Lucretius’s atomic theory lacks bodily penetration & immortality

With his atomic understanding of human bodies, the classical Roman poet-philosopher Lucretius regarded sexual reproduction abstractly. He also argued that the soul expired with the body’s death. Given his view of sex, Lucretius might as well have depicted soulless humans dissolving into extinction. Other poets, in contrast, have long recognized that bodily penetration provides pleasure, human souls strive for unity, and humanity becomes immortal through fruitful love.

Lucretius’s atomic theory associated bodily contact with destruction. A body can be immortal only if there are no other “bodies that can fall on it and destruct it with strong banging {corpora sunt quae possint incidere et valida dissolvere plaga}.” After referring to snakes and dismemberment, Lucretius asserted mortal implications of bodily penetration:

Moreover, all things that endure forever must
either, through having a solid body, repel impacts
and not suffer anything to penetrate them that might
separate their tight-fitting parts from within, such as the bodily
atoms whose nature we proved earlier;
or be able to endure through all time
because they are free from blows, like a void,
which remains untouched and is quite unaffected by impact;
or again because there is no place around them
such that they could disperse and disintegrate.

{ Praeterea quaecumque manent aeterna necessest
aut, quia sunt solido cum corpore, respuere ictus
nec penetrare pati sibi quicquam quod queat artas
dissociare intus partis, ut materiai
corpora sunt quorum naturam ostendimus ante;
aut ideo durare aetatem posse per omnem,
plagarum quia sunt expertia, sicut inanest,
quod manet intactum neque ab ictu fungitur hilum;
aut etiam quia nulla loci sit copia circum,
quo quasi res possint discedere dissolvique }[1]

Lucretius’s rejection of species-specific creative work through banging is consistent with deeply entrenched historical disparagement of men’s sexuality. Nonetheless, bodily penetration and banging has extended the lineage of human beings from its beginning to the present day. Without that bodily action, humans would not now exist.

censored poem in the medieval Cambridge Songs

In contrast to Lucretius, other poets have dared to recognize the eternal importance of bodily penetration. A medieval poem from no later than the eleventh century describes a man seducing a nun. The poem ends with appreciation for penetration:

Praise be to Love that he is converting her whom he will
penetrate like the sun, since now she is eager to love.

{ Laus sit Amori thaz her si bekere,
Quam penetrabit ut sol, also si minnen gerno nu sal. }[2]

The sun is a life-giving orb. So too, with doubled form, are men’s testicles. This fine, learned poem was nearly obliterated. Castration culture must be decisively rejected.

A loving soul isn’t confined to its body. Expressing classical understanding of friendship, Ambrose, the fourth-century Bishop of Milan, declared:

What specifically is a friend, if not a consort in love, to whom you can join and attach your soul, mingling it so that out of two you would become one. A friend is one to whom you entrust yourself as to another self, from whom you fear nothing, from whom you yourself seek nothing dishonorable for reason of advantage. Friendship is not calculating, but full of beauty, full of grace.

{ Quid est enim amicus, nisi consors amoris, ad quem animum tuum adiungas atque applices, et ita misceas, ut unum velis fieri ex duobus, cui te tamquam alteri tibi committas, a quo nihil timeas, nihil ipse commodi tui causa inhonestum petas? Non enim vectigalis amicitia est, sed plena decoris, plena gratiae. }[3]

Two persons in love must be friends. Just as parts of their bodies encompass and penetrate each other, their souls also mingle. Meleager of Gadara in the first century BGC spoke of his beloved Heliodora:

Eros himself, within my very heart, has fashioned
Heliodora, sweetly speaking, as soul of my soul.

{ ἐντὸς ἐμῆς κραδίης τὴν εὔλαλον Ἡλιοδώραν
ψυχὴν τῆς ψυχῆς αὐτὸς ἔπλασσεν Ἔρως. }[4]

In counterpoint to absorbing a beloved’s soul, a woman in a kharja from about the twelfth century complained of losing her soul in love:

He is taking from me my soul —
for what shall I long, my soul?

{ Quitad me ma alma —
que queray, ma alma? }[5]

A medieval Anglo-Norman poem from no latter than the twelfth century associated life after death with the exchange of souls in loving penetration:

They exchange souls, entangled bodies made into one
body. By their spirits their hearts are made penetrable.
Slow, easy transfusion of spirits brings back their bodies,
and each dying to oneself lives in the other partner.

{ Alternant animas, laqueataque corpus in unum
Corpora spiritibus pervia corda parant.
Corpora spirituum transfusio languida reddit,
Dumque sibi moritur vivit uterque pari. }[6]

From Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium to sensitive lovers today, persons have sought soulmates in love. Having a soulmate makes no sense to atomic individuals.

At least from a Christian perspective, love gives the soul eternal life. A medieval man exclaimed:

I step beyond humanity
and there above
glory in being elevated
to the gods
when I touch her tender bosom.
My hand happily follows
its roaming course and
having roamed through the region of breasts,
moves down to the womb
with a lighter touch.

{ Hominem transgredior
et superum
sublimari glorior
ad numerum,
sinum tractans tenerum
cursu vago dum beata
manus it et uberum
regionem pervagata
descendit ad uterum
tactu leviore. }[7]

While ornamented as traditional Greco-Roman polytheism, the connection between immortal gods and penetrating a woman’s womb is profoundly Christian. It’s Mary’s fleshly incarnation of God that offers everlasting life in Christian belief. In the third century BGC, Dioscorides prefigured this Christian way:

I spread Doris with her rosy buttocks on my bed
and amid her dewy flowers I felt immortal.
She bestrode my groin with her magnificent legs
and finished Aphrodite’s long course without swerving,
gazing at me with languorous eyes. Like leaves in the wind
her crimson parts quivered while she bounced astride me,
until the white strength spilled out of us both,
and Doris lay splayed out with limbs all slack.

{ Δωρίδα τὴν ῥοδόπυγον ὑπὲρ λεχέων διατείνας
ἄνθεσιν ἐν χλοεροῖς ἀθάνατος γέγονα.
ἡ γὰρ ὑπερφυέεσσι μέσον διαβᾶσά με ποσσὶν
ἤνυσεν ἀκλινέως τὸν Κύπριδος δόλιχον,
ὄμμασι νωθρὰ βλέπουσα· τὰ δ᾽, ἠΰτε πνεύματι φύλλα,
ἀμφισαλευομένης ἔτρεμε πορφύρεα,
μέχρις ἀπεσπείσθη λευκὸν μένος ἀμφοτέροισιν,
καὶ Δωρὶς παρέτοις ἐξεχύθη μέλεσι. }[8]

That’s how human life is perpetuated. From a Christian perspective, that’s also how human beings participate in the divine work of creating immortal souls. One might question Christian belief in the immortal soul. On the other hand, in our intolerant and repressive age, many refuse to recognize the biological facts of sexual reproduction. Their delusion regrettably has roots in Lucretius’s representation of penetration and banging as destroying bodies.

In material reality, old age, not penetration and banging, destroys bodies. A fourteenth-century English poem described surgery and medicine as powerless against old age. Old age chases after life:

And Old Age came after him and went over my head,
and made me both bald in front and bare on the crown.
So hard he went over my head it will always be evident.
“Mister bad-mannered Age,” I said, “may mischief go with you!
Since when did the way go over men’s heads?
If you had any courtesy,” I said, “you would have asked for leave.”
“What leave, lazy loafer?” he said and laid on me with age
and hit me under the ear. I can hardly hear.
He buffeted me about the mouth and beat out my molars
and fettered me with fits of gout. I’m not free to go far.
And for the woe that I had, my wife pitied me
and wished most warmly that I were in Heaven.
The limb that she so loved and liked to feel
notably at night when we were naked in bed,
I might by no means make it do her will,
for Old Age with her aid had beaten it down.

{ And Elde anoon after hym, and over myn heed yede,
And made me balled bifore and bare on the croune:
So harde he yede over myn heed it wol be sene evere.
“Sire yvele ytaught Elde!’ quod I, “unhende go with the!
Sith whanne was the wey over menne heddes?
Haddestow be hende,’ quod I, “thow woldest have asked leeve!’
“Ye–leve, lurdeyn?’ quod he, and leyde on me with age,
And hitte me under the ere–unnethe may ich here.
Helbuffetted me aboute the mouth and bette out my wangteeth,
And gyved me in goutes–I may noght goon at large.
And of the wo that I was inne my wif hadde ruthe,
And wisshed wel witterly that I were in hevene.
For the lyme that she loved me fore, and leef was to feele–
On nyghtes, namely, whan we naked weere–
I ne myghte in no manere maken it at hir wille,
So Elde and he[o] hadden it forbeten. }[9]

This wife, like many medieval women, appreciated and enjoyed her husband’s erection labor and him penetrating her. Humorously conflating effects of old age and marital sexual relations, the final verse above obliterates the vital distinction between impotence and detumescence. The poem as a whole ends with a quest to find Piers the Plowman. He’s associated with “heart and health {hap and heele}.” As medieval poets understood, penetration of bodies fosters personal affiliation and perpetuates humanity.

Love obliterates the meaninglessness of death. Drawing upon the philosophical posing of Socrates, Epicureans in the ancient world proclaimed, “Death is nothing to us {ὁ θάνατος οὐδὲν πρὸς ἡμᾶς}.” Epitaphs in the Roman Empire declared, “I did not exist. I existed. I am not. I do not care {Non fui. Fui. Non sum. Non curo}.”[10] In contrast, many a man cares greatly if he becomes dead to a beloved woman.

Humanity is immortal, not because humans alone among creatures will roar in alleging that they are being silenced, but because humans have a soul, a spirit capable of love and heterosexual relations of reproductive type. The duty of poets and bloggers is to write about these things. It is their privilege to help humans endure by penetrating their hearts, by reminding them of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice that have been the glory of their past. The poet’s voice need not merely record genderless humans and atomic individuals. It can be a firm rod thrusting forward with meninist literary criticism to help humans joyfully reproduce and endure.[11]

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[1] Lucretius, On the nature of things {De rerum natura} 3.806-15, Latin text from Rouse & Smith (2002), my English translation, benefiting from those of id. and Esolen (1995). The previous short quote is similarly from 3.817-8. De rerum natura 3.806-18 is repeated at 5.351-63 in the context of arguing that the chief elements of the world are mortal.

[2] Cambridge Songs {Carmina cantabrigiensia} 28 (University of Cambridge, MS Gg. 5.35, folios 438v-9r), “Sweetest nun {Suavissima nunna},” vv. 21-2, reconstructed Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, pp. 354-5. This macaronic Latin / German poem has been called “The Clerk and the Nun {clericus et nunna / Kleriker und Nonne},” but the poem contains no indication that the man is a clerk. Here’s a recording of the whole reconstructed poem.

A censor, perhaps literally a Puritan, effaced much of this poem because of its amorously explicit content. Dronke studied the manuscript repeatedly under ultraviolet light and was able to add readings, including penetrabit, to Strecker’s edition (Berlin 1926). Dronke’s diplomatic Latin text for vv. 21-2:

[Laus] ……… thaz her s[i]be
ker[e] …. [penetrabit] ….. also

Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 354.

Interpretations of the poem have varied. Scholars have implausibly characterized the poem as “a prayer to a female saint” and “a hymn to the virgin Mary.” Those claims an inconsistent with it being censored. That the poem describes a man seducing a nun “has a certain plausibility.” Ziolkowski (1994) p. 261.

[3] Ambrose of Milan, On the Duties of Ministers {De officiis ministrorum} 133, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 16.182, English translation (modified) from Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 194. Here’s additional context from De officiis ministrorum, with parallel Latin text and English translation. Ambrose here drew upon Cicero, Laelius on love {Laelius de Amicitia} 21.80 and 15.51. But Ambrose also alluded to Mary and the incarnation of Christ with his phrase “full of grace {plena gratiae}.” Cf. Luke 1:28. On Christian understanding of friendship in the fourth century, Konstan (1996) Ch. 5.

[4] Greek Anthology {Anthologia Graeca} / Palatine Anthology {Anthologia Palatina} 5.155, Meleager of Gadara, Epigram, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified) from Paton (1916). Meleager wrote a series of epigram to Heliodora, whom he ardently loved. Höschele (2009).

In another epigram, Meleager imagined the transfer of his soul in love:

The wine-cup feels sweet joy and tells me how it touches
the talkative mouth of Zenophila, the friend of love.
Happy cup! I wish she would set her lips to mine
and drink up my soul in one swallow.

{ τὸ σκύφος ἁδὺ γέγηθε, λέγει δ᾽ ὅτι τᾶς φιλέρωτος
Ζηνοφίλας ψαύει τοῦ λαλιοῦ στόματος.
ὄλβιον εἴθ᾽ ὑπ᾽ ἐμοῖς νῦν χείλεσι χείλεα θεῖσα
ἀπνευστὶ ψυχὰν τὰν ἐν ἐμοὶ προπίοι. }

Greek Anthology 5.171, sourced as previously.

[5] Anonymous Arabic kharja, Old Spanish text derived from the Arabic and English translation (modified) from Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 32. An alternate, literal translation: “How is he tearing my soul [to pieces], how is he slashing it!” Kharja A16 in Corriente (2009) p. 122. A more poetic translation:

The one who robs me of my soul,
is the one who enraptures my soul.

DenBoer (2010) p. 71 (no. 56).

Another kharja indicates medieval women’s appreciation for men’s sexual vigor. A literal translation: “I shall not even try it unless you [make love to me and] raise my anklets up to my earrings.” A9 in Corriente (2009) p. 121. A more poetic translation:

I won’t make love to you
except on one condition:
that you lift my ankle-bracelets
to my earrings!

DenBoer (2010) p. 67 (no. 52). The origin and textual interpretation of kharjas, which are written in Arabic or Hebrew, are a matter of considerable scholarly controversy. Corriente (2009).

[6] “Behold, beauty and the pleasing delight of love return {Ecce redit species et amoris grata voluptas},” vv. 18-21 (of 21), Latin text from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 449, English translation (modified) from id. p. 450. This poem, apparently composed by an Anglo-Norman poet, survives in Roma, Vatican MS Reg. lat. 585, folio 4v (written in the twelfth century) and Escorial, MS. O. III. 2, folio 98r-v (written in the fourteenth century).

[7] Carmina Burana 83, Peter of Blois, “Savagely the wind’s breath bites {Saevit aurae spiritus / Sevit aure spiritus},” stanza 4 (of 7), Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018).

[8] Greek Anthology {Anthologia Graeca} / Palatine Anthology {Anthologia Palatina} 5.55, Dioscorides, Elegy, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified) from Paton (1916). Here’s an alternate English translation.

Appreciation for vigorous heterosexual relations continued from the classical world into medieval Europe. In the thirteenth-century Old French farce The Young Man and the Blind Man {Le garçon et l’aveugle}, the blind man said to the young man:

I don’t want you to talk to me
about having women. I’ve a lovely one!
And when I turn her on her back,
then you’ll come to plug her for me,
such that one could very well throw
on the souls of her feet three dice.

{ Je ne veull pas que tu me dis
d’avoir garce, que bele l’ai;
et, quant je le pourqulerai,
tu le me venras estuper
c’on li porra tresbien jeter
seur les plantes des piés trois des. }

Le garçon et l’aveugle, vv. 135-40, Old French text from Roques (1921), my English translation, benefiting from that of Axton & Stevens (1971) p. 201.

[9] William Langland, Piers Plowman 20.183-98, Middle English text (B version) from Schmidt (1978) via Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse, English modernization (modified) from Donaldson, Kirk & Anderson (1990). Here’s a more diplomatic edition of those verses:

And elde anone after [hym] · and ouer myne heed ȝede
And made me balled bifore · and bare on þe croune
So harde he ȝede ouer myn hed · it wil be seen eure
¶ Sire euel ytauȝte elde quod I · vnhende go with the
Sith whanne was þe way · ouer men hedes
Haddestow be hende quod I · þow woldest haue asked leue
¶ Ȝe leue lordeyne quod he · and leyde on me with age
And hitte me vnder þe ere · vnethe may ich here
He buffeted me aboute þe mouthe · & bett out my [wange-]tethe
And gyued me in goutes · I may nouȝte go at large
And of þe wo þat I was in · my wyf had reuthe
And wisshed [wel] witterly · þat I were in heuene
For þe lyme þat she loued me fore · and leef was to fele
On nyȝtes namely · whan we naked were
I ne myght in no manere · maken it at hir wille
So elde and [he] · [it hadden] forbeten

From Burrow & Turville-Petre (2014). These verses include “genuinely affectionate, nostalgic terms, albeit with strong overtones of humorous self-deprecation.” Tavormina (1995) p. 179. The subsequent short quote, “heart and health {hap and heele / happe and hele},” is similarly from Piers Plowman 20.385.

Piers Plowman shows keen appreciation for the bodily reality of Christ’s incarnation and for sexual love between spouses:

the body of Christ is central to the poem’s theology of redemption. … Human work — both labor and married sexual love — are like God’s work, and bodily sufferings and “freletee {frailty}” call forth divine “confort {comfort}.”

Davlin (2011) p. 165, with added glosses. On marriage and family in Piers Plowman, Tavormina (1995).

Here’s a brief overview of Piers Plowman and English modernizations of the prologue and steps {passus) 1-7 and 17. On the complex textual history of Piers Plowman, Werner (2014).

[10] The Epicurian quote is from what’s called Epicurus’s Principle Doctrine 2. For more on the Latin quote, see Ciceronianus’s blog. Similar inscriptions exist in ancient Greek.

[11] Adapted from the speech that William Faulkner, after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, delivered at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm on December 10, 1950.

[images] (1) Carmina cantabrigiensia (CC) 28, “Sweetest nun {Suavissima nunna}” / “The Clerk and the Nun {Clericus et nunna}” as censored in University of Cambridge, MS Gg. 5.35, folio 438v. An earlier hand, thought with little justification to be medieval, attempted to erase the poem, then a modern authority, eager to read it fully, further obscured the text with a chemical treatment meant to aid discerning it. The preceding poems in this manuscript folio are CC 27, “Come soon, sweet beloved {Iam, dulcis amica, venito}” (also censored, but readable), and CC 26, “O with such great devotion does Saint Cecilia stand out {Emicat o quanta pietate Cecilia sancta}” (not censored). (2) Epitaph for Donnia Italia. Made in the second half of the second century GC within the Roman Empire in southern France. Via Petrae: ILA, Lectoure, 32 (16/1/17/32), Épitaphe de Donnia Italia. The inscription is “To the gods, underworld spirits: I did not exist. I existed. I remember. I do not exist. I don’t care. I, Donnia Italia, twenty years old, rest here. Sminthius and Donnia Calliste to their very loyal freedwoman {D(is) I(nferis) M(anibus), non fui fui memini non sum non curo Donnia Italia, annnorum XX, hic qui esco Sm[in]t(h)ius et Donnia Calliste, l(ibertae) piissimae}.”


Axton, Richard, and John E. Stevens, trans. 1971. Medieval French Plays. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Burrow, John, and Thorlac Turville-Petre, eds. 2014. The Piers Plowman Electronic Archive, Vol. 9: The B-Version Archetype. SEENET Series A.12. Online.

Corriente, Federico. 2009. “The kharjas: An Updated Survey of Theories, Texts, and Their Interpretation.” Romance Philology. 63 (1): 109-129.

Davlin, Mary Clemente. 2011. “God and the Human Body in Piers Plowman.” The Chaucer Review. 46 (1-2): 147-165.

DenBoer, James. 2010. String of Pearls: Sixty-Four “Romance” Kharjas from Arabic and Hebrew Muwashshaḥāt of the Eleventh-Thirteenth Centuries. eHumanista Monograph Series 6. Online.

Donaldson, E. Talbot, trans., Elisabeth D. Kirk, and Judith H. Anderson, eds. 1990. William Langland. Will’s vision of Piers Plowman. New York: W.W. Norton.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. 2 vols. Vol. 1Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Esolen, Anthony M., trans. 1995. Lucretius. On the Nature of Things: De rerum natura. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Höschele, Regina. 2009. “Meleager and Heliodora: A Love Story in Bits and Pieces?” Ch. 6 (pp. 99-134) in Nilsson, Ingela, and Emmanuel C. Bourbouhakis, eds. Plotting with Eros: essays on the poetics of love and the erotics of reading. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum.

Konstan, David. 1996. Friendship in the Classical World. Cambridge: University Press.

Paton, W.R., ed and trans. 1916-18. The Greek Anthology with an English Translation. London: William Heinemann (vol. I, bks. 1-6; vol. II, bks. 7-8; vol. III, bk. 9; vol IV, bks. 10-12; vol. V, bks. 13-16).

Roques, Mario. 1921. Le Garçon et L’Aveugle: jeu du XIIIe siècle. 2nd ed, revised. Paris: Champion.

Rouse, W. H. D. , and Martin Ferguson Smith, ed. and trans. 2002. Lucretius. De rerum natura. Loeb Classical Library 181. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Schmidt, A. V. C., ed. 1978. William Langland. The Vision of Piers Plowman: a critical edition. London: J.M. Dent.

Tavormina, M. Teresa. 1995. Kindly Similitude: marriage and family in Piers Plowman. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Werner, Lawrence. 2014. The Myth of Piers Plowman: Constructing a Medieval Literary Archive. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, 89. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1994. The Cambridge Songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland. Introduction.