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Lucretius
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan


Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.


Suggested Background Reading

Begin by reading the introduction to Latham/Godwin and Dudley, The Civilization of Rome, chapter 7.

Life and Poetry
Epicurus
General structure of the poem

Life and Poetry. The biographical tradition on Lucretius is scanty and unreliable. Unlike Catullus, Lucretius reveals little about himself in his poetry. The little evidence we have, however, suggests that Lucretius' poem dates to about the same period as Catullus' works — i.e., the early- to mid-50s B.C. One particularly interesting detail contained in the poem is its addressee, a certain Memmius (see, e.g., 1.41ff.). [FN 1] It is tempting to identify this individual with the C. Memmius under whom Catullus served in Bithynia in 57/56. This is the only Memmius of note known from the period; moreover, his association with Catullus and with C. Helvius Cinna (Catullus, poem 10) suggests that he had literary interests. (See Appendix B in Latham/Godwin and cf. B. Gold, Literary Patronage in Greece and Rome, pp. 51-54.) If the identification is correct, Lucretius clearly remained on better terms with his patron than had Catullus!

Lucretius himself is an oddity, both as a Roman and as a poet. As a Roman Lucretius is somewhat curious for his passionate devotion to philosophy. Many Romans in the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. studied philosophy, but most probably would have agreed with Simo in Terence's Andria (p. 42) that too much philosophy, like too great an interest in gambling, horses, or sex, was not good even for a young man, and certainly not proper for an adult male, who was expected to have more important matters to occupy his time. An extreme devotion to philosophy did not jibe with the typical aristocratic Roman's admiration for a life of practical achievement in fields such as politics, law, oratory, or the military. [Here you might compare the lengths to which the historian Sallust must go to defend the writing of history in the introduction to his work on the Catilinarian conspiracy.]

Moreover, Lucretius has elected to devote himself to a philosophy that focuses on detailed, abstruse teachings concerning the origin and make-up of the universe, the composition of the soul, the nature of perception, and so on, as opposed to issues of morality and ethics. The latter were subjects that the Romans had always been keenly interested in. (You might recall the moralizing speeches of New Comedy or the Roman claim to having invented satire, that most moralistic of genres. Some of you may have read the Meditations of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, a work that most Romans of all periods would have found congenial.) Abstract physics, however, was not a field dear to many Romans' hearts.

Worse still, the philosophy Lucretius has chosen is decidedly evangelical in nature, demanding adulation of "the Master" (Epicurus) and virtually unquestioning acceptance of his teachings. The typical Roman would have found this enthusiastic devotion difficult to swallow in any case — all the more when "the Master" was a Greek! Not only that, but this was a philosophy that advocated withdrawal from public life (!) and preached that the highest good — the principle that should guide all our actions — was pleasure. (Not even the Micio of Terence's Brothers would have gone that far!) In 173 B.C. the Romans had expelled two Epicurean philosophers from the city, no doubt for advocating precisely such views. The Rome of Lucretius' day was more sophisticated, more accustomed to things Greek: for example, we know of several prominent and influential Romans in this period who called themselves Epicureans. It is to be wondered, however, whether such individuals were as uncompromising as Lucretius appears to be in their devotion to the Master and his teachings and in their scorn for traditional Roman religion, politics, and society.

As a poet Lucretius is odd as well. The Greeks had a lengthy tradition of philosophical poetry, but this tradition had never really caught on in Rome. There are some signs of interest in the 1st century: for example, Cicero translated the Phaenomena of Aratus, a Greek poet of the 4th/3rd century whose master work consisted of 1,154 lines on the subject of astronomy. (Cicero's translation, like the works of Catullus and the Neoterics, shows the increased interest in new types of poetry in this period.) But Lucretius does not merely attempt philosophical verse: he composes a lengthy epic of some 7,400 lines in dactylic hexameter and in an archaic poetic diction, on subject matter that often has more in common with a modern physics or medical textbook than with what most of us (or the Romans) would consider poetry — very heavy going, at least at first sight, not only in terms of its subject matter but also its form. To some degree, then, Lucretius, like Catullus, is engaged in a new literary movement, but he stands at the opposite pole from Catullus and the latter's Alexandrian affinities. Lucretius seems to attempt to recall the archaic style of Ennius, with his sonorous, distanced tones. This brings grandeur to the work and perhaps lends it an air of time-honored authority, but it adds to its eccentricity. In later ages Lucretius was very influential — Vergil clearly knows him well and Ovid does him the honor of parodying him on many occasions — but he remains an odd fish for his day.

Most notable of all, however, is the strange passion evinced throughout the poem. Lucretius is constantly evoking images of horror, particularly the physical and psychological distress that is the lot of the non-Epicurean. Consider, e.g., 1.1102ff.: deny the premises of Epicurean atomism, we are told, and the whole universe will explode in a flash —

The thunder-breeding quarters of the sky will rush down from aloft. The ground will fall away from our feet, its particles dissolve amid the mingled wreckage of heaven and earth. The whole world will vanish into the abyss, and in the twinkling of an eye no remnant will be left but empty space and invisible atoms.

This sort of thing goes well beyond what one expects in today's typical physics text.

More common is the threat that, should the reader fail to learn the principles of Epicurean philosophy, he/she will be haunted by images of death and of a hellish afterlife, compelled to live in constant terror of divine vengeance and subject to numerous other kinds of mental and physical distress. Particularly graphic is the portrayal of sexual desire at the end of Book 4: the lover is presented as enduring a hellish existence of insatiable longing, futile sexual flailings, and ultimate humiliation and disgrace — scarcely the outlook, we feel, of one who is comfortable with his sexuality.

One hope is offered for the torment of the non-Epicurean: the teachings of the Master. Epicurus repeatedly is presented in passionately adulatory terms as a savior, offering humanity its one hope of escape from the hellish torment of confusion, anxiety, and despair that otherwise is its inevitable lot:

When human life lay groveling in all men's sight, crushed to the earth under the dead weight of superstition whose grim features loured menacingly upon mortals from the four quarters of the sky, a man of Greece was first to raise mortal eyes in defiance, first to stand erect and brave the challenge. Fables of gods did not crush him .... (1.62ff.)

This is very odd stuff in any case, but particularly given the main promise of Epicureanism, that its followers would be granted a life free of turmoil or distress. Lucretius, the passionate advocate of Epicureanism, has seemed to many to be a singularly tormented soul and scarcely evidence for the efficacy of Epicurus' teachings.

As often in antiquity, an answer to this apparent contradiction was found in the life of the poet himself. The story was promulgated that Lucretius had been given a love potion by a woman who had fallen desperately in love with him but had been unable to dent his Epicurean indifference to sexual passion. The potion could not altogether conquer the poet's philosophical resolve but left him tormented by raging emotions and half mad. Hence the curiously passionate tone of so many of his arguments, as the poet struggles against the crazed emotions that rage within his breast. This strange passion — so at odds with the tranquillity promised by Lucretius himself — has come to be referred to by the French phrase, *L'anti-Lucrèce chez Lucrèce ("the anti-Lucretius in Lucretius").

This explanation is a good example of what today is known as the biographical fallacy: the attempt to explain a poet's works in terms of his/her personal experiences (real or fictional). Today it is generally agreed that the curious urgency and passion of the poem is part of a rhetorical strategy. Like the use of Memmius as addressee, the vivid depiction of the torments of the non-Epicurean and of the magnitude of the issues at stake gives immediacy to the poet's arguments and lends them an emotional force. This seems to have been a strategy of Epicurean apologists in general: Cicero, for example, mocks them as promising to save us from fears which (in his sexist phrase) no old peasant woman would take seriously.

In Lucretius, however, this rhetorical strategy is integrated with the poetic tradition to which his poem formally belongs. Lucretius himself twice explains, and perhaps defends, his use of poetry by comparing it to honey on the rim of a cup filled with bitter medicine (1.936ff. and 4.11ff. — cf. Appendix A in Latham/Godwin). His verse, he says, is designed to beguile his audience into imbibing the seemingly tedious doctrines on which ultimate happiness is based. In practice, we find the poet routinely invoking themes and images familiar from various literary genres. For example, when Lucretius wants to portray the horrors to which religion can lead, he takes us into the world of epic and tragedy, evoking the Greek king Agamemnon's slaughter of his daughter Iphigenia (1.80ff.).

[Background: the Trojan War began with the Greek forces gathering at Aulis (on the east coast of Boeotia, facing the island of Euboea) under the leadership of King Agamemnon. While there, Agamemnon in some way insulted the virginal huntress goddess Artemis (= the Roman Diana). In her anger, Artemis sent adverse winds to keep the Greek fleet from sailing. The prophet Calchas finally revealed to Agamemnon that the only way to appease Artemis' anger was to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. Agamemnon sent word to his wife Clytemnestra that Iphigenia was to be married to the Greek hero Achilles as the condition upon which the latter would join the expedition. When Iphigenia arrived, however, she was slaughtered at the altar of Artemis. Clytemnestra later got her revenge: when Agamemnon returned home after the war she led him into his bath and, when he was naked and helpless in the tub, wrapped a large towel around him and hacked him to death.]

Similarly, when Lucretius wishes to evoke images of hell at the end of Book 3, the images he presents are those familiar from famous epics and tragedies. When he takes us to a scene of mourning (3.894ff.), he recalls the world of elegiac lament. And in Book 4, in describing the torments of the obsessive lover, it can be argued that Lucretius merely takes Catullus and the Neoteric Poets at their word, presenting a less sublime portrait of the feelings and experiences they portray. In general, the problems Lucretius explores are real (irrational phobias, the fear of death, turbulent sexual desires), but they are expressed in literary terms through the evocation of worlds familiar to his educated readers from a variety of literary genres.

The result is a complex blend of Epicurean doctrine and poetic elements. One can argue, in fact, that Lucretius does himself an injustice: it is clear that poetry for him is not merely a sugar coating but rather an instrument by means of which his abstract arguments are driven home with a complex emotional force, as the poem simultaneously evokes real human fears and reminiscences of earlier poetry and myth. In the end, Lucretius presents a subtle blend of science, rhetoric, and poetry.

*Epicurus (341-270). [FN 2] In order to appreciate Lucretius' poem, it is necessary to know something of the teachings which inspired it. Epicurus was born on the island of Samos to Athenian parents but spent most of his adult life in Athens. His philosophical system is very eclectic and owes much of its "hard" science to earlier thinkers. He is particularly indebted to the Greek philosopher *Democritus of Abdera (c. 460-370), from whom he derives the bulk of his atomic theory. Democritus claimed that all matter was comprised of atoms (a Greek term meaning "uncuttable" or "indivisible"): small irreducible particles of matter floating about in a vacuum. These atoms were characterized only by size, weight, and shape. Empirical evidence of various kinds was cited for this theory, but most interesting are Democritus' theories of perception. Perception is the result of the interaction between the atoms of an external substance and the atoms of our bodies. Consider taste: things that taste sweet are comprised of smooth, round atoms that stroke the atoms of our tongue; things that taste sour are more jagged, and so forth. Similarly with touch, hearing, smell, and sight. Differences between two individuals' perceptions can be explained in terms of their differing atomic makeups: the same atoms that create a pleasant, rolling, "sweet" sensation on the atomic configuration of my tongue might grate on yours. In the same way, something that tastes pleasant to me when I am well may taste unpleasant to me when I am ill, due to changes in the atomic configuration of my tongue. The interesting thing here is that all sensation is then subjective: when we speak of sweetness, sourness, beauty, etc., we are not talking about an abstract property that exists independently but about our subjective response to the atoms of particular substances when they interact with the atoms of our bodies. The same thing that tastes sweet to me may taste sour to you — or even to me, on a different day. In reality, all that exists are the tiny irreducible atoms, of a particular size, weight, and shape, floating about in a vacuum:

The sweet exists by convention, the bitter by convention, the hot by convention, the cold by convention, color by convention; in actuality there exist only atoms and the void. ... In actuality we perceive/understand nothing certain, but rather that which shifts according to the disposition of our body and of the things that enter it and press against it.

Democritus' theories represented a break with earlier mythical and religious traditions, emphasizing instead an interest in physical reality and a secular, empirical world view. Note that there is little room for the traditional gods in such a universe, or for the religious practices devoted to such gods.

It is often maintained that Epicurus has little interest in the abstract philosophical or scientific inquiry per se, and it is true that his use of Democritus' theories is open to criticism on a number of fairly obvious levels. [E.g., his defense of the senses — cf., e.g., 4.478ff. — shows little appreciation of Democritus' teachings concerning the subjective nature of perception. Other examples will be cited below.] In taking over Democritus' atomic theory and incorporating it into a materialistic philosophy of his own, Epicurus' main concern seems to be to examine the way a person should conduct him/herself in such an impersonal, mechanistic universe. Starting with such a universe, he draws a number of conclusions.

First: traditional religion is to be rejected as mere superstition. Epicurus provides a place for the gods (and is roundly criticized as being inconsistent for doing so), but only as paradigms of Epicurean serenity and (it is likely) for public relations purposes, in order to avoid charges of impiety (see Lucretius, Book 5). The gods exist, he claims, but, being perfectly happy, care nothing for us and have no concern or involvement with human affairs.

Second: death is a mere dissolution. Like all things that exist, the soul is composed of atoms and, like the body, dissolves after death. There can be no afterlife, because individual existence must cease once the atoms out of which we are formed have returned to the cosmic store. Like the universe (cosmos) [FN 3] itself, every individual is composed of a temporary configuration of atoms that must eventually dissolve back into its constituent parts. Thus the life of the individual (the *microcosm) mirrors that of the cosmos itself (the *macrocosm) in a curious type of atomic pantheism. There can be no consciousness after death because there is no self.

Third: the goal of life, in such a universe, can only be to pass it as pleasantly as possible while we are here. Thus pleasure is indeed the goal of life in Epicurus' view. This is the doctrine that apparently so outraged the Romans in the 2nd century B.C. and that has led to the negative use today of the term "epicure." It is important to understand, however, just what Epicurus means by pleasure. A better expression might be freedom from distress: keeping the atoms of both body and mind in a tranquil, orderly, well-composed state. (I.e., if body and mind are composed of a harmonious concatenation of atoms, any disturbance of this ordered state is to be avoided, the ultimate disturbance being, of course, death — the utter disruption of the body/mind cosmos.) This state — the key to true happiness and the ultimate goal of the Epicurean — is called *ataraxia ("lack of perturbation"). The result is a curiously ascetic form of hedonism, where pleasure is equated with the absence of pain or (on the psychological level) a tranquil indifference. An important source of pain, according to Epicurus, are unfulfilled desires, which torment the mind to no purpose. It is therefore important to cultivate only natural desires that are easily fulfilled and to avoid excessive pleasures, which by their very nature are violent and therefore a threat to ataraxia. The Epicurean will employ what has been called a hedonistic calculus or measuring of pleasures, weighing the immediate pleasure against its potential costs. (For example, Epicurus would not have liked crack cocaine, which engenders a state of urgent longing in its users when they are not actually taking it. In Epicurus' view, most non-Epicurean pleasures are all too like crack.)

Thus Epicurus emphasizes intellectual over physical pleasures. The former are natural, easily fulfilled, and cause no perturbation to either body or mind. The true Epicurean, then, will lead a very simple life, passed in quiet philosophical conversation with his/her friends as they join in exploring and enjoying the complex marvels of the universe. The virtues Epicurus stresses most are friendship, loyalty, and temperance, and he himself passed his life in his Garden conversing with his friends/disciples. (Compare the end of Voltaire's Candide and the ultimate message of that work.) Entailed in this is a rejection of the very activities that were mother's milk to many Romans: politics, military achievement, business. Like a 3rd-century Timothy Leary, Epicurus' principle message was, "Tune in, turn on, drop out."

Epicureanism is the product of a period in Greek history (the 4th/3rd centuries) that had witnessed the alienation of the individual from society. (In this sense it can be compared to the current New Age phenomenon, with which it shares much in common.) Some find a parallel in the Late Republic — a period of political and social chaos that may well have led people like Lucretius to desire the refuge offered by Epicurus' message. (It is often noted, for example, the Lucretius' poem is virtually devoid of specific references to events of his own day — perhaps a sign of his withdrawal from contemporary society?)

Epicurus' teachings are easy to criticize. On a sociological level, it is clear that he assumes a certain financial independence and the presence of slaves, since someone must look after the sublime Epicurean as he/she sits tranquilly in his/her garden. His doctrine also lacks purpose. In Aristotelian terms, it lacks both a first cause (i.e., a god or creator) and a final cause or ultimate goal that might help give life meaning, and pleasure — even when defined in such lofty terms — strikes many as a rather vapid goal. There are also numerous slips in the logic of the atomic theory that supports this world view. We have already seen, e.g., the way Epicurus asserts the existence of gods against all logic. His assertion that atoms occasionally swerve in their course for no reason (2.216ff.) — used to explain free will — is infamous. Finally, his explanation of the atomic make-up of the mind/soul (3.231ff.) invokes a mysterious "fourth element" which, when you get down to it, is what we might call the soul itself. Finally there is the argument familiar from today's debates over evolution: how can one have a watch (i.e., the marvelously ordered universe described by the Epicureans) without a watchmaker? Again it is possible to argue that, for Epicurus, the science was merely a way of justifying his moral philosophy.

General structure of the poem. Lucretius' work is divided into six books (or cantos). These books tend to fall into pairs: Books 1-2 deal with Epicurus' atomic theories; Books 3-4 deal with the life and experience of the individual (the microcosm); Books 5-6 deal with the formation and functioning of the planet (the origin of life, astronomy, meteorology, geology) and the origins of human society — the macrocosm. An interesting pattern is repeated within each book: the discussion tends to begin on an impersonal, abstract level as Lucretius sets out Epicurus' teachings; toward the end of each book, however, the tone becomes more impassioned and polemical, as Lucretius changes from Epicurean instructor to impassioned street preacher, employing a more rhetorical and combative tone.


Notes

[FN 1] Note: lines 44-49 ("[I beg you for peace] ... immune from anger.") are inserted from Book 2 (lines 646-51) and should be deleted. [Return to text]

[FN 2] In addition to the introduction in Latham, see B. Inwood and L.P. Gerson, The Epicurus Reader (Indianapolis, 1994). [Return to text]

[FN 3] Literally, "order," as in the modern "world order." [Return to text]


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