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Lucretius Defines Presence

Lucretius Defines Presence

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


June 24, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Adding to the discussion from the past couple of weeks (from a present moment , to a presence created by the mind), today we move to the variety of images created by the mind. Lucretius offers a wonderful account of the purpose and manners of images in Book IV of The Way Things Are. The following passages offer more than a definition, they give dimension to the idea of images (or presences). How would you define images and presences? Are they the same thing? Separate? How does Lucretius define them?

For more, check out Book IV: Lucretius. The Way Things Are. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Great Books of the Western World. Vol. 11, Ed. Adler, Mortimer J. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica. 1990.


“Since I have taught/ What the mind’s nature is, and from what source/ Its strength derives, united with the body,/ And how, when severed from the body, it reverts/ To primal elements, I now begin/ To teach you about images, so-called,/ A subject of most relevant importance./ These images are like a skin, or film,/ Peeled from the body’s surface, and they fly/ This way and that across the air; they cause/ A terror in our minds, whether we wake/ Or in our sleep see fearful presences./ The replicas of those who have left the light/ Haunt us and startle us horribly in dreams./ But let us never think, by any chance,/ That souls escape from Acheron, or shades/ Flutter and flit around with living men./ Let us have no delusions of a life/ After our death, when body and mind have gone/ Their separate ways, each to its primal source.”

“[T]hese images of things,/ These almost airy semblances, are drawn/ From surfaces; you might call them film, or bark,/ Something like skin, that keeps the look, the shape/ Of what it held before its wandering. This should be obvious to the dullest mind/ Since many things, as our own eyes can see,/ Throw off a substance, rather course at times – / As burning wood produces smoke or steam – / And sometimes thinner, more condensed, the way/ Cicadas cast their brittle summer jackets/ Or calves at birth throw off the caul, or snakes/ Slide out and leave their vesture under the brambles/ Where we have often seen them, crumbled or caught./ This being so, some film of likeness, frail/ And thin, must be sent forth from every surface./ It would make no sense for things as heavy as bark/ Or even snakeskin to be shed, and found/ Far from their origin, while other things/ Are so minute, so very many in number,/ So superficial, and can fly so fast/ There seems to be no change in the arrangement/ Of that from which they came; they keep that shape/ And move with greater speed, being less hindered/ Because they are so few, so near the surface./ And there are other things we see thrown out,/ Not only from some depth, as we have said,/ But also from an outermost surface – color,/ To take one instance: watch the yellow awnings,/ The reds, the purples, spread on poles and beams/ In some great theatre, where they flutter, billow,/ Stir, over the audience, and stain and dye/ Not only actors, but with wavering hues/ Transform the most distinguished senators/ Watching the show; and where the walls are hung/ Most thick with color, so much more the day/ Indoors appears to smile in all that light/ Of lovely radiance. If such hues as these/ Are cast from curtain draperies, it must follow/ All things project such likeness of themselves,/ However unsubstantial, from their surface./ So there are, all around us, shapes and forms/ Of definite outline, always on the move,/ Delicate, small, woven of thread so rare/ Our sight cannot detect them./ Other projections, odor, heat, and smoke,/ And all things like them, swirl in shapeless clouds/ Because their origin is deeper down,/ With greater obstacles to fight against/ And no wide sweep of highway for their concourse./ But when a veil, a delicate film of color,/ Casts itself loose, there is no interference/ To rip or tear it; easily it moves/ From the advantage of its outerness./ And finally, those replicas we see/ In mirrors, water, and the brightnesses/ Of any shining substance – all must be/ Projections of originals, possessed/ Of the same outer semblances. So there are/ Most delicate forms, their semblances, whose motes,/ Whose particles, invisible to all,/ Still, in their sum, their total of recoil,/ Dense and continual, convey to us/ A vision, as from the surface of a mirror, And this must surely be the only way/ For duplication of such a likeness.”

“For the cause of sight/ Inheres in images; nothing can be seen/ Without them; they are carried everywhere,/ They go in all directions. But because/ We apprehend them only with our eyes,/ Wherever we look, all objects strike our gaze/ With shape and color.”

“But space/ Tends to blunt angles, dull the images/ In their long rushing toward us, wear them down,/ Or maybe even never let us see them,/ Rubbing them out by the continual sweep of air against them, so an angle seems/ An arc, and masonry looks columnar -/ Not with true roundness like things close at hand,/ But vague and shadowy. This might suggest/ How our own shadow seems to us to move/ In sunlight following our course, our gesture – / If you believe that air, deprived of light,/ Can move in such a way; what we call shadow/ Is lightless air and nothing else. The ground,/ In certain places, finds the sun blocked off/ While we walk by, and fills with light again/ As we move on, and so our shadow seems/ To follow at our heels; new rays of light/ Are always pouring out and vanishing/ As quick as fluff in candle flame. The ground,/ Easily robbed of light, as easily/ Is filled again as the black shades dissolve.”

“We don’t admit the eyes are fallible,/ Not even an iota, in this case./ Their only function is to recognize/ Where light and shadow are; they have no power/ To recognize the way things really are,/ To judge if light remains the same, or shade/ Succeeds a predecessor: that, I’ve said,/ Is something reason has to figure out.”

“We are fooled, or fool ourselves, because we bring/ Such predilections with us that we see/ Imagined things, not real ones. Humankind/ Finds nothing harder than to separate/ The patent facts from those dubieties/ Mind loves to introduce.”

“For certainly no Centaur-image comes/ From any single living beast; how could it?/ There never was such a creature. But some chance/ Might bring the images of horse and man/ Together in a blend, and what would be/ Easy enough to do, no great surprise,/ Since images are spun so very thin.”

“No longer than it takes an eye to blink/ Or mouth to utter half a syllable,/ Below this instant, this split-second, lie/ Times almost infinite, which reason knows/ As presences, and in each presence dwells/ Its own peculiar image, all of them/ So tenuous no mind is sharp enough/ To see them all, must focus, concentrate/ On only one, so all the rest are lost/ Except the one mind has determined on./ Mind does prepare itself, and hopes to see,/ Anticipates the next successive image,/ And therefore finds it, as it must.”

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3 thoughts on “Lucretius Defines Presence”

  1. Somewhere i read If we have one eye we can’t detect Distances b/w object properly, its like we are not able to view 3D images (horizontal distance). IS it Correct ???

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