Assigned: On the Nature of the Universe (De Rerum Natura).
On the Nature of the Universe
1. What two main principles does Lucretius set forth as the cornerstone of his philosophy? According to him, what great benefits will his fellow Romans derive from this adaptation of Epicurus' ancient philosophy?
2. What are the characteristics of the atoms that Lucretius says account (along with "vacuity" or "space") for all that happens in the universe? To what extent do you suppose Lucretius wants us, as mortal beings, to derive confidence or even comfort from this description of the atomic structure of our world?
3. What criticisms does Lucretius offer concerning the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus? What about Empedocles and Anaxagoras -- what philosophical errors did they commit, briefly?
4. Why is it absurd, according to Lucretius towards the end of the first book, to suppose that everything tends towards the universe's "center"? What does he say is in fact the case? Why can't there be any limits to the extent of the universe?
5. At the beginning of the second book, how does Lucretius characterize the lives of ordinary people who have not attained to the wisdom he unfolds? What counsel does he give Memmius to avoid this fate?
6. How, throughout this book, does Lucretius demonstrate that the primary matter of the world around us is invisible, and by what process does he infer the behavior and characteristics of this invisible atomic substructure?
7. What does Lucretius identify as the source of movement or change and creation? But what accounts for "free will" -- do you find his argument on this point consistent in light of his materialist beliefs? Explain.
8. Why, according to Lucretius, doesn't it make sense to suppose that the gods created the universe for us and that they are responsible for what goes on in it? What relationship does Lucretius posit between the gods and humankind?
9. How does Lucretius account for the existence of sentient beings, given the non-sentient nature of atoms themselves?
10. What does the term "death" signify within Lucretius' philosophical system -- how should human beings conceive of their own death, and what are we to think about the course that the cosmos will run over a vast period of time?
11. Lucretius proposes to relieve his readers of the fear of an afterlife. What effects does he say this fear has on people, both at the beginning and the end of the third book?
12. How does Lucretius explain the workings of mind and spirit? What arguments does he make to suggest that they, like the body, are subject to dissolution at death?
13. Towards the end of the third book, what strategy or strategies does Lucretius employ to reconcile his readers to the idea that death puts and end to personal identity and consciousness, that it really is "the end"? How effective do you find his attempts in this regard?
14. How does Lucretius account for our capacity to see and sense things, both real and insubstantial (i.e. "imagination")? What good is the evidence of our senses if what we see can't directly reveal to us the nature of things?
15. How does Lucretius explain phenomena such as movement of the body, sleep, and so forth? Do you find his method of explanation scientific, whatever its accuracy? Explain.
16. Lucretius is particularly concerned to account for amorous urges -- the power of Venus. Why do you suppose his explanation leads him to dwell on the frustrations and dangers inherent in eroticism? How might this instinct pose a threat to his philosophical claims?
17. Lucretius again discusses the character of the gods and how they might regard what happens on earth. According to him, why doesn't it make sense to suppose that the gods concern themselves with human affairs or that the earth was designed for human use?
18. What account does Lucretius give us of how the earth and the heavenly bodies were formed and why the heavens move as they do? What accounts for the cycle of day and night?
19. What explanation does Lucretius offer for the development of life on earth? And how did language and fire come into use?
20. According to Lucretius, how and why did something like what we might broadly call a "social contract" develop, and why did people begin to worship gods?
21. Towards the end of the fifth book, Lucretius discusses the desire for novelty and laments its effects for human society. What does he say induces this desire, and what do his remarks suggest about his overall view of human society's prospects in the long run?
22. What does Lucretius say causes thunder and lightning and earthquakes? Why does it make sense for him to dwell at length on such things in terms of the general rhetorical purpose of On the Nature of the Universe?
23. What process does Lucretius follow in arriving at his explanations throughout this book -- why is he content to set forth many plausible explanations rather than whittle the field down to the one that really applies?
24. How does Lucretius explain the origin and spread of plague? Why end an otherwise uplifting book on such a note, if indeed the manuscript ends as the author would want it to end?
Edition: Lucretius. On the Nature of the Universe. Trans. Ronald Melville. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. ISBN: 0192817612.