All was once formless; but the gradual assortment of the moving atoms by their size and shape produced- without design- air, fire, water, and earth, and out of these the sun and moon, the planets and stars. In the infinity of space new worlds are ever being born, and old worlds are wasting away. The stars are fires set in the ring of ether (a mist of thinnest atoms) that surrounds each planetary system; this cosmic wall of fire constitutes the “flaming ramparts of the world.” A portion of the primeval mist broke off from the mass, revolved separately, and cooled to form the earth. Earthquakes are not the growling of deities, but the expansion of subterranean gases and streams. Thunder and lightning are not the voice and breath of a god, but natural results of condensed and clashing clouds. Rain is not the mercy of Jove, but the return to earth of moisture evaporated from it by the sun.
Life does not differ essentially from other matter; it is a product of moving atoms which are individually dead. As the universe took form by the inherent laws of matter, so the earth produced by a purely natural selection all the species and organs of life.
Nothing arises in the body in order that we may use it, but what arises brings forth its own use…. It was no design of the atoms that led them to arrange themselves in order with keen intelligence… but because many atoms in infinite time have moved and met in all manner of ways, trying all combinations…. Hence arose the beginnings of great things… and the generations of living creatures…. Many were the monsters that the earth tried to make:… some without feet, and others without hands or mouth or face, or with limbs bound to their frames…. It was in vain; nature denied them growth, nor could they find food or join in the way of love…. Many kinds of animals must have perished then, unable to forge the chain of procreation… for those to which nature gave no [protective] qualities lay at the mercy of others, and were soon destroyed.
Mind ( animus ) is an organ precisely like feet or eyes; it is, like them, a tool or function of that soul ( anima ) or vital breath which is spread as a very fine matter throughout the body, and animates every part. Upon the highly sensitive atoms that form the mind fall the images or films that perpetually emanate from the surfaces of things; this is the source of sensation. Taste, smell, hearing, sight, and touch are caused by particles coming from objects and striking tongue or palate, nostrils, ears, eyes, or skin; all senses are forms of touch. The senses are the final test of truth; if they seem to err, it is only through misinterpretation, and only another sense can correct them. Reason cannot be the test of truth, for reason depends upon experience- i.e., sensation. The soul is neither spiritual nor immortal. It could not move the body unless it too were corporeal; it grows and ages with the body; it is affected like the body by disease, medicine, or wine; its atoms are apparently dispersed when the body dies. Soul without body would be senseless, meaningless; of what use would soul be without organs of touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight? Life is given us not in freehold but on loan, and for so long as we can make use of it. When we have exhausted our powers we should leave the table of life as graciously as a grateful guest rising from a feast. Death itself is not terrible; only our fears of the hereafter make it so. But there is no hereafter. Hell is here in the suffering that comes from ignorance, passion, pugnacity, and greed; heaven is here in the sapientum templa serena – “the serene temples of the wise.” Virtue lies not in the fear of the gods, nor in the timid shunning of pleasure; it lies in the harmonious operation of senses and faculties guided by reason. “Some men wear out their lives for the sake of a statue and fame” but “the real wealth of man is to live simply with a mind at peace” ( vivere parce aequo animo ). Better than living stiffly in gilded halls is “to lie in groups upon the soft grass beside a rivulet and under tall trees,” or to hear gentle music, or lose one’s ego in the love and care of our children. Marriage is good, but passionate love is a madness that strips the mind of clarity and reason. “If one is wounded by the shafts of Venus- whether it be a boy with girlish limbs who launches the shaft, or a woman radiating love from her whole body- he is drawn toward the source of the blow, and longs to unite.” No marriage and no society can find a sound basis in such erotic befuddlement.
As Lucretius, exhausting his passions on philosophy, finds no room for romantic love, so he rejects the romantic anthropology of Greek Rousseauians who had glorified primitive life. Men were hardier then, to be sure; but they dwelt in caves without fire, they mated without marriage, killed without law, and died of starvation as frequently as people in civilization die of overeating. How civilization developed, Lucretius tells in a pretty summary of ancient anthropology. Social organization gave man the power to survive animals far stronger than himself. He discovered fire from the friction of leaves and boughs, developed language from gestures, and learned song from the birds; he tamed animals for his use, and himself with marriage and law; he tilled the soil, wove clothing, molded metals into tools; he observed the heavens, measured time, and learned navigation; he improved the art of killing, conquered the weak, and built cities and states. History is a procession of states and civilizations rising, prospering, decaying, dying; but each in turn transmits the civilizing heritage of customs, morals, and arts; “like runners in a race they hand on the lamps of life” ( et quasi cursores vitai lampada tradunt ).