Lucretius: Lightning is not a means of divine communication

ThetriumphofdeathThe Nature of Things is an unfinished poem, but the sudden ending gives the finale an ironic twist: although a major purpose of the poem is to alleviate our fear of death, it ends in a fearsome, apocalyptic description of the plague that ravaged Athens during the Peloponnesian war.

Before that, Lucretius devotes much of the final book of his poem to a natural explanation for that perennial favorite signifier of the divine mood: the weather. Having spent the last few years in the U.S. Midwest, I’ve developed a fresh, first-hand appreciation for the destructive power of storms. (Given recent meteorological trends, it’s hard not to gain a first-hand appreciation of such destruction no matter where you live.) Before, radar images, and other tools that give us some predictive power, the violent and capricious nature of bad weather was perhaps easiest to understand as a means of communication between gods and humans.

Lucretius says that ascribing weather to gods is nonsense:

This is how to understand the thunderbolt, its nature
And by what power it does its deeds - and not by poring over
The mumbo-jumbo furled up in Etruscan scrolls to strain
To grasp the signs of the hidden purpose of the gods, in vain,
By noting of the burning bolt which corner of the skies
It starts from, and towards which quarter it then turns and flies,
And how it slithers into a closed space, and in what way
It flies again once it has held the whole place in its sway

- Book VI, lines 279-286

He takes on thunder, lightning, waterspouts, volcanoes, and pits emitting asphyxiating gasses, in each case working up an elaborate atomic explanation for them. Today we all take it as obvious that an erupting volcano is a natural phenomenon, because it has now come under the purview of science. But Lucretius’ argument, developed throughout the entire poem, is more general than that: we are too inclined to take random occurrences of any good or bad fortune as signs of divine judgment.

Besides the weather, the other primary scourge of the gods has traditionally been disease. Lucretius begins his attack on divine theories of disease by noting the side effects of journeys to distant places that are still a live issue today: when you travel to exotic places, you get your vaccinations, don’t drink the water, and bring along the bismuth subsalicylate. According to Lucretius, different climates have ‘airs’ that can strike those unaccustomed to them, and when those airs move beyond their normal boundaries, whole communities suffer illness. Lucretius notes that it’s obvious the world is filled with noxious substances, seen and unseen. It doesn’t take divine intervention to encounter them.

The point of all this is that death happens. It often can’t be controlled or predicted. We waste our lives if we live in fear of it. By developing a realistic understanding of its causes and its finality, we live life as it should be lived.

The final section of the poem is a graphic retelling of Thucydides’ description of the plague of Athens during the Peloponnesian war in 430 BCE. Because the poem is unfinished, it’s not clear where Lucretius was going with these horrifying depictions of suffering and death. The final scene is one of wretched corpses piled up high in, of all places, the temples devoted to worship of the gods. The ending may be abrupt, but it is a fitting conclusion to a poem in which thousands of lines are devoted to a passionate attack on superstition.

People struggled to bury legions of their kinfolk, heaping
One funeral on another, and returned wrung-out with weeping,
Whereupon many took to bed from sheer grief. There was such
Widespread woe that there was none who had not felt the touch
Of pestilence or death or mourning at this point.

                                                   By now,
The shepherd, herdsman and the sturdy helmsman of the plough,
All were fading away. Their bodies lay crammed in the back
Of cottages, betrayed to death by pestilence and lack.
Sometimes you’d see the lifeless corpses of the parents piled
Upon their lifeless children, or vice versa, you’d see child
After child upon their perished parents lay their small lives down.


Many writhed on the roads, prostrate with thirst, or they would sink
Beside the fountains, choked from life by their great greed to drink.
And many bodies you would notice scattered in plain view,
Limbs dangling from half-dead trunks, in square and avenue,
Caked in squalor, clothed in rags and only skin and bone,
About to perish from their bodies' filthiness alone.
Already as good as buried in their putrid sores and dirt.

Then Death had filled all shrines with congregations of inert
Corpses; all the temples of the Holy Ones were weighed
Down with cadavers, places where the visitors had prayed
In pressing throngs packed in by sacristans. For at this hour
The worship and the awe of gods had lost most of their power - 
The present grief was overwhelming. No one any more
Observed the rites of burial they had observed before,
For the whole populace was thrown in disarray and cowed.
Each mourner buried his dead just as the time and means allowed.
Squalid Poverty and Sudden Disaster would conspire
To drive men on to desperate deeds - so they’d place on a pyre
Constructed by another their own loved-ones, and set fire
To it with wails and lamentation. And often they would shed
Much blood in the struggle rather than desert their dead.

- Book VI, lines 1247-1286

This is our last week reading Lucretius. Previous installments:
Why you should read Lucretius.
Lucretius did not believe in non-overlapping magisteria.
The Epicurean theory of vision, plus bedwetting in ancient Rome.
There is grandeur in Lucretius’ view of life.

All quotations are from the remarkable translation by A.E. Stallings in the Penguin edition (2007)
Image credit: The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1562

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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