This famous passage from the first book of Lucretius’ de rerum natura is that in which Lucretius describes the philosophical feat of Epicureanism. The eminently spatial description of this epistemic mission is, for me, what makes the passage such a striking one. In the following five books, Lucretius will construct one of the most ambitious works of Latin literature: an Epicurean ‘history of the universe’. This passage, therefore, establishes the gravity and import of Epicurean philosophy in the devoted eyes of Lucretius.
When humankind lay ignominiously in the dust,
crushed by the weight of superstition,
which showed its face from the celestial plane,
glowering over mortals with its hideous face,
the first mortal who dared to meet its gaze,
to venture to confront it, was a Greek;
whom neither the reputation of the gods, nor thunderbolts,
nor the sky with its threatening growl could daunt.
Rather, all the more they roused a striking courage of spirit:
he longed to firstly burst the bolts and bars of nature’s gates.
And thus, his lucid mental strength overcame,
and he went forth, far beyond the burning battlements of the world,
he journeyed the immeasurable universe by thought and understanding;
from which excursion, he reports to us in triumph knowledge of
what can come into being, what cannot, and by what law
each thing has its powers limited and deep-set boundary stone.
Therefore, it’s superstition this time that lies crushed beneath feet:
his victory raises humankind to heaven.
Translation by James Green
Humana ante oculos foede cum vita iaceret
in terris oppressa gravi sub religione,
quae caput a caeli regionibus ostendebat
horribili super aspectu mortalibus instans,
primum Graius homo mortalis tollere contra
est oculos ausus primusque obsistere contra;
quem neque fama deum nec fulmina nec minitanti
murmure compressit caelum, sed eo magis acrem
inritat animi virtutem, effringere ut arta
naturae primus portarum claustra cupiret.
ergo vivida vis animi pervicit et extra
processit longe flammantia moenia mundi
atque omne immensum peragravit mente animoque,
unde refert nobis victor quid possit oriri,
quid nequeat, finita potestas denique cuique
qua nam sit ratione atque alte terminus haerens.
quare religio pedibus subiecta vicissim
opteritur, nos exaequat victoria caelo.