Superphysics Superphysics
Part A

Existence and Nature of the ‘Idols’

by Titus Lucretius Carus
12 minutes  • 2436 words

The “idols of things” are like films stripped from the outermost body of things.

These fly forward and backward through the air; and they too when they meet us in waking hours affright our minds, yea, and in sleep too, when we often gaze on wondrous shapes, and the idols of those who have lost the light of day, which in awful wise have often roused us, as we lay languid, from our sleep; lest by chance we should think that souls escape from Acheron, or that shades fly abroad among the living, or that something of us can be left after death, when body alike and the nature of mind have perished and parted asunder into their several first-beginnings.

The existence of such images is proved by parallels in the visible world.I say then that likenesses of things and their shapes are given off by things from the outermost body of things, which may be called, as it were, films or even rind, because the image bears an appearance and form like to that, whatever it be, from whose body it appears to be shed, ere it wanders abroad. That we may learn from this, however dull be our wits. First of all,1. Things throw off films, either loose, like smoke, &c., or more compact like the slough of snakes, &c. since among things clear to see many things give off bodies, in part scattered loosely abroad, even as wood gives off smoke and fires heat, and in part more closely knit and packed together, as when now and then the grasshoppers lay aside their smooth coats in summer, and when calves at their birth give off a caul from their outermost body, and likewise when the slippery serpent rubs off its vesture on the thorns; for often we see the brambles laden with these wind-blown spoils from snakes. And since these things come to pass,So images can be thrown off, because there are unimpeded atoms on the surface ready to part. a thin image from things too must needs be given off from the outermost body of things. For why these films should fall and part from things any more than films that are thin, none can breathe a word to prove; above all, since on the surface of things there are many tiny bodies, which could be cast off in the same order wherein they stood, and could preserve the outline of their shape, yea, and be cast the more quickly, inasmuch as they can be less entangled, in that they are few, and placed in the forefront.2. Colour is thrown off from the surface of things, as from the awnings of a theatre. For verily we see many things cast off and give out bodies in abundance, not only from deep beneath, as we said before, but often too from the surface, such as their own colour. And commonly is this done by awnings, yellow and red and steely-blue, when stretched over great theatres they flap and flutter, spread everywhere on masts and beams. For there they tinge the assembly in the tiers beneath, and all the bravery of the stage and the gay-clad company of the elders, and constrain them to flutter in their colours. And the more closely are the hoardings of the theatre shut in all around, the more does all the scene within laugh, bathed in brightness, as the light of day is straitened. Since then the canvas gives out this hue from its outermost body, each several thing also must needs give out thin likenesses, since in either case they are throwing off from the surface. There are then sure traces of forms, which fly about everywhere, endowed with slender bulk, nor can they be seen apart one by one.Nor is colour hindered like the other effluences which come from deep beneath. Moreover, all smell, smoke, heat, and other like things stream forth from things, scattering loosely, because while they arise and come forth from deep within, they are torn in their winding course, nor are there straight outlets to their paths, whereby they may hasten to issue all in one mass. But, on the other hand, when the thin film of surface-colour is cast off, there is nothing which can avail to rend it, since it is ready at hand,3. Mirrors, &c., return a constant succession of images of things. and placed in the forefront. Lastly, whenever idols appear to us in mirrors, in water, and in every shining surface, it must needs be, seeing that they are endowed with an appearance like the things, that they are made of the images of things given off. There are then thin shapes of things and likenesses, which, although no one can see them one by one, yet thrown back with constant and ceaseless repulse, give back a picture from the surface of the mirrors, and it is seen that they cannot by any other means be so preserved that shapes so exceeding like each several thing may be given back.

Fineness of texture of the images.Come now and learn of how thin a nature this image is formed. And to begin with, since the first-beginnings are so far beneath the ken of our senses, and so much smaller than the things which our eyes first begin to be unable to descry, yet now that I may assure you of this too,1. Think of the fineness of the atoms of which they are composed. learn in a few words how fine in texture are the beginnings of all things. First of all there are living things sometimes so small that a third part of them could by no means be seen. Of what kind must we think any one of their entrails to be? What of the round ball of their heart or eye? what of their members? what of their limbs? how small are they? still more,(a) They are much smaller than the smallest part of the smallest living thing we can see. what of the several first-beginnings whereof their soul and the nature of their mind must needs be formed? do you not see how fine and how tiny they are? Moreover, whatever things breathe out a pungent savour from their body, panacea, sickly wormwood, and strongly-smelling abrotanum, and bitter centaury; if by chance any one of these lightly between two 1 <fingers, the scent will for long cling to your fingers, though never will you see anything at all:(b) Things can leave a strong scent on you when you touch them, and yet you can see nothing. [2.] so that you may know how fine is the nature of the first-beginnings, whereof the scent is formed …> … and not rather learn that many idols of things wander abroad in many ways with no powers, unable to be perceived?

There are other idols, too, which form in the sky, everchanging, like the masses of clouds.But that you may not by chance think that after all only those idols of things wander abroad, which come off from things, there are those too which are begotten of their own accord, and are formed of themselves in this sky which is called air; which moulded in many ways are borne along on high, and being fluid cease not to change their appearance, and to turn it into the outline of forms of every kind; even as from time to time we see clouds lightly gathering together in the deep sky, and staining the calm face of the firmament, caressing the air with their motion. For often the faces of giants are seen to fly along and to trail a shadow far and wide, and sometimes mighty mountains and rocks torn from the mountains are seen to go on ahead and to pass before the sun; and then a huge beast seems to draw on and lead forward the storm clouds.

These images are very swiftly formed. Come now, in what swift and easy ways those idols are begotten, and flow unceasingly from things and fall off and part from them, <I will set forth …>. 1 For ever the outermost surface is streaming away from things, that so they may cast it off. And when this reaches some things,1. The surface of things is ever quick to stream away. it passes through them, as above all through glass: but when it reaches rough stones or the substance of wood, there at once it is torn, so that it cannot give back any idol. But when things that are formed bright and dense are set athwart its path, such as above all is the mirror, neither of these things comes to pass. For neither can they pass through, as through glass, nor yet be torn; for the smoothness is careful to ensure their safety. Wherefore it comes to pass that the idols stream back from it to us.2. The quick formation of the image in the mirror gives us an example. And however suddenly, at any time you will, you place each several thing against the mirror, the image comes to view; so that you may know that from the outermost body there flow off unceasingly thin webs and thin shapes of things. Therefore many idols are begotten in a short moment, so that rightly is the creation of these things said to be swift.3. So does the constant succession of light from the sun. And just as the sun must needs shoot out many rays of light in a short moment, so that the whole world may unceasingly be filled, so too in like manner from things it must needs be that many idols of things are borne off in an instant of time in many ways in all directions on every side; inasmuch as to whatever side we turn the mirror to meet the surface of things, things in the mirror answer back alike in form and colour. Moreover,4. Clouds form in the sky in a moment; how much quicker the little images! even when the weather in the sky has but now been most clear, exceeding suddenly it becomes foully stormy, so that on all sides you might think that all darkness has left Acheron, and filled the great vault of the sky; so terribly, when the noisome night of clouds has gathered together, do the shapes of black fear hang over us on high; yet how small a part of these is an idol, there is no one who could say or give an account of this in words.

Swiftness of motion of idols.Come now, with what swift motion the idols are carried on, and what speed is given them as they swim through the air, so that a short hour is spent on a long course, towards whatever place they each strain on with diverse impulse, I will proclaim in verses of sweet discourse rather than in many; even as the brief song of a swan is better than the clamour of cranes, which spreads abroad among the clouds of the south high in heaven.1. Proof from analogy. Light bodies of rare texture usually move fast: e.g. the light particles of the sun. First of all very often we may see that light things made of tiny bodies are swift. In this class there is the light of the sun and his heat, because they are made of tiny first-particles, which, as it were, are knocked forward, and do not pause in passing on through the space of air between, smitten by the blow from those that follow. For in hot haste the place of light is taken by light, and as though driven in a team, one flash is goaded by another flash. Wherefore in like manner it must needs be that the idols can course through space unthinkable in an instant of time, first because it is a tiny cause, n far away behind which drives and carries them forward, and after that, in that they are borne on with so swift a lightness of bulk; and then because they are given off endowed with texture so rare that they can easily pass into anything you will, and as it were ooze through the intervening air. Moreover,2. Proof from theory. Bodies starting from the surface of things move quicker than those rising from within. when particles of things n are given out abroad from deep within, like the sun’s light and heat, these are seen to fall in a moment of time and spread themselves over the whole expanse of heaven, and to fly over sea and earth and flood the sky. What then of those things which are ready at once in the forefront? When they are cast off and nothing hinders their discharge, do you not see that they must needs move swifter and further, and course through many times the same expanse of space in the same time in which the rays of the sun crowd the sky?3. Proof from experience. The immediate reflection of the heavens shows the pace of movement of the idols. This, too, more than all seems to show forth truly in what swift motion the idols of things are borne on, that as soon as a bright surface of water is placed beneath the open sky, when the heaven is starry, in a moment the calm beaming stars of the firmament appear in answer in the water. Do you not then see now in how short an instant of time the image falls from the coasts of heaven to the coasts of earth? Wherefore more and more you must needs confess that bodies are sent off such as strike the eyes and awake our vision.B. These idols are the cause of sight. And from certain things scents stream off unceasingly; just as cold streams off from rivers, heat from the sun, spray from the waves of the sea, which gnaws away walls all around the shores. Nor do diverse voices cease to fly abroad through the air.1. Our other senses are affected by similar effluences. Again, often moisture of a salt savour comes into our mouth, when we walk by the sea, and on the other hand, when we watch wormwood being diluted and mixed, a bitter taste touches it. So surely from all things each several thing is carried off in a stream, and is sent abroad to every quarter on all sides, nor is any delay or respite granted in this flux, since we feel unceasingly, and we are suffered always to descry and smell all things, and to hear them sound.

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