On Nature of Things

De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) is a 1st-century BC didactic poem by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius with the goal of explaining Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience.

 
 

This elegant manuscript of Lucretius‘s philosophical poem, copied by an Augustinian friar for a pope, is an example of the interest in ancient accounts of nature taken by the Renaissance curia. The work, written in the first century B.C., contains one of the principal accounts of ancient atomism. The poem was little known in the Middle Ages and its author dismissed as an atheist and lunatic, but after the discovery of an early manuscript in 1417 by the humanist and papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini, it circulated widely in Italy. This is one of numerous copies made at that time. The coat of arms of Sixtus IV appears on this page.

The poem opens with an invocation to Venus, whom Lucretius addresses as an allegorical representation of the reproductive power, after which the business of the piece commences by an enunciation of the proposition on the nature and being of the gods, which leads to an invective against the gigantic monster superstition, and a thrilling picture of the horrors which attends its tyrannous sway. In it Lucretius prays to Venus, not only as the universal life force but also as ancestress of the Romans, begging her to intervene with her lover Mars and save the troubled Roman republic from civil strife. Although this choice of motif may owe much to Lucretius’ forerunner and model Empedocles, for whom Love or Aphrodite is the great creative force in the cosmos, it borders perilously on a betrayal of the poem’s central motif, that we should not fear the gods because they do not, and never would, intervene in our world.

Then follows a lengthened elucidation of the axiom that nothing can be produced from nothing, and that nothing can be reduced to nothing (Nil fieri ex nihilo, in nihilum nil posse reverti); which is succeeded by a definition of the Ultimate Atoms, infinite in number, which, together with Void Space (Inane), infinite in extent, constitute the universe. The shape of these corpuscles, their properties, their movements, the laws under which they enter into combination and assume forms and qualities appreciable by the senses, with other preliminary matters on their nature and affections, together with a refutation of objections and opposing hypotheses, occupy the first two books.

Lucretius was both admired and imitated by writers of the early Roman empire, and in the eyes of Latin patristic authors like Lactantius he came to serve as the leading spokesman of the godless Epicurean philosophy. His poem subsequently survived in two outstanding 9th-century manuscripts (known as O and Q), which following the poem’s rediscovery by the papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini in 1417 (for this fascinating story see Greenblatt 2011) became the basis of the Renaissance editions. It was through Lucretius, along with the Latin translation of Diogenes LaertiusLife of Epicurus, that Epicurean ideas entered the main philosophical (especially ethical) debates of the age. However, despite his extensive impact in literary and philosophical circles—he is, for example, among the writers most assiduously cited by Montaigne—Lucretius struggled for two centuries to shake off the pejorative label of ‘atheist’. He became a key influence on the emergence of early modern atomism in the 17th century—a development above all due to Pierre Gassendi’s construction of an atomistic system which, while founded on Epicurus and Lucretius, had been so modified as to be acceptable to Christian ideology. Lucretius’ many admirers in the early modern era included Thomas Jefferson, a self-declared Epicurean who owned numerous editions of the poem.

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We The People

We The People. Art Kane, 1961

 
 

The Constitution of the United States of America is the oldest written national constitution in use.  It was completed on September 17, 1787, with its adoption by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was later ratified by special conventions in each state. It created a federal union of sovereign states, and a federal government to operate that union. It replaced the less defined union that had existed under the Articles of Confederation. It took effect on March 4, 1789 and has served as a model for the constitutions of numerous other nations.

The Constitutional Convention began deliberations on May 25, 1787. The delegates were generally convinced that an effective central government with a wide range of enforceable powers must replace the weaker Congress established by the Articles of Confederation. The high quality of the delegates to the convention was remarkable. As Thomas Jefferson in Paris wrote to John Adams in London, “It really is an assembly of demigods.”

On July 24, a committee of five (John Rutledge (SC), Edmund Randolph (VA), Nathaniel Gorham (MA), Oliver Ellsworth (CT), and James Wilson (PA)) was elected to draft a detailed constitution. The Convention adjourned from July 26 to August 6 to await the report of this “Committee of Detail”. Overall, the report of the committee conformed to the resolutions adopted by the Convention, adding some elements.

From August 6 to September 10, the report of the committee of detail was discussed, section-by-section, and clause-by-clause. Details were attended to, and further compromises were effected. Toward the close of these discussions, on September 8, a “Committee of Style” of five was appointed. Its final version was taken up on Monday, September 17, at the Convention’s final session. Several of the delegates were disappointed in the result, a makeshift series of unfortunate compromises. Some delegates left before the ceremony, and three others refused to sign. Of the thirty-nine signers, Benjamin Franklin summed up addressing the Convention, “There are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them.” He would accept the Constitution, “because I expect no better and because I am not sure that it is not the best.”

 
 

Page one of the original copy of the Constitution

 
 

Annotations to the Preamble:

 
 

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

 
 

Although the preamble is not a source of power for any department of the Federal Government, the Supreme Court has often referred to it as evidence of the origin, scope, and purpose of the Constitution. Its origin and authority is in “We, the people of the United States”. This echoes the Declaration of Independence. “One people” dissolved their connection with another, and assumed among the powers of the earth, a sovereign nation-state. The scope of the Constitution is twofold. First, “to form a more perfect Union” than had previously existed in the “perpetual Union” of the Articles of Confederation. Second, to “secure the blessings of liberty”, which were to be enjoyed by not only the first generation, but for all who came after, “our posterity”.

This is an itemized social contract of democratic philosophy. It details how the more perfect union was to be carried out between the national government and the people. The people are to be provided (a) justice, (b) civil peace, (c) common defense, (d) those things of a general welfare that they could not provide themselves, and (e) freedom. A government of “liberty and union, now and forever”, unfolds when “We” begin and establish this Constitution.