Nature, spontaneity, and voluntary action in Lucretius

In Daryn Lehoux, A. D. Morrison & Alison Sharrock (eds.), Lucretius: Poetry, Philosophy, Science. Oxford University Press (2013)
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In twenty important passages located throughout De rerum natura, Lucretius refers to natural things happening spontaneously (sponte sua; the Greek term is automaton). The most important of these uses include his discussion of the causes of: nature, matter, and the cosmos in general; the generation and adaptation of plants and animals; the formation of images and thoughts; and the behavior of human beings and the development of human culture. In this paper I examine the way spontaneity functions as a cause in other Greek and Latin writers, beginning with Homer and Hesiod, and including Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, and Theophrastus; among Latin writers Cicero, Pliny, Horace, Vergil and Ovid. I argue that the most important influence (immediately or via Epicurus) on Lucretius’ concept and use of this cause is the natural philosophy of Democritus and his followers and critics. I argue that understanding the nature of spontaneity, and how it differs from chance, is crucial to understanding Lucretius’ account of the cosmos and nature, and also how some of the actions of humans and other animals are “free” and “voluntary”. For in the famous passage at II.251-293 he contrasts free action with action caused or constrained by external forces and outside influences.

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Monte Johnson
University of California, San Diego


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