Of the Nature of Things

by Lucretius

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Book III - The Soul is Mortal

Now come: that thou mayst able be to know
     That minds and the light souls of all that live
     Have mortal birth and death, I will go on
     Verses to build meet for thy rule of life,
     Sought after long, discovered with sweet toil.
     But under one name I'd have thee yoke them both;
     And when, for instance, I shall speak of soul,
     Teaching the same to be but mortal, think
     Thereby I'm speaking also of the mind—
     Since both are one, a substance inter-joined.
     First, then, since I have taught how soul exists
     A subtle fabric, of particles minute,
     Made up from atoms smaller much than those
     Of water's liquid damp, or fog, or smoke,
     So in mobility it far excels,
     More prone to move, though strook by lighter cause
     Even moved by images of smoke or fog—
     As where we view, when in our sleeps we're lulled,
     The altars exhaling steam and smoke aloft—
     For, beyond doubt, these apparitions come
     To us from outward. Now, then, since thou seest,
     Their liquids depart, their waters flow away,
     When jars are shivered, and since fog and smoke
     Depart into the winds away, believe
     The soul no less is shed abroad and dies
     More quickly far, more quickly is dissolved
     Back to its primal bodies, when withdrawn
     From out man's members it has gone away.
     For, sure, if body (container of the same
     Like as a jar), when shivered from some cause,
     And rarefied by loss of blood from veins,
     Cannot for longer hold the soul, how then
     Thinkst thou it can be held by any air—
     A stuff much rarer than our bodies be?

     Besides we feel that mind to being comes
     Along with body, with body grows and ages.
     For just as children totter round about
     With frames infirm and tender, so there follows
     A weakling wisdom in their minds; and then,
     Where years have ripened into robust powers,
     Counsel is also greater, more increased
     The power of mind; thereafter, where already
     The body's shattered by master-powers of eld,
     And fallen the frame with its enfeebled powers,
     Thought hobbles, tongue wanders, and the mind gives way;
     All fails, all's lacking at the selfsame time.
     Therefore it suits that even the soul's dissolved,
     Like smoke, into the lofty winds of air;
     Since we behold the same to being come
     Along with body and grow, and, as I've taught,
     Crumble and crack, therewith outworn by eld.

     Then, too, we see, that, just as body takes
     Monstrous diseases and the dreadful pain,
     So mind its bitter cares, the grief, the fear;
     Wherefore it tallies that the mind no less
     Partaker is of death; for pain and disease
     Are both artificers of death,—as well
     We've learned by the passing of many a man ere now.
     Nay, too, in diseases of body, often the mind
     Wanders afield; for 'tis beside itself,
     And crazed it speaks, or many a time it sinks,
     With eyelids closing and a drooping nod,
     In heavy drowse, on to eternal sleep;
     From whence nor hears it any voices more,
     Nor able is to know the faces here
     Of those about him standing with wet cheeks
     Who vainly call him back to light and life.
     Wherefore mind too, confess we must, dissolves,
     Seeing, indeed, contagions of disease
     Enter into the same. Again, O why,
     When the strong wine has entered into man,
     And its diffused fire gone round the veins,
     Why follows then a heaviness of limbs,
     A tangle of the legs as round he reels,
     A stuttering tongue, an intellect besoaked,
     Eyes all aswim, and hiccups, shouts, and brawls,
     And whatso else is of that ilk?—Why this?—
     If not that violent and impetuous wine
     Is wont to confound the soul within the body?
     But whatso can confounded be and balked,
     Gives proof, that if a hardier cause got in,
     'Twould hap that it would perish then, bereaved
     Of any life thereafter. And, moreover,
     Often will some one in a sudden fit,
     As if by stroke of lightning, tumble down
     Before our eyes, and sputter foam, and grunt,
     Blither, and twist about with sinews taut,
     Gasp up in starts, and weary out his limbs
     With tossing round. No marvel, since distract
     Through frame by violence of disease.

     Confounds, he foams, as if to vomit soul,
     As on the salt sea boil the billows round
     Under the master might of winds. And now
     A groan's forced out, because his limbs are griped,
     But, in the main, because the seeds of voice
     Are driven forth and carried in a mass
     Outwards by mouth, where they are wont to go,
     And have a builded highway. He becomes
     Mere fool, since energy of mind and soul
     Confounded is, and, as I've shown, to-riven,
     Asunder thrown, and torn to pieces all
     By the same venom. But, again, where cause
     Of that disease has faced about, and back
     Retreats sharp poison of corrupted frame
     Into its shadowy lairs, the man at first
     Arises reeling, and gradually comes back
     To all his senses and recovers soul.
     Thus, since within the body itself of man
     The mind and soul are by such great diseases
     Shaken, so miserably in labour distraught,
     Why, then, believe that in the open air,
     Without a body, they can pass their life,
     Immortal, battling with the master winds?
     And, since we mark the mind itself is cured,
     Like the sick body, and restored can be
     By medicine, this is forewarning too
     That mortal lives the mind. For proper it is
     That whosoe'er begins and undertakes
     To alter the mind, or meditates to change
     Any another nature soever, should add
     New parts, or readjust the order given,
     Or from the sum remove at least a bit.
     But what's immortal willeth for itself
     Its parts be nor increased, nor rearranged,
     Nor any bit soever flow away:
     For change of anything from out its bounds
     Means instant death of that which was before.
     Ergo, the mind, whether in sickness fallen,
     Or by the medicine restored, gives signs,
     As I have taught, of its mortality.
     So surely will a fact of truth make head
     'Gainst errors' theories all, and so shut off
     All refuge from the adversary, and rout
     Error by two-edged confutation.

     And since the mind is of a man one part,
     Which in one fixed place remains, like ears,
     And eyes, and every sense which pilots life;
     And just as hand, or eye, or nose, apart,
     Severed from us, can neither feel nor be,
     But in the least of time is left to rot,
     Thus mind alone can never be, without
     The body and the man himself, which seems,
     As 'twere the vessel of the same—or aught
     Whate'er thou'lt feign as yet more closely joined:
     Since body cleaves to mind by surest bonds.

     Again, the body's and the mind's live powers
     Only in union prosper and enjoy;
     For neither can nature of mind, alone of self
     Sans body, give the vital motions forth;
     Nor, then, can body, wanting soul, endure
     And use the senses. Verily, as the eye,
     Alone, up-rended from its roots, apart
     From all the body, can peer about at naught,
     So soul and mind it seems are nothing able,
     When by themselves. No marvel, because, commixed
     Through veins and inwards, and through bones and thews,
     Their elements primordial are confined
     By all the body, and own no power free
     To bound around through interspaces big,
     Thus, shut within these confines, they take on
     Motions of sense, which, after death, thrown out
     Beyond the body to the winds of air,
     Take on they cannot—and on this account,
     Because no more in such a way confined.
     For air will be a body, be alive,
     If in that air the soul can keep itself,
     And in that air enclose those motions all
     Which in the thews and in the body itself
     A while ago 'twas making. So for this,
     Again, again, I say confess we must,
     That, when the body's wrappings are unwound,
     And when the vital breath is forced without,
     The soul, the senses of the mind dissolve,—
     Since for the twain the cause and ground of life
     Is in the fact of their conjoined estate.

     Once more, since body's unable to sustain
     Division from the soul, without decay
     And obscene stench, how canst thou doubt but that
     The soul, uprisen from the body's deeps,
     Has filtered away, wide-drifted like a smoke,
     Or that the changed body crumbling fell
     With ruin so entire, because, indeed,
     Its deep foundations have been moved from place,
     The soul out-filtering even through the frame,
     And through the body's every winding way
     And orifice? And so by many means
     Thou'rt free to learn that nature of the soul
     Hath passed in fragments out along the frame,
     And that 'twas shivered in the very body
     Ere ever it slipped abroad and swam away
     Into the winds of air. For never a man
     Dying appears to feel the soul go forth
     As one sure whole from all his body at once,
     Nor first come up the throat and into mouth;
     But feels it failing in a certain spot,
     Even as he knows the senses too dissolve
     Each in its own location in the frame.
     But were this mind of ours immortal mind,
     Dying 'twould scarce bewail a dissolution,
     But rather the going, the leaving of its coat,
     Like to a snake. Wherefore, when once the body
     Hath passed away, admit we must that soul,
     Shivered in all that body, perished too.
     Nay, even when moving in the bounds of life,
     Often the soul, now tottering from some cause,
     Craves to go out, and from the frame entire
     Loosened to be; the countenance becomes
     Flaccid, as if the supreme hour were there;
     And flabbily collapse the members all
     Against the bloodless trunk—the kind of case
     We see when we remark in common phrase,
     "That man's quite gone," or "fainted dead away";
     And where there's now a bustle of alarm,
     And all are eager to get some hold upon
     The man's last link of life. For then the mind
     And all the power of soul are shook so sore,
     And these so totter along with all the frame,
     That any cause a little stronger might
     Dissolve them altogether.—Why, then, doubt
     That soul, when once without the body thrust,
     There in the open, an enfeebled thing,
     Its wrappings stripped away, cannot endure
     Not only through no everlasting age,
     But even, indeed, through not the least of time?

     Then, too, why never is the intellect,
     The counselling mind, begotten in the head,
     The feet, the hands, instead of cleaving still
     To one sole seat, to one fixed haunt, the breast,
     If not that fixed places be assigned
     For each thing's birth, where each, when 'tis create,
     Is able to endure, and that our frames
     Have such complex adjustments that no shift
     In order of our members may appear?
     To that degree effect succeeds to cause,
     Nor is the flame once wont to be create
     In flowing streams, nor cold begot in fire.

     Besides, if nature of soul immortal be,
     And able to feel, when from our frame disjoined,
     The same, I fancy, must be thought to be
     Endowed with senses five,—nor is there way
     But this whereby to image to ourselves
     How under-souls may roam in Acheron.
     Thus painters and the elder race of bards
     Have pictured souls with senses so endowed.
     But neither eyes, nor nose, nor hand, alone
     Apart from body can exist for soul,
     Nor tongue nor ears apart. And hence indeed
     Alone by self they can nor feel nor be.

     And since we mark the vital sense to be
     In the whole body, all one living thing,
     If of a sudden a force with rapid stroke
     Should slice it down the middle and cleave in twain,
     Beyond a doubt likewise the soul itself,
     Divided, dissevered, asunder will be flung
     Along with body. But what severed is
     And into sundry parts divides, indeed
     Admits it owns no everlasting nature.
     We hear how chariots of war, areek
     With hurly slaughter, lop with flashing scythes
     The limbs away so suddenly that there,
     Fallen from the trunk, they quiver on the earth,
     The while the mind and powers of the man
     Can feel no pain, for swiftness of his hurt,
     And sheer abandon in the zest of battle:
     With the remainder of his frame he seeks
     Anew the battle and the slaughter, nor marks
     How the swift wheels and scythes of ravin have dragged
     Off with the horses his left arm and shield;
     Nor other how his right has dropped away,
     Mounting again and on. A third attempts
     With leg dismembered to arise and stand,
     Whilst, on the ground hard by, the dying foot
     Twitches its spreading toes. And even the head,
     When from the warm and living trunk lopped off,
     Keeps on the ground the vital countenance
     And open eyes, until 't has rendered up
     All remnants of the soul. Nay, once again:
     If, when a serpent's darting forth its tongue,
     And lashing its tail, thou gettest chance to hew
     With axe its length of trunk to many parts,
     Thou'lt see each severed fragment writhing round
     With its fresh wound, and spattering up the sod,
     And there the fore-part seeking with the jaws
     After the hinder, with bite to stop the pain.
     So shall we say that these be souls entire
     In all those fractions?—but from that 'twould follow
     One creature'd have in body many souls.
     Therefore, the soul, which was indeed but one,
     Has been divided with the body too:
     Each is but mortal, since alike is each
     Hewn into many parts. Again, how often
     We view our fellow going by degrees,
     And losing limb by limb the vital sense;
     First nails and fingers of the feet turn blue,
     Next die the feet and legs, then o'er the rest
     Slow crawl the certain footsteps of cold death.
     And since this nature of the soul is torn,
     Nor mounts away, as at one time, entire,
     We needs must hold it mortal. But perchance
     If thou supposest that the soul itself
     Can inward draw along the frame, and bring
     Its parts together to one place, and so
     From all the members draw the sense away,
     Why, then, that place in which such stock of soul
     Collected is, should greater seem in sense.
     But since such place is nowhere, for a fact,
     As said before, 'tis rent and scattered forth,
     And so goes under. Or again, if now
     I please to grant the false, and say that soul
     Can thus be lumped within the frames of those
     Who leave the sunshine, dying bit by bit,
     Still must the soul as mortal be confessed;
     Nor aught it matters whether to wrack it go,
     Dispersed in the winds, or, gathered in a mass
     From all its parts, sink down to brutish death,
     Since more and more in every region sense
     Fails the whole man, and less and less of life
     In every region lingers.

                            And besides,
     If soul immortal is, and winds its way
     Into the body at the birth of man,
     Why can we not remember something, then,
     Of life-time spent before? why keep we not
     Some footprints of the things we did of, old?
     But if so changed hath been the power of mind,
     That every recollection of things done
     Is fallen away, at no o'erlong remove
     Is that, I trow, from what we mean by death.
     Wherefore 'tis sure that what hath been before
     Hath died, and what now is is now create.

     Moreover, if after the body hath been built
     Our mind's live powers are wont to be put in,
     Just at the moment that we come to birth,
     And cross the sills of life, 'twould scarcely fit
     For them to live as if they seemed to grow
     Along with limbs and frame, even in the blood,
     But rather as in a cavern all alone.
     (Yet all the body duly throngs with sense.)
     But public fact declares against all this:
     For soul is so entwined through the veins,
     The flesh, the thews, the bones, that even the teeth
     Share in sensation, as proven by dull ache,
     By twinge from icy water, or grating crunch
     Upon a stone that got in mouth with bread.
     Wherefore, again, again, souls must be thought
     Nor void of birth, nor free from law of death;
     Nor, if, from outward, in they wound their way,
     Could they be thought as able so to cleave
     To these our frames, nor, since so interwove,
     Appears it that they're able to go forth
     Unhurt and whole and loose themselves unscathed
     From all the thews, articulations, bones.
     But, if perchance thou thinkest that the soul,
     From outward winding in its way, is wont
     To seep and soak along these members ours,
     Then all the more 'twill perish, being thus
     With body fused—for what will seep and soak
     Will be dissolved and will therefore die.
     For just as food, dispersed through all the pores
     Of body, and passed through limbs and all the frame,
     Perishes, supplying from itself the stuff
     For other nature, thus the soul and mind,
     Though whole and new into a body going,
     Are yet, by seeping in, dissolved away,
     Whilst, as through pores, to all the frame there pass
     Those particles from which created is
     This nature of mind, now ruler of our body,
     Born from that soul which perished, when divided
     Along the frame. Wherefore it seems that soul
     Hath both a natal and funeral hour.

     Besides are seeds of soul there left behind
     In the breathless body, or not? If there they are,
     It cannot justly be immortal deemed,
     Since, shorn of some parts lost, 'thas gone away:
     But if, borne off with members uncorrupt,
     'Thas fled so absolutely all away
     It leaves not one remainder of itself
     Behind in body, whence do cadavers, then,
     From out their putrid flesh exhale the worms,
     And whence does such a mass of living things,
     Boneless and bloodless, o'er the bloated frame
     Bubble and swarm? But if perchance thou thinkest
     That souls from outward into worms can wind,
     And each into a separate body come,
     And reckonest not why many thousand souls
     Collect where only one has gone away,
     Here is a point, in sooth, that seems to need
     Inquiry and a putting to the test:
     Whether the souls go on a hunt for seeds
     Of worms wherewith to build their dwelling places,
     Or enter bodies ready-made, as 'twere.
     But why themselves they thus should do and toil
     'Tis hard to say, since, being free of body,
     They flit around, harassed by no disease,
     Nor cold nor famine; for the body labours
     By more of kinship to these flaws of life,
     And mind by contact with that body suffers
     So many ills. But grant it be for them
     However useful to construct a body
     To which to enter in, 'tis plain they can't.
     Then, souls for self no frames nor bodies make,
     Nor is there how they once might enter in
     To bodies ready-made—for they cannot
     Be nicely interwoven with the same,
     And there'll be formed no interplay of sense
     Common to each.

                      Again, why is't there goes
     Impetuous rage with lion's breed morose,
     And cunning with foxes, and to deer why given
     The ancestral fear and tendency to flee,
     And why in short do all the rest of traits
     Engender from the very start of life
     In the members and mentality, if not
     Because one certain power of mind that came
     From its own seed and breed waxes the same
     Along with all the body? But were mind
     Immortal, were it wont to change its bodies,
     How topsy-turvy would earth's creatures act!
     The Hyrcan hound would flee the onset oft
     Of antlered stag, the scurrying hawk would quake
     Along the winds of air at the coming dove,
     And men would dote, and savage beasts be wise;
     For false the reasoning of those that say
     Immortal mind is changed by change of body—
     For what is changed dissolves, and therefore dies.
     For parts are re-disposed and leave their order;
     Wherefore they must be also capable
     Of dissolution through the frame at last,
     That they along with body perish all.
     But should some say that always souls of men
     Go into human bodies, I will ask:
     How can a wise become a dullard soul?
     And why is never a child's a prudent soul?
     And the mare's filly why not trained so well
     As sturdy strength of steed? We may be sure
     They'll take their refuge in the thought that mind
     Becomes a weakling in a weakling frame.
     Yet be this so, 'tis needful to confess
     The soul but mortal, since, so altered now
     Throughout the frame, it loses the life and sense
     It had before. Or how can mind wax strong
     Coequally with body and attain
     The craved flower of life, unless it be
     The body's colleague in its origins?
     Or what's the purport of its going forth
     From aged limbs?—fears it, perhaps, to stay,
     Pent in a crumbled body? Or lest its house,
     Outworn by venerable length of days,
     May topple down upon it? But indeed
     For an immortal perils are there none.

     Again, at parturitions of the wild
     And at the rites of Love, that souls should stand
     Ready hard by seems ludicrous enough—
     Immortals waiting for their mortal limbs
     In numbers innumerable, contending madly
     Which shall be first and chief to enter in!—
     Unless perchance among the souls there be
     Such treaties stablished that the first to come
     Flying along, shall enter in the first,
     And that they make no rivalries of strength!

     Again, in ether can't exist a tree,
     Nor clouds in ocean deeps, nor in the fields
     Can fishes live, nor blood in timber be,
     Nor sap in boulders: fixed and arranged
     Where everything may grow and have its place.
     Thus nature of mind cannot arise alone
     Without the body, nor exist afar
     From thews and blood. But if 'twere possible,
     Much rather might this very power of mind
     Be in the head, the shoulders or the heels,
     And, born in any part soever, yet
     In the same man, in the same vessel abide.
     But since within this body even of ours
     Stands fixed and appears arranged sure
     Where soul and mind can each exist and grow,
     Deny we must the more that they can have
     Duration and birth, wholly outside the frame.
     For, verily, the mortal to conjoin
     With the eternal, and to feign they feel
     Together, and can function each with each,
     Is but to dote: for what can be conceived
     Of more unlike, discrepant, ill-assorted,
     Than something mortal in a union joined
     With an immortal and a secular
     To bear the outrageous tempests?

                               Then, again,
     Whatever abides eternal must indeed
     Either repel all strokes, because 'tis made
     Of solid body, and permit no entrance
     Of aught with power to sunder from within
     The parts compact—as are those seeds of stuff
     Whose nature we've exhibited before;
     Or else be able to endure through time
     For this: because they are from blows exempt,
     As is the void, the which abides untouched,
     Unsmit by any stroke; or else because
     There is no room around, whereto things can,
     As 'twere, depart in dissolution all,—
     Even as the sum of sums eternal is,
     Without or place beyond whereto things may
     Asunder fly, or bodies which can smite,
     And thus dissolve them by the blows of might.

     But if perchance the soul's to be adjudged
     Immortal, mainly on ground 'tis kept secure
     In vital forces—either because there come
     Never at all things hostile to its weal,
     Or else because what come somehow retire,
     Repelled or ere we feel the harm they work,

     For, lo, besides that, when the frame's diseased,
     Soul sickens too, there cometh, many a time,
     That which torments it with the things to be,
     Keeps it in dread, and wearies it with cares;
     And even when evil acts are of the past,
     Still gnaw the old transgressions bitterly.
     Add, too, that frenzy, peculiar to the mind,
     And that oblivion of the things that were;
     Add its submergence in the murky waves
     Of drowse and torpor.

Return to the Of the Nature of Things Summary Return to the Lucretius Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson