Thomas Jefferson owned at least five Latin editions of the On the Nature of Things written by the Roman philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus about 50 years before the birth of Jesus. Jefferson also owned translations of the poem in English, Italian and French. Jefferson, a founding father of the United States and writer of the Declaration of Independence, considered On the Nature of Things one of his favorite books. Jefferson’s writings make it clear that he largely agreed with the way Lucretius had described the world over 2,000 years ago.
Stephen Greenblatt in the Preface to his book The Swerve, described the world view of Lucretius:
The stuff of the universe, Lucretius proposed, is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space, like dust motes in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction. There is no escape from this process. When you look up at the night sky and, feeling unaccountably moved, marvel at the numberless stars, you are not seeing the handiwork of the gods or a crystalline sphere detached from our transient world. You are seeing the same material world of which you are a part and from whose elements you are made. There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design. All things, including the species to which you belong, have evolved over vast stretches of time. The evolution is random, though in the case of living organisms it involves a principle of natural selection. That is, species that are suited to survive and to reproduce successfully endure, at least for a time; those that are not so well suited die off quickly. But nothing—from our own species to the planet on which we live to the sun that lights our days—lasts forever. Only the atoms are immortal.
In a universe so constituted, Lucretius argued, there is no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place, no reason to set humans apart from all other animals, no hope of bribing or appeasing the gods, no place for religious fanaticism, no call for ascetic self-denial, no justification for dreams of limitless power or perfect security, no rationale for wars of conquest or self-aggrandizement, no possibility of triumphing over nature, no escape from the constant making and unmaking and remaking of forms. On the other side of anger at those who either peddled false visions of security or incited irrational fears of death, Lucretius offered a feeling of liberation and the power to stare down what had once seemed so menacing. What human beings can and should do, he wrote, is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world.
The philosophy of Lucretius is even embodied in the Declaration of Independence when it speaks of the “pursuit of happiness” People today can only wonder that Lucretius could formulate his philosophy over 2,000 years ago before microscopes and telescopes were invented to confirm most of what he believed. The early Christian church did its best to suppress On the Nature of Things and similar writings from earlier Greek philosophers who expanded on the writing of Epicurus (now you know where “epicurian” comes from). The book Swerve is a very interesting history about the Pope’s secretary who rediscovered On the Nature of Things hidden away in the library of a German monastery in1417.