Of the Nature of Things

by Lucretius

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Book I - Confutation of Other Philosophers

And on such grounds it is that those who held
     The stuff of things is fire, and out of fire
     Alone the cosmic sum is formed, are seen
     Mightily from true reason to have lapsed.
     Of whom, chief leader to do battle, comes
     That Heraclitus, famous for dark speech
     Among the silly, not the serious Greeks
     Who search for truth. For dolts are ever prone
     That to bewonder and adore which hides
     Beneath distorted words, holding that true
     Which sweetly tickles in their stupid ears,
     Or which is rouged in finely finished phrase.
     For how, I ask, can things so varied be,
     If formed of fire, single and pure? No whit
     'Twould help for fire to be condensed or thinned,
     If all the parts of fire did still preserve
     But fire's own nature, seen before in gross.
     The heat were keener with the parts compressed,
     Milder, again, when severed or dispersed—
     And more than this thou canst conceive of naught
     That from such causes could become; much less
     Might earth's variety of things be born
     From any fires soever, dense or rare.
     This too: if they suppose a void in things,
     Then fires can be condensed and still left rare;
     But since they see such opposites of thought
     Rising against them, and are loath to leave
     An unmixed void in things, they fear the steep
     And lose the road of truth. Nor do they see,
     That, if from things we take away the void,
     All things are then condensed, and out of all
     One body made, which has no power to dart
     Swiftly from out itself not anything—
     As throws the fire its light and warmth around,
     Giving thee proof its parts are not compact.
     But if perhaps they think, in other wise,
     Fires through their combinations can be quenched
     And change their substance, very well: behold,
     If fire shall spare to do so in no part,
     Then heat will perish utterly and all,
     And out of nothing would the world be formed.
     For change in anything from out its bounds
     Means instant death of that which was before;
     And thus a somewhat must persist unharmed
     Amid the world, lest all return to naught,
     And, born from naught, abundance thrive anew.
     Now since indeed there are those surest bodies
     Which keep their nature evermore the same,
     Upon whose going out and coming in
     And changed order things their nature change,
     And all corporeal substances transformed,
     'Tis thine to know those primal bodies, then,
     Are not of fire. For 'twere of no avail
     Should some depart and go away, and some
     Be added new, and some be changed in order,
     If still all kept their nature of old heat:
     For whatsoever they created then
     Would still in any case be only fire.
     The truth, I fancy, this: bodies there are
     Whose clashings, motions, order, posture, shapes
     Produce the fire and which, by order changed,
     Do change the nature of the thing produced,
     And are thereafter nothing like to fire
     Nor whatso else has power to send its bodies
     With impact touching on the senses' touch.

     Again, to say that all things are but fire
     And no true thing in number of all things
     Exists but fire, as this same fellow says,
     Seems crazed folly. For the man himself
     Against the senses by the senses fights,
     And hews at that through which is all belief,
     Through which indeed unto himself is known
     The thing he calls the fire. For, though he thinks
     The senses truly can perceive the fire,
     He thinks they cannot as regards all else,
     Which still are palpably as clear to sense—
     To me a thought inept and crazy too.
     For whither shall we make appeal? for what
     More certain than our senses can there be
     Whereby to mark asunder error and truth?
     Besides, why rather do away with all,
     And wish to allow heat only, then deny
     The fire and still allow all else to be?—
     Alike the madness either way it seems.
     Thus whosoe'er have held the stuff of things
     To be but fire, and out of fire the sum,
     And whosoever have constituted air
     As first beginning of begotten things,
     And all whoever have held that of itself
     Water alone contrives things, or that earth
     Createth all and changes things anew
     To divers natures, mightily they seem
     A long way to have wandered from the truth.

     Add, too, whoever make the primal stuff
     Twofold, by joining air to fire, and earth
     To water; add who deem that things can grow
     Out of the four—fire, earth, and breath, and rain;
     As first Empedocles of Acragas,
     Whom that three-cornered isle of all the lands
     Bore on her coasts, around which flows and flows
     In mighty bend and bay the Ionic seas,
     Splashing the brine from off their gray-green waves.
     Here, billowing onward through the narrow straits,
     Swift ocean cuts her boundaries from the shores
     Of the Italic mainland. Here the waste
     Charybdis; and here Aetna rumbles threats
     To gather anew such furies of its flames
     As with its force anew to vomit fires,
     Belched from its throat, and skyward bear anew
     Its lightnings' flash. And though for much she seem
     The mighty and the wondrous isle to men,
     Most rich in all good things, and fortified
     With generous strength of heroes, she hath ne'er
     Possessed within her aught of more renown,
     Nor aught more holy, wonderful, and dear
     Than this true man. Nay, ever so far and pure
     The lofty music of his breast divine
     Lifts up its voice and tells of glories found,
     That scarce he seems of human stock create.

     Yet he and those forementioned (known to be
     So far beneath him, less than he in all),
     Though, as discoverers of much goodly truth,
     They gave, as 'twere from out of the heart's own shrine,
     Responses holier and soundlier based
     Than ever the Pythia pronounced for men
     From out the triped and the Delphian laurel,
     Have still in matter of first-elements
     Made ruin of themselves, and, great men, great
     Indeed and heavy there for them the fall:
     First, because, banishing the void from things,
     They yet assign them motion, and allow
     Things soft and loosely textured to exist,
     As air, dew, fire, earth, animals, and grains,
     Without admixture of void amid their frame.
     Next, because, thinking there can be no end
     In cutting bodies down to less and less
     Nor pause established to their breaking up,
     They hold there is no minimum in things;
     Albeit we see the boundary point of aught
     Is that which to our senses seems its least,
     Whereby thou mayst conjecture, that, because
     The things thou canst not mark have boundary points,
     They surely have their minimums. Then, too,
     Since these philosophers ascribe to things
     Soft primal germs, which we behold to be
     Of birth and body mortal, thus, throughout,
     The sum of things must be returned to naught,
     And, born from naught, abundance thrive anew—
     Thou seest how far each doctrine stands from truth.
     And, next, these bodies are among themselves
     In many ways poisons and foes to each,
     Wherefore their congress will destroy them quite
     Or drive asunder as we see in storms
     Rains, winds, and lightnings all asunder fly.

     Thus too, if all things are create of four,
     And all again dissolved into the four,
     How can the four be called the primal germs
     Of things, more than all things themselves be thought,
     By retroversion, primal germs of them?
     For ever alternately are both begot,
     With interchange of nature and aspect
     From immemorial time. But if percase
     Thou think'st the frame of fire and earth, the air,
     The dew of water can in such wise meet
     As not by mingling to resign their nature,
     From them for thee no world can be create—
     No thing of breath, no stock or stalk of tree:
     In the wild congress of this varied heap
     Each thing its proper nature will display,
     And air will palpably be seen mixed up
     With earth together, unquenched heat with water.
     But primal germs in bringing things to birth
     Must have a latent, unseen quality,
     Lest some outstanding alien element
     Confuse and minish in the thing create
     Its proper being.

                        But these men begin
     From heaven, and from its fires; and first they feign
     That fire will turn into the winds of air,
     Next, that from air the rain begotten is,
     And earth created out of rain, and then
     That all, reversely, are returned from earth—
     The moisture first, then air thereafter heat—
     And that these same ne'er cease in interchange,
     To go their ways from heaven to earth, from earth
     Unto the stars of the aethereal world—
     Which in no wise at all the germs can do.
     Since an immutable somewhat still must be,
     Lest all things utterly be sped to naught;
     For change in anything from out its bounds
     Means instant death of that which was before.
     Wherefore, since those things, mentioned heretofore,
     Suffer a changed state, they must derive
     From others ever unconvertible,
     Lest an things utterly return to naught.
     Then why not rather presuppose there be
     Bodies with such a nature furnished forth
     That, if perchance they have created fire,
     Can still (by virtue of a few withdrawn,
     Or added few, and motion and order changed)
     Fashion the winds of air, and thus all things
     Forevermore be interchanged with all?

     "But facts in proof are manifest," thou sayest,
     "That all things grow into the winds of air
     And forth from earth are nourished, and unless
     The season favour at propitious hour
     With rains enough to set the trees a-reel
     Under the soak of bulking thunderheads,
     And sun, for its share, foster and give heat,
     No grains, nor trees, nor breathing things can grow."
     True—and unless hard food and moisture soft
     Recruited man, his frame would waste away,
     And life dissolve from out his thews and bones;
     For out of doubt recruited and fed are we
     By certain things, as other things by others.
     Because in many ways the many germs
     Common to many things are mixed in things,
     No wonder 'tis that therefore divers things
     By divers things are nourished. And, again,
     Often it matters vastly with what others,
     In what positions the primordial germs
     Are bound together, and what motions, too,
     They give and get among themselves; for these
     Same germs do put together sky, sea, lands,
     Rivers, and sun, grains, trees, and breathing things,
     But yet commixed they are in divers modes
     With divers things, forever as they move.
     Nay, thou beholdest in our verses here
     Elements many, common to many worlds,
     Albeit thou must confess each verse, each word
     From one another differs both in sense
     And ring of sound—so much the elements
     Can bring about by change of order alone.
     But those which are the primal germs of things
     Have power to work more combinations still,
     Whence divers things can be produced in turn.

     Now let us also take for scrutiny
     The homeomeria of Anaxagoras,
     So called by Greeks, for which our pauper-speech
     Yieldeth no name in the Italian tongue,
     Although the thing itself is not o'erhard
     For explanation. First, then, when he speaks
     Of this homeomeria of things, he thinks
     Bones to be sprung from littlest bones minute,
     And from minute and littlest flesh all flesh,
     And blood created out of drops of blood,
     Conceiving gold compact of grains of gold,
     And earth concreted out of bits of earth,
     Fire made of fires, and water out of waters,
     Feigning the like with all the rest of stuff.
     Yet he concedes not any void in things,
     Nor any limit to cutting bodies down.
     Wherefore to me he seems on both accounts
     To err no less than those we named before.
     Add too: these germs he feigns are far too frail—
     If they be germs primordial furnished forth
     With but same nature as the things themselves,
     And travail and perish equally with those,
     And no rein curbs them from annihilation.
     For which will last against the grip and crush
     Under the teeth of death? the fire? the moist?
     Or else the air? which then? the blood? the bones?
     No one, methinks, when every thing will be
     At bottom as mortal as whate'er we mark
     To perish by force before our gazing eyes.
     But my appeal is to the proofs above
     That things cannot fall back to naught, nor yet
     From naught increase. And now again, since food
     Augments and nourishes the human frame,
     'Tis thine to know our veins and blood and bones
     And thews are formed of particles unlike
     To them in kind; or if they say all foods
     Are of mixed substance having in themselves
     Small bodies of thews, and bones, and also veins
     And particles of blood, then every food,
     Solid or liquid, must itself be thought
     As made and mixed of things unlike in kind—
     Of bones, of thews, of ichor and of blood.
     Again, if all the bodies which upgrow
     From earth, are first within the earth, then earth
     Must be compound of alien substances.
     Which spring and bloom abroad from out the earth.
     Transfer the argument, and thou may'st use
     The selfsame words: if flame and smoke and ash
     Still lurk unseen within the wood, the wood
     Must be compound of alien substances
     Which spring from out the wood.

                               Right here remains
     A certain slender means to skulk from truth,
     Which Anaxagoras takes unto himself,
     Who holds that all things lurk commixed with all
     While that one only comes to view, of which
     The bodies exceed in number all the rest,
     And lie more close to hand and at the fore—
     A notion banished from true reason far.
     For then 'twere meet that kernels of the grains
     Should oft, when crunched between the might of stones,
     Give forth a sign of blood, or of aught else
     Which in our human frame is fed; and that
     Rock rubbed on rock should yield a gory ooze.
     Likewise the herbs ought oft to give forth drops
     Of sweet milk, flavoured like the uddered sheep's;
     Indeed we ought to find, when crumbling up
     The earthy clods, there herbs, and grains, and leaves,
     All sorts dispersed minutely in the soil;
     Lastly we ought to find in cloven wood
     Ashes and smoke and bits of fire there hid.
     But since fact teaches this is not the case,
     'Tis thine to know things are not mixed with things
     Thuswise; but seeds, common to many things,
     Commixed in many ways, must lurk in things.

     "But often it happens on skiey hills" thou sayest,
     "That neighbouring tops of lofty trees are rubbed
     One against other, smote by the blustering south,
     Till all ablaze with bursting flower of flame."
     Good sooth—yet fire is not ingraft in wood,
     But many are the seeds of heat, and when
     Rubbing together they together flow,
     They start the conflagrations in the forests.
     Whereas if flame, already fashioned, lay
     Stored up within the forests, then the fires
     Could not for any time be kept unseen,
     But would be laying all the wildwood waste
     And burning all the boscage. Now dost see
     (Even as we said a little space above)
     How mightily it matters with what others,
     In what positions these same primal germs
     Are bound together? And what motions, too,
     They give and get among themselves? how, hence,
     The same, if altered 'mongst themselves, can body
     Both igneous and ligneous objects forth—
     Precisely as these words themselves are made
     By somewhat altering their elements,
     Although we mark with name indeed distinct
     The igneous from the ligneous. Once again,
     If thou suppose whatever thou beholdest,
     Among all visible objects, cannot be,
     Unless thou feign bodies of matter endowed
     With a like nature,—by thy vain device
     For thee will perish all the germs of things:
     'Twill come to pass they'll laugh aloud, like men,
     Shaken asunder by a spasm of mirth,
     Or moisten with salty tear-drops cheeks and chins.

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