THE SOUL--LUCRETIUS (from De Rerum Natura)
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The Epicurean compelling arguments that the animus (soul) disassociates upon death




(ca. 60 B.C.E.)





Very little is authentically known of the life of the Latin poet Titus Lucretius Carus aside from the fact that he lived in the first half of the first century B.C.E. and wrote a poem in six books, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), dedicated to the aristocrat Caius Mem­mius. This treatise is not only the most exhaustive exposition of the phi­losophy of Epicurus that has survived from antiquity but one of the imperishable masterworks of Latin literature. In the following extract from Book 3, Lucretius broaches several arguments for the mortality of the soul (which the Epicureans believed to be material); he concludes with a piquant passage in which personified Nature berates a man for bemoaning his untimely death, pointing out that his conscious mind will not be extant and urging him to take your departure like a guest filled with life.


{COMMENTS BY JK}  There are several excellent verse translations of this work, which can well be placed beside the works of Aristotles as one of the progenitors of the Renaissance.  Its influence was wide, for up till the 17th century everyone of learning knew Latin, few knew Greek.  I chose a prose version since most readers do not have the patients to read a lengthy passage in rhythmic verse. The work is divided into 6 books that are--consistent with its title--a scientific, materialistic foundation of the nature of things.  Among principle topics Book I, matter, void, infinity; Book II, atoms; Book III, soul and the mortality of the soul; Book IV, vision, mental pictures, against teleological theory, food, sleep and dreams, and the passion of love; Book V, the world is not eternal, formation of the world, astrological questions, origins of life, the origin of man and the savage period, the beginnings of civilization; Book VI, meteorological phenomena; natural phenomena including magnets, pestilences, and volcanoes.  All of these topics were developed by Epicurus (341-270 BC), the founder of the epicurean philosophy; however, his magnus opum survives only in scattered, burnt fragments.  A much shorter statement of Epicurus philosophy was preserved in 3 letters, supposedly by the master himself.  These are part of Diogenes Laertius The Lives and Doctrines of the Ancient Philosophers--written sometime after 125 AD.   


On studying Epicurus, in doing my senior thesis, I discovered how deeply we were of one mind.  The work is amazingly modern, for it embodies the scientific outlook.  It was a guide and inspiration for Francis Bacon and all scientists up till the middle of the 18th century.  The select part of the proem on Epicurus, below, is fitting--JK.


A Greek it was who first opposing dared
Raise mortal eyes that terror to withstand,
Whom nor the fame of Gods nor lightning's stroke
Nor threatening thunder of the ominous sky
Abashed; but rather chafed to angry zest
His dauntless heart to be the first to rend
The cross bars at the gates of Nature old.
And thus his will and hardy wisdom won;
And forward thus he fared afar, beyond
The flaming ramparts of the world, until
He wandered the unmeasurable All.
Whence he to us, a conqueror, reports
What things can rise to being, what cannot,
And by what law to each its scope prescribed,
Its boundary stone that clings so deep in time.
Whencfore religioin now is under foot,
And kus his victory now exalts to heaven.
I know how hard it is in Latian verse
To tell the dark discoveries of the Greeks,
Chiefly because our pauper-speech must find
Strange terms to fit the strangeness of the thing;



OW MARK ME: THAT YOU may know that the minds and light souls of living creatures have birth and are mortal, I will go on to set forth verses worthy of your attention, got together by long study and invented with welcome effort. Make sure to link both of them to one name, and when for instance I shall choose to speak of the soul, showing it to be mortal, believe that I speak of the mind as well, inas­much as both make up one thing and are one united substance...

 Again we perceive that the mind is begotten along with the body and grows up together with it and becomes old along with it.  For even as children go about with a tottering and weakly body, so slender sagacity of mind follows along with it; then when their life has reached the maturity of confirmed strength, the judgment too is greater and the power of the mind more developed.  Afterwards when the body has been shattered by the mastering might of time and the frame has drooped with its forces dulled, then the intellect halts, the tongue dotes, the mind gives way, all faculties fail and are found wanting at the same time.  It naturally follows then that the whole nature of the soul is dis­solved, like smoke, into the high air; since we see it is begotten along with the body and grows up along with it and, as I have shown, breaks down at the same time worn out with age.

 Moreover, we see that even as the body is liable to violent diseases and severe pain, so is the mind to sharp cares and grief and fear; it nat­urally follows therefore that it is its partner in death as well.  Again in diseases of the body the mind often wanders and goes astray; for it loses its reason and drivels in its speech and often in a profound lethargy is carried into deep and never-ending sleep with drooping eyes and head; out of which it neither hears the voices nor can recognize the faces of those who stand round calling it back to life and bedewing face and cheeks with tears.  Therefore, you must admit that the mind too dis­solves, since the infection of disease reaches to it.  For pain and disease are both forgers of death: a truth we have fully learned ere now by the death of many.  Again, when the pungent strength of wine has entered into a man and its spirit has been infused into and transmitted through his veins, why is it that a heaviness of the limbs follows along with this, his legs are hampered as he reels about, his tongue falters, his mind is besotted, his eyes swim, shouting, hiccupping, wranglings are rife, together with all the other usual concomitants, why is all this, if not because the overpowering violence of the wine is accustomed to dis­order the soul within the body? But whenever things can be disordered and hampered, they give token that if a somewhat more potent cause gained an entrance, they would perish and be robbed of all further exis­tence.  Moreover it often happens that someone constrained by the vio­lence of disease suddenly drops down before our eyes, as by a stroke of lightning, and foams at the mouth, moans and shivers through his frame, loses his reason, stiffens his muscles, is racked, gasps for breath fitfully, and wearies his limbs with tossing.  Sure enough, because the violence of the disease spreads itself through his frame and disorders him, he foams as he tries to eject his soul, just as in the salt sea the waters boil with the mastering might of the winds.  A moan too is forced out, because the limbs are seized with pain, and mainly because seeds of voice are driven forth and are carried in a close mass out by the mouth, the road which they are accustomed to take, and where they have a well-paved way.  Loss of reason follows, because the powers of the mind and soul are disordered and, as I have shown, are riven and forced asunder, torn to pieces by the same baneful malady.  Then after the cause of the disease has bent its course back and the acrid humours of the distempered body return to their hiding-places, then he first gets up like one reeling, and by little and little comes back into full possession of his senses and regains his soul.  Since therefore even within the body mind and soul are harassed by such violent distempers and so miser­ably racked by sufferings, why do you believe that outside the body in the open air they can continue existence battling with fierce winds?  And since we perceive that the mind is healed like the sick body, and we see that it can be altered by medicine, this too gives warning that the mind has a mortal existence.  For it is natural that whosoever essays and attempts to change the mind or seeks to alter any other nature you like, should add new parts or change the arrangement of the present, or withdraw in short some tittle from the sum.  But that which is immortal wills not to have its parts transposed nor any addition to be made nor one tittle to ebb away; for whenever a thing changes and quits its proper limits, this change is at once the death of that which was before.  There­fore, the mind, whether it is sick or whether it is altered by medicine, as I have shown, gives forth signs of mortality....

 And since the mind is one part of a man which remains fixed in a particular spot, just as are the ears and eyes and the other senses which guide and direct life; and just as the hand or eye or nose when separated from us cannot feel and exist apart, but in a very short time wastes away in putrefaction, thus the mind cannot exist by itself without the body and the man himself, which as you see serves for the minds vessel or anything else you choose to imagine which implies a yet closer union with it, since the body is attached to it by the closest ties.

 Again the quickened powers of body and mind by their joint part­nership enjoy health and life; for the nature of the mind cannot by itself alone without the body give forth vital motions nor can the body again bereft of the soul continue to exist and make use of its senses: just as the eye itself torn away from its roots cannot see anything when apart from the whole body, thus the soul and mind cannot do anything by themselves. Sure enough, because mixed up through veins and flesh, sinews and bones, their first-beginnings are confined by the entire body and are not free to bound away leaving great spaces between, therefore thus shut in they make those sense-giving motions which they cannot make after death when forced out of the body into the air because they are not then confined in a like manner; for the air will be a body and a living thing, if the soul is able to keep itself together and to enclose in it those motions which it previously used to perform in the sinews and within the body....

 Again if the nature of the soul is immortal and makes its way into our body at the time of birth, why are we unable to remember the time already gone, and why do we retain no traces of past actions?  If the power of the mind has been so completely changed that all remem­brance of past things is lost, that, I think, differs not widely from death; therefore, you must admit that the soul which was before has perished and that which now is has now been formed.

 Again if the quickened power of the mind is wont to be put into us after our body is fully formed, at the instant of our birth and our crossing the threshold of life, it ought in accordance with this to live not in such a way as to seem to have grown with the body and together with its members within the blood, but as in a den apart by and to itself; for it is so closely united with the body throughout the veins, flesh, sinews, and bones, that the very teeth have a share of sense; as their aching proves and the sharp twinge of cold water and the crunching of a rough stone, when it has got into them out of bread. Wherefore, again and again I say, we must believe souls to be neither without a birth nor exempted from the law of death; for we must not believe that they could have been so completely united with our bodies, if they found their way into them from without, nor, since they are so closely inwoven with them, does it appear that they can get out unharmed and unloose themselves unscathed from all the sinews and bones and joints. But if by chance you believe that the soul finds its way in from without and is wont to ooze through all our limbs, so much the more it will perish thus blended with the body; for what oozes through another is dissolved, and therefore dies.  As food distributed through all the cavities of the body, while it is transmitted into the limbs and the whole frame, is destroyed and furnishes out of itself the matter of another nature, thus the soul and mind, though they pass entire into a fresh body, yet in oozing through it are dissolved, while there are trans mitted, as it were, into the frame through all the cavities those particles of which this nature of mind is formed, which now is sovereign in our body, being born out of that soul which then perished when dispersed through the frame. Wherefore the nature of the soul is seen to be nei­ther without a birthday nor exempt from death....

 Death is therefore nothing to us, concerns us not a jot, since the nature of the mind is proved to be mortal; and as in time gone by we felt no distress, when the Poeni from all sides came together to do battle, and all things shaken by war's fearful uproar shuddered and quaked beneath high heaven, and mortal men were in doubt which of the two peoples it should be to whose empire all must fall by sea and land alike, thus when we shall be no more, when there shall have been a separation of body and soul, out of both of which we are each formed into a single being, to us, you may be sure, who then shall be no more, nothing whatever can happen to excite sensation, not if earth were to be mingled with sea and sea with heaven. And even supposing the nature of the mind and power of the soul do feel, after they have been severed from our body, yet that is nothing to us who by the binding tie of marriage between body and soul are formed each into one single being.  And if time should gather up our matter after our death and put it once more into the position in which it now is, and the light of life be given to us again, even this result would concern us not at all, when the chain of our self-consciousness has once been snapped asunder.  So now we give ourselves no concern about any self which we have been before, nor do we feel any distress on the score of that self.  For when you look back on the whole past course of immeasurable time and think how manifold are the shapes which the motions of matter take, you may easily believe that these very same seeds of which we now are formed have often before been placed in the same order in which they now are; and yet we cannot recover this in memory: a break in our exis­tence has been interposed, and all the motions have wandered to and fro far astray from the sensations they produced. For he upon whom evil is to befall must in his own person exist at the very time it comes if the misery and suffering are by chance to have any place at all; but since death precludes this, and forbids him to be, upon whom the ills can be brought, you may be sure that we have nothing to fear after death, and that he who does not exist cannot become miserable, and that it matters not a whit whether he has been born into life at any other time, when immortal death has taken away his mortal life.

 Therefore when you see a man bemoaning the fact that after death he shall either rot with his body laid in the grave or be devoured by flames or the jaws of wild beasts, you may be sure that his ring betrays a flaw and that there lurks in his heart a secret goad, though he himself declares that he does not believe that any sense will remain to him after death.  He does not, I think, really grant the conclusion which he pro­fesses to grant nor the principle which he so professes, nor does he take and force himself root and branch out of life, but all unconsciously imagines something of himself to survive.  For when anyone in life sug­gests to himself that birds and beasts will rend his body after death, he pities himself: he does not separate himself from that self, nor with­draws himself fully from the body so thrown out, and fancies himself that other self and stands by and impregnates it with his own sense.  Hence he moans that he has been born mortal, and sees not that after real death there will be no other self to remain in life and lament to itself that his own self has met death, and there to stand and grieve that his own self is lying there mangled or burnt.  For if it is an evil after death to be pulled about by the devouring jaws of wild beasts, I cannot see why it should not be a cruel pain to be laid on fires and burn in hot flames, or to be placed in honey and stifled, or to stiffen with cold, stretched on the smooth surface of an icy slab of stone, or to be pressed down and crushed by a load of earth above.

 "Now no more shall your house admit you with glad welcome, nor an excellent wife and sweet children run to be the first to snatch kisses and touch your heart with a silent joy.  No more may you be prosperous in thy doings, a safeguard to your own people.  One evil day has taken from you, luckless man, in luckless wise all the many prizes of life."  This do men say; but add not thereto, "and now no longer does any craving for these things come upon you either."  For if they could rightly perceive this in thought and follow up the thought in words, they would release themselves from great distress and apprehension of mind. "You, even as you now are, sunk in the sleep of death, shall continue so to be for all future time, freed from all distressful pains; but we with an insatiable sorrow wept for you, when close by you turned to an ashen hue on your appalling funeral pile, and no length of days shall pluck from our hearts our ever-enduring grief."  This question therefore should be asked of this speaker, what there is in it so passing bitter, if it comes in the end to sleep and rest, that any one should pine in never-ending sorrow.

 This too men often, when they have reclined at table with cup in hand and shade their brows with crowns, love to say from the heart.  "Short is this enjoyment, for poor weak men; presently it will be over and never after may it be called back."  As if after their death it will be one of their chiefest afflictions that thirst and parching drought is to burn up these hapless wretches, or a craving for anything else is to come upon them. No one feels the want of himself and life at the time when mind and body are together sunk in sleep; for all we care this sleep might be everlasting, no craving whatever for ourselves then moves us.  And yet by no means do those first-beginnings throughout our frame wander at that time far away from their sense-producing motions, at the moment when a man starts up from sleep and collects himself.  Death therefore must be thought to concern us much less, if there can be less than what we see to be nothing, for a greater dispersion of the mass of matter follows after death, and no one wakes up, upon whom the chill cessation of life has once come.

 Once more, if the nature of things could suddenly utter a voice and in person could chide any of us in such words as these, "What do you, O mortal, have so much at heart, that you go to such lengths in sickly sorrows?  Why bemoan and bewail death?  For say your life past and gone has been welcome to you and your blessings have not all, as if they were poured into a perforated vessel, run through and been lost without avail: why not then take your departure like a guest filled with life, and with resignation, you fool, enter upon untroubled rest?  But if all that you have enjoyed has been squandered and lost, and life is a grievance, why seek to make any addition, to be wasted perversely in its turn and lost utterly without avail?  Why not rather make an end of life and travail?  For there is nothing more which I can contrive and discover to give you pleasure: all things are ever the same.  Though your body is not yet decayed with years nor your frame worn out and exhausted, yet all things remain the same, even though in length of life you should outlast all races of things now living, nay even more if you should never die," what answer have we to make save this, that nature sets up against us a well-founded claim and puts forth in her pleading a true indict­ment? If, however, one of greater age and more advanced in years should complain and lament, poor wretch, his death more than is right, would she not with greater cause raise her voice and rally him in sharp accents, Away from this time forth with your tears, rascal; a truce to your complainings: you decay after full enjoyment of all the prizes of life. But because you always yearn for what is not present, and despise what is, life has slipped from your grasp unfinished and unsatisfying, and unbeknownst to you, death has taken his stand at your pillow, before you could take your departure sated and filled.  Now, however, resign all things unsuited to your age, and with a good grace get up and go: you must.  With good reason, I think, she would bring her charge, with reason chide and reproach; for old things give way and are sup­planted by new without fail, and one thing must ever be replenished out of other things; and no one is given over to the pit and black Tartars: matter is needed for later generations to grow; all of which, nev­ertheless, will follow you when they have finished their term of life; and thus it is that all these no less than you have before this come to an end and hereafter will come to an end. Thus one thing will never cease to rise out of another, and life is granted to none in fee-simple, to all in usufruct. Think too how the bygone antiquity of everlasting time before our birth was nothing to us.  Nature therefore holds this up to us as a mirror of the time yet to come after our death.  Is there anything in this that looks appalling, anything that wears an aspect of gloom?  Is it not more untroubled than any sleep?

 This too you may sometimes say to yourself, "Even worthy Ancus1 has quitted the light with his eyes, which was far, far better than you, worthless man.  And since then many other kings and rulers have been laid low, who lorded it over mighty nations.  He too, even he who first paved a way over the great sea and made a path for his legions to march over the deep and taught them to pass on foot over the salt pools and set at naught the roarings of the sea, trampling on them with his horses, had the light taken from him and shed forth his soul from his dying body. The son of the Scipios,2 thunderbolt of war, terror of Carthage, yielded his bones to earth just as if he were the lowest menial.  Think too of the inventors of all sciences and graceful arts, think of the com­panions of the Heliconian maids; among whom Homer bore the sceptre without a peer, and he now sleeps the same sleep as others. Then there is Democritus,3 who, when a ripe old age had warned him that the memory-waking motions of his mind were waning, by his own spontaneous act offered up his head to death. Even Epicurus passed away, when his light of life had run its course, he who surpassed in intellect the race of man and quenched the light of all, as the ethereal sun arisen quenches the stars.  Will you then hesitate and think it a hardship to die?you for whom life is well-nigh dead whilst yet you live and see the light, who spend the greater part of your time in sleep and snore wide awake and cease not to see visions and have a mind troubled with groundless terror and cannot often discover what it is that ails you, when, besotted man, you are sore pressed on all sides with many cares and go astray tumbling about in the wayward wanderings of your mind.

This proem is in Of the Nature of Things, Lucretius, translation William Ellery Leonard, E. P. Duttoon & Co., NY, 1957, p. 5.


From Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, trans. H. A. J. Munro (1864; reprint London: George Bell & Sons, 1908), pp. 97, 98101, 102-103, 106-107, 111-17, 118-119 (revised by S. T. Joshi).




1.                Ancus Marcius (d. 616 B.C.E.), by tradition the fourth king of Rome, who extended Roman territories to the sea and built the port of Ostia.

2. P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus Major (236-184 B.C.E.), Roman general who defeated Hannibal in 202 B.C.E., ending the Punic wars.

3. Democritus of Abdera (460?-370? B.C.E.), co-founder with Leucippus of Greek atomism, whose metaphysical theories were adopted with modifica­tions by Epicurus (341-271 B.C.E.).