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Fear of Death

Material Nature of Mind

Different Natures

The Mortality of Mind

Nothing to Fear in Death

The Struggle to Escape Oneself




Titus Lucretius Carus (c 99-55 BCE) is known as the author of the poem, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). Other than that, virtually nothing is known about Lucretius other than what can be deduced from the poem itself. From this source (some 7,400 hexameter lines), he appears to have been a well-educated Roman who had traveled as far as Sicily and avoided falling victim to the murderous politics of his time. His poem was an attempt to popularize the “obscure discoveries” of Epicurus, who lived about 240 years earlier. By doing this, Lucretius provided what is now the fullest surviving exposition of Epicurean philosophy. In it, Lucretius argues that the darkness of the mind brought about by superstitious fears should be scattered by a dispassionate view of the inner laws of nature.

Lacking Greek sources of comparable length, we have a hard time estimating how much of Lucretius' exposition in Latin is simply translation as opposed to original thinking directed to rendering coherent what may have been much briefer fragments. Latinists suggest that he appears to have  developed a technical vocabulary that reflects the Roman rather than the Greek philosophical spirit—practical rather than metaphysical, well-suited to the Epicurean materialistic viewpoint. Lucretius is among the few philosophers to have cast their exposition in poetic form. Although the  translation here is in prose, the emotional vigor of the poem still peeps through in the concrete imagery and the forcefulness of the exposition.

The extracts given here deal not with the atomic theory of the physical world but with that theory’s account of the mind and understanding. Lucretius also talks about the soul, or anima, which translates as a life spirit or vital spirit that was considered present in the body in some way that involved air and warmth. In establishing the material basis of mind, Lucretius lacked the modern concepts of the cell and the nervous system, with its voluntary and involuntary components. He could not, therefore, equate the tens of trillions of processing elements (synapses) in the nervous system with the atoms he proposes as furnishing the activities of the mind. Similarly, with the concepts he had to hand, he had to talk about motion rather than electrical and chemical activity. He was able, however, to point out the logical absurdity of supposing an immaterial mind could influence a material body. His arguments for a materialistic, atomistic basis for the mind point the way towards modern neuroscience and its emphasis on molecular processes.



Fear of Death

  1     I have shown how atoms are the beginnings of all things, how they differ because of their diverse shapes, how of their own accord they fly through space, impelled by everlasting motion, and how each individual thing can be created out of them. Next, I must turn to the nature of the mind and the soul, and drive away the archaic fear of a world beyond the grave. This fear can utterly confound the life of man to its very root, clouding all things with the blackness of death, and leaving no pleasure pure and unalloyed.

       True, men often declare that disease and a life of disgrace are more to be feared than the pit of death. And they may say that they know the soul is made of blood—or else of wind, if by chance their whim so wills it—and therefore that they have no need at all of our philosophy. Yet, you may be sure that this is nothing but idle boasting to win praise, and not their true belief. These same men, exiled from their country and banished far from the sight of their countrymen, stained with some foul crime, beset with disease heralding approaching death, keep going all the same. To whatever situation they come in their misery, in spite all their talk, they sacrifice to the dead, slaughter black cattle, and lay out offerings to the gods of the dead. In their bitter plight, they far more keenly turn their hearts to religion.

       That is why it is more fitting to judge the quality of a man when he is in doubt and danger, and to observe his manner in adversity; for then at last an honest cry is wrung from the bottom of his heart: the mask is torn off, and the truth stands exposed.


  2     Just as children plunged into darkness tremble and fear every little thing, so we sometimes dread in the light things that are not one jot more to be feared than the imaginings of children shuddering in the blackness. This terror, this darkness of the mind, must be scattered, not by the rays of the sun and glistening shafts of daylight, but by a dispassionate view of the inner laws of nature.

       First, I say that the mind, or intellect, in which is placed the reasoning and guiding power of life, is a part of a man not one iota less than hand and foot and eyes are created parts of the whole living being. Others have said that the experience of the mind is not located in any particular part, but is a certain vital characteristic of the body, which the Greeks call a harmony. This characteristic would make us alive to sensation, even though understanding resides in no particular part of the body—just as good health is said to belong to the body but is not itself any bodily part of a healthy man.

       But in not placing the sensation of mind in any part of the body, they seem to me to wander very far astray. Thus often the body may be obviously sick, yet we feel pleasure in some other hidden part. Or the reverse—one wretched in mind may feel pleasure in all his body. It is the same sort of thing when a sick man's foot is painful, while his head may be in no pain.

       Furthermore, when the limbs are given over to gentle sleep, and the heavy body lies slack and senseless, yet there is something else in us, which at that very time is stirred in many ways, and admits within itself all the emotions of joy and the irrational cares of the heart.


  3     The soul, or life spirit, is also not a harmony that the body feels but is in the limbs. First, when a great part of the body is removed, life often lingers on in our limbs. Second, when a little heat has left the body and some air has been driven out through the mouth, that same life suddenly abandons the veins and leaves the bones. So you can tell from this that not all kinds of elements have an equal part to play in supporting life. Rather, it is the atoms of warmth and wind— moving air—that nurture life within our limbs. It is this heat and life-giving wind that abandon our dying frame.

       Therefore, since the natures of mind and soul have been revealed as a material parts of man, give up the term harmony, which was handed down to musicians from Mount Helicon: or else they themselves have dragged it out from somewhere else to give a name for their thing, which then was without a name of its own. Whatever the story, let them keep it. Listen to the rest of my discourse.


Material Nature of Mind

  4    Now I say that this mind and soul unite and form a single nature, but that the lord over the whole body is reason. This we call mind or understanding, and it holds sway in the middle region of the breast. For there it is that fear and terror throb. Around the same region are soothing joys. There too, then, is the understanding and the mind.

      The rest of the soul, spread throughout the body, obeys and is moved at the will and inclination of the understanding. The mind alone has understanding for itself and rejoices for itself, when no single thing stirs either soul or body. And just as, when head or eye hurts within us at the attack of pain, we are not tortured at the same time in all our body, so the mind sometimes feels pain by itself or waxes strong with joy, when all the rest of the soul throughout the limbs and frame is not roused by any fresh feeling.

      Nevertheless, when the understanding is stirred by some stronger fear, we see that the whole soul feels with it throughout the limbs, and then sweat and pallor break out over all the body, and the tongue is crippled and the voice is choked, the eyes grow misty, the ears ring, and the limbs give way beneath us. Indeed we often see men fall down through the terror in their mind; so that any one may easily learn from this that the soul is linked in union with the mind. For when the soul is smitten by the force of the mind, straight­way it jolts the body and pushes it on.

      This same reasoning shows that the nature of mind and soul is bodily. For when it is seen to push on the limbs, to pluck the body from sleep, to change the countenance, and to guide and turn the whole man—none of which things we see can come to pass without an impetus, nor impetus, in its turn, without body—must we not allow that mind and soul are formed of bodily nature? Moreover, you see that our mind suffers along with the body, and shares its feelings together in the body. If the shuddering shock of a weapon, driven within and laying bare bones and sinews, does not destroy life, yet faintness follows, and a welcome loss of consciousness. Then, a turmoil of mind returns, and from time to time, as it were, a hesitating will to rise up from the ground. Therefore it must needs be that the nature of the mind is material, since it is distressed by the blow of material weapons.


  5    Of what kind of matter this mind is, and of what parts it is formed, I will now go on to tell you in my discourse. First of all, I say that it is very fine in texture, and is made and formed of very tiny particles. You can discover this from the following. Nothing is seen to come to occur so swiftly as what the mind pictures to itself as occurring or initiates itself. Therefore the mind bestirs itself more quickly than any of the things whose nature is manifest for all to see. But because it is so very nimble, it is bound to be formed of exceeding round and exceeding tiny atoms, so that its particles may be able to move when smitten by a little impulse. In a similar way, water moves and quivers at the slightest impulse, seeing it is formed of little particles, quick to rotate. On the other hand, honey is more stable, its fluid more sluggish, and its movement more hesitating; for the whole mass of its matter clings more together, because, we may be sure, it is not formed of bodies so smooth, nor so fine and round. A trifling light breath can scatter a high heap of poppy-seed from top to bottom before your eyes: on the other hand, it can by no means separate a pile of stones or corn ears. Therefore, in proportion as bodies are tinier and smoother, so they are gifted with nimbleness. While all things that are found to be of greater weight or more spiky, the more firm set they are. Now, therefore, since the nature of the mind has been found nimble beyond the rest, it must needs be formed of bodies exceeding small and smooth and round. And this truth, when known to you, will in many things, good friend, lead to insight, and will be found useful

      There is another fact that declares the nature of the mind, of how thin a texture it is formed, and in how small a place it might be contained, could it be gathered in a mass. As soon as the unruffled peace of death has laid hold on a man, and embodiment of mind and soul has passed away, you would discern nothing, that sight or weight can test, stolen from the entire body. Death preserves all save the feeling of life, and some warmth. And so it must needs be that the whole soul is made of very tiny atoms, and is linked together throughout veins, flesh, and sinews. For when the soul is all already gone from the whole body, yet the outer contour of the limbs is preserved unbroken, not a particle of weight is missing. Even so it is when the flavor of wine has passed away, or when the sweet breath of a perfume has been scattered to the air, or when the taste is gone from food: still the thing itself seems not a whit smaller to the eyes on that account, nor does anything seem withdrawn from its weight, because, we may be sure, many tiny atoms go to make the flavor, scent, or taste in the whole body of something. Therefore once and again you may know that the nature of the understanding and the soul is formed of exceeding tiny atoms, since when it flees away it carries with it no jot of weight.


Different Natures

  6    So, you see, this force without a name, made of tiny atoms, lies concealed, and is moreover, as it were, the very soul of the soul, holding sway in the whole body. In like manner it must needs be that wind and air and heat act mingled together throughout the limbs, and while one may be more above or below the rest, yet all compose one single thing; for fear that separating heat and wind and the power of air should put an end to sensation—breaking it up by their separation. Moreover the mind possesses that heat which it takes on when it boils with rage, and the fire flashes more keenly from the eyes. Much cold breath too it has, which goes along with fear and starts a shuddering in the limbs and stirs the whole frame. And it has too that condition of air lulled to rest, which comes to pass when the breast is calm and the face unruffled.

      But those creatures have more of heat, whose fiery heart and passionate mind easily boil up in anger. Foremost in this class is the fierce force of lions, who often as they give utterance break their hearts with roaring, and cannot contain in their breast the storm waves of their wrath. But the cold heart of deer is more full of wind, and more quickly it rouses a chilly breath in its flesh, which makes a shuddering motion start in the limbs. The oxen draws its nature rather from calm air, nor ever is the smoking flame of anger likely to it to rouse it overmuch, drenching it, rather, with the shadow of murky mist; nor is it pierced and frozen by the chill shafts of fear: it has its place midway between the two, the deer and the raging lion.

      So is it with the race of men. Even though much training may give some of them an equal culture, yet it does not disturb those first traces of the nature of the mind of each. Nor must we think that maladies from this source can be plucked out by the roots: one man will always fall more swiftly into bitter anger, another be a little sooner assailed by fear, while a third will take some things more gently than is right. And in many other things it must needs be that the natures of various men differ, and the habits that develop from them. But I cannot now set forth the secret causes of these, nor discover names for all the shapes of the first atoms, from which this variety in things arises. One thing I know I can affirm—that so small are the traces left of these natures, which reason could not dispel for us, that nothing hinders us from living a life worthy of gods.

  7    Now the mind is more the keeper of the security of life, more the monarch of life, than the power of the soul or vital spirit. For without the mind and understanding no part of the spirit can hold out in the body for a tiny moment of time, but follows the departing mind without demur, and scatters into air, and deserts the chill frame in the frost of death. Yet one whose mind and understanding have stood firm abides in life. However much the trunk is mangled with the limbs hacked all about, though the soul be torn and pulled from his limbs, he lives and draws in the breath of heavens to give him life. Robbed, if not of all, yet of a great part of his vital spirit, still he lingers on and clings to life. Even as, when the eye is mangled all around, if the pupil remains unharmed, then the living power of sight stands firm—if only you do not destroy the whole ball of the eye, and cut all round the pupil, and leave it by itself: for that will not be done without the destruction of the eye too. But if that tiny part in the middle of the eye is eaten away, at once light is gone, and darkness follows on, however much the bright ball is in other places unharmed. In such a compact are vital spirit and mind ever bound together.


The Mortality of Mind

  8    Remember, understanding emerges with the body, grows with it, and advances with it to old age. Tottering with a tender feeble body, children also stumble in the judgments of their minds. In riper years when strength has hardened, their force of reason is greater. Later, shattered by the stern strength of time, the frame is shrunk, its forces dulled; then is reason maimed, the mind stumbles, the tongue raves. At last, all things give way and fail at once. Then is the mind also dispersed, even as is smoke, into the high breezes of the air. . .

  9    Just as the body itself suffers wasting diseases and poignant pain, so the mind too has its biting cares and grief and fear. Therefore it is natural that it should also share in death. Moreover, in disease of the body our mind may wander, losing its reason,  and releasing raving words. Sometimes in heavy lethargy eyes and head fall nodding and mind is carried off into a deep unending sleep, where no voice is heard and no face known of those beseeching it back to life with tear streaked cheeks.

      Then you must admit that the mind too is dissolved as the contagion of disease pierces it. For both pain and disease are alike fashioners of death, as we have been taught before now by many a man's decease.

      Again, when the stinging strength of wine affects a man, and its heat spreads throughout his veins, a heaviness in the limbs appears, the legs become entangled. As he staggers, his tongue is sluggish and his mind heavy, his eyes swim. Shouting, sobbing, quarrelling grows apace, and then all other signs of this sort that go along with them. Why? Because the governance of wine confounds the soul as well as the body.


  10  Now, when we see a mind is cured—just like a sick body—and we see that it can be changed by medicine, this too tells us that the mind is mortal. For, as in changing anything in nature, whoever attempts to alter the mind, must add parts to it or change their arrangement, or at least take away some small part from the whole.

      But what is immortal does not permit its parts to be transposed, nor one iota to be added or subtracted from it. For whenever a thing changes and passes out of its own limits, this is the death of what it was before. And so whether the mind is sick, or changed by medicine, it gives signs of its mortality. These true facts strike down fallacious reasoning, and by a double-edged refutation prove the falsehood of an eternal soul.


  11  Moreover, while the soul moves still within the limits of life, yet often from some cause it seems to be shaken and to move, and to wish to be released from the whole body. The face seems to grow flaccid, as at the hour of death, and all the limbs seem to hang limp on the bloodless trunk. Even so it is, when—as men say—the heart has had a shock, or the heart has failed. Panic then lets loose, and one and all struggle to clutch at the last link to life. For then the mind is shaken through and through, and all the power of the spirit. Both fall in ruin with the body; so that a slightly stronger shock might bring dissolution of the whole. Why do you doubt after all this that the soul, if driven outside the body, frail as it is, robbed of its shelter, not only would be unable to last through all time but could not hold together even for a moment ?

      For no one as he dies feels his vital spirit going forth whole from all his body—nor coming up first to the throat and gullet—but rather it fails in its place in a particular part of the body; just as every one knows that the other senses are dissolved each in their own place. But if our mind were immortal, it would not at its death so much lament that it was dissolved, but rather seek to go forth and leave its dead sheath, as does a snake.

  12  Again, if the nature of the soul is immortal and can feel when sundered from our body, we must, I contend, suppose it endowed with five senses.  Nor in any other way can we picture to ourselves the souls wandering in the world beyond the grave. And so painters and the former generations of writers have brought before us souls thus endowed with senses. Yet neither eyes nor nose nor hand can exist for the soul apart from body, nor can tongue or ears. Souls cannot therefore feel by themselves or even exist.

  13  If the soul is immortal, and enters into the body at our birth, why can we not remember the part of our life already gone, why do we not preserve traces of things done before? Surely if the power of the mind is so much changed that all remembrances of things past are lost, that condition is not, I contend, much more than death itself. Consequently, you must admit that the previous soul has passed away, and that now installed has been newly created. Moreover, if when our body is already formed, the living power of a mature mind is inserted as we cross the threshold into life, it would not then be obvious that it grows with the body, yes, together with the limbs in the blood. Rather, it would be obvious that it lives all alone by itself as in a den. And yet the whole body nevertheless is rich in sensation. So, again, we must not think that souls are without birth, or released from the law of death.

  14  Again, the notion that the souls should be present at the mating and the birth of wild beasts, seems to be but laughable. Do numberless immortal souls stand waiting for mortal limbs, wrangling in hot haste with one another about which shall go before the others to find an entrance? Perhaps by chance the souls have a sealed compact, whereby whichever arrives first on its wings, shall first have entrance, so that they do not strive forcibly at all with one another.


Nothing to Fear in Death

  15  Death, then, is nothing to us, nor does it concern us one least bit, inasmuch as the nature of the mind is that of yet another mortal possession. . .

      For, if by chance grief and pain are in store for a man, he must himself exist at the time ill is to befall him. Since death forestalls this and prevents his existence, into which such misfortunes might otherwise crowd, we may be sure that we have nothing to fear in death, and that he who is no more cannot be wretched, and that there is not a scrap of difference to him if he had never at any time been born, when once immortal death has stolen away mortal life.

  16  Again, suppose nature should suddenly lift up her voice, and herself rebuke some one of us in these words: “Why is death so great a thing to you, mortal, that you give way excessively to sickly lamentation? Why groan and weep at death? For if the life that is past and gone has been pleasant to you, and all its blessings have not drained away and not been enjoyed—as if poured in a vessel full of holes—why don’t you retire like a guest sated with the banquet of life, and with calm mind embrace, you fool, a rest that knows no care? But if all you have reaped has been wasted and lost, and life is a stumbling-block, why seek to add more—all to be lost again foolishly and passed away without enjoyment? Why not rather make an end of life and trouble? For there is nothing more which I can devise or discover to please you: all things are ever as they were.”

  17  We may also be sure that all those things told in fables about the land beyond the grave are here in our life. No wretched Tantalus, numbed with idle terror, fears the fall of a great rock that hangs over him in the air, as the tale has it. Rather, it is in life that the empty fear of the gods threatens mortals: they fear the fall of a blow which chance may deal to anyone. Nor do birds make their way into the body of Tityos, as he lies in Acheron; nor do they through all eternity grope deep in his huge chest to seek food. However vast the mass of his out­stretched body— though he cover not just nine acres with his sprawling limbs, but the whole circle of earth—yet he will not be able to for ever supply food from his own body and endure everlasting pain. Our Tityos is with us, whom, as he lies smitten with love, the birds mangle—yes, aching anguish devours him, or grief stabs him deep through some other passion. The Sisyphus in our life too is clear to see: he who open-mouthed seeks from the people the baubles of political office, and evermore comes back conquered and dispirited. For to seek for a power that is in name only and never truly given, and for that to endure grinding toil for ever, this is to thrust uphill with great effort a stone, which in the end rolls back from the topmost peak and makes headlong for the level plain beneath.

  18  You might say this to yourself from time to time. “Epicurus himself died, when his bright life had run its course: Epicurus, who surpassed all men in understanding and outshone them all in brilliance, as the sun rising in the sky outshines the stars. Will you then hesitate and fret to meet your fate? You, whose life is nothing much while you still live and look on daylight, wasting the greater part of your years in sleep, and snoring when wide awake? Always in a daydream, your mind harassed with groundless fears, often unable to discover what is wrong with you, when in a stupor you are attacked from all sides, poor dear, with countless cares of every type, and wander drifting on the shifting currents of your mind?”


The Struggle to Escape Oneself

    19  If only men, when feeling a mental burden whose weight clearly wears them out, could only learn the cause and the origin of so great a mass of ill that lies, as it were, upon their breast, they would not pass their lives—as now for the most part we see they do—not knowing each one what he wants, and longing ever for change of place, as though he could thus lay aside the burden. The man who is tired of staying at home, often goes out abroad from his great mansion, and suddenly returns again, for indeed abroad he feels no better. He races to his country home, furiously driving his ponies, as though he were hurrying to bring help to a burning house; he yawns at once when he has set foot on the threshold of the villa, or sinks into a heavy sleep and seeks forgetfulness, or even in hot haste makes for town, eager to be back.

      In this way each man struggles to escape himself: yet, despite his will he clings to the self, which—we may be sure he cannot in fact shun—and hates himself, because in his sickness he does not know the cause of his malady. But if he saw it clearly, every man would leave all else, and study first to learn the nature of things, since it is his state for all eternity, and not for a single hour, that is in question—the state in which mortals must expect all their being that is to come after their death.

  20  Again, what evil craving for life is this which constrains us with such force to live so restlessly in doubt and danger. Assuredly, a certain end of life is ordained for human kind. We cannot avoid death, we must meet it face to face. Our life moves always on, we spend our time doing the same things, and find that increasing length of life hammers out no  new pleasure. So long as we do not have something we crave, we seem to need that more than anything else. Afterward, when we have it, our craving turns to something else, and always the thirst for life importunes us, open­mouthed. We do not know what fortune the future may bring, or what chance may spring on us, or even what is going on right now. Nor, in truth, by prolonging life do we take away one jot from the span of death, for there is no subtraction whereby we may be less long dead. Therefore, you may live on as many generations as you will, yet everlasting death still waits for you. Nor will he who has made an end of life with today's dawn be less long dead than he who perished many months or years ago.



  Adapted from Lucretius On The Nature Of Things translated by Cyril Bailey. The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1910, Book III.
  A modern translation of the whole work is contained in Lucretius On The Nature Of The Universe translated by R. E. Latham. Penguin Books, London, 1951. 

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 On the Nature of Things by Lucretius translated by William Ellery Leonard.

An electronic text version is available via FTP from Project Gutenberg.

         Introduction, selection and adaptation Copyright © Rex Pay 2000