We Are Masters of our Dreams and Delusions: Lucretius, DRN 4.453-468

“When sleep has conquered our limbs with sweet rest
And our whole body lies in the deepest slumber,
Then our limbs still watch and seem to move
And there in the blind darkness of night we think
We see the sun and the light of day
And instead of our confined space we think
We have the sky, sea, rivers and mountains under our feet
And we hear their sounds, though the cruel silence of night
Hangs everywhere, we speak while staying silent.

We see many marvels beyond this kind
That try to break the faith of our senses
But they do not, since the greatest of them fail
On the opinions of the mind, things we have provided ourselves,
Visions are seen which have not been seen by our senses.
Nothing is more difficult than to separate obvious things
From the dubious, once your own mind has provided them.”

Denique cum suavi devinxit membra sopore
somnus et in summa corpus iacet omne quiete,
tum vigilare tamen nobis et membra movere
nostra videmur, et in noctis caligine caeca
cernere censemus solem lumenque diurnum,
conclusoque loco caelum mare flumina montis
mutare et campos pedibus transire videmur,
et sonitus audire, severa silentia noctis
undique cum constent, et reddere dicta tacentes.
Cetera de genere hoc mirande multa videmus,
quae violare fidem quasi sensibus omnia quaerunt,
ne quiquam, quoniam pars horum maxima fallit
propter opinatus animi, quos addimus ipsi,
pro visis ut sint quae non sunt sensibus visa;
nam nihil aegrius est quam res secernere apertas
ab dubiis, animus quas ab se protinus addit.

Fear is the Mind-Killer? (Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 2.53-61)

“But what if we see that these things are ridiculous and contemptible,
that, in truth, man’s fear and lurking anxiety
do not shudder at the sound of arms or fierce weapons
or when they bravely move among kings and the world’s rulers
if they do not revere the shine of gold or
turn at the bright shine of purple fabrics—
why do you doubt that real power is wholly the province of reason
especially when life labors completely in the shadows?
For just as children tremble at anything and
jump at dark shadows, so we remain afraid in the light
of things which should not be feared any more
than boys grow pale at shadows in imagining future dangers.
We must therefore dispel the mind’s fear and shadows
Not with a ray of sunshine or the clear shafts of day
But through nature’s clear vision and reason.”

quod si ridicula haec ludibriaque esse videmus,
re veraque metus hominum curaeque sequaces
nec metuunt sonitus armorum nec fera tela
audacterque inter reges rerumque potentis 50
versantur neque fulgorem reverentur ab auro
nec clarum vestis splendorem purpureai,
quid dubitas quin omnis sit haec rationis potestas,
omnis cum in tenebris praesertim vita laboret?
nam vel uti pueri trepidant atque omnia caecis 55
in tenebris metuunt, sic nos in luce timemus
inter dum, nihilo quae sunt metuenda magis quam
quae pueri in tenebris pavitant finguntque futura.
hunc igitur terrorem animi tenebrasque necessest
non radii solis neque lucida tela diei 60
discutiant, sed naturae species ratioque.

Now, I don’t know that Frank Herbert was reading Lucretius (and I don’t know that he wasn’t) but notions of pure rationalism that are a product of Enlightenments thinking (as well as some Near Eastern strands of thought) draw a bit on our friend Lucretius. Reading this passage made me think of the “Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear” which shows up early in Herbert’s Dune:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain

Want to find more connections between the Classics and Science Fiction? There’s a whole book about that: Classical Traditions in Science Fiction edited by Brett Rogers and Benjamin Stevens.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 5.1145-1160: On The Origin of the Social Contract

“The race of man, tired of living in a state of violence
was languishing in feuds and they were eager
to submit themselves to law and strict judgments.
Otherwise, each man would turn himself to vengeance
More harshly than our current laws allow,
And this is why man has avoided living in a state of violence.
From here comes the fear that alters life’s rewards
Since violence and pain entrap the man who wields them
And tend to return most to those who acted first.
It isn’t easy to lead a quiet and peaceful life
If you break the faith of a community’s written peace.
Even if you deceive the races of god and man,
There’s no way to be sure to keep a secret forever.
Often many men reveal themselves by speaking in sleep
Or confused by a lengthy illness, they finally
Disclose their deeply hidden memories and sins.”


nam genus humanum, defessum vi colere aevom,
ex inimicitiis languebat; quo magis ipsum
sponte sua cecidit sub leges artaque iura.

acrius ex ira quod enim se quisque parabat
ulcisci quam nunc concessumst legibus aequis,
hanc ob rem est homines pertaesum vi colere aevom.
inde metus maculat poenarum praemia vitae.
circumretit enim vis atque iniuria quemque
atque unde exortast, ad eum plerumque revertit,
nec facilest placidam ac pacatam degere vitam
qui violat factis communia foedera pacis.
etsi fallit enim divom genus humanumque,
perpetuo tamen id fore clam diffidere debet;
quippe ubi se multi per somnia saepe loquentes
aut morbo delirantes protraxe ferantur
et celata [mala] in medium et peccata dedisse.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 3.41-58: Peril Shows the True Character of a Man

“For men often claim that disease and a life
of a bad reputation should be feared more than Tartaros.
And they claim they know that the nature of the soul is like blood
Or even air, if that fits their current desire.
And they claim that they do not need our arguments.
But what follows will make you see these things as a matter of boasting
rather than because the matter itself has been proved.
The same men, out of their homeland and in a long exile
From the sight of others, charged with some foul crime,
live as they do, even afflicted with all possible troubles.
But, still, wherever they go the outcasts minister to their ancestors
and slaughter dark cattle and make their offerings
to the departed ghosts and when things get worse
they focus more sharply on religion.
For this reason it is better to examine a man in doubt or danger:
Adverse circumstances make it easier to know who a man is,
for then true words finally rise from his deepest heart;
when the mask is removed, the thing itself remains.”

nam quod saepe homines morbos magis esse timendos
infamemque ferunt vitam quam Tartara leti
et se scire animi naturam sanguinis esse,
aut etiam venti, si fert ita forte voluntas,
nec prosum quicquam nostrae rationis egere,
hinc licet advertas animum magis omnia laudis
iactari causa quam quod res ipsa probetur.
extorres idem patria longeque fugati
conspectu ex hominum, foedati crimine turpi,
omnibus aerumnis adfecti denique vivunt,
et quo cumque tamen miseri venere parentant
et nigras mactant pecudes et manibus divis
inferias mittunt multoque in rebus acerbis
acrius advertunt animos ad religionem.
quo magis in dubiis hominem spectare periclis
convenit adversisque in rebus noscere qui sit;
nam verae voces tum demum pectore ab imo
eliciuntur [et] eripitur persona manet res.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 199-207: Men And Giants Can’t Come From Nothing

“And why can’t nature make men so large
that they cross the depths of the sea with their feet
or tear down great mountains with their hands
or outstrip many teeming generations in living,
if not for this: the contingent material of all possible generation
is assigned and fixed for the creation of all things?
Therefore, we must affirm that nothing can come from nothing,
since everything must have a seed from which all creation
may be offered to the soft breezes of the air.”

Denique cur homines tantos natura parare
non potuit, pedibus qui pontum per vada possent          200
transire et magnos manibus divellere montis
multaque vivendo vitalia vincere saecla,
si non, materies quia rebus reddita certast
gignundis, e qua constat quid possit oriri?
nil igitur fieri de nilo posse fatendumst,                         205
semine quando opus est rebus, quo quaeque creatae
aeris in teneras possint proferrier auras.

Lucretius is Down With O.P.P (Other People’s Pain): DRN 2.1-16

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 2.1-16

“It is comforting to watch someone else’s hardship from land,
when the wind churns the waves on the great sea.
This is not because there is a special pleasure in any man’s pain
but because to know what suffering you are avoiding is a comfort.
It is also pleasant to gaze upon the great contests of war
spaced out over the field when you have no part of the danger.
but nothing is sweeter than to hold fast well-fortified temples–
the serene teachings prepared by wise men–
a place from where you may look down on others and so often see
wow they wander and search for the path of life
either competing with their wits or contending by birth,
straining night and day in such exceptional labor
to discover the highest riches and gain control of the state.
How miserable are the minds of men! And how blind their hearts.
Whatever portion of living we have is committed to such shadows of a life
And to so many dangers!”

Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis
e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem;
non quia vexari quemquamst iucunda voluptas,
sed quibus ipse malis careas quia cernere suavest.
suave etiam belli certamina magna tueri               6
per campos instructa tua sine parte pericli;               5
sed nihil dulcius est, bene quam munita tenere               7
edita doctrina sapientum templa serena,
despicere unde queas alios passimque videre
errare atque viam palantis quaerere vitae,               10
certare ingenio, contendere nobilitate,
noctes atque dies niti praestante labore
ad summas emergere opes rerumque potiri.
o miseras hominum mentes, o pectora caeca!
qualibus in tenebris vitae quantisque periclis               15
degitur hoc aevi quod cumquest!

I probably owe the universe an apology for the title to this post. But first, let’s give one to Naughty by Nature, Epicurean philosophers if I ever knew any…

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 3.1-15: Epicurus, I’m Your Biggest Fan

“I follow you who first could raise so clear a light
to illuminate in so great a darkness the best parts of life,
the glory of the Greek people; and I place my feet
firmly in the signs you left behind
not for the sake of competition but because of love
I long to imitate you: for how could a swallow compete
with swans or who would think that a kid could match
his shaking limbs in a race with a mighty horse?
You, father, are the investigator of nature, and you give us
a father’s precepts drawn from your papers, famous man,
just as bees live off of everything in the flowery groves
so too we subsist on all your golden words
always most worthy of a life everlasting.”

E tenebris tantis tam clarum extollere lumen
qui primus potuisti inlustrans commoda vitae,
te sequor, o Graiae gentis decus, inque tuis nunc

Epicurus. Epi-cutest, I say.
Epicurus. Epi-cutest, I say.

ficta pedum pono pressis vestigia signis,
non ita certandi cupidus quam propter amorem
quod te imitari aveo; quid enim contendat hirundo
cycnis, aut quid nam tremulis facere artubus haedi
consimile in cursu possint et fortis equi vis?
tu, pater, es rerum inventor, tu patria nobis
suppeditas praecepta, tuisque ex, inclute, chartis,
floriferis ut apes in saltibus omnia libant,
omnia nos itidem depascimur aurea dicta,
aurea, perpetua semper dignissima vita.

You Can Only Escape Yourself by Studying the Nature of Things (Lucretius!)

The weekend’s Montaigne put me in a Lucretian mood–a thing to be regretted and revisited. But the poet himself has an answer for this.

Lucretius, DRN 3.1053-1075


“When people seem to feel that there is a weight
On their minds, which wears them out with its pressure–
If they were able to understand where it comes from and what causes
So great a burden of misery to press upon their chests,
They would hardly live their lives as we now see most do:
Each person does not know what he wants and always seeks
To change his place as if he could possibly slough of the burden.
Often this man departs from the doors of his great home,
When he has tired of being there, only to return suddenly
When he comes to believe that he is no better off outside.
He rushes out driving his ponies heedlessly to his villa
As if he were bringing crucial help to a burning home.
Yet when he arrives and crosses the threshold of the house,
He either falls into a deep sleep or pursues oblivion,
Or he even rushes to visit the city again,
This is the way each man flees from himself, but it is his self
That it is impossible to escape, so he clings to it thanklessly and hates.
He does this because he is a sick man who is ignorant of the cause.
If he knew the cause, he would abandon all these things
And begin his first study of the nature of things,
Since the problem is not that of a single hour but of eternal time—
In what state we must understand that all time will pass
For mortal man after the death that awaits all of us.”

Si possent homines, proinde ac sentire videntur
pondus inesse animo, quod se gravitate fatiget,
e quibus id fiat causis quoque noscere et unde
tanta mali tam quam moles in pectore constet,
haut ita vitam agerent, ut nunc plerumque videmus
quid sibi quisque velit nescire et quaerere semper,
commutare locum, quasi onus deponere possit.
exit saepe foras magnis ex aedibus ille,
esse domi quem pertaesumst, subitoque [revertit>,
quippe foris nihilo melius qui sentiat esse.
currit agens mannos ad villam praecipitanter
auxilium tectis quasi ferre ardentibus instans;
oscitat extemplo, tetigit cum limina villae,
aut abit in somnum gravis atque oblivia quaerit,
aut etiam properans urbem petit atque revisit.
hoc se quisque modo fugit, at quem scilicet, ut fit,
effugere haut potis est: ingratius haeret et odit
propterea, morbi quia causam non tenet aeger;
quam bene si videat, iam rebus quisque relictis
naturam primum studeat cognoscere rerum,
temporis aeterni quoniam, non unius horae,
ambigitur status, in quo sit mortalibus omnis
aetas, post mortem quae restat cumque manendo.

Plato, Xenophon, Lucretius and Montaigne: Learning How to Die

In his version of the trial of Socrates, Xenophon makes his teacher consider death (Xenophon, Apology 6.1-7.3):

“And if my age proceeds along still more, I know that old age’s traits will necessarily develop: worse vision, weaker hearing, slower learning and less memory for what I have learned already. And when I perceive I am deteriorating I will blame myself, wondering “How can I keep living with pleasure?” Perhaps, he said, the god is kindly on my side not just in ending my life at the perfect age but also in doing it so easily.”

νῦν δὲ εἰ ἔτι προβήσεται ἡ ἡλικία, οἶδ’ ὅτι ἀνάγκη ἔσται τὰ τοῦ γήρως ἐπιτελεῖσθαι καὶ ὁρᾶν τε χεῖρον καὶ ἀκούειν ἧττον καὶ δυσμαθέστερον εἶναι καὶ ὧν ἔμαθον ἐπιλησμονέστερον. ἂν δὲ αἰσθάνωμαι χείρων γιγνόμενος καὶ καταμέμφωμαι ἐμαυτόν, πῶς ἄν, εἰπεῖν, ἐγὼ ἔτι ἂν ἡδέως βιοτεύοιμι; ἴσως δέ τοι, φάναι αὐτόν, καὶ ὁ θεὸς δι’ εὐμένειαν προξενεῖ μοι οὐ μόνον τὸ ἐν καιρῷ τῆς ἡλικίας καταλῦσαι τὸν βίον, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸ ᾗ ῥᾷστα.

So Xenophon’s Socrates muses on the end of his life and the serendipity of his death sentence. Plato’s Socrates talks about death too and not without some similarity. And, yes, I seem to have a weakness for death scenes.

Remember, that a philosopher’s true mission is to learn how to die:

Plato, Phaedo 67e

“In truth, those who practice philosophy correctly practice dying.”

τῷ ὄντι ἄρα, ἔφη, ὦ Σιμμία, οἱ ὀρθῶς φιλοσοφοῦντες ἀποθνῄσκειν μελετῶσι

There are, however, a few different ways to interpret this mission. Michel de Montaigne begins his essay “That to Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die” by quoting the same idea from Cicero: Tota enim philosophorum vita, ut ait idem, commentatio mortis est (Tusc. Disp. 30.74-31.71.5). Cicero, of course, does not footnote properly and attribute it to Plato (nor does Montaigne).

Montaigne offers interpretations of this idea:

“Cicero sayeth that to Philosophize is no other thing than for a man to prepare himself to death: which is the reason that study and contemplation doth in some sort withdraw our soul from us, and severally employ it from the body, which is a kind of apprentisage and resemblance of death. Or else it is that all the wisdom and discourse of the world doth in the end resolve upon this point: to teach us not to fear to die.  Truly either reason mocks us, or it only aimeth at our contentment, and in fine bends all her travel to make us live well and, as the holy Scripture sayeth, at our ease. All the opinions of the world conclude that pleasure is our end, howbeit they take diverse means unto and for it, else would men reject them at their first coming. For who would give ear unto him that for its end would establish our pain and disturbance?”

(Shakespeare’s Montaigne, Greenblatt and Platt 2014: 13) Other translations are available online. But for fun, here’s the French (Also available online from the Montaigne Project)

Ciceron dit que Philosopher ce n’est autre chose que s’aprester à la mort. C’est d’autant que l’estude et la contemplation retirent aucunement nostre ame hors de nous, et l’embesongnent à part du corps, qui est quelque aprentissage et ressemblance de la mort; ou bien, c’est que toute la sagesse et discours du monde se resoult en fin à ce point, de nous apprendre à ne craindre point à mourir. De vray, ou la raison se mocque, ou elle ne doit viser qu’à nostre contentement, et tout son travail tendre en somme à nous faire bien vivre, et à nostre aise, comme dict la Saincte Escriture. Toutes les opinions du monde en sont là, que le plaisir est nostre but, quoy qu’elles en prennent divers moyens; autrement on les chasseroit d’arrivée: car qui escouteroit celuy qui pour sa fin establiroit nostre peine et mesaise?

Near the end of this same essay, Montaigne gets hot and heavy with Lucretius–one might have expected the Epicurean strain from his opening line “ll the opinions of the world conclude that pleasure is our end”).

“Death is less to be feared than nothing, if there were anything less than nothing

–multem mortem minus ad nos esse putandum
Si minus esse potest quam quod nihil esse videmus 
(DRN 3.926-7)

Death is much less to us, we ought esteem,
If less may be, than what doth nothing seem

Nor alive, nor dead,it doth concern you nothing. Alive, because you are; dead, because you are no more.

Moreover, no man dies before his hour. The time you leave behind was no more yours than that which was before your birth and concerneth you no more.

Respice enim quam nil ad nos anteacta vetustas
Temporis aeterni fuerit (DRN

For mark, how all antiquity fore-gone
of all time ere we were, to us was none

Wheresoever your life ended, there is it all. The profit of life consists not in the space, but rather in the use. Some man hath lived long that hath a short life. Follow it whilst you have time. It consists not in the number of years, but in your will, that you have lived long enough….”

(Shakespeare’s Montaigne, Greenblatt and Platt 2014: 31)

La mort est moins à craindre que rien, s’il y avoit quelque chose de moins,

multo mortem minus ad nos esse putandum
Si minus esse potest quam quod nihil esse videmus.

Elle ne vous concerne ny mort ny vif: vif, parce que vous estes: mort, par ce que vous n’estes plus. Nul ne meurt avant son heure. Ce que vous laissez de temps n’estoit non plus vostre que celuy qui s’est passé avant vostre naissance: et ne vous touche non plus,

Respice enim quam nil ad nos ante acta vetustas
Temporis aeterni fuerit.

Où que vostre vie finisse, elle y est toute. L’utilité du vivre n’est pas en l’espace, elle est en l’usage: tel a vescu long temps, qui a peu vescu: attendez vous y pendant que vous y estes. Il gist en vostre volonté, non au nombre des ans, que vous ayez assez vescu.

Happy, Happy Saturday. May it be more than enough.

Athens Gave us Everything!? (Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 6.1-11)

“Athens, that famous name, first gave to sickly man
Fruit bearing crops long ago and with them
Created life anew and called for laws
And first offered the sweet comforts of life
When she produced a man with such a soul
That he once divulged everything from his truth-telling tongue.
Though his life has ended, thanks to his divine discoveries,
His glory has been carried abroad and now nears the heavens.
For he saw then that everything which is needed for life
Has already been set aside for mortal man and that
As far as they were able, their life was already safe…”

Primae frugiparos fetus mortalibus aegris
dididerunt quondam praeclaro nomine Athenae
et recreaverunt vitam legesque rogarunt
et primae dederunt solacia dulcia vitae,
cum genuere virum tali cum corde repertum,
omnia veridico qui quondam ex ore profudit;
cuius et extincti propter divina reperta
divolgata vetus iam ad caelum gloria fertur.

nam cum vidit hic ad victum quae flagitat usus
omnia iam ferme mortalibus esse parata
et, pro quam possent, vitam consistere tutam…


The man at Athens? Epicurus, of course.