The Poets of Epicurus, IV: Lucretius

2012-11-17

In previous installments of this series on "The Poets of Epicurus", I've talked about Pessoa, Catullus, and Horace, each of whom presented small doses of Epicureanism in an approachable style (heck, even I have done that a few times). Yet the greatest of the Epicurean poets, Lucretius, is something else entirely. His only known work, The Nature of Things, is not only monumental but also the finest example ever produced of didactic poetry. These days we forget the diverse history of literature and think of poems as purely lyrical -- brief, personal, passionate expressions of love and other strong emotions. The Nature of Things is nothing of the kind: it is intended to instruct and edify, not to inspire or entertain.

Lucretius poured all of his considerable talent into generating almost 7500 lines of verse explaining the philosophical system of Epicurus. The result is the unlikeliest of poetic and philosophic classics; the amazing thing is that it works! Granted, we no longer take The Nature of Things seriously as physics or biology or astronomy (that transition happened in the 1600s). Yet we cannot help but marvel at the inexhaustible celebration of the cosmos, living things, and philosophic wisdom that Lucretius created.

(By the way, if you're tempted to read Lucretius in English, I cannot recommend highly enough the recent translation by A.E. Stallings, in rhyming fourteeners no less! It is gorgeous, mesmerizing, even magical at times.)

While Lucretius begins his poem with a paean to Venus as the creative force of the universe, he quickly dives into the atomic nature of all existence and other fundamentals of Epicurean physics, including the notorious "atomic swerve". Everything he writes is consistent with the fragments of Epicurus that we still possess, but it is presented in a lively manner quite unlike that of Epicurus himself.

Most of the key Epicurean themes are here (although he doesn't mention the importance of friendship)...

The complete bliss of the gods (I, 44-48):

For godhead by its nature must enjoy eternal life
In utmost pease, removed from us and far from mortal strife,
Apart from any suffering, apart from any danger,
Powerful of itself, not needing us, and both a stranger
To our attempts to win it over and untouched by anger.

Their lack of involvement in human affairs (I, 146-158):

This dread, these shadows of the mind, must thus be swept away
Not by rays of the sun nor by the brilliant beams of day,
But by observing Nature and her laws. And this will lay
The warp for us -- her first principle: that nothing's brought
Forth by any supernatural power out of naught.

For certainly all men are in the clutches of a dread --
Beholding many things take place in heaven overhead
Or here on earth whose causes they can't fathom, they assign
The explanation for these happenings to powers divine.
Nothing can be made from nothing -- once we see that's so,
Already we are on the way to what we want to know:
What can things be fashioned from? And how is it, without
The machinations of the gods, all things can come about?

The veracity of the senses (I, 418-425):

To pick up the thread where I left off: the universe's nature
Consists, in essence, of two different things: for there is matter,
And there is void, in which the particles of matter move
Hither and thither. The senses that men have in common prove,
In and of themselves, that matter is. Unless we place
Our firm faith in sensation, we shall have nothing to base
Conclusions on concerning what lies hidden from our view,
Nor could our reasoning confirm that anything is true.

The purely physical basis of human mind and spirit (III, 549-558):

And since the mind's a part of man, and has its fixed location
As eyes or ears or other organs for life's navigation,
And just as hand, or eye, or nose, if separate and free
From us, would neither have the power to feel nor even be
But, rather, in short order would be melted with decay,
So mind requires the body -- the actual man -- in the same way
In order to exist, because the flesh contains the mind --
The body being, as it were, a vessel of a kind --
Or maybe there's some other metaphor that makes it plainer,
Since mind and flesh are closer bound than contents and container.

The existence of free will (II, 263-283):

When the starting gate swings open at the races, don't you see
How the horses' energy, champing at the bit, cannot burst free
As quickly as the mind itself desires? For the whole supply
Of matter in the flesh must be spurred on, with a great try
Throughout the frame, so it can follow the yearning of the mind.
And therefore motion has its impetus in Thought, we find,
First rising from a whim of spirit, then travelling all through
The flesh, and through the limbs. The same, however, is not true
When we lurch forward because we have received a mighty shove
From someone else -- it's clear then our whole mass is made to move
And that our body's rushed ahead involuntarily
Until our freewill curbs it back throughout our limbs. You see,
Don't you, that even though a force outside them may propel
A crowd, sometimes stampeding them against their will, pell-mell,
Yet there is something in our chest can fight back and can stand
Against it, making the mass of matter turn at its command
Throughout our body, and when that mass is spurred ahead, can rein
It back into its place and settle it back again.

The insignificance of death (III, 862-869):

For if someone will ail and suffer at some future day,
He must exist in that time when the maladies beset.
But Death removes the possibility, since Death won't let
The man exist for whom these ills are hoarded up. It's clear,
Therefore, that Death is absolutely nothing we need fear,
And that he who is not cannot be wretched or forlorn.
What can it matter to the man that he was even born
Once Deathless Death despoils him and his mortal life is shorn?

The simple requirements of living (II, 7-22):

But there is nothing sweeter than to dwell in towers that rise
On high, serene and fortified with teachings of the wise,
From which you may peer down upon the others as they stray
This way and that, seeking the path of life, losing their way:
The skirmishing of wits, the scramble for renown, the fight,
Each striving harder than the next, and struggling day and night,
To climb atop a heap of riches and lay claim to might.
O miserable minds of men! O hearts that cannot see!
Beset by such great dangers and in such obscurity
You spend your little lot of life! Don't you know it's plain
That all your nature yelps for is a body free from pain,
And, to enjoy pleasure, a mind removed from fear and care?
And so we see the body's needs are altogether spare --
Only the bare minimum to keep suffering at bay,
Yet which can furnish pleasures for us in a wide array.

And much else besides (the foregoing quotes are the smallest taste of his work).

Yet The Nature of Things is not merely didactic: it is also vivid, imaginative, and at many points deeply heartfelt. Lucretius finds countless ingenious familiar analogies for the philosophical principles he strives to elucidate, encourages the reader to actively follow his line of thought, and shows an abiding empathy for both animals and his fellow humans. One quality that comes through on every page is his fundamental love of what is real in all its multifarious forms (V, 1-2):

Who can build a fitting song, who has the strength of heart
To match the Majesty of Things and these truths in his art?

In short, this may be philosophy, but Lucretius never lets you forget it is also a poem with all the vibrant particularism that entails.

As to the question of whether poetry is a legitimately Epicurean pursuit in the first place, consider this: Epicurus held that philosophy is a kind of medicine for the soul (Fragment 221):

A philosopher's words are empty if they do not heal the suffering of mankind. For just as medicine is useless if it does not remove sickness from the body, so philosophy is useless if it does not remove suffering from the soul.

Lucretius extends this metaphor by claiming that presenting philosophy in verse is something like sugar-coating ill-tasting medicine (I, 934-945):

Nor is my method to no purpose -- doctors do as much;
Consider a physician with a child who will not sip
A disgusting dose of wormwood: first, he coats the goblet's lip
All round with honey's sweet blond stickiness, that way to lure
Gullible youth to taste it, and to drain the bitter cure,
The child's duped but not cheated -- rather, put back in the pink --
That's what I do. Since those who've never tasted of it think
This philosophy's a bitter pill to swallow, and the throng
Recoils, I wished to coat this physic in mellifluous song,
To kiss it, as it were, with the sweet honey of the Muse.

Although Lucretius concocts the sweetest honey he can, he never loses sight of the ultimate aim: healing the suffering of mankind and enabling his readers to achieve a life of joy and tranquility. For this reason and many others he is far and away the greatest of the poets of Epicurus.


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