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From Book III of De Rerum Natura of Titus Lucretius Carus

            translated by David R. Slavitt

  

            There are those who base their claim that the spirit cannot die

on the notion that it is sheltered, protected from the forces

of lifeóbecause nothing hostile ever approaches to threaten,

or else that it somehow repels any such threats before                                        720

it can be harmed.  Our experience shows that this is not true,

and minds and spirits sicken as the body does, and it suffers

torments of fear of the future or grief or guilt for the past.

With what other part of ourselves do we experience madness?

Or the loss of memory?  Or lethargy and depression?

 

            And the paradox that results is that death means nothing at all,

for if the mind is mortal, then death is of no concern.

Before we were born, the world was terrified of Carthage

that threatened the tumult of war, and men under heaven quaked

in the apprehension of carnage, thinking of those who would fall                      730

on land and at sea in the bitter battle.  But which of us

was worried? We werenít there, and we had nothing to lose.

 

            And when we are gone?  The same immunity will hold,

for we will not longer be or be at risk, our bodies

and minds having been parted and having bidden farewell

to the world and all its cares.   Whatever bad can happen,

even if earth and sky commingle into some dreadful

chaos, we wonít see it or feel it.  Itís not our problem. 

 

            And even if we suppose that some kind of awareness

does persist, it wonít be our awareness.  The self                                                    740

is what doesnít continue, once the body and spirit

are torn apart.  Let them be reconfigured, brought

back again after death, and given a new life

with the same matter placed and disposed as it used to be,

still that life will not be in any sense our own.

 

            We would remember nothing of what we had once beenó

as now we remember nothing of any earlier lives

in which our substance somehow might have been a part.

What anguish it underwent, what joys, what loves, we cannot

even guess about.  Look back over the aeons,                                                         750

and in all that endless time with all the motions of matter,

try to imagine what the atoms have done and been,

even as parts of people.  But do we feel any connection?

Nothing whatever remains, for in between there was death

that brought one life to a final conclusion before this new

existence could begin.  The atoms danced away

from the life that was and then, by chance, some happened again

to reassemble to make a new and different person.

 

            Or put the question the opposite way and imagine the future,

with miseries that will surely burden somebody then.                                             760

That somebody has to exist at that moment in order to feel

the pain or grief.  We wonít be there, for death excuses

us all from such concerns.  And itís a great relief

not to have to bother with whatever trouble may come

generations from now.  That person cares nothing for us,

and we, in return, donít have to be bothered for his sake.

It is death that is immortal, and none of us men and women.

 

Sometimes you find a man who claims that he is worried

how, after his death, he may be laid in a tomb,

or cremated perhaps, or even fed to wild beasts                                                       770

(as they say the Hyrcanians do).  But is he speaking the truth?

Or does he really believe that sensations can outlast death?

Itís nonsense of course, and, worse, itís sentimental indulgence.

He pities himself for what he imagines could one day happen

to the envelope of flesh to which he has grown attached

and which he canít imagine taking off and discarding.

He pictures it in his mind, and he stands beside it and frets,

projecting into it feelings it cannot possibly have.

 

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Note to our readers:  This translation will soon be published by the University of California.  The numbers in it represent the numbers corresponding to the translation, not the original Latin.

Also, you may notice subtle differences within the text with regard to spacing and alignment.  This text does not offer an exact replica of the print, due to issues related to relative screen pixels.  We hope that you appreciate the translation and our attempt to preserve the text in electronic form.*

 

* The Romans were not adept with digital pixels.

Per Contra Poetry - Fall 2006