generation saw it.
It was not for nothing that there was put into the heart of
this man a burning hatred of the wrong done in the name of
God, which Paganism authorized, and of the baseness of super-
In this picture of Iphigenia's death the horror
that filled him at the thought of the evil deeds and deadly sel-
fishness that superstition had prompted and produced, found as
it were a mute expression. Short indeed, but trenchant like a
thrust of the Roman sword, is Lucretius's comment on this
Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum !
With this one blow he stabs the cowardly figure of cruel
Superstition through and through. The echo of that terrible
stroke is ringing through the world still.
Viewed in a wider horizon, and with reference to the progress
of the world, we may look at his poem and even say, ' It is well
and rightly done,' yet not altogether well for Lucretius him-
self, for he had done violence to the God-consciousness within
him! His aim was to show that the ancient religion, which
TEACHING OF LUCRETIUS. 197
assigned for natural operations irregular, capricious Divine
agents, was contradicted by the newly-discovered majesty and
regularity of nature's laws, while the conscience of man remon-
strated against the cruelty and wickedness which it sanctioned.
And beyond question the poem must have had a mighty power
in destroying the old polytheistic creed, which could never be
made new again and had to pass away. Especially for the
young who were thoughtful and earnest, who shared Lucretius's
horror of the evils produced by superstition, who were more-
over convinced by the intellectual force with which he refuted
the notion that everything in nature goes by Divine caprice,
and who, like him, could stifle neither of these convictions,
for such readers its passionate and impetuous poetry must have
driven its arguments home with terrible force. Not in vain
had Lucretius raised against Paganism a voice which could
never more be silent.
We cannot help here referring to the estimate of Lucretius
expressed some time ago l by a writer who has done some
admirable work in the way of criticism, Mr. Robert Buchanan.
'Lucretius,' he says, 'is a materialist, pure and simple, solemn
and staunch ; as bigoted in his creed and as certain of his
gospel as the veriest divine that ever thumped a cushion ;' and
so on. Nowhere has Mr. Buchanan hinted that Lucretius took
a great step forward for religion as well as for science when he
asserted that jivery th ing in nature goes by law and nothing
by caprice ; but passing over this entirely, he shows not the
least appreciation of the fact that Lucretius was forced into his
position by a rgggjl (an exaggerated recoil, of course) from the
'national religion of his day, with all its necessary results of sin
and degradation? He talks knowingly of those ' modern
writers who would fain make him (Lucretius) a mere enemy to
the ancient polytheistic religion.' But does Mr. Buchanan
know what this polytheistic religion was ? What its moral in-
1 * Lucretius and modern Materialism.' ' New Quarterly,' April, 1876.
198 THE ATOMIC THEORY OF LUCRETIUS.
fluences were ? Of what kind was the conception of Deity
which Lucretius revolted from ? In short, has he ever spoken
a word against any conception of God which assigns to Him
goodness and universal power in the world ? Lucretius had
not to do with the (in many respects) noble and beautiful wor-
ship of Greece at its best time. Paganism in his day had be-
come a religion of sensuality and superstitious dread. As we
have seen, the Gods of Rome, according to the popular con-
ception of them, could inspire only repugnance and fear. In
Mr. Buchanan's hands the poet becomes a ( mere ' enemy of
religion, impelled solely by a fanatic zeal against any and
every spiritual conception. From this point of view, his ear-
nestness in preaching Epicureanism simply shows that (as
Carlyle has said of an eagerly proselytizing atheist), he e was
eaten up by the zeal of the devil's own house ' nothing fur-
ther ! And this means that he was a mere monster ; for one
who avows Lucretius's creed for simply these reasons is nothing
more than this. This estimate of Lucretius is barely consis-
tent with the facts of turn an character, and is moreover tho-
In truth Lucretius did good service to religion. It was
commonly believed in his day that the world is a machine, with
many hands tampering with it, sometimes stopping it, and then
setting it going again. But surely such a notion is utterly
fatal to any worthy conception of Divine action. The belief
in a regular Order in Nature, in one Power at work instead of
many, was like a great breath of cool air, bringing calm where
before all was confusion and the alarm of utter uncertainty. It
is necessary for men to realize that there is but one power at
work around them, before they can form any notion of Divine
action which will not be at once refuted by the manifest facts
of Nature. It is true that after the old notion of many Divine
agencies had been discarded, the conception of Nature as a
new self-working Power might easily come, and Lucretius can
TEACHING OF LUCRETIUS. 199
hardly help at times speaking of Nature as if he denoted by it
some active force or agency. Still we must beware of attribut-
ing to the poet ideas which are foreign to him. 1 Nature,
as he intends to use the word, means only the laws of
Nature, the habits of the world, that is all. Lucretius, indeed,
had toilsomely levelled the road and prepared the way by
which men might mount up to enjoy a truer conception of
God in His relation to the world ; but though he made a path
for others coming after him, he never ventured himself to
ascend by it. He could not say, as does our own dear Chaucer
Lo ! I Nature,
Thus can I form and paint a creature,
When that I list ; who can me counterfete ?
Pygmalion ? Nought though he alway forge and bete (prepare)
Or grave or paynte, for I dare well sayn
Apollo's Zeuxis shoulde wish in vain,
Either to grave, or paynte, or forge, or bete,
If they presumed me to counterfete.
For He that is the Former principal
Hath made me his Vicar General
To form and paint earthly creature
Right as me list : all things are in my cure
Under the moone that may wane and waxe,
And for my work nothing will I axe.
My Lord and I are fully at accord. 2
When Lucretius wrote
ipsa sua per se sponte omnia . . . agere, 3
he rose to a grand conception. Yet he would have been horror-
stricken at the thought of taking the further step, and affirm-
ing that while the old Gods were false, Nature is but the Will
1 For instance, Mr. Symonds says that Lucretius ' dropping the phrase-
ology of atoms, void, motion, or chance, spoke at times of Nature as en-
dowed with reason and a will,' but no one of the passages which he quotes
(v. 186, 811, 846) appears to have this meaning.
2 From the ' Tale of the Doctor of Physic.'
3 ii. 1090-2.
200 THE ATOMIC THEORY OF LUCRETIUS.
of the one God at work. It was reserved for a great religious
thinker of Latin race to say, ' Dei voluntas natura rerum est.' 1 -
Augustine was a man humble enough and wise enough to learn
from those most violently opposed to himself in opinion, and
we know not what light he may have owed to Lucretius's poem.
If Lucretius never shared Augustine's belief, we must re-
member that such a thought seems never even to have occurred
to him. Possibly, had he lived longer, and had his mind grown
free enough from the iron yoke of his master, he might have seen
that the new conception, Natura, necessarily involved the ex-
istence of One Divine Power, omnipresent and all powerful.
But as we see him in his poem, it appears as if he could not
conceive of omnipotence in Deity. In one passage he expressly
denies it the universe is too vast, he says, to be governed by
the Gods ; no one can conceive of a Deity who ( can be present
in all places at all times.' 2 Elsewhere he speaks as if it were
equally absurd to attribute omniscience to the Gods. One
cannot help contrasting with such passages the Hebrew con-
ception of Jehovah, infinitely powerful and infinitely wise.
' Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,
and meted out heaven with a span, and comprehended the dust
1 Augustine, * De Civitate Dei,' xxi. 8.
nam pro sancta deum tranquilla pectora pace
quae placidum degunt aevom vitamque serenam,
quis regere immensi summam, quis habere profundi
indu manu validas potis est moderanter habenas,
quis pariter coelos omnis convertere et omnis
ignibus aetheriis terras suffire feracis,
omnibus inve locis esse omni tempore praesto. ii. 1090-1104.
et simul in multas partis qui credere possis
mittere ? an hoc ausis nunquam contendere factum,
ut fierent ictus uno sub tempore plures ?
at saepest numero factum fierique necessest,
ut pluere in multis regionibus et cadere imbris,
fulmina sic. uno fieri sub tempore multa. vi. 411-16.
Compare also the whole paragraph vi. 379-422.
TEACHING OF LUCRETIUS. 201
of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales,
and the hills in a balance ? Who hath directed the Spirit of
the Lord, or being his counsellor hath taught him ?
' W^ith whom took he counsel and who instructed him ? . . . .
It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the
inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers ; that stretcheth out the
heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell
in .... To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal ?
saith the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and behold
who hath created these things, that bringeth out their host by
number : he calleth them all by names by the greatness of his
might, for that he is strong in power ; not one faileth.' l
To the same effect writes many an old Psalmist, 2 who feels
moreover that, much as he has thought of God's working, he
still knows infinitely little of it. ' Behold this is a part of His
ways, but how small a portion is known of Him ! ' Lucretius,
on the other hand, cannot think of God in his relation to the
world e_xcept as a man-like artificer. He never realizes Divine
action except in the narrowest and feeblest way. Can Lucretius
be excused in this ? By no means. Distinctly and emphati-
cally he is to be blamed in that he entirely cast away the
best thought of the wisest who had gone before him. He
simply ignores the teaching of Socrates, of Plato, and many
another Greek thinker. He does not even argue against such
viejis^which conceive the Divine nature as omnipotent and all-
wise ; he 'merely leaves them out of account. Might he
not have learnt from Socrates, who, as Xenophon tells us,
' held that the Gods take care of men, though not in the
fashion that the many believe. For these think that the
Gods know some things, but others they do not know, but he
1 Isaiah xl.
2 Compare Ps. cxxxix. 6-9, xcv. 3-5, Ixv. 5-8, cxxxv. 5-7, cxlvii. 4-5,
and especially the whole of Ps. civ., where the Psalmist shows how the
whole world has its being in God.
202 THE ATOMIC THEORY OF LUCRETIUS.
considered that the Gods know all things, both what is said
and what is done and what is meditated in silence, and are
present everywhere, and give intimations to men concerning all
human affairs.' 1 Lucretius, indeed, deserves the rebuke ad-
ministered by Socrates to Aristodemus, ( It becomes you, there-
fore, not to think that while your own eye can reach many
furlongs, the eye of the Divinity is unable to see all things at
once, nor yet that your mind is able to think about things
here and about things in Egypt and in Sicily as well, but that
the mind of the Deity is unable to take heed at the same time
of all things.' In truth, he tells him, ' the Divinity is so mighty
and of such a nature as to see all things and to hear all things
at once, and to be present everywhere and take care of all things
at the same time.' 2 The very school whom Lucretius so bitterly
opposed, the Stoics, weak as their physics were, how much
grander and more adequate than his was their conception of
God, of one universal Providence which governs all things.
No doubt Cleanthes was an author despised by Epicureans ;
yet Lucretius must at some time have read his grand ' Hymn
to Zeus.' 3
e O Zeus, thou most glorious of the immortals, many-
named, at all time almighty, O founder of nature, who guidest
all things according to law. ... Thee this whole world, re-
volving around the earth, obeys whithersoever thou guidest
it, and is willingly governed by thee. . . . Without thee no
1 Xenophon, ' Memorabilia,' i. 1, 19. 2 Ibid., i. 4, 17-18.
3 Stobaeus, ' Eel.,' i., p. 30. Cleanthes, famous even among the many
remarkable figures of Greek philosophy for his laborious and earnest
life, was originally a boxer, but came to succeed Zeno as chief of the
Stoic school (about 260 B.C.). For years, while studying under Zeno,
he chose to support himself by the severest bodily labour, as a water-
drawer at night in the gardens of Athens. His contemporaries considered
him by no means brilliant, and reproached him with lacking * boldness '
as a thinker. Heroic figures like his remind us of the intense moral
earnestness a passion veiled by a never-failing habit of self-command
which marked the Greek character.
TEACHING OF LUCRETIUS. 203
work is done on earth nor in the sphere of the divine ether
nor on the sea, except what the wicked perform in the foolish-
ness of their minds.'
There is an enthusiasm in this hymn which Lucretius could
hardly share, a glad feeling of loyalty, a delight in the law of
God which is happiness to those who obey it, but misery to those
who do not. c The wicked, ever desiring to get gain, see not,
neither do they hear the universal law of God, obeying which
with their mind they might win a happy life.' Cleanthes' closing
prayer to Zeus to scatter from the soul the f dire ignorance'
which makes men prefer ambition or greed or the pleasure of
the body to righteousness, the entreaty ( to share in the under-
standing in the might of which thou, O father, dost with justice
govern all things,' such an aspiration shows a higher craving
for personal goodness and purity than we anywhere find in
Lucretius's poem, which (though full of nobleness and burning
with the desire to help humanity) springs from a lower level.
Lucretius has no such faith in. one supreme Providence order-
ing all things dims v>Ta, ' with justice.' He has only the
varies conexus, pondera, plagas,
concursiis, motus, per quae res quaeque geruntur,
( the various entanglements, weights, blows, clashings and
motions of the atoms by means of which things severally go
on.' This is Lucretius's substitute for Providence, while his
creed is the Nam certe neque consilio ' ( Verily not by design.'
But just as we often see nowadays that the professor of cruel
and gloomy doctrines is unselfish and even hopeful in character,
happily Lucretius also is in many ways better than his creed.
1 nam certe neque consilio primordia reram
ordine se suo quaeque sagaci mente locarunt,
nee quos quaeque darent motus pepigere profecto,
sed quia multa modis naultis primordia rerum,
ex infinite iam tempore, &c. v. 419-27.
The whole passage is translated at p. 56.
204 THE ATOMIC THEOEY OF LUCRETIUS.
No reader of Lucretius's poem can help being struck by Ms
frequent expressions of gratitude to Epicurus. We cannot
doubt that these are genuine and from the heart, and that
the teaching of Epicurus had brought to him help in his
time of need. If, then, the poet regarded Epicurus as his
deliverer, it may be asked, From what had Epicurus saved
him ? When we read Lucretius's poem, we cannot doubt that
he owed to Epicurus more than a merely intellectual debt,
more than the light of science, more, too, than deliverance from
superstitious fears. Lucretius speaks with the voice and the
emotion of one who has known from personal experience in some
form the miseries of a life of ambition, who has known, too, the
mad Roman lust for luxury and pleasure, and for ever new
pleasures, and who has himself felt the f sad satiety ' that comes
from drinking deep of such delights. He writes like one who (to
use his own image) watches, safe on shore, the vessels in peril,
in the grip of the tempest, and vividly remembers how he himself
was once helplessly tossing on the same sea. His eagerness of
temperament tells of a nature not easily curbed. The poems
of Catullus show what a vortex of sensual life was the Roman
capital in Lucretius's day. 1 Into that vortex it may be that
Lucretius had sunk far deeper than ever Catullus did. For
him it was impossible to float so lightly on the top of foul
depths as did that bright and rare spirit. We can imagine
Lucretius brought by his own eager and passionate nature into
some dark crisis of disappointment and despair, far more
readily than one like Catullus, whose spirit was more buoyant
and of swifter recovery. Is it impossible that at such a crisis
Epicureanism, of the nobler kind, may have become known to
1 Munro believes that Lucretius's poem was published scarcely a year
before the death of Catullus, and that many passages in the ' Peleus and
Thetis' show that Catullus had read it. See his note on iii. 57; also
Ellis's commentary on Catullus, pp. xlv.-xlvii., and his introduction to
the 64th poem.
TEACHING OF LUCRETIUS. 205
him ? In the teaching of Epicurus, 1 with its rigid rule of life,
its strict checks on ambition, its stern repression of sensual
desire, its insistence on the supreme duty of preserving tran-
quillity of soul, a man like Lucretius may have found a true
deliverance, a deliverance of lower type, but as real as many a
Greek youth had found in the words of Socrates. How often
do the words ' peace,' ' perfect peace,' pacem, placidam pacem,
recur in Lucretius's poem. To a man tormented by his own eager
ambition and its disappointments, or deeply conscious of the
tyranny of his own lower nature, there is no blessing greater
than peace. Epicurus, indeed, insisted on the checking of all
violent desires as the one thing needful. By this, to use his
own phrase, ( all the storm of the soul is put an end to.' 2 It
may be that the peace which Lucretius had found, and which
his master had brought him, was to some extent ignoble and not
much worth having. Epicurus, indeed, determined to live in
the cellarage of the house of life, instead of the upper chambers,
because it is safer, and there are such things as thunder-storms.
Still Epicurus seems, judging from the poet's own words, to
have brought to Lucretius exactly that which he most needed,
and possibly at some crisis of his personal history. For this
Lucretius was rightly grateful.
There is something pathetic in Lucretius's deep affection for
Epicurus. Such warmth of gratitude is the sure sign of a
noble nature. The earnest way, too, in which he casts himself
on the teaching of his master, sincerely and entirely accepting
it, is not this the true attitude in which a man ought to receive
all highest truth? Such, according to the parable, was the
temper of the man who, having found a. treasure, sold all that
1 Epicureanism ought, as Martha says (' Poeme de Lucrece,' p. 35), to
be called ' the doctrine of renunciation ' rather than the doctrine of plea-
sure. Epicurus was himself a man of the most self-denying and almost
2 \vtT<u TTCLQ o TW ^VWIQ xti^v (fromthe letter to Menoeceus, Diog. L., x.).
206 THE ATOMIC THEORY OF LUCRETIUS.
he had to purchase the field in which it lay. Natures like
this are not common. Had Lucretius lived in a better day,
and had the Master who was greater than Epicurus, or even
than Socrates, called on him to follow, would not this ardent
soul have cast aside all to follow him ? and if so, he who is so
entirely loyal to the truth he grasps, and who so utterly loathes
the fr>wfl.rfhV.A ftf airpArfifit.irm would he not to a higher truth
than his old philosophy have proved faithful even to mar-
tyrdom ? The test of any man's character is not merely the
side on which he stands, but the manner in which he stands
by it, whether he be of the temper to ( contend to the utter-
most,' or not. To Lucretius no one can impute the crowning
condemnation of every frustrate spirit,
The unlit lamp and the ungirt loin.
So great earnestness and courage cannot exist only to be
AN EXAMINATION OF M. GUYATPS CHAPTER ON
ATOMIC DECLINATION ("LA MORALE
D'EPICURE." 1881) /
1 This chapter is reprinted, with a few additions, from the " Journal of
Philology," vol. xi., 1882.
ONE of the most valuable contributions to the history of
ancient philosophy made in recent years is M. Guyau's
brilliant work entitled ' La Morale d'Epicure ' (2nd edition,
Paris, 1881). This work, first published in 1878, was at once
welcomed as important and eminently fresh in its treatment. 1
M. Guyau has devoted the whole of a masterly and admirably-
written chapter (pp. 71-102) entitled ' Contingency in Nature
the condition of Free-will in Man ' to a study of the remarkable
doctrine of Atomic Declination by which Epicurus attempted to
explain Free-will. This great Epicurean doctrine has been dis-
cussed by almost no writer previous to M. Guyau, who justifies the
length at which he has treated it by pointing out its importance.
He speaks of it, justly we believe, as' the central and truly original
point of the Epicurean system., namely, the relation of Free-will
to Atomic Declination ;' 2 and again, ' It is with regard to this
point in particular that Epicurus might truthfully claim to owe
his philosophy to himself alone.' 3 This chapter, evidently con-
sidered by the author to be unquestionably an important
contribution to a true understanding of Epicureanism, 4 is
1 Comparatively few notices of M. Guyau's work have appeared in this
country. We extract the following from a lengthy one in the ' Athenaeum.'
' This work of M. Guyau's is full of s'uggestiveness, originality and value,
and is based on a complete and masterly appreciation of the data existing.
... As a study in ancient philosophy it is in many respects worthy to
take its place beside even such a work as M. Bavaisson's " Metaphysique
d'Aristote." . . . Those interested in the history of 'moral philosophy
would be ill advised to overlook it, and no one can read it without profit.'
' Athenaeum,' Aug. 30, 1879.
2 p. 99 (note).
3 p. 73. With reference to the anecdote in Diog. Laert., x. 13.
4 See p. 7 (note).
210 M. GUYAU ON EPICURUS.
the part of his work which we now propose to examine.
M. Guyau's explanation of the subject is in several respects a
novel one, and is especially so in regard to one point, viz., his
account of Epicurus's teaching as to Chance and the very impor-
tant part which M. Guyau supposes it to play in the Epicurean
philosophy. According to him, Epicurus believed that the
element of Chance which we see at work in the world every
day is the manifestation and outcome of a principle of ' Spon-
taneity ' existing in Nature. This ( Spontaneity ' is the conse-
quence of the power of Declination possessed by the atoms.
Thus Epicurus conceived both Free-will in man and the ele-
ment of Chance in the world around him to be the result of
the same power of Atomic Declination in its twofold working.
We shall first state M. Guyau's theory, which he develops in
a very subtle way, and then attempt to examine it. If his ex-
planation be correct, it works a strange transformation in the
accepted notions of Epicurean doctrine, and Epicurus, who is
generally held to be a hard and bare materialist, must have
attributed to Nature powers which in some respects remind us
of the Fairy tales of our childhood or of the wilder dreams of
Epicurus, says M. Guyau, after having combated, the reli-
gious idea of Providence or Divine caprice, found himself con-
fronted-with the scientific idea of Necessity. Thus his main
philosophic aim was to escape from the notion of gods in-
terfering with Nature on the one hand and to steer clear of
the doctrine of Fate on the other. f It is better,' said Epicurus,
' to believe in the fables of the gods than to be a slave to the
fate of the natural philosophers. The myths allow us the hope
of bending the gods by honouring them, but we cannot bend
' To imagine the gods above the world,' M. Guyau goes on,
( was to make oneself a slave : but to explain all things, one-
self included, by necessary reasons which exclude our personal-