February Books 7) The Nature of the Universe / De Natura Rerum, by Titus Lucretius Carus
This is one of the best-argued cases for atheism I have read (speaking as a non-atheist). Millennia before Dawkins, Hitchens, or even Bertrand Russell, Lucretius argued the nature of the universe from first principles, concluding vigorously that there is no God and no afterlife, just matter made of atoms. There is no tedious sniping at current beliefs (apart from a rather funny bit towards the end about why Jupiter does not hurl thunderbolts; and he has a go also at the beliefs of Heraclitus and Empedocles about elements), just an explanation in detail of the philosophy of Epicurus and how that helps us understand the way the world around us works. As with all such books, it is tempting to give the author marks out of ten for the accuracy of his scientific explanations as compared to our current understanding, but that would be a mistake; it is amazing how far Lucretius got given his starting point. It reminded me a bit of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, but is of course much shorter; also Lucretius, writing in 55 BC or thereabouts, had two millennia less of scientific research to fit in. Unfortunately he doesn't appear to have finished it; the text ends rather abruptly after a description of the effects of plague.
I first heard of De Natura Rerum when I attended a lecture in Cambridge in about 1987 explaining its links with Alexander Pope's Essay on Man, part of a series of lectures from different academics on the Enlightenment which I skipped physics practicals to attend on wet Thursday afternoons, despite the lack of course credits (this in itself was a signal that my future did not lie in astrophysics). I wonder who the lecturer was? I suppose I should now complete the circle by reading the Pope poem.
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