Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 3.978-1023 "Hell on Earth"

(Translated by R. Scott Smith)


All that suffering, of course, which is said to exist down
in deep Acheron exists right here in our lives.
No pathetic Tantalus, as the story has it, fears the great rock 980
hanging over him, paralyzed by unfounded terror.
Rather, groundless fear of the gods weighs upon mortals in life,
and they fear the fall that chance has in store for them.
No Tityos lies in Acheron for birds to infest;
they cannot possibly find what they are looking for 985
beneath his chest, huge though it be, for all eternity:
not even if he were stretched out with a body of such monstrous
size that he occupied with his outstretched limbs
not six acres but the extent of the whole world,
could he so endure eternal pain 990
or supply food from his body forever.
But there is a Tityos right here in the man overcome by Love,
rent asunder by winged creatures, consumed by anguished anxiety,
or torn apart by worries caused by any other desire.
There is also a living Sisyphus here in full view of us all, 995
the man who strives to win the fasces and menacing axes of power
by vote of the people but always returns beaten and full of gloom.
Striving for power, a worthless possession that is never granted,
and enduring never-ending, exhausting toil in pursuit of it
is the same thing as struggling to force up a mountain 1000
a rock which, for all one’s effort, rolls back down when it reaches the top
and heads in a rush for the level ground of the flats below.
Likewise, forever feeding a dissatisfied mind,
filling it with good things but never satisfying it—
just as the seasons of the year do for us when they 1005
revolve and bring us their crops and many charms
yet never fill us with the fruits of life—
this, I think, is meant by the story of the girls who,
in the flower of their youth, pour water into a pot full of holes,
which, no matter how they try, can never be filled. 1010
As for Cerberus and the Furies and darkness complete,
and Tartarus, who spews frightful fires from its jaws—
these certainly have never existed and cannot exist.
But in life there is the fear of punishment for our crimes,
extraordinary fears for extraordinary crimes, and atonement for sin: 1015
the dungeon, the horrible plunge from the Rock,
beatings, torturers, the post, pitch, hot lead and torches—
even if these torments are not at hand, the guilt-stricken mind
in fearful anticipation applies the goads and sears itself with lashes,
all the while not seeing possible limits of our ills 1020
or what end there may be for our punishment,
and fearing that all this torment may only grow worse in death.
To sum up, the life of these fools becomes a hell on earth.


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