A Source Book in Greek Science

Author: Lucretius  | Date: 1916


The Epicurean Explanation of the Magnet

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things VI. 906–916, 998–1064. Translation of Cyril Bailey

For what follows, I will essay to tell by what law of nature it comes to pass that iron can be attracted by the stone which the Greeks call the magnet, from the name of its native place, because it has its origin within the boundaries of its native country, the land of the Magnetes. At this stone men marvel; indeed, it often makes a chain of rings all hanging to itself. For sometimes you may see five or more in a hanging chain, and swaying in the light breezes, when one hangs on to the other, clinging to it beneath, and each from the next comes to feel the binding force of the stone; in such penetrating fashion does its force prevail. . . .

Wherefore, when all these things have been surely established and settled for us, laid down in advance and ready for use, for what remains, from them we shall easily give account, and the whole cause will be laid bare, which attracts the force of iron. First of all it must needs be1 that there stream off this stone very many seeds or an effluence, which, with its blows, parts asunder all the air which has its place between the stone and the iron. When this space is emptied and much room in the middle becomes void, straightway first-beginnings of the iron start forward and fall into the void, all joined together; it comes to pass that the ring itself follows and advances in this way, with its whole body. Nor is anything so closely interlaced in its first particles, all clinging linked together, as the nature of strong iron and its cold roughness. . . .

It comes to pass, too, that the nature of iron retreats from this stone at times, and is wont to flee and follow turn by turn. Further, I have seen Samothracian iron rings even leap up, and at the same time iron filings move in a frenzy inside brass bowls, when this Magnesian stone was placed beneath: so eagerly is the iron seen to desire to flee from the stone. When the brass is placed between, so great a disturbance is brought about because, we may be sure, when the effluence of the brass has seized beforehand and occupied the open passages in the iron, afterwards comes the effluence of the stone, and finds all full in the iron, nor has it a path by which it may stream through as before. And so it is constrained to dash against it and beat with its wave upon the iron texture; and in this way it repels it from itself, and through the brass drives away that which without it it often sucks in.

Herein refrain from wondering that the effluence from this stone has not the power to drive other things in the same way. For in part they stand still by the force of their own weight, as for instance, gold; and partly, because they are of such rare body, that the effluence flies through untouched, they cannot be driven anywhere; among this kind is seen to be the substance of wood. The nature of iron then has its place between the two, and when it has taken in certain tiny bodies of brass, then it comes to pass that the Magnesian stones drive it on with their stream.

Cf. Galen, On the Natural Faculties I. 14. Translation of A. J. Brock (London, 1916)

Now Epicurus, despite the fact that he employs in his Physics elements similar to those of Asclepiades, yet allows that iron is attracted by the lodestone, and chaff by amber. He even tries to give the cause of the phenomenon. His view is that the atoms which flow from the stone are related in shape to those flowing from the iron, and so they become easily interlocked with one another; thus it is that, after colliding with each of the two compact masses (the stone and the iron) they then rebound into the middle and so become entangled with each other, and draw the iron after them. . . . I fail to understand how anybody could believe this. Even if we admit this, the same principle will not explain the fact that, when the iron has another piece brought in contact with it, this becomes attached to it. . . . As a matter of fact, I have seen five writing-stylets of iron attached to one another in a line, only the first one being in contact with the lodestone, and the power being transmitted through it to the others.1

1 In the Epicurean account the creation of a void between the magnet and the iron impels the atoms of iron on the side nearer the magnet to move toward the magnet. This they do, drawing the rest of the iron along. [Edd.]

1 There follows a refutation of Epicurus’s explanation of magnetic action. The occasion for the whole discussion is the question of the existence of natural attractions and repulsions between substances. Galen opposes Epicurus’s view that it is the mechanical action of certain types of atoms that gives the appearance of an attraction. [Edd.]


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Chicago: Lucretius, "The Epicurean Explanation of the Magnet," A Source Book in Greek Science, trans. A. J. Brock in A Source Book in Greek Science, ed. Morris R. Cohen and I. E. Drabkin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948), 312–314. Original Sources, accessed September 24, 2021, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BI6AB9768VKATA2.

MLA: Lucretius. "The Epicurean Explanation of the Magnet." A Source Book in Greek Science, translted by A. J. Brock, Vol. I, in A Source Book in Greek Science, edited by Morris R. Cohen and I. E. Drabkin, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1948, pp. 312–314. Original Sources. 24 Sep. 2021. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BI6AB9768VKATA2.

Harvard: Lucretius, 'The Epicurean Explanation of the Magnet' in A Source Book in Greek Science, trans. . cited in 1948, A Source Book in Greek Science, ed. , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp.312–314. Original Sources, retrieved 24 September 2021, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BI6AB9768VKATA2.