BMCR 2024.04.05

Lucretius III: a history of motion

, Lucretius III: a history of motion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022. Pp. 232. ISBN 9781474464239.

Lucretius III: a history of motion is the final volume in a sequence of three studies by Thomas Nail on the De rerum natura (DRN). He proposes an innovative and politically engaged essay on DRN 5 and 6. Unafraid of anachronisms (which makes the book all the more stimulating and refreshing), Nail persuasively links Lucretius with dialectical materialism, ecology, queer theory, modern literature, biology and physics. While alluding to Karl Marx, Virginia Woolf and Michel Serres (among several other authors), Nail proposes a close reading of selected passages from DRN 5 and 6, and offers his own translations of them. In addition, the book contains several figures which enrich the discussion (on a personal note, I found the figures of Minoan artwork particularly valuable). Yet  the originality of Nail’s study lies in revealing how Lucretius’ ideas remain relevant in contemporary debates on pressing issues. Nail suggests that many of the structural problems that we are facing in the world (and even more acutely in the Global South) result from a linear, anthropocentric and idealist vision of nature and history. Indeed, capitalist discourse (which has generated climate collapse, the pandemic, widespread poverty and different kinds of inequality) is largely fueled by the myths of eternity, exponential growth and metaphysical salvation. However, as Nail brilliantly argues in his Introduction (and throughout the entire book), Lucretius’ kinetic views on matter, nature and the swerve forge a radically alternative approach to history. Just like matter, history is also material, indeterminate and tends towards dissolution.

Chapter 1, “Making history”, poses the question “What is the origin of history?”. In many ways, Lucretius could be credited with being the precursor of revolutionary theories in modern cosmology, physics and history. Yet Nail recognizes that, rather than looking for answers in Lucretius, we could turn to him as a guide for experimental and theoretical inquiries. Lucretius explores how it is possible to write a history of nature without denying his own mortal, human and material position within nature (cf. DRN 5.1-6). His account is neither objective nor subjective; rather, it is a historical expression of “an immanent history that moves through him” (p. 23).

Chapter 2, “The birth of the world”, poses another question: “What is the nature of the world?”. Focusing on DRN 5.91-508, Nail claims that history, including human history, is a process which consists of emergent and kinetic patterns, just like spirals. He associates Lucretius’ indeterminate swerve with Hesiod’s primordial Chaos, and relates Lucretius’ “performative and kinetic kinds of knowledge” (p. 41) to oracles. Then, Nail establishes a compelling link between the love of Venus and the strife of the Giants – here, one is tempted to recall Freud’s life and death drives (although Nail does not explicitly mention these Freudian concepts, the title of his seventh chapter, “Eros and civilisation”, alludes to Herbert Marcuse’s homonymous book, which combines ideas from Marx and Freud).[1] Nail concludes the chapter with a comment on the adjective daedala, used by Lucretius at DRN 5.233-234 (as well as at 1.7 and 228) to portray nature as a kind of labyrinth, with many threads and spiral meanders.

Chapter 3, “The death of the world”, does not immediately pose a question, but the first paragraph takes us back to the book’s initial discussion concerning climate change. Nail criticizes the influence of idealism on Western history, and radically proposes that Lucretius is “part of the antidote to our present ecological crisis” (p. 58). In his analysis of DRN 5.235-508, Nail draws a critical distinction between the “world” and “nature”. While nature is in a constant flux, everything that encompasses the world is perishable – everything except matter, the “indivisible material” (solida cum corpore; 5.552). However, Nail strongly emphasizes that although matter is indeterminate, it is neither passive nor random. In fact, he points out similarities between Lucretius’ and quantum physicists’ descriptions of matter and material processes. Besides enriching our reading of Lucretius, Nail’s particular method and style also combine to provide a model for classicists and scholars in general who, like himself, seek to overcome the “division between the humanities and sciences that currently plagues academia” (p. 69).

Chapter 4, “It’s a turbulent whirled”, focuses on DRN 5.509-770, lines which deal with the “structure and motion of the cosmos” and the “nature of historical movement more generally” (p. 71). Nail gives special attention to the term “step by step” (pedetemptim; DRN 5.533), which intimates that knowledge, just like nature, is experimental and progresses gradually. While, in the previous chapter, Nail invoked the image of Janus (5.373–5), the Roman god of transitions, here he analyzes the image of Summanus (521), the god of nocturnal lighting, dissipation and death. He proceeds to explore the images of whirls and cycles, and night and day, as manifestations of nature’s indeterminacy and emergent potential. In addition, Nail devotes a more extensive analysis to the figure of Mater Matuta (659). He associates her with Ino, who played a major role in the Mysteries of Samothrace which – like those at Eleusis – seemingly involved fertility rituals and reflected the iterative cycles of life and death. Nail also connects Matuta to Rhea, Demeter and Persephone, describing them as figures of “swerving flows” (p. 88). Finally, he creatively suggests that the DRN could be read as a “performative katabasis”, as it “guides the reader through an initiation into the mystical materialism of a dying world of flows and folds” (p. 89).

Chapter 5, “Evolutionary materialism”, expands this analysis of the “step-by-step” movement. Nail observes that Lucretius’ theory of transmutation was not restricted to living species only, but equally encompassed human culture and the entire cosmos – for this reason, he argues that “Lucretius was not just pre-Darwinian but was also post-Darwinian” (p. 93). Then, without further clarification, he borrows the term “naturecultures” from Donna Haraway to describe emergent historical processes. Focusing on DRN 5.772-925, Nail observes that nature has no plan, but is continually experimenting. He examines the images of tentacles and dendritic veins to describe the branching processes of nature and history – although he does not mention Deleuze and Guattari here, his account brings to mind their concept of the rhizome.[2] The chapter culminates with an inspiringly queer section, called “Monstrous matters”, where Lucretius’ portenta (DRN 5.837, 845) and monstra (845) are explored. Nail demonstrates that nature’s abundance is not directly connected to sexual reproduction; and, evoking the biological concept of symbiogenesis, he lists a number of hybrid mythological characters, such as the Minotaur. Thus challenging traditional, “hetero-reproductive models of species” (p. 105), Lucretius’ text offers a queer ecology, one which encompasses nature’s multiple differences.

Chapter 6, “A brief history of language”, focuses on the last six hundred lines of the DRN. Nail describes this part of the poem as “an epic of human history within the greater epic of nature” (p. 109). He again employs the concept of “naturecultures” without explaining it thoroughly (but refers to a volume edited by Vicki Kirby in an endnote).[3] Ascribing to and extending the argument of material evolution, Nail observes that, for Lucretius (as well as for several recent theorists), fires played a significant role in the development of language, as they contributed to night-time social interactions. Gradually, humans started to form friendships and communicate ideas with their voices and gestures, producing speech. For Lucretius, human language fostered social cohesion above all else, and was thence “an immanent condition of material co-evolution and society” (p. 117).

Chapter 7,  “Eros and civilisation”, contains a beautiful reflection on art, pleasure and ethics. Nail boldly describes Lucretius’ philosophy of the good life as a kind of “aesthetic communism”, where people attempt to mitigate nature’s turbulence through art and otium, collectively. Yet, as Lucretius himself noted, some people try to deal with that same turbulence by seeking fame, wealth and power, which ultimately lead to endless effort, suffering and alienation from the senses (DRN 5.1122-1233). As humans began fearing rather than enjoying life, they created legal societies governed by law and religion, and their minds became “split” (dubiam mentem; 1211). Yet, as Nail observes, the only type of knowledge that can free us humans from fear, pain and anxiety is the knowledge of indeterminacy. Human nature is also material, and “the point of life is not hard labour but pleasures” (p. 133). For Lucretius, “pleasure comes from dissipation and diversity” (p. 134), and nature teaches us to dissipate our cares with music, food, leisure and conversation (DRN 5.1390-1398). According to Nail, this is a distinctive feature of Lucretius’ philosophy, who probably ascribed more importance to laughter and art than Epicurus did.

The three remaining chapters are dedicated to Book 6 of the DRN. Although these chapters are perhaps less insightful than the previous ones, they are still important as pieces which gradually pave the way for the denouement of Nail’s study. In Chapter 8, “A hymn to ruin”, Nail explores Lucretius’ use of ancient Athens in DRN 6, recognizing this city as a “human mother” (p. 149) and “the pinnacle of the arts” (p. 151). Then, focusing on DRN 6.17-23, Nail analyzes the image of the “leaky basket”, which Epicurus, according to Lucretius, employed to explain the nature of pleasure. In Nail’s words, “[p]leasures are not objects or states that one attains or accumulates, but rather processes and events that pass through us” (p. 154). Then, he analyzes the role of Calliope as Lucretius’ guide in DRN 6, as though she – in contrast to Venus – expressed a return “to a quiet and calm state [requies]”, and responded to a desire for “immanent dissipation” (p. 164).

In Chapter 9, “As above, so below”, Nail isolates Lucretius’ images of thunder, waves, bubbles and fiery vortices (DRN 6.142-205). The most noteworthy section is probably “Our liquid earth”, where Nail recognizes a geophilosophy in Lucretius. He points out that, for Lucretius, “the earth has a kinetic agency” (p. 176), a desire to consume itself. Then, in the final section, Nail strongly criticizes the commentators who read Book 6 of the DRN through a pessimistic lens, when in fact “[t]he heart of Lucretius’ ethics is that we should not fear death by fetishising life” (p. 177). Nail will reinforce this argument in the volume’s Conclusion, where he censures Deleuze’s vitalist reading of Lucretius, and rebuts his hypothesis that the end of the DRN as we know it was a falsification by the Christians.[4]

In the final chapter, “Of poisons and plagues”, Nail explores the last part of the DRN. First, he invokes the Lucretian image of the birds dying as they flew over Lake Avernus (DRN 6.747-748). Second, partially revisiting the discussion on the Mysteries from chapter 4, Nail concentrates on the Cumaean Sibyl and oracle, noting that oracles spring up on turbulent sites, and that every meaning emerges in a history of relations. Then, he comments on the material processes of unweaving expressed in the images of the snake’s movement, poisonous flowers, the oracle of Dodona, and the Roman goddess Fortuna (also mentioned in chapter 7). The main sections of the chapter, however, deal with the plague at Athens, with the analysis of DRN 6.1090ff. Nail suggests that, by concluding his philosophical poem with the “death-bearing wave” (mortifer aestus; 1138), Lucretius highlights the fact that “[w]e are not unique in our dissipation” (p. 193). Nail persuasively shows us that, rather than being pessimistic, Lucretius is poetically portraying the material process of dying, the indeterminacy and dissipation that traverses all nature, including us humans. Nail then alludes to Marx’s famous quote “All that is solid melts into air …”, and powerfully concludes the chapter with the affirmation that the DRN is an “anti-progress narrative” (p. 197).

To conclude, Nail’s work is a valuable contribution to scholarship on Lucretius in a materialist and ecologically-minded vein. Playfully combining philological close reading with multidisciplinary knowledge and a capacity to engage with contemporary issues, this volume will be of interest to a wide audience, including comparatists, historians and philosophers, but more particularly classicists who are interested in contemporary thought and committed to dialoguing with other disciplines.



[1] Sigmund Freud, Beyond the pleasure principle and other writings, trans. John Reddick (London: Penguin, 2003); and Herbert Marcuse, Eros and civilization: a philosophical inquiry into Freud (London: Routledge, 2023).

[2] See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

[3] Vicki Kirby, ed., What if culture was nature all along? (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2017).

[4] Gilles Deleuze, “Appendix I: The simulacrum and ancient philosophy: 2. Lucretius and the simulacrum”, in The logic of sense, ed. Constantin V. Boundas, trans. Mark Lester and Charles Stivale (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 266–79.