There are gods, says Lucretius, but they dwell far off in happy isolation from the thought or cares of men. There, “beyond the flaming ramparts of the world” ( extra flammantia moenia mundi ), beyond the reach of our sacrifices and prayers, they live like followers of Epicurus, shunning worldly affairs, content with the contemplation of beauty and the practices of friendship and peace. They are not the authors of creation, nor the causes of events; who would be so unfair as to charge them with the wastefulness, the disorder, the sufferings, and the injustices of earthly life? No, this infinite universe of many worlds is self-contained; it has no law outside itself; nature does everything of her own accord. “For who is strong enough to rule the sum of things, to hold in hand the mighty bridle of the unfathomable deep?- who to turn all the heavens around at once… to shake the serene sky with thunder, to launch the lightning that often shatters temples, and cast the bolt that slays the innocent and passes the guilty by?” The only god is Law; and the truest worship, as well as the only peace, lies in learning that Law and loving it. “This terror and gloom of the mind must be dispelled not by the sun’s rays… but by the aspect and law of nature.” And so, “touching with the honey of the Muses” the rough materialism of Democritus, Lucretius proclaims as his basic theorem that “nothing exists but atoms and the void”- i.e., matter and space. He proceeds at once to a cardinal principle (and assumption) of modern science- that the quantity of matter and motion in the world never varies; no thing arises out of nothing, and destruction is only a change of form. The atoms are indestructible, unchangeable, solid, resilient, soundless, odorless, tasteless, colorless, infinite. They interpenetrate one another to produce endless combinations and qualities; and they move without cease in the seeming stillness of motionless things.
For often on a hill… woolly sheep go creeping wherever the dew-sparkling grass tempts them, and the well-fed lambs play and butt their heads in sport; yet in the distance all these are blurred together and seem but a whiteness resting on a green hill. Sometimes great armies cover wide fields in maneuvers mimicking war; the brilliant bronze of their shields illumines the countryside and is mirrored in the sky; the ground trembles and thunders under their marching feet and their galloping steeds; and the mountains, buffeted by the sound, hurl it back to the very stars: and yet there is a place on the peaks from which these armies appear to be motionless, a little brightness resting on the plain.
The atoms have parts- minima, or “least things”- each minimum being solid, indivisible, ultimate. Perhaps because of the different arrangement of these parts, the atoms vary in size and shape, and so make possible the refreshing diversity of nature. The atoms do not move in straight or uniform lines; there is in their motion an incalculable “declination” or deviation, an elemental spontaneity that runs through all things and culminates in man’s free will. *03029