“Antiquity has never felt so alive”—A few words introducing Thomas Nail's recent, remarkable book "Lucretius 1: An Ontology of Motion"


As regular readers of this blog will know well, I am passionate about Lucretius and his poem De Rerum Natura (On the nature of things) and, by now, I have spent countless happy and informative hours over many many years with it. Like most readers since the rediscovery of his poem in the fifteenth-century by Poggio Bracciolini, I have taken Lucretius to be some kind of ancient atomist which, in the context of contemporary physics, has made him for many readers somewhat scientifically passé. We’ll return to this (mis)understanding in a moment but, suffice it to say, because he continues to model a way of observing reality that keeps before me a world which needs no supernatural gods/god Lucretius remains for me an ever-present inspiration in my attempts to articulate a modern naturalistic kind of (poetic) religion. Indeed, over the years, I’ve brought before the congregation of the Cambridge Unitarian Church (where I am minister) many religious naturalist addresses and other pieces connected with Lucretius (click here to see them—don’t forget to press “older posts” if you want to scroll through the whole list).

Given this love of Lucretius I keep my eyes peeled for any new writing and thinking about him and a few weeks ago I came across Thomas Nail’s new book by Edinburgh University Press called “Lucretius 1: An Ontology of Motion”. It goes without saying that, whilst they clearly have an important, even vital, rôle in drawing a potential reader’s attention to this or that book, publishers’ blurbs and reviews always need to be taken with a little pinch of salt, especially those that indicate strongly that something extraordinary is contained within. Just such a review is printed in this book’s blurb by Ryan Johnson, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Elon University. He writes:

“Thomas Nail’s inspired reading of Lucretius leaves us moderns with the kind of excitement the Romans must have felt as they first scrolled through that founding text of materialism. Nail makes ancient ideas erupt in a contemporary context, demonstrating their necessity to cutting-edge science and philosophy. Antiquity has never felt so alive.”

But now, having read the book, I think Johnson is absolutely spot-on here. I’m on annual leave at the moment and so am able to read, walk, cycle and think free from the demands of writing a weekly address and this book has accompanied me all along the way. With no exaggeration I can say that every day has brought me yet another round of unexpected excitement and discovery. Yes, indeed, antiquity has never felt so alive and relevant in our age so dominated by the discoveries of sub-atomic quantum physics. The basic reason for this is that, according to Nail (and I’m finding him very persausive indeed), Lucretius has been utterly misunderstood as being an atomist. As Nail notes in an essay for Aeon Magazine, “Is nature continuous or discrete? How the atomist error was born”

Working at once within and against the atomist tradition, Lucretius put forward the first materialist philosophy of an infinitely continuous nature in constant flux and motion. Things, for Lucretius, are nothing but folds (duplex), pleats (plex), bubbles or pores (foramina) in a single continuous fabric (textum) woven by its own undulations. Nature is infinitely turbulent or perturbing, but it also washes ashore, like the birth of Venus, in meta-stable forms—as Lucretius writes in the opening lines of De Rerum Natura: ‘Without you [Venus] nothing emerges into the sunlit shores of light.’ It has taken 2,000 years, but perhaps Lucretius has finally become our contemporary.

I’m truly bowled over and excited because Lucretius, always alive for me as a poet, religious naturalist and careful observer of the world, has burst into another kind of living, fiery Venusian light. It’s such a radical new reading (or is it really quite ancient too!?) that I know I now need to spend much, much longer with the whole book (the first of a projected three) before I go on to say any more about it or attempt any of my own writing utilizing Nail’s interpretation so I’ll stop right here.

But, dear readers, before I sign-off for the rest of my vacation it seems worth noting it felt splendidly appropriate that, as I wrote this introduction to Nail’s book for you, the sun finally came out on this overcast day and lit-up the statue of Venus that graces our backyard just outside the door on my right. The photo at the head of this piece is of that. Marvellous stuff, all of it . . .

Below are three links to various short pieces written by Nail connected with the book which may serve as helpful introductions to anyone interested in exploring this reading of Lucretius further.

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