are all carried down
through empty space. And therefore flames as well
must be able, under pressure, to rise
up through the breezy air, although their weight,
all which they possess, strives to lead them down.
Do you not perceive how, in the heavens,
night fires fly up, drawing long fiery trails                                       
anywhere nature gives them for their motion?
Surely you see stars and constellations
falling towards earth? And the sun, as well,
from way up in the sky, spreads out his heat
in all directions and sows fields with light.
Thus, the sun’s heat tends down towards earth, too.
And you see lightning flashing across rain—
fires burst from clouds and rush, now here, now there,
and all around fiery forces crash to earth.

In these matters there is also something                                           300
we are eager for you to understand:
when particles are borne by their own weight
on a downward path straight through empty space,
at undetermined times and random places,
they swerve a little—not much, just enough
so you can say they have changed direction.
Unless they had this habit of swerving,
all of them would fall through deep empty space
like drops of rain—among first elements
no impacts or collisions would be made,
so nature never would have made a thing.

For if anyone happens to believe
that heavier bodies, since they are carried
straight down though empty space more rapidly,
could hit the lighter ones from up above
and in this way generate collisions,
which could then create productive motions,
he is moving backwards and is far removed
from truthful reasoning. For all objects
which sink through water, even through thin air,
                                                320      [230]
must, depending on their weight, move faster
in this fall, since the material substance
in water and the nature of thin air
can hardly hold back each thing equally:
heavier bodies will overpower them,
and they will move aside more rapidly.
But, by contrast, an empty space cannot
hold back a single thing at any time
or any place, since it keeps giving way,
as its own nature forces it to do.
That is why all bodies set in motion,
even though their weights may be unequal,
must be carried through unresisting void
at the same rate. And so the heavier ones
can never fall down from above and hit 
the lighter ones and, on their own, create
those collisions which make motions vary,
and through which nature carries on her work.

Thus, to repeat myself, these bodies must
change course a little—but nothing greater                                     
than the minimum, so we do not seem
to be imagining oblique movements,
and truth should prove this picture incorrect.
For we know it is manifestly clear
that heavy bodies, in and of themselves,
when they fall down from above, cannot
move obliquely, as you can plainly see.
But that there is nothing that swerves at all
from the straight direction of its descent—
what man is capable of seeing that?

Then, too, if all movement is always linked,
new motions always rising from old ones
in a set order, and if primary stuff
does not, by swerving from its downward path,
begin specific movements which can break
the laws of fate, so there does not follow
an endless sequence of cause after cause,
where does this freedom of the will arise
in all living creatures throughout the earth?
Where, I ask, does it come from, that free will                                
we rip from fate and thanks to which we go
wherever the will leads each one of us?
We change our motions in a similar way,
not at predetermined times and places,
but as our minds propose. There is no doubt
that in these matters a man’s own free will
provides the start—for from his will motions
are conducted through the limbs. Moreover,
surely you see how, in the quick moment
when gates open, a horse’s eager strength                                       
still cannot, in that instant, charge ahead
in the way even its own mind demands?*
For through its whole body the full supply
of matter must be contacted, so that,
energized in every limb, it can strive
to follow inclinations of its mind—
thus, you may see how the start of movement
created from the heart emerges first
from free will in the mind and after that
is spread through all the body and its limbs.
8                                                            380
And this is not the same as when we move
under the impact of a blow given
by the forceful strength or great coercion
of someone else, for then, quite obviously,
all the material in our whole body
is shoved forward against our will and moves,
until our will controls it in our limbs.
So do you now see that, though outside forces
push many men, often compelling them,
to move unwillingly and be carried off                                            
headfirst, still there is something in our heart
able to struggle against that motion,
resist it, something whose judgment sometimes
compels our store of physical matter
to turn to one side through body and limbs
and, when pushed forward, to be held in check
and settle down in place again. And thus,
we must concede that with material seeds
things are like this, too—besides their own weight
and collisions, there is another cause                                              
of motion, and from that originates
this power innate in us, since we know
nothing can be created out of nothing.
For weight reveals that all things are not caused
by impact, as if from some outer force.

But that the mind, in everything it does,
itself has no necessity within
and is not forced to suffer and endure,
as if it were completely overwhelmed—
what creates this is that tiny swerving                                              
of the primordial elements of things
at no set time or predetermined place.

Nor were supplies of matter ever pressed
more compactly or, by contrast, spread out
at greater intervals. Material stuff
does not increase, nor does any perish.
And, therefore, those primordial elements
in the past moved around in the same way
as they do now, and for all time to come
will be transported in a similar way.
Whatever has been habitually produced
will be produced with the same conditions—
it will exist, grow, and gain strength—each thing
to the extent that natural law allows.
No force can change the total sum of things,
for there is no place any form of matter
can flee outside the universe or from which
some new force can arise and invade it,
altering the entire nature of things,
transforming how they move.

                                    In these matters,                                                                        430
there is nothing amazing in the fact
that, though all primary elements of things
are in motion, the total sum still seems
to be aat rest, except whatever move
with its own body.* For the whole nature
of primary stuff lies far below our senses.
That is why, since you cannot now perceive
these things themselves, they must also conceal
their motions—above all, since what we can see
nonetheless still often hides its movements                                    
when set far from us in a distant spot.
For woolly sheep grazing in fine pastures
often move slowly on the hill to spots
where tempting grasses sprinkled with fresh dew
call each of them, and lambs, their bellies full,
play games and leap about delightedly.
From far away all this appears to us
somewhat hazy—a dazzling patch of white,
as it were, resting on green hills. And then,
when great legions charge and fill all places                                    
in the field, stirring images of war,
a brilliant glitter rises to the sky,
the land sparkles on every side with bronze,
while beneath the power of soldiers’ feet
a sound arises from below, the hills,
once noises hit, echo the shouting back
to stars in heaven, while those on horses
wheel around and then, without a warning,
gallop across the middle of the fields,
shaking them with the fury of their charge.
                                                               460      [330]
Yet from a certain place high in the hills
they seem a bright patch standing on the plain.

Come now, learn next about the particles
from which all things begin—what they are like,
how they differ greatly in their structure, 
how they have shapes of many different kinds.
It is not that only few of them have
similar shapes, but that, in general,
they do not all look like one another.
And no wonder, for the supply of them                                           
is so enormous, that, as I have shown,
there is no limit to them, no grand sum.
Thus, clearly they must not all be the same,
completely alike, so that they all have
a similar size and shape. Moreover,
the human race, mute schools of swimming fish,
fat cattle, savage beasts, and various birds
which flock together in joyous places
by waters of river banks, springs, and lakes
and fly soaring through forest wilderness—                                    
go on and select any one of these,
a single group, whichever one you wish,
you will still find out that among themselves
they have different shapes. That is the only way
young offspring can recognize their mothers,
and mothers know their offspring. And we see
they can—they do recognize each other,
in just the same way human beings do.
For often in front of a god’s temple,
some richly decorated shrine, a calf,
slaughtered by incense-burning altars, falls,
hot rivers of blood spurting from its heart,
but its mother wanders through green pasture
in the woods, without her child, and searches
for tracks of cloven hoof prints in the ground,
her eyes exploring every single place—
if she could only somewhere catch a glimpse
of her lost young one, and then, standing still,
she fills leafy woods with her sounds of grief.
She keeps on going back, time after time,
to her enclosure, transfixed with longing
for her new-born calf. Tender willow shoots,
grasses fresh with dew, rivers gliding past,
filled with water up to the riverbanks—
not one of these can divert her spirit,
ease her sudden apprehension. The sight
of other young calves in joyful pastures
cannot distract her mind, relieve her care,
so great is her need for the child she knows
and recognizes as her own. Then, too,
tender young goats with tremulous voices
know their horned mothers, and young butting lambs
know flocks of bleating sheep—that’s why they run
almost always to their own milky teat,
as nature bids. Finally, take some crops,
any type you wish, and you will observe
that, though the grains are one variety,
among themselves they are not all the same—
there still will be some differences in form.
And we perceive the same with types of shells                                
embroidering the bosom of the earth
in places where the sea with gentle waves
strikes curving shores of thirsty sand. And so,
in the same way, to make the point once more,
since primordial elements of matter
are set by nature and not made by hand
to fit a single form, some must fly around
with shapes which do not match the others.

Our minds find it quite easy to explain,
using this sort of reasoning, why fire                                               
from lightning penetrates much more than flames
from our torches here on earth. You can say
heaven’s lightning fire, being more subtle,
is made of smaller shapes, and that therefore
it makes its way through openings which our fire
cannot penetrate, since it comes from wood
and is made by torches. And furthermore,
light passes right through lanterns made from horn,
but rain drops are repelled. Why would that be,
unless particles of light were smaller                                               
than those in nourishing liquid water?
We see wine will travel very quickly
through a sieve, but sluggish oil, by contrast,
moves slowly, because, as is obvious,
either it has larger particles, or else
they are hooked and more closely intertwined.
And thus it happens that these particles
cannot, as single units, so quickly
be separated from one another
and flow through single holes in anything.
Add to this that liquid milk and honey
held in our mouths feel pleasant to the tongue,
but, in contrast, wormwood’s bitter nature
and acrid centaury with their foul taste
make our mouths grimace.
10 So it is easy
for you to recognize that substances
which can affect our senses pleasantly
are created from smooth, round particles,
and, on the other hand, all substances
we find tart and bitter are held together                                          
by hooked elements, combined more closely,
and thus routinely tear the passageways
into our senses and, as they move in,
break through the body.

                                          And finally,
all things agreeable to the senses
and those unpleasant when we contact them
are made of different shapes and are opposed
to one another—just in case you think,
as perhaps you do, that the harsh noises
of screeching saws consist of particles                                             
as smooth as those in melodious music
which performers make by awakening sounds
on strings, shaping them with their deft fingers,
or believe that primordial elements
with the same shape enter human nostrils
when nauseating corpses burn as when
the stage has been freshly strewn with saffron
from Cilicia, and near by altars breathe
Panchaean incense, or take for granted
that lovely colours which can feed our eyes                                     
consist of the same seeds of things as those
which prick our sight and force us to shed tears
or appear abhorrent and disgusting—
the sight of something foul.
11 For every shape
which gratifies your senses all the time
must not be made of primordial matter
without some smoothness. On the other hand,
whatever we find rough and irritating
has not been created from material
which lacks coarse elements. There are, as well,
particles which are not considered smooth—
and justly so—but which have no bent points
and are not hooked at all. Instead, they have
small corners projecting out a little,
so that they can titillate our senses,
rather than injure them. This type includes
wine lees and the taste of elecampane.
12                                                       [430]
And then warm fire and cold frost, both with teeth,
penetrate our body’s senses differently—
the way each feels is evidence of that.
For by the sacred powers of the gods,
touch, yes touch, is physical sensation,
either when something from outside pushes
its way in, or when something created
in the body hurts us or brings delight
when it comes out, as in those fruitful acts
of making love, or when the seeds collide,
get disturbed inside the body itself,
and then, in their mutual agitation,
confuse our senses. This you may witness                                       
if you should happen to hit any part
of your own body with your hand. And thus,
primary elements which are capable
of producing various sensations
must have very different shapes.

substances we find hard and dense must be
more closely interlocked and keep themselves
together tightly packed, as if their parts
were branches. Among this sort of matter,
adamantine rocks come first in the front ranks—                           
they have the habit of resisting blows—
tough flint stone as well as hard, strong iron,
and squealing brass bolts which resist their locks.
14                                       [450]
Those substances which make liquid matter
and fluids must consist of more rounded,
smoother parts. For poppy seeds, like water,
are poured out easily—several round grains
do not hold each other back and, when spilled,
also roll away downhill. Finally,
all substances which you see diffusing                                             
in a short time—like vapour, smoke, and flames—
must, if they do not totally consist
of round, smooth particles, still not be checked
by complex ones, so they can pierce bodies,
penetrate rocks, yet not stick together.
Thus, you can easily see that all things
we notice biting into our senses
are not made up of tangled elements
but of pointed ones.
15 And that you observe
something bitter which is also liquid,
like sea water, is not the least bit strange.
For since it is a fluid, it consists
of smooth, round particles, but intermixed
with smooth particles are rough ones, as well,
which bring us pain. But still these elements,
even if hooked, must not cling together—
though they are rough, as you must understand,
they are spherical, so they can roll on
and yet at the same time hurt our senses.
So that you may more readily believe                                              
that rough primordial elements are mixed
with smooth ones and that Neptune’s body
consists of such a bitter mix, there is
a way of separating them and then
observing them apart.
16 For sea water,
tastes sweet when filtered many times through earth.
It then flows into a trench and softens,
for in the surface layers of the ground
it leaves behind harsh particles of brine—
being rough, they cling more readily to earth.
17                                                      660

Since I have proved that point, I will go on
to another point whose truth stems from it:
though primary elements of things vary,
there is a set limit to the number
of their shapes. For if this were not the case,
some seeds would, as a result, have to have
bodies of infinite size. With the same seed,
in the one small size of any particle,
shapes cannot vary much among themselves.
For suppose primary particles consist                                              
of three miniscule parts, or, if you wish,
add a few more, then once you have arranged
all these parts within a single body,
placing each one on top and underneath,
shifting them to left and right, obviously
you will have tried out all the different ways
in which each arrangement may demonstrate
a form for the shape of that whole body.
As for the rest, if you should wish perhaps
to change those shapes, you will then have to add                          
other parts. And from that it will follow,
for similar reasons, that if, by chance,
you still wish to change the shapes even more,
the structure will need other elements.
Therefore, an increase in the body size
will follow the creation of new forms.
And thus you cannot claim those seeds possess
an infinite diversity of shapes,
or else you force the size of some of them
to be immense, a claim which earlier                                              
I have already shown cannot be proved.

If not, by now you would have cast aside
barbarian clothing and shining purple
from Meliboea, with colours steeped
in shell-fish dyes obtained from Thessaly,
[and those displayed] by golden peacock broods
bathed in smiling loveliness—all replaced
by the new colour of things. You would spurn
the odour of myrrh, the taste of honey.
The song of swans, the artful melodies                                            
of Phoebus’ strings, for similar reasons,
would have been overcome and sound no more.
For something finer would have been produced,
surpassing all the rest. But then again,
each object could decline to something worse,
in the same way we said they could improve.
For, if things regressed, there could also be
something more disgusting than the others,
fouler to our nostrils, ears, eyes, and taste.
Since this is not so and a fixed limit                                                
assigned to matter keeps extremes in check
in both directions, one has to concede
the amount of variation in shapes
of material stuff is limited, as well.
Lastly, from fires to freezing winter frost
the distance has been fixed; by the same means,
it has again been measured in reverse.
All heat and cold and intermediate warmth
fall in between the two and, by degrees,
fill in the total. Thus, they all are made                                           
and differ within determined limits,
since two points designate the two extremes,
at one end fire, at the other rigid frost,
and these are hostile to material things.

Since I have proved that point, I will go on
to something else whose truth derives from it:
the number of first elements of things
with shapes like one another is endless.
Since differences in form are limited,
those which are the same must be infinite,
or else the amount of material stuff  
has limits—an assertion I have shown
is not the case, by proving in my verse
that corporeal substances maintain
the total sum of things eternally,
with a constant series of collisions
on every side. For although you notice
certain animals are less numerous
and see nature is less fertile in them,
yet in other places, in some region                                                  
of a far-off land, there may be a lot
of just that kind to make up their numbers.
We see that in classes of quadrupeds,
above all with snake-handed elephants,
whose many thousands keep India fenced in
with an ivory wall, so there is no way
one can move into its interior—
that’s how numerous those wild creatures are.
Yet we see very few examples of them.
But so I may concede this point, as well,
let there be, if you like, one single thing
living alone in its natural body,
with nothing like it in any region
of the entire world—but nevertheless,
if there were not an infinite number
of materials from which it could be
conceived and born, it would be impossible
for it to be produced and, beyond that,
for it to feed itself and grow. In fact,
if in addition I assume this point,
that particles from which one single thing
is born are being tossed around through space
in a finite number, where would they meet
and join together? Where would they come from?
What would force them there? How would that happen,
in such a huge sea, such a strange tumult
of materials? I think those particles
have no way of forming combinations—
just like those times when many large shipwrecks
have taken place, and benches, empty holds,
yard arms, prows, masts, and swimming oars are tossed
in mighty seas, so one can see stern fittings
floating on all coastal shore lands, giving
mortal men a warning: they should resolve
to shun the faithless sea, with its deceit,
violence, and treachery, and never more
have faith in its devious seductions,
when the calm sea smiles.
23 With this example,                                                                 [560]
you can rest assured, if you ever claim
that certain elementary particles                                                     
have a finite number, then the movement
of various materials must scatter them,
tossing them around for all eternity,
so they can never be forced together
and meet in combination, or remain
combined, or grow by adding matter on.
But clear and obvious experience
shows us that both activities occur:
objects can be produced, and, once produced,
can grow. Therefore, with any group you like                                 
the primordial elements of its stuff,
with which every substance is provided,
are clearly infinite. 

                                                   For this reason,
destructive motions cannot prevail for ever
and bury things in an eternal tomb,
nor, in turn, can motion in materials
which generate and make things grow
preserve created things perpetually.
Thus, an equal battle is being waged,
and has been from time immemorial,
among the basic particles. Sometimes
forceful vitality of things wins out,
now in one place, now another, and then,
in turn, is overcome. The wailing cries
young children raise when they first look upon
the shores of light mix in with funeral songs.
No night has followed day or dawn the night,
which has not heard, mingling with those weak howls
from infants, groans accompanying death
and gloomy funerals.

                                      In these matters,                                                                    810       [580]
it is also good to have one thing sealed
and firmly stored in your mind’s memory—
none of those things whose nature we can see
before our eyes is made up of one type
of primary stuff, nor is there anything
which is not formed by mixing different seeds.
And whatever contains within itself
in a greater amount many powers
and properties, in that way demonstrates
there is in it the greatest quantity                                                    
of different types of primordial matter
of various shapes. Firstly, within itself
earth has those primary particles from which
cool springs well up and constantly renew
enormous seas. It has materials
from which fires arise. For in many spots
earth’s soil is on fire underneath and burns,
while violent Etna rages on with flames
from down below. But earth also contains
elements which enable her to raise                                                  
delightful orchard trees and polished fruits
for races of mankind, and to provide
rivers, foliage, and joyful pastures
for races of wild beasts roaming the hills.
Thus, earth is the only one who is called
“the gods’ great mother,” “mother of wild beasts,”
and “maternal parent of our bodies.”

The old and learned poets of the Greeks                                                                                  [600]
sang that she, [carried on high and] seated
in a chariot, drives on a pair of lions,
thus teaching that great earth hangs suspended
in airy space and earth cannot be placed
on earth.
24 They added wild creatures to show
that any offspring, no matter how fierce,
should be mollified, subdued by favours
from its parents. And the top of her head
they circled with a crown depicting walls,
since she sustains those cities fortified
in select locations. And now, furnished
with this sign, Sacred Mother’s image is borne                                
far and wide across the earth, inspiring awe.
Various nations, following ancient rites
of worship, call her “Mother of Ida”
and produce for her throngs of Phrygians
as her companions, since, from those regions,
they claim, crops first began to be produced
throughout the world. And they assign to her
the Galli, eunuch priests, because they wish
to signify that those who violate
the Mother’s sanctity and have been found                                     
ungrateful to their parents must be thought
unsuitable to bring living children
into regions of the light.
25 In their hands,
sounds of tight-stretched drums and hollow cymbals
boom all around, horns ring out raucous threats,
and with their Phrygian rhythms hollow flutes
stir up the soul. In front of them they hold
their weapons, signs of violent fury,
to frighten wicked hearts and thankless minds
among the crowd by making them afraid                                        
of what the goddess’ powers could do.
Thus, as soon as the goddess is brought in
to mighty cities and, without a word,
offers mortal men her silent blessing,
they strew all the roadways along her route
with brass and silver coins, enriching her
with massive contributions. They snow her
with showers of roses, covering Mother
and her companion throng. Here an armed band,
men who are called, according to the Greeks,
Phrygian Curetes—for among themselves,
they now and then play games with weapons—
dance in rhythmic motion, and dripping blood,
they shake the terrifying helmet plumes
as they nod their heads. These men represent
Curetes from Dictaea, who, they say,
in earlier days in Crete concealed the cries
of infant Jupiter, when armed young boys
in a swift-moving dance around the child
struck bronze on bronze in rhythm, so Saturn                                
would not catch him and devour him, giving
his mother’s heart an everlasting wound.
That is why Great Mother is accompanied
by men with weapons, or they mean to show
what the great goddess has proclaimed—that men
must resolve to defend their fatherland
with arms and courage and prepare themselves
to be a guard and tribute to their parents.

Now, though well set down and superbly told,
this is still a long way from true reasoning.
For the whole nature of gods, in itself,
must for all time enjoy the utmost peace—
far removed and long cut off from us
and our affairs, and free from any pain,
free from dangers, strong in its own power,
and needing nothing from us, such nature
will not give in to those good things we do
nor will it be moved by our resentment.
If a man decides to call the sea Neptune,
grain crops Ceres, and wishes to misuse                                          
the name of Bacchus rather than call out
the name appropriate to the liquid,
let us concede he might as well declare
the earthy sphere the mother of the gods,
provided, for the sake of truth itself,
he refrain from tarnishing his own mind
with repulsive doctrines of religion.
But earth is always without sensation,
and since it holds the primary elements
of many substances, it brings them out                                           
in all sorts of ways into the sunlight.

Hence, woolly flocks, warrior breeds of horses,
and horned herds of cattle will often graze
on grasses from a single field, beneath
the same roof of the sky, and quench their thirst
drinking water from a single river,
yet they live on looking quite different.
They keep their parents’ nature, imitate
their habits, each according to its kind.
That shows how many different materials                                       
there are in any sort of grass and stream.
What’s more, any single living creature
you may choose from all of them is made up
of bone, blood, veins, heat, water, flesh, and sinew—
and these things are, in turn, very different,
all created from primordial matter
of dissimilar shapes. Further, all those things
which are set on fire and burned have stored up
in their bodies, if nothing else, at least
that material stuff which enables them                                            
to hurl up flames, send out light, shoot off sparks,
and scatter embers far and wide. And so,
if with similar reasoning you go through
all other substances, you will find out
that in their bodies they have hidden seeds
of many things and contain various shapes.

Then, too, you notice there are many things                                              [680]
which have been endowed with taste and colour
as well as smell—especially most gifts
[you burn as special offerings to the gods.]
27                                              950
Hence, these things must consist of different shapes,
for burning odours penetrate our frame
where colours cannot go, and colours, too,
find their own way, as does taste, to contact
our senses—that is how you can infer
their primary particles have different shapes.
Thus, elements with dissimilar forms
join into a single sphere, and matter
is composed of seeds in compound mixtures.

And besides, everywhere in my own verse                                       960
you see many letters shared by many words,
though you must admit that words and verses
in themselves consist of different letters,
sometimes of these ones, sometimes of others.
It’s not that a few common elements
run through all the words or that, of all words,
no two have exactly the same letters,
but that, in general, all words do not match
each other.
28 And therefore with other things
it is the same—though many of them have                                     
several primary elements in common,
they can still consist of combined totals
different from each other, so one could say,
with justice, that the human species, fruits,
and joyful orchard trees are each made up
of different elements.

                            But you must not think                                                                                [700]
that everything can form combinations
in every way, for then you would observe
amazing monsters produced everywhere;
things which look half-human, half-animal                                     
would come into existence, tall branches
would sometimes grow out from living bodies,
many parts of land animals would join
those from creatures of the sea, and nature
would nourish through all-generating earth
those chimaeras which from their ghastly mouths
spout fire.
29 But it is manifestly clear
that none of these things happens, since we know
each thing created from specific seeds
and a specific parent, as its grows,
can maintain its kind. And we can be sure
this must take place by some established law.
For with each entity, from all its food
those particles which suit it, once inside,
break off, pass into its limbs, and, combine
to make appropriate motions. By contrast,
we notice nature throwing back to earth
foreign particles, and many substances
with elements we cannot see escape
from bodies, forced away by collisions.
These could not be combined with anything
or adapt to inner vital motions
and copy them. However, just in case
you happen to think only living things
are governed by these laws, a certain rule
sets boundaries to all things, for just as
each created thing is, in its whole nature,
quite different, so all of them must consist
of different shapes in their primordial stuff.
It’s not that only a few are given                                                     
a similar shape but that, in general,
every one is not like all the others.
Moreover, since seeds vary, there must be
differences in their spacing, passages,
connections, in their weights, impacts, motions,
and collisions—things which not only make
bodies of living creatures quite distinct,
but also distinguish land and all the sea
and keep the entire sky distinct from earth.

Come now, listen to what I am saying                                              1020     [730]
from those things my pleasing work has shown me,
in case you happen to believe that things
which your eyes perceive as white and shining
are made of white primordial elements,
or that black particles make objects black,
or think objects tinged with other colours,
any ones you wish, have a tint like that
because the colour of their basic stuff
resembles theirs. For particles of matter
have no colour at all—they are not like                                           
colours of substances or unlike them.
If perhaps it seems to you impossible
for any mind to be projected here,
into these particles, you are wandering
a long way from the road.
30 Since those born blind,                                                      [740]
who have never gazed upon the sunlight,
still distinguish substances by touching
and from their earliest years never link them
to any colour, we, too, may recognize
that we can turn our minds to contemplate                                    
the idea of objects without colour
painted over them. Besides, with objects
we touch when we ourselves are in the dark
unable to see, we do not notice
that they have colour.

Since I am seeking to persuade you
that this is so, I will now demonstrate
[that primary particles lack all colour.]
For every single colour is transformed 
to any other. But first elements
should not have any way of doing this,
because something must remain unaltered,
or all things will be utterly reduced
to nothing, for whatever has been changed
then moves beyond its own proper limits,
which is instant death for what it was before.
And therefore with seeds of things, be careful
not to sprinkle them with colours, or else
you will see all things totally reduced
to nothing.

               Besides, if no natural colour
has been given to primary particles                                                 
and if they are endowed with various shapes
from which they then create and modify
all types of colour—since it is crucial
what all seeds combine with, what arrangements
they are placed in, and what mutual motions
they receive and give—you can show at once,
without the slightest trouble, the reason
those objects which, a short moment ago,
were coloured black can, in an instant, turn
a dazzling marble white—just as the sea,
when immense winds whip up its calm waters,
is changed to white waves of shining marble.
For you could say that what we often see
as something black, once its material
has been mixed up and the arrangement
of its primordial elements transformed,
with certain matter added and removed,
immediately is made into something
which we see as brilliant white. However,
if the unruffled waters of the sea                                                     
were made of sky-blue seeds, there is no way
they could turn white, because no matter how
you shake up matter which is coloured blue,
it could never change that colour into white.
However, if the seeds which make the sea
one pure shining white are soaked in colours
of various different kinds, in the same way
one often makes the form of just one square
from various different shapes, it then follows
that, just as we see there are different shapes                                  
1090     [780]
inside the square, so we should perceive
in the untroubled waters of the sea,
or in any other pure white shining thing,
various colours, all completely different
from each other. Moreover, with the square
the unlike shapes do not block or hinder
the whole outline from being square, but in things,
the different colours do get in the way:
they prevent the object from displaying,
in its entirety, one single lustre.
32                                                                                                                                       1100
In that case, too, the reason which prompts us
and leads us sometimes to assign colours
to those first elements of things, is gone,
since white substances are not created
from white elements, nor those we call black
from black ones—instead they are created
from things of various colours. And, in fact,
it is far more likely that white objects
will be born and rise up from elements
that contain no colour than from black ones,
or from any other colour you wish,
which opposes white and fights against it.

Moreover, since colours cannot exist
where there is no light and primary bodies
do not come in the light, you may infer
they are not wrapped up in any colour.
What quality of colour could there be
in blinding darkness? And, in fact, colour
is transformed by light itself, depending
how it reflects direct or slanted light                                                
1120     [800]
which strikes it, like the way a dove’s plumage
appears in sunlight, with those feathers placed
behind its neck and those around its throat.
For sometimes they become a bright gold red,
like bronze, and sometimes, from a certain view,
they seem what looks like a combination
of green emeralds and dark blue. Peacock tails,
when fully bathed with light, change their colours
in a similar way, as they move around.
Because these colours are brought out by light                                
striking a certain way, you may conclude
it must be impossible for us to think
they could arise without it. Moreover,
since the pupil of the eye receives a blow
of a certain kind on its inner part
when it is said to sense the colour white
and then impacts of other different kinds
when it sees black and all the rest, and since
when you touch objects, it does not matter
what colours they may happen to possess                                        
but rather the types of shapes they have,
you may understand that first elements
do not need colour—with their various shapes
they produce different varieties of touch.

Moreover, since no fixed natural colour
has been given to particular shapes
and since primordial elements combined
in all configurations can exist
in any colour you wish, why are things
created from them, for the same reason,
not suffused with every sort of colour
in all their types? Then it would be fitting
that flying crows, as well, often displayed
the colour white from their white feathers
and that black seed made swans the colour black,
or any colour you wish, one or many.
Then, too, the more any object is cut up
into small parts, the more you can observe
its colour vanish—little by little
it disappears, for this is what happens                                             
when some purple fabric is torn apart
in tiny pieces: once it is shredded
thread by thread, the purple and scarlet shades,
which are the most brilliant colours by far,
are totally destroyed. You can conclude
from this that small parts discard all colour
before they are reduced to seeds of things.
Lastly, since you admit not all bodies
send out a sound or smell, it then follows
you would not, for that reason, attribute                                         
sounds and smells to every object. And so,
since we cannot see all things with our eyes,
we may conclude that certain things exist
which lack colour, just as certain objects
have no odour and never make a sound,
and yet a keen mind is no less able
to understand these objects than to note
substances which lack other qualities.

But just in case you happen to believe
the only thing that primary elements                                              
remain without is colour, they also
are completely devoid of warmth—they have
no cold or scalding heat—and are carried
empty of sound and destitute of taste.
And from their bodies they do not emit
any odour of their own. It is just like
when you start to make enticing perfume
from marjoram, myrrh, and flower of nard,
which exhales nectar to our sense of smell.
First, you must look for some oily substance                                   
whose nature has no smell—to the extent
you can and are allowed to do so—something
which diffuses no smell to our nostrils,
so, as much as possible, it cannot,
with its own strong odour, corrupt those scents
boiled in and compounded with its substance,
infecting them with its own pungent smell.
Likewise, primary elements of matter
must not, when things are created from them,
add their own sound or odour—for they can                                   
send out nothing from themselves, nor can they,
for the same reason, bring any taste at all,
nor any cold or heat, warm or scalding.
[To emit such things, substances must be
composed of particles in combination
and, like perfumes, hold in them vacant space]
and other things made up in such a way
that they are mortal—soft and pliant stuff,
brittle from decay, hollowed out and thin—
all substances one must keep separate                                            
from primary matter, if we wish to set
an eternal foundation under things,
on which their entire preservation rests,
so you do not see everything reduced
entirely to nothing.

                                     Now, we must admit
that all those things we see as having sense
are nonetheless made in every instance
from primordial elements lacking sense.
Clear evidence does not refute this claim,
and those things we openly acknowledge                                        
do not deny it. Instead, on their own,
they lead us by the hand, compelling us
to accept what I just said, that matter
endowed with life comes from material stuff
which is insensible. For you may see
living worms born out of disgusting dung,
when earth, soaked by unseasonable rains,
acquires a rotten smell. And furthermore,
all things change themselves in the same manner.
Rivers are transformed to foliage on trees,
and joyful fields into herds of cattle.
The cattle alter their material stuff
into our bodies, and from our own flesh
wild beasts and birds with power on the wing
often increase their size. Thus, nature converts
all foods to living bodies and from this
produces every sense in living things.
Her method does not differ very much
from how she makes dry logs give rise to flames
and turns them all to fire. So now, therefore,
surely you see it matters a great deal
how all the primary elements of things
are set in an arrangement and what things
they are connected to in those motions
they receive and give?

                                               Besides, what is it
which so strikes your very spirit, worries you,
and forces you to state in various ways
you do not think that something having sense
is born from things that are insensible?
No doubt it is that stones and wood and earth,
however one mixes them together,
still cannot give rise to vital senses.
And therefore you will have to keep in mind,
in dealing with these matters, I do not claim
that sensations and things possessing sense
are readily produced from all materials,
without exception, from which things are made,
but that it matters a great deal, first of all,
how small the bodies are which do create
sentient things, what shape they have been given,
then what they are in motion, arrangement,
and position. These factors we do not see
in wood and lumps of earth. And yet these things,
when they are, as it were, made putrescent
by showers of rain, then give birth to worms:
their corporeal matter, once shaken
out of its old structure by something new,
combines in such a way it must produce
living creatures.

                         Then, too, those who believe
things with sensation [only] can be formed                                     
from substances with sense, and these, in turn,
tend to get this sensation from other stuff
[with sense, turn particles producing feeling
to something mortal] when they make them soft,
for all sense is joined to flesh, sinews, veins,
those things making up a mortal body
which, when we look at them, are always soft.

But let us grant, for now, these particles
can last forever. Then they must, no doubt,
have sensation either the way parts do                                            
or be considered like whole living things.
But by necessity it must be true
that parts cannot have feelings in themselves,
for all sensation in the limbs depends
on something else—a hand cut off from us
has, on its own, no ability at all
to feel things, nor has any body part.
Thus it follows that they must resemble
complete living beings, so they are able
to share vital sensations in every part.
If this were so, primordial elements
would have to perceive, in the same manner,
the same things we feel. But then how can they
be called primary elements of matter
and avoid the path to death—they are alive,
and living things are one and the same as those
which perish?
37 But let us assume they can.
They will make nothing when they meet and join
but huge crowds of living things, in the same way
human beings, cattle, and wild creatures,
as you know, cannot give birth to something new
by breeding with themselves. But if it happens
that they give up their sense and then acquire
a different one, what use was it giving them
what then is taken away?
38  Furthermore,
to refer to what we said earlier,
since we see that animal eggs are changed
to living chicks and that, when the foul stench
of rotting seizes earth after too much rain,
it swarm with worms, you may well understand                              
that sentient objects can be created
from elements which have no sensation.

But if someone, by chance, were to point out
that sensation could at least come from things
deprived of sense by some transformation,
or through, as it were, some form of birthing
which brings out sensation, it will be enough
to make plain and prove to him that no birth
happens unless some previous act of union
has occurred, nor does any matter change                                      
without some combination. First of all,
before the nature of the living thing
is itself formed, no body can possess
sensation, because, as is quite obvious,
its scattered materials are held in air,
rivers, lands, and objects earth produces,
and these have not united and combined
in such a way among themselves that they
meet in that vital motion thanks to which
all-perceiving senses are set alight                                                   
and serve to guard each thing that is alive.

Moreover, any blow which is more intense
than nature can endure immediately
knocks any creature down and quickly numbs
all sensations in the body and the mind.
For positions of the basic elements
are disturbed, and deep within the body
vital motion is checked, until all matter
badly shaken by shock within the limbs
releases those bonds of the living soul                                             
1340     [950]
from the body and then expels the soul,
scattering it outside through every opening.
For what else do we think inflicted blows
can do, except shake everything apart
and dissolve it? This also can happen—
when the impact of the blow is less severe,
often the vital motions which remain
have a habit of winning through, prevailing,
calming the immense disruption brought on
by the blow, leading all things back again                                       
to their own proper paths, and, so to speak,
dispelling death’s movements in the body,
as those now gain control, and rekindling
those sensations almost lost. For how else
could bodies have their minds restored and move
from the very door of death back to life,
rather than keep moving on and pass away
to where their race already almost ends?
Besides, since pain comes when material stuff,
shocked by some force through living flesh and limbs,
is disturbed in its location deep inside,
and a relaxing pleasure is produced
when it moves back in place, you may conclude
that primary matter cannot be attacked
by any pain or gather any pleasure
from itself, because it is not composed
of any elementary particles
by whose new motions it might suffer pain
or get some delight from genial pleasure.
Thus, such matter must lack all sensation.

Then, too, if in order for all living things
to be able to register sensations,
we must now attribute sense of feeling
to their first elements, what of those seed
out of which the race of human has grown
in its own special way? Well, that seems clear:
they are shaken up with trembling laughter
and cackle aloud and sprinkle face and cheeks
with dewy tears and are very clever
at saying many things about mixtures                                             
of matter, then seeking out what might be
their first beginnings. Because they are made
to resemble complete mortal men, they, too,
must themselves consist of other elements,
and these, in turn, of others, so that you
will never dare come to a conclusion.
In fact, I will keep this up—whatever
you may say speaks and laughs and understands
must be made up of other particles
which do the same. But if we recognize                                           
this reasoning is insanely stupid,
that someone can laugh without being made
of laughing elements, can understand
and give reasons in educated words,
and yet not be made up of particles
which are eloquent and clever, then why
cannot every sentient thing we notice
be a compound mixture of seeds which lack
any sense at all?

                                And then each of us
arises from celestial seed—there is                                                  
this common father for us all, from whom,
once our nourishing Mother Earth receives
wet, watery drops and then grows pregnant,
she gives birth to shining crops, joyful trees,
and the human race. She bears every tribe
of savage beast and offers food with which
they all feed their bodies, lead pleasant lives,
and bear their offspring—that is the reason
she has justly acquired the name Mother.
What has previously arisen from the earth                                      
also sinks back into earth; what was sent
from regions of the air is carried back
and taken in by spaces in the sky.
And death does not destroy materials
in such a way it kills what makes them up—
instead it breaks down their compound unions,
and then it joins one thing to another
and sees to it that all substance alters form,
changes colours, and acquires sensation,
and in an instant gives them back again,
so you may know how it really matters
what primary elements of things combine with,
what kind of arrangements they are placed in,
what mutual motions they receive and give,
and do not assume that what we observe
floating on the surface of materials,
sometimes being born and quickly dying,
could be inextricably connected
to primary particles, which do not die.
Indeed, even in my verse it matters                                                
what every letter is combined with
and in what arrangement it is placed,
for the same letters signify the sky,
sea, land, rivers, sun, and these same letters
indicate crops, trees, and living creatures.
If they are not all alike, the greatest part,
by far, remains the same, and, nonetheless,
their position gives them different meanings.
So with things themselves, in a similar way—
when their spacings, pathways, bondings, weights,
                                            1440     [1020]
collisions, meetings, arrangements, motions,
shape, placement are adjusted, then matter
must also be transformed. 

                                But now set your mind,
I pray, to true reason, for a new issue
is struggling eagerly to reach your ears
and a new face of things to show itself.
But there is nothing which is so simple
that it is not harder to believe at first,
and, in the same manner, nothing so great,
so marvellous, that all men’s amazement                                        
does not gradually lessen. First of all,
the clear bright colour of the sky and all
it holds in it—stars roaming here and there,
the moon, sun’s brilliant, illuminating light—
if all these now, for the very first time,
were there for mortal men, quickly thrown down
without a warning, what could one declare
was more wonderful or, before this happened,
what would nations have ventured to believe
less than that? In my view, nothing at all—                                     
this sight would have been so astonishing.
But think how no one now, tired from looking
at it so much, considers it worthwhile
to gaze up at bright spaces in the sky.
And therefore if the very novelty
in an argument gives you cause to fear,
then stop ejecting reason from your mind.
Instead, you must weigh it more judiciously,
and if it seems to you legitimate,
give it your hand, or else, if it seems false,
prepare to fight against it. Given that
the totality space beyond the walls
of our own world is infinite, my mind
seeks to understand what exists out there,
far away, where the spirit always yearns
to look ahead, those places into which
fly off the free projections of our mind.
To start with, we know that in every part,
in all directions and on either side,
above and below and throughout all space,
there is no limit, as I have explained,
and facts themselves announce it on their own—
the nature of deep space is very clear.
Since infinite space lies empty on all sides
and seeds in countless numbers fly around
through the deep universe in various ways,
driven by eternal motion, we must not,
in any way, now think it probable
that only this one sphere of earth and sky
have been created, that beyond us here                                          
all those many particles of matter
do nothing at all, especially since earth
was made by nature. Seeds of things themselves,
jostling freely here and there in various ways
and forced to random, confused collisions,
produced nothing—then finally those ones
suddenly united which could become,
every time, the beginnings of great things,
land, sea, sky, the race of living beings.
And so, to repeat myself, you must grant                                        
that there are other aggregates of matter
similar to this in other places,
which aether clutches in its keen embrace.
Further, when large quantities of matter
are on hand and there is sufficient space,
with no causal factor standing in the way,
we may be sure that things must be produced
and their full development completed.
Now, if supplies of seed are so enormous
that all the years of living animals                                                   
could not count the total, and if nature
and the same force remain which could collect
the seeds of matter into every place
in the same way they are thrown together here,
one must grant there are other earthly spheres
in other regions, with different races
of human beings and classes of wild beasts.
Add to this that in the whole universe
no single thing exists all on its own—
nothing is born unique and flourishes                                             
as the single specimen of its kind.
Instead it always belongs to some race,
and those of the same kind are numerous.
If, to begin with, you direct your mind
to living creatures, you will discover
this is true for living varieties
of savage animals which roam the hills,
true for human offspring, and it is true
for mute herds of scaly fish and all bodies
of things which fly. Thus, one must acknowledge,
that, in the same way, sky, land, sun, moon, sea,
and all the other objects which exist
are not unique—instead their quantity
is beyond all counting. Since for these things
the deep-set boundary stone of life awaits,
they are as much a body which was born,
as every class of substance here on earth
overflowing with things of its own kind.
If you grasp these points well and hold to them,
you will see at once that nature is free,
liberated from her proud possessors,
doing all things on her own initiative,
without divinities playing any part.
For by the sacred hearts of gods, who spend
a calm eternity, a serene life,
in tranquil peace, who can administer
the limitless universe? Who can hold
in his controlling hand the mighty reins
of the abyss? Who can turn all heavens
at the same time and keep all fertile lands                                      
warm with celestial fires, or be present
in all places all the time, so as to make
darkness with clouds and rattle tranquil skies
with thunder, then throw down bolts of lightning,
which often shatter his own sanctuaries,
and move back to the desert, in his rage,
to use that weapon, which so often spares
the wicked and kills off the innocent,
those who do not deserve to be destroyed?
Since the moment earth was first created,
that day sea, land, and rising sun were born,
many particles have been added on
from areas outside. All around them,
seeds which the immense universe has joined
by hurling them about have been attached.
Because of that, sea and lands could increase,
the mansion of the sky could gain more space
and raise its high roof far above the land,
and air could flow there. For from everywhere,
all bodies are distributed by impacts                                                
to places fit for each of them and move
to their own kind—moisture goes to moisture,
earth grows larger from particles of earth,
fire is produced from elements of fire,
and aether from particles of aether,
until nature, who produces matter
and brings it to completion, leads all things
to the limit of their growth. This takes place
when what goes to the inner veins of life
does not exceed what flows off and departs.
Here, the age of growth must halt for all things.
Here nature, by her own force, checks increase.
For all those things you see enjoying growth,
getting larger, and climbing by degrees
to full maturity, take into themselves
more matter than they send out from the body,
as long as nourishment goes easily
to every vein and they are not spread out
so wide they throw off many particles
and make what they are casting off greater                                     
than what their age of life requires as food.
For there is no doubt we must acknowledge
that many elements do flow away
and withdraw from things, but then more bodies
must attach themselves, until the moment
those things attain their greatest peak of growth.
From then on old age gradually breaks down
their full-grown power and strength, which waste away
as they decline. In fact, with anything,
the larger and wider its substance                                                    
once its growth has stopped, the more particles
it sends out from its body, releasing them
in all directions everywhere. Its food
is not easily discharged to every vein
and is not sufficient to allow matter
to be produced in sufficient quantities
to make up for the large flow it gives off.*
For nourishment must repair all objects
and restore them, food must provide support,
food must sustain each thing. All for nothing.
For veins do not provide what is needed,
and nature does not give what they require.
And so by rights they die, when what flows out
has made all matter scarce and they succumb
to outside blows, for food eventually
fails extreme old age, while external things
never cease from pounding any substance,
wearing out its body, overpowering it
with harmful blows.

                                 And thus, in the same way,
the great world’s walls will be attacked, as well,
from every side, will fall into decay
and crumbling ruins. Even nowadays
the age of earth is broken and worn out.
Earth once produced all species, giving birth
to huge bodies of wild animals, and now
has trouble making any living beings,
even small ones. For in my opinion,
it was no golden chain from up above
which let living things come down from heaven
onto the fields, nor did the sea or waves                                         
which strike against the rocks create them.
42 No—
that same earth gave birth to living things and now
nourishes them from her own materials. 
Then, on her own initiative, earth herself
for mortal creatures first made shining crops
and joyful vineyards, she herself produced
for mortal beings sweet fruits and happy fields,
which these days scarcely grow, for all the help
our hard work provides. We wear out cattle
and our farmers’ strength; we grind down iron                               
by ploughing fields which scarcely offer us
what we need—and thus the land, reluctant
to produce its fruits, makes us work all the more.
So now, the ancient ploughman shakes his head
and sighs, again and again, that hard work
of his hands has been wasted and compares
his present days with those from ages past,
often praising the good luck his father had.
The man who plants a shrivelled, worn-out vine
for the same reason sadly blames the times,
how things are going, and makes heaven tired,
muttering how older races, fill of piety,
led easy lives, although they had less land,
for what each one received in earlier days
was a far smaller piece of ground. That man
does not understand that gradually all things
waste away and, weary from advanced old age
after so much time, move on to the grave.


[Back to Table of Contents]



1Here and in the lines following Lucretius refers to the Epicurean teaching that the best life is one lived free of pain. The most important pleasures are those of the mind when it has no worries. This principle is different from the common misconception that Epicureanism always involves living wholly for active physical pleasures. [Back to Text]

2The manuscript has minor corruptions in two lines here. I have adopted the suggestions of Munro. The “Campus” into which the legions are marching is the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) outside Rome, where armies often practised manoeuvres or put on displays. The point here is that sometimes military displays fill men with such enthusiasm they forget their normal fears. Lines 62 and 63 in the English (the reference to watching ships) are sometimes omitted or inserted elsewhere. [Back to Text]

3Compound matter moves more slowly through air because the particles within it are moving and obstructing each other and also because external particles of air are hindering it. Primordial elements lack that inner motion and, when they move through vacant space, any external obstacles; hence, the latter move more quickly. [Back to Text]

4A number of lines are lost here. Bailey makes the plausible suggestion that they probably dealt with other reasons for the rapid speed of elementary particles and with what Lucretius earlier promises to explain, how the motion of primordial particles make objects smaller. The two lines after the gap are the conclusion of an incomplete sentence. Munro offers the suggestion that in the lost passage, there is a reference to the gods not being disposed to follow the movements of every atom, an idea which makes good sense of the incomplete sentence after the omission. [Back to Text]

5I follow Bailey and others by inserting here a line in the Latin. [Back to Text]

6Venus, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Aphrodite, is the goddess of sexual desire. Fowler points out that the structure of the sentence invites us to see natural desire in charge of the goddess, rather than the other way around. [Back to Text]

7This chance alteration in the direct linear movement downward (the swerve of the elementary particles) has, as one learns a few lines later, enormously important consequences, since it frees nature and human beings from rigid determinism and accounts for freedom of will. However, Lucretius, as Fowler points out, uses the existence of free will to demonstrate the validity of the idea of the swerve in the basic particles, rather than the other way around. Serres argues that this chance swerve (which has often been viewed with suspicion or scorn) is the heart of Epicurean science and the birth of modern physics. [Back to Text]

8The image is taken from horse racing, where just before the start of the race the animal is behind a gate. Fowler makes the point that the horse cannot move, even though his mind wants to and his body is fully ready to, until the will initiates motion. Hence, there is a distinction between the will and the mind, and motion originates in the elementary particles of the former. For the Epicureans the spirit (animus), where free will (voluntas) originates, is in the chest. [Back to Text]

9Although the primary elements are always in motion, the object of which they are composed looks at rest, unless its whole body is in motion. [Back to Text]

10Wormwood and centaury are species of bitter tasting herbs commonly used as natural medical remedies. [Back to Text]

11Watson notes that, “theatres were sprinkled with saffron mixed with wine, as Pliny relates.” Cilicia is a coastal region of Asia Minor, part of modern Turkey. Panchaea was an imaginary Arabian island, famous, among other things, for incense-bearing sand. [Back to Text]

12Elecampane (also called horse heal and elfwort) is a herb with a slightly bitter taste, once used in medicine (as an antiseptic) and in food recipes as a condiment. [Back to Text]

13Touch is, as we learn in more detail later (particularly in Book 4), the primary sense, since all the others (sight, hearing, taste) depend upon particles touching the appropriate sense organ. [Back to Text]

14Adamantine is a mythical rock of legendary hardness. As an adjective the word adamantine refers to something very hard and bright (like diamond). The image of squealing brass refers to a metal lock on a door or gate. [Back to Text]

15To penetrate the body’s sense organs, the particles must be small (i.e., not intertwined in larger and more complex combinations)—otherwise they would be blocked—and yet they must have “points” (i.e., not be totally smooth) in order to register harshly on our senses. [Back to Text]

16Neptune is god of the sea; hence, his body is sea water. [Back to Text]

17Bailey conjectures that after this line a section is missing, one in which Lucretius argues that the basic particles were limited in size. [Back to Text]

18This proof, one assumes, was part of the gap in the manuscript earlier (see the footnote immediately above), or else, as Smith insists, Lucretius is referring back to what he says in Book I (lines 599-634 in the Latin text). [Back to Text]

19I follow Munro’s suggestion that some words are lost in the Latin here. The insertion is in square brackets. Meliboea was a town in Thessaly, in north-east Greece. Purple dye comes from certain shell fish. Phoebus is another name for the Greek god Apollo. He was associated with playing the lyre. Lucretius is here insisting that if basic particles could have an infinity of shapes, there would be no end to the marvellous new objects which would make those things we now consider beautiful inferior by comparison. [Back to Text]

20The point of the example of temperatures, as Watson notes, is to demonstrate that in nature things (like the shapes of particles or degrees of heat and cold) can have much variation but that there are fixed limits beyond which they cannot go. These limits are “hostile” to matter because at the extremes they help dissolve it. [Back to Text]

21Bailey here makes reference to the doctrine of Epicurus that things are equally distributed in the universe (there is an equal number of things of the same sort), so that what is rare in one area must exist in larger numbers elsewhere—if not on this world, then somewhere else. [Back to Text]

22The phrase “snake-handed” refers to the elephant’s trunk. [Back to Text]

23If the universe is infinite and the number of elementary particles finite, then there is virtually no chance that the appropriate particles would meet in the collisions from which compound matter is made. The point of this example seems to be that if the elementary particles were finite in number they would be tossed around the universe like the parts of wrecked ships in the sea and, just as it would be impossible for a ship to be assembled from the flotsam and jetsam, by the movement of the water, so it would be impossible for any objects to be formed from the random movements of a limited amount of disconnected matter in space. [Back to Text]

24Lucretius is referring here to the goddess Cybele, the great mother goddess of Asia Minor. A cult dedicated to her began in Rome in 210 BC, and the Senate adopted Cybele as an official state goddess in 203 BC. Cybele is often confused or identified with Rhea, in Greek mythology the mother of Zeus, perhaps because both are associated with a Mount Ida (one in Asia Minor, just outside Troy, and one in Crete). The chariot freely moving through the air, as a symbol of the earth, suggests that the earth is not supported by some other solid mass. Phrygia is an area in Asia Minor. Some editors conjecture that one or two lines have been lost right after line 600 in the Latin. The part in square brackets is an insertion prompted by a suggestion by Munro. [Back to Text]

25The Galli were voluntary eunuchs who worshipped Cybele. Roman citizens were prohibited from becoming Galli (until the first century AD). According to one account, the name derives from the river Gallus in Phrygia, a stream whose waters, it was said, drove anyone who drank them so insane that he would castrate himself on the spot. [Back to Text]

26Accounts of the Curetes typically mix together the tales of Rhea, mother of Jupiter (the Greek Zeus), with those of Cybele (the Great Mother from Asia Minor). In Greek mythology Rhea concealed the infant Zeus in Crete, hiding him from his father, Cronos (the Roman Saturn), who, in order to protect his power, ate his children; the Curetes were Rhea’s attendants, whose loud cries and music helped to stifle the wailing of the baby god, so that his father would not know where he was. [Back to Text]

27A line seems to be missing here. I have followed (with some variation) Bailey’s suggestion about the missing material. [Back to Text]

28The point, Lucretius insists, is not that some letters are common to different words or that not all words have the same letters but rather that the various combinations from a limited set of letters produces words which are quite different from each other in sound and meaning (even if they do have some letters in common). [Back to Text]

29The Chimera in Greek mythology is a fire-breathing monster made of different animals: the head and body of a lion with a snake at the end of its tail and a goat growing out of the middle of its back. In Book 5, Lucretius explains why such compound monsters could have been created. [Back to Text]

30Bailey notes that this phrase about mental projection refers to Epicurus’ doctrine that the mind, although its particles are normally stirred by other particles from sensation, can spontaneously “project itself upon” images and form new conceptions. Lucretius is here challenging the notion that we cannot form a mental image of colourless particles because we have no experience of seeing something without colour. [Back to Text]

31A line is apparently lost in the Latin here. The English text in brackets provides the general sense of the lost text. [Back to Text]

32Lucretius’ point in this long discussion is that colour is not a property of the primary particles. Any assumption that it is leads to certain contradictions with sense experience or reason or both. Colour thus results from changes in the combinations of primordial elements, not from inherent properties of colour in the particles themselves. The claim that the particles may be many different colours contradicts our sense experience and, besides, as Lucretius goes on to point out, the latter theory effectively denies the notion that black things are black because they are made up entirely of black particles. [Back to Text]

33Lucretius is insisting that what matters is the shape of the primary material, not any given colour. The shapes themselves are not coloured. Here he is refuting the idea that shapes of primary elements come with many colours. If that were the case, he says, then the crow particles, which have a certain shape, should sometimes be a colour other than black. [Back to Text]

34Myrrh is a resin from various trees and used in certain forms of incense and scents; marjoram is a Mediterranean herb from the same family as oregano; nard is a mountain plant, used in aromatic ointments. [Back to Text]

35Some editors believe a number of lines are lost here. Giussani, according to Bailey, suggests that in the missing lines Lucretius is arguing that only matter which contains vacant space (void) can emit things like smell and heat and that he then offers a list of such matter. In light of this suggestion I have inserted a short bridge passage (between square brackets) to make the transition to the point where the text recommences in mid-sentence. [Back to Text]

36A line is apparently missing after line 903 in the Latin. I have adapted Bailey’s suggestion for the missing material, and I have added the word “only” to line 1272 in the English text to clarify the sense of the passage. [Back to Text]

37Lucretius is continuing to refute the notion that elementary particles have sensation. If they do, then they must be either like parts which register sense (e.g., a sore toe) or like the entire living creature which feels the soreness. But parts, he argues, have no feeling without reference to a total living creature (a severed toe would not, in itself, register feelings of pain). So if they have sensation, they must be complete living creatures. And if they are alive, then they must die. [Back to Text]

38If the primary elements of things have feelings, then they must be alive. In that case, they could, like all living creatures, produce nothing but living beings. But if, in creating things, they lose their sensation, why did they have it in the first place? [Back to Text]

39Pain comes when combinations of primary particles are disturbed, and pleasure when the combinations are restored. In such processes the individual primary particles are not themselves disturbed internally and therefore cannot have any sensations. [Back to Text]

40If primary elements have to display the emotional characteristics of the creatures they make up, then we reach an absurd conclusion. Lucretius’ logical technique here is similar to his treatment of Anaxagoras in Book 1. [Back to Text]

41The idea here is that the larger a body grows, the greater its surface area, and thus the more particles it sends out or disposes of (rather like evaporation from the surface area of a body of water). At some point, Lucretius goes on to argue, the number of these ejected particles will exceed the number of those taken in by absorption (e.g., nourishment). [Back to Text]

42In Book 8 of Homer’s Iliad, Zeus talks of attaching a golden chain to the world. The passage was interpreted in some quarters as a way of explaining the creation of the earth and of life on it. [Back to Text]

43The gloomy image of an earth getting very old contrasts with other parts of the poem (especially in Book 5) where Lucretius indicates that, in his view, the earth and the world are comparatively young. [Back to Text]



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