Lucretius, On the Nature of Things

Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2011 book, The Swerve:  How the World Became Modern, has inspired a resurgence of interest in the Roman philosopher, Lucretius, and his magnum opus, De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”).  On the Nature of Things is the most ambitious philosophical poem ever written (what a delightful way to get your philosophy!) and the single best source for our knowledge of ancient Epicurean philosophy and the theory of atomism which was its most essential feature.  But De Rerum is also an exquisitely beautiful work of poetic art and a gold mine of information and ideas on subjects as wide-ranging as mythology, religion, morality, science, sex, cosmology, geology, history, horticulture, agriculture, meteorology, astronomy, humanism, sociology, the senses, pleasure, and life in the late Roman Republic (1st century BCE).

Join me in a close-reading and exploration of one of the most sublime works of philosophy ever penned.  There is really nothing like it in the centuries-long global history of thinking about the origins of the universe, its nature, and the reasons for its existence.  Engineers, artists, and architects will all find something of interest.  For engineers, there is plenty of science, a surprising amount of which still has currency.  For artists, there is an endless wealth of memorable images which have inspired creative minds for centuries.  For architects, there is cosmic theory and reflections on space and time.  And for everyone, there is Lucretius' incomparable poetry.  As an added bonus, by chance, this very old text also happens to offer singular relevance for the present world moment:  De Rerum ends with a dramatic extended description of a plague and its societal repercussions.

The course lends itself particularly well to remote learning. It will be conducted seminar-style, featuring in-class readings and discussions of the six books of De Rerum Natura (in translation) along with selected excerpts from additional primary texts which either influenced or were influenced by Lucretius' work.  Students will be expected (1) to participate fully in, and on two occasions to lead class discussions, (2) to keep a running journal, and (3) to produce one short response paper and a final 8-10 page term paper on a question that emerges from their journal.

3 credits





Course Code: HUM 332

Instructor(s): Mary Stieber

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