Lucretius on Chance, Necessity and Free Will

Lucretius, the Roman poet and philosopher, on free will, creativity and the mysterious swerve of an atom.

Will Buckingham
9 min readJun 20, 2022

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Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1485. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Philosopher and the Love Potion

If you were to trust Saint Jerome — and you probably shouldn’t — the philosopher and poet Titus Lucretius Carus, better known simply as Lucretius, met an unfortunate end. The philosopher-poet was born some time after 100 BCE, a Roman citizen, and he became a follower of the atomism of Democritus and the materialist teachings of Epicurus, who emphasised the role of pleasure in human life. Lucretius died in his forties, leaving only one work behind: his great poetic treatise called On the Nature of the Universe (De Rerum Natura). Other than this, we know almost nothing about him.

But where the historical record is silent, Jerome happily steps in to provide some lurid tales of his own. According to Jerome, Lucretius drank a love potion that sent him mad. In brief moments of lucidity during his madness, Jerome tells us, Lucretius scribbled down his masterwork. And then, when he was done, he committed suicide.

Saint Jerome in his study, thinking up mean things to say about Lucretius, while his lion (right) looks on. Public domain via Wellcome Collection.

Honey on the Cup

This story says more about Saint Jerome than about Lucretius himself. Because for Jerome, and for many later Christian writers, Lucretius’s decidedly this-worldly, materialistic philosophy of pleasure was pretty much the opposite of all their faith stood for.

Jerome’s scurrilous little tale is supposed to make us to imagine Lucretius as having both taken leave of his senses, and been overwhelmed by an unseemly passion. One reason that Jerome was so sternly disapproving was because of the particular charm of Lucretius’s writing. As a philosopher, Lucretius is seductive, in a way few philosophers are. He writes not in prose, but in verse. And although the vision he sets out of the universe is challenging, the way in which he presents it draws the reader in, sweetening the bitterness of philosophy with poetry. In On the Nature of the Universe, Lucretius explains his rationale like this (in the…

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Will Buckingham

Writer & philosopher. PhD. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. HELLO, STRANGER (Granta 2021): BBC R4 Book of the Week. Twitter @willbuckingham