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Lucretius was a Latin poet and philosopher who lived c. 95-55 BCE. His long poem – and only surviving work – De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) expounded Epicurean philosophy for a Roman audience. In this, he played a significant role in bringing the largely humanist philosophies of the Epicureans to the Roman world – emphasising the ideals of practical morality, happiness, and friendship without reliance on the gods. Cambridge University Library holds 16th century essayist and philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s heavily annotated copy of the work, which was a major influence on Montaigne’s own thinking. Montaigne was a religious sceptic and critical of religion used as a tool for oppression and division. As noted by Margaret Knight in her Humanist Anthology, on the wall of his study Montaigne had the words of Terence (the Roman comic dramatist): ‘Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,’ or ‘I am human, I think nothing human alien to me’. This humanist recognition that we are all human beings, and should try to understand each other better rather than focus on what divides us, was characteristic of Montaigne’s own philosophy, and of his form, the ‘essay’ (from ‘essayer’ or ‘to try’) – suggesting efforts to carefully examine, and think through, a subject.

Image: University of Cambridge. CC BY-NC 3.0

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