The Poets of Epicurus, II: Catullus

2012-08-22

Another poet influenced by Epicurus was Catullus, who lived around the time of Caesar and Cicero during the transformation of Rome from a republic to an empire. Consistent with Epicureanism, Catullus did not involve himself in the political struggles of the day, instead focusing on private life. Yet as far as I can tell from his poems, his private life was devoted to parties and dinners, gossip and invective, wild emotion, romantic relationships and dalliances with women and young men alike, and an overwhelming passion for writing poetry (much of which is rude or even obscene). Amusingly, these pursuits are in fact not truly Epicurean at all, since Epicurus himself counselled emotional restraint, a quiet (even austere) lifestyle, friendship over romance, and scientific precision over poetic license. (By the way, the New World Encyclopedia entry on Catullus evinces little understanding of Epicureanism, e.g. in stating that Epicurus placed a high value on amorous love.)

Indeed, Catullus is almost the exact opposite of Fernando Pessoa, the "sad Epicurean" whom I profiled in the first of this series on the poets of Epicurus. Pessoa valued "the chaste calm of ancient beauty", detachment from the passing frenzy, living alone, and renouncing the transitory day. Catullus, by contrast, was anything but chaste or calm, threw himself into the tumult of society and the complications of multiple relationships, seems to have almost sought out trouble and strife, seized every moment of his short life (he died around age 30), and combined equal parts of beauty and ugliness in his poems.

That said, at times Catullus does capture aspects of Epicurean philosophy. Consider, for example, these lines from a poem he wrote on returning to his ancestral home (in the fine translation by Peter Green):

What greater bliss than when, cares all dissolved,
the mind lays down its burden, and, exhausted
by our foreign labors we at last reach home
and sink into the bed we've so long yearned for?
This, this alone makes all our toil worthwhile.

In many ways Catullus seems to have aspired to the serene joy of Epicurus as a height that was impossible to him -- impossible to the kind of life he led and to the kind of person he was. What might be a late poem of his (Carmina 76) leads me in this direction. In it, he laments the torments of his broken love for "Lesbia", tells himself that he must have a firm resolve, regain his freedom. and reject the misery he feels. He beseeches what gods there are to extricate him from the plague of destruction that has descended into his life and emptied him of all joy because of his passion for and rejection by the great love of his life. He longs for true health of the soul, but you can tell that it's a forlorn hope. He is lost to happiness precisely because he has ignored the advice that Epicurus provides in his Letter to Menoikos:

Let no one put off the love and practice of wisdom when young, nor grow tired of it when old. For it is never too early or too late for the health of the soul. Someone who says that the time to love and practice wisdom has not yet come or has passed is like someone who says that the time for happiness has not yet come or has passed. Young or old, it is necessary to love and practice wisdom, so that in old age you can be youthful by taking joy in the good things you remember, and likewise in youth you can be mature by not fearing what will come. Reflect on what brings happiness, because if you have that you have everything, but if not you will do everything to attain it.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal