The Swoop and Surge of Life: Lucretius on Ethics in Motion
Love, Strife and The Mad Machinery of War
In his great poem, On the Nature of the Universe (De Rerum Natura), Roman poet-philosopher Lucretius (born c. 100 BCE) asks what it means to live fully in a world where everything is always in motion. A follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, Lucretius proposed that the universe was both dynamic and unstable. But as well as setting out a vision of physics, or how the world is, Lucretius also set out a compelling vision of what it means to live in such a world.
Ethics appears right at the beginning of On the Nature of the Universe, when Lucretius sings the praises of the goddess Venus. He conjures up the image of the struggle between Venus and Mars, between love and strife. Lucretius offers up a prayer to the Goddess (in the brilliant translation by Alicia Stallings) as follows:
Both on dry land and on the deep,
Make the mad machinery of war drift off to sleep.
For only you can favour mortal men with peace, since Mars,
Mighty in Arms, who oversees the wicked works of wars,
Conquered by Love’s everlasting wound, so often lies
Upon your lap, and gazing upwards, feasts his greedy eyes
On love, his mouth agape at you, Famed Goddess, as he tips
Back his shapely neck, his breath hovering at your lips. (Book I: 37)
This theme of the struggle between love and strife goes back to the philosopher Empedocles, for whom the universe could be seen as existing in a constant dialogue between forces of attraction and repulsion, between binding together and severing apart.
Lucretius’s initial invocation of this struggle between love and strife is not just a bit of fancy literary footwork. It also goes to the heart of his atomist view of the world: atoms combine into bigger bodies, and these bodies break apart. All things come into existence and crumble away again through the combination, recombination and eventual separation of atoms.
Both of these things — love and strife, combination and separation — are necessary to existence. If things just clumped into larger and larger entities, then the universe would simply collapse together into a single…