Lucretius’ Material Ecology


Lucretius’ theory of simulacra means that there are no discrete subjects and objects—only affective ecologies. The whole environment is not just something to be passively “considered” but something that plays an active role in constituting and entire atmosphere or situation. To illustrate this, Lucretius describes the beautiful way in which atmospheric color and light transform and shape the movement of things (4.81–83).

et quanto circum mage sunt inclusa theatri

moenia, tam magis haec intus perfusa lepore

omnia conrident correpta luce diei.

And the more the walls of the theater encircle and enclose,
the more all these things within are soaked
with splendor and laugh when the light of day is diminished.

            Early Roman theaters were sunken pits filled with seats and covered with a purple cloth to keep the sun off the viewers. This poetic image could not be more fitting for the point Lucretius wants to make: Matter is performative. The environment is not an empty space filled with discrete objects but something much more like a woven cloth rippling in the wind that throws off pattern, color, and movement everywhere lavishly. The cloth-wrapped performative space is a space made by woven motion.

            Things, Lucretius says, are soaked [perfusa] with splendor and begin to move and laugh in response to the undulations of color and light as the sun goes down. Shadows begin to ripple across things and through the air showing the entanglement of everything in the theatre. The laughter [conrident] of things is not metaphorical. Nature really is undulating pleasantly in the wind. Matter shakes without breaking or coming completely apart. Pleasant movements without complete destruction (i.e. not ataraxia) is a recurring ethical image for Lucretius found in the laughter of Venus or in the springtime winds of Favonius.

            This theatrical scene shows dramatically what is otherwise happening all the time. Matter is flowing off itself and diffracting with other matters in a complex and kinetic ecology. Ecology is not something that only happens out in the woods. Nor is it merely the passive stage that actors play on. Contra Shakespeare, all the world is not a stage, and all the men and women are not the only players.[i] Humans do not play on the static stage of nature. The whole stage, the actors, the audience, and the whole theater are soaked through with material ecological affects that ripple across them like water or like bees into a beehive [caveai] as Lucretius describes it (4.78).

            The ecological theater is a buzzing beehive made by the movement of matter through it. The form of the honeycomb is an emergent pattern or figure traced by, drawn out, and woven kinetic habits. Ecological affects like temperature are connected with the increased oscillation of matter and with emotion.[ii] But if emotion is not merely mental representation, then nature too has e-motion.

            Water and food shortages are related to fluctuations in the climate and increase the likelihood of social conflict.[iii] Wearing or seeing certain colors also has proven affects on human behavior.[iv] Even just looking at or walking around living plants and forests can significantly change the chemical composition of the human body, alter mood, blood pressure, and stress hormones.[v] This is all to say that Lucretius’ theory of simulacra is shockingly prescient about what we are only recently discovering scientifically about the entangled relationship of ecological affects.[vi]

            Given Lucretius’ description of this simulacral ecology, and what we know from increasing contemporary studies on ecological affect, an ethics based on individuals is completely misguided. Ethics is nothing if not ecological and simulacral. If the entire world is in motion, radiating, intertwining, and diffracting itself, then the ethics of moving well together must take these movements seriously. Ignoring them and treating ethics as a strictly anthropocentric project (as if ecology played no role in actively shaping ethical landscapes and human beings themselves) is partly to blame for global pollution and the feedback loops of toxic particles (dioxins, phthalates, glysophates, etc.) now coursing through our bodies. If we think ethics is something only humans do, then we are more likely to forget that the rest of nature not only plays in active role in producing human bodies but is identical with humanity itself. We live and move in affective tangles because of the nature of simulacral matter.

Weaving String Figures

It is absolutely crucial to remember that simulacra, for Lucretius, are not discrete particles or representations.[vii] We should not imagine that simulacra are like individual photos on film images that peel off of things one by one in discontinuous succession. As collective and intertwined ecological processes they cannot be isolated. Lucretius is extremely clear about this in lines 4.87–89.

sunt igitur iam formarum vestigia certa,

quae volgo volitant subtili praedita filo

nec singillatim possunt secreta videri.

There are therefore then figurative traces
which freely fly around composed of subtle threads
and which are not able to be seen singly or separately.

            Sensation is fundamentally atmospheric and ecological. Simulacra are composed of flows or material threads [filo] (4.88) that move all around through the air drawing out [formarum] (4.87) tracks, traces, or footprints [vestigia] (4.87). Since these movements are collective processes, they are not reducible to the “things” [rerum] or the simulacra they produce. Simulacra are composite things woven together through a vast ecological network of diffracting flows of matter [corpora]. It is therefore fundamentally impossible to separate out “one” simulacrum [nec singillatim] because simulacra are multiplicities in continuous motion.

            What we sense when we sense the world, or when the world senses itself, is nothing but simulacra, all the way down. But simulacra are nothing but moving woven patterns of subtle flows of matter streaming out together, folding and unfolding continually before our eyes. If they are folded tightly enough they appear stable, if they are folded loosely they appear unstable (smoking, bleeding, liquid, and so on). It is all a question of weaving.

            Lucretius says that these threads of matter literally pour, leak, or flow out [diffusae] (4.91) of things [rerum] and that their artful twisting, winding, and curving [flexum] (4.93) draws out the shape of things and the shape of the simulacra that flow out of things. In other words, because the flow of matter is always swerving inside and outside things, there simply is no original thing of which simulacra are faithful or unfaithful copies. There are only continually woven processes, all the way down to the swerving flows of matter themselves. Flows of matter that are thrown off of mirrors, water, and shiny surfaces look similar [simili specie] because the path of woven matters is less bent or curved than others (4.100).

            Matter flows, but simulacra are sensed when the flows of matter fold back over themselves and tangle with one another in a continuous pattern of repulsion, rhythm, and return that allows matter to affect itself and produce sensation (4.104–109).

sunt igitur tenues formarum illis similesque

effigiae, singillatim quas cernere nemo

cum possit, tamen adsiduo crebroque repulsu

reiectae reddunt speculorum ex aequore visum,

nec ratione alia servari posse videntur,

tanto opere ut similes reddantur cuique figurae.

There are thus thin kinetic patterns of similar

images, which though no one is able to see discretely,

nevertheless by continuous and frequent repulsion they rebuff

and return a visible figure from the surface of mirrors.

All of nature is composed of a continuous movement of weaving matter which “reverberates, throws back, and restores things” [repulsu reiectae reddunt] through folding (Figure 6.2). Simulacra do not just move between things. Things are nothing but simulacra, which are themselves nothing but flows or threads of matter [primordia] (4.111) continually folded and woven together [exordia rerum cunctarum] (4.114–115) and constantly reverberating off one another in various sonic, visual, olfactory, and haptic patterns.

            This is why images appear not just near the surface of things but appear in midair through diffraction (4.129–140). Just as we see giant faces, mountains, or monsters in the clouds, so to do we see diffracted images patterns in midair elsewhere. Clouds, like simulacral diffractions, are liquid [liquentia] (4.141) and perpetually fluid [perpetuoque fluant] (4.144) kinomophic assemblages. Clouds are certainly more fluid than most simulacra around us on the the surface of earth, but the basic structure is the same. Nature is one big entangled parallax of shifting flows.

            We know this because whenever we take out a mirror, Lucretius says, it immediately starts reflecting simulacra around without perceptible delay. This means that the flow of matter must be occurring everywhere all the time at very high speeds (4.155–158).

et quamvis subito quovis in tempore quamque

rem contra speculum ponas, apparet imago;

perpetuo fluere ut noscas e corpore summo

texturas rerum tenuis tenuisque figuras. 

And however suddenly, at whatever time you place a mirror
in front of each thing, an image appears,
so that you may realize that constantly flowing from the outer surface

of things are thin woven webs and thin figures.

            Just like the high speed and constant flow [perpetuo fluere] (4.157) of photons (and their quantum fields), matter [corpore] (4.157), according to Lucretius, is constantly “weaving things” together [texturas rerum] by drawing out their figures [figuras] (4.158). Simulacra do not fly through empty space. Space, as we know from books I and II, is made by matter in motion. Space, locus, for Lucretius, is porous and folded. Wherever it seems empty, we need only hold up a mirror to see it shot through with tangled webs of simulacra.

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion, 159-164.


[i] William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII.

[ii] Thalma Lobel, Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence (New York: Atria Books, 2016).

[iv] See Thalma Lobel, Sensation, chapters 4, 5, 6 on color and light and dark.

[v] Florence Willimas, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (New York: Norton, 2018).

[vi] See Benjamin Lieberman and Elizabeth Gordon, Climate Change in Human History: Prehistory to the Present (London: Bloomsbury, 2018) and Nigel Clark, Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2011).

[vii] For a related treatment of string figures, see Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, “Playing games of string figures is about giving and receiving patterns, dropping threads and failing but sometimes finding something that works, something consequential and maybe even beautiful, that wasn’t there before, of relaying connections that matter, of telling stories in hand upon hand, digit upon digit, attachment site upon attachment site, to craft conditions for finite flourishing on terra, on earth.” 10.


Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion (Pre-order 30% off) and Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion $6.50

Screen Shot 2020-02-03 at 8.54.51 AM.png

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion is now available for pre-order and 30% off during February and March.

Edinburgh University Press:  discount coupon code: NEW30
Oxford University Press: discount coupon code: ADISTA5

Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion digital book (epub/pdf) is also now available for $6.50 at Edinburgh here for the month of February.

‘With Lucretius II, Thomas Nail continues his project of re-reading Lucretius’ De rerum natura in a startlingly new fashion – as a foundational text in the philosophy of movement. The results of Nail’s labour are breathtaking: traditional pieties of scholarship fall by the wayside, replaced by a Lucretius truly of and for the twenty-first century.’ Wilson M. Shearin, University of Miami

‘More than just a study of Lucretius, Nail provides a stunning reading of an already fascinating philosopher. Nail’s originally and beautifully composed account of motion generates an ethics worthy of the twenty-first century, allowing us to think of instability as an opportunity for thinking our world anew.’
Claire Colebrook, Penn State University

An ancient ethics for modern life

Suffering, the fear of death, war, ecological destruction, and social inequality are urgent ethical issues today as they were for Lucretius. Thomas Nail argues that Lucretius was the first to locate the core of all these ethical ills in our obsession with stasis, our fear of movement, and our hatred of matter.

Almost two thousand years ago Lucretius proposed a simple and stunning response to these problems: an ethics of motion. Instead of trying to transcend nature with our minds, escape it with our immortal souls, and dominate it with our technologies, Lucretius was perhaps the first in the Western tradition to forcefully argue for a completely materialist and immanent ethics based on moving with and as nature. If we want to survive and live well on this planet, Lucretius taught us, our best chance is not to struggle against nature but to embrace it and facilitate its movement.

Download the Preface and Introduction here.


A new Lucretius is coming into view today. Every great historical epoch returns to him like bees returning to their flower fields in search of nourishment. Each time, though, our return is different – like the expanding arc of a spiral. We bring new questions, find new answers, and make Lucretius speak to us again as if for the first time. We make Lucretius’ epic poem De Rerum Natura into the mellifluous honey of a liquid antiquity that has always coursed through the veins of modernity like a spring of fresh meaning and inspiration.

We thus return to Lucretius not as though he were an unchanging figure carved in stone but as if he were a rush of new life at the cutting edge of the twenty-first century. We stand in front of Lucretius’ breathtaking and revolutionary poem not as passive students of unchanging relics in a museum but as active participants in a history of our present.

I first returned to Lucretius in 2014, when I taught Book II of De Rerum Natura for a class on the philosophy of movement. I added Lucretius to the syllabus because he was an overlooked figure in the history of philosophy who wrote about motion. I was excited about the text, but I was also sceptical that anyone who believed in ‘eternal unchanging atoms’ could have motion as their philosophical starting point. What I encountered, however, absolutely shocked me.

There were no atoms. I scoured the whole Latin text. Lucretius never used the word ‘atom’ or a Latinised version of this word – not even once. Translators added the word ‘atom’. Just as shockingly, I could not find the great isolated swerve in the rain of atoms, for which he is so well known. In Book II, Lucretius says instead that matter is always ‘in the habit of swerving’ [declinare solerent] (2.221) and if it were not [nisi], ‘all would fall like raindrops’ [caderent] (2.222). The solitary swerve and the rain of matter are counterfactual claims. Lucretius never said there was a rain and then one atom swerved. He says that matter is in the ‘habit’ [solerent] of swerving, meaning that swerving happens regularly. This, he says, is the only way to avoid the problem of assuming that something comes from nothing: matter must have always been swerving.

This small but significant discrepancy made me wonder what else had been left out of translations and interpretations. Could it be possible that there was a whole hidden Lucretius buried beneath the paving stones of Greek atomism? If there are no solid atoms and no solitary swerve in Lucretius, can we still make sense of the rest of the book? In 2016 I decided to find out. I dedicated a whole seminar just to Book I of De Rerum Natura read in Latin. To my delight a whole new view on this foundational text emerged that year. I published the results of this study in 2018 as Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion.

Around this time I also began to notice an increasing number of major differences between Lucretius and Epicurus. One of the reasons I thought I would find atoms and isolated swerves in Lucretius was because of a long history of interpretation that conflated the two thinkers, just as earlier scholars had errantly done with Democritus and Epicurus. There is no doubt that Lucretius studied and followed Epicurus, just as Epicurus had followed Democritus. However, between the three thinkers there are worlds of difference that have not been sufficiently understood. Not all students merely imitate their masters. Sometimes imitation functions as a mask for a student to put forward her or his own ideas – which is what Lucretius did I thus began to unravel the ‘Epicurean myth of Lucretius’.

Lucretius did something very strange. He wrote Epicurean philosophy in the style and method of Homeric poetry and in doing so ended up completely changing the meaning of both. Just like an ancient satyr play, Lucretius’ poem has numerous invocations of bacchanalian intoxication, sexual imagery, desire, and deceptive invocations of gods he
does not believe in (Venus and Mars), all affirmed joyfully alongside the destructive power of nature itself: death. This is in stark contrast with the contemplative, serious, pessimistic, and aloof style of Epicurus and his followers.

Epicurus had many Greek and Roman followers who wrote and promoted Epicurean doctrine, but Lucretius did something no one had ever done before. He espoused a version of Epicurean philosophy in a book of Latin poetry written in Homeric hexameter. Why? For pleasure. He wanted to make something new by mixing the old traditions. Lucretius performed a bewildering hybrid of two completely opposed figures and traditions (Homer and Epicurus) and made something novel: something uniquely Roman.

However, De Rerum Natura has largely been treated as a Homeric poem about Epicurean philosophy, but in this book I argue that there is also a hidden Epicurean philosophy of Homeric myth. In the end this is where the real brilliance and originality of Lucretius lies: not in Homer or Epicurus but in their perverse and twisted entanglement. There is thus a becoming Homer of Epicurus. It is a genuine injustice to reduce such a radical enterprise to mere Epicurean ‘doctrine’.

The idea of philosophical poetry is a satyr’s slap in the face to the entire Greek tradition of philosophy from Thales to Aristotle, including Epicurus. With few exceptions, Greek philosophers systematically reduced Homeric poetry to irrational and sensuous mythology in order to define their new abstractions and idealisms against the straw man of the oral tradition. This was a founding moment of exclusion that has stayed with the Western tradition up to the present – contributing to a perceived inferiority of oral and indigenous knowledge. It is therefore completely unsurprising that today, when Lucretius is invoked as a philosopher, he is treated as completely reducible to the real Greek master: Epicurus. By doing so, the Western reception of Lucretius has reproduced the same Grecocentric and idealist tradition that vilified pre-Greek and Homeric poetry and archaic materialism. This is the same Western tradition that continues to devalorise oral knowledge and non-Western mythologies today.

Most Western philosophy, even in its most materialist moments, has in one way or another hated matter and the body. Lucretius was the first from within this tradition to produce a true and radical materialism of sensation and the body. However, like Homer, Lucretius also paid the ultimate price for his materialist sins and was largely exiled from the discipline of philosophy. Either Lucretius was treated as a skilled poet of the Latin tongue or he was treated as a slavish imitator of the great master Epicurus. Never has Lucretius been read as an original philosophical poet of a radical materialism that goes far beyond anything Epicurus achieved. This book and its companion volumes are the first books to show precisely this.

Even more provocatively, Lucretius refused to use Epicurus’ Greek terminology when many other Epicurean and Roman authors, such as Cicero did so often and easily. The Romans are famous for renaming Greek gods: the Greek Aphrodite becomes the Roman Venus, Zeus becomes Jove, and so on. However, it is also well known that there is no strict equivalence between the two deities. The translation was, as translations always are, a transformation that resulted in new stories and a shifting fluidity of roles among the gods. This, I argue, is what happened with Lucretius. De Rerum Natura was not written as Epicurean dogma.

It was an original work of philosophical poetry that translated Homeric mythology and Epicurean philosophy into the Latin vernacular and thus transformed them into an original philosophy of motion. A few scholars have noted the tension between Lucretius’ poetic style and Epicurean doctrine, but none has suggested that it indicated anything philosophically original as a result.

The unearthing of this ‘hidden Lucretius’ is the subject of the present work and its companion volumes. In the first volume, Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion, I located a systematic ontology of motion and a new materialism beneath the atomist and Epicurean myth of Lucretius. In the present volume, I present the reader with a unique kinetic theory of ethics. This second volume builds on the ontological framework developed in the first and expands it explicitly to questions of life, death, knowledge, aesthetics, sex, ecology, and ethics – as they are discussed in Books III and IV of De Rerum Natura.

Each of the three volumes in this trilogy has been written so that it may be read either on its own or with the others. The themes of each of the volumes of the trilogy overlap with one another just as the content of the books in the poem do. However, each volume also focuses on distinct domains of philosophical inquiry: Volume I covers Lucretius’ ontology and cosmology; Volume II covers his ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics; and Volume III, his theory of history. Together, these three volumes compose an original and nearly line-by-line reading of the entirety of De Rerum Natura.

Read on!