Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Week 11, Lucretius

Notes on Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura

The Golden Age of Latin Literature, adapted from Moses Hadas’ A History of Latin Literature.

Ciceronian: (70-30 B.C.) Cicero, Lucretius, Catullus, Cinna, Nepos, Sallust, Varro

Augustan: (30 B.C.-17 A.D.) Virgil, Horace, Tibullus, Propertius, Ovid, Livy.

Titus Lucretius Carus (98-55 B.C.)

Lucretius lived in a time of turmoil; amongst the major historical events of his day were the following:

90-88 B.C. Marsian War—Italian allies demand and win right to citizenship
89-85 B.C. First Mithridatic War –the King of Pontus invades Asia minor
88-82 B.C. General Sulla marches on Rome, Civil War with Marius’ followers.
82-80 B.C. Sulla dictator and then retires
74-63 B.C. Third Mithridatic War
73-71 B.C. Spartacus’ slave rebellion in Italy, put down by Pompey and Crassus, who become consuls
60-60 B.C. Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar form “first triumvirate”
59-51 B.C. Caesar becomes consul in 59, in 58 begins conquering Gaul ; in 58-57 Cicero exiled, Clodius tribune.
55-54 B.C. Caesar invades Britain—this is around the time Lucretius died
49-49 B.C. Caesar refuses to disband his army, crosses Rubicon River
49-45 B.C. Civil War in Rome; Caesar defeats Pompey at Pharsalus in 48, is dictator 47-44, when he’s assassinated by Brutus, Cassius, other Republican conspirators
43-29 B.C. Second Triumvirate’s formation and destruction: Marc Antony, Lepidus, Octavian. When the dust settles, Octavian becomes “Augustus.”
27-14 B.C.-A.D. Augustus Caesar rules; Julio-Claudian line runs through AD 68: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero.

Materialism vs. spiritual explanations. Lucretius would have little sympathy with the Bible, which claims that an all-powerful God has created humans to worship him. Like Blake, Lucretius would see such a god as “Nobodaddy,” a creation of fools to calm their anxieties that was then taken over and systematized by power-seeking knaves. His overriding message is that there is nothing between us and felicity but superstition and failure to reconcile ourselves to “the nature of things”.

Since—like Marx and Freud—he opposes metaphysical claims as vain delusion, Lucretius offers a materialist explanation of human development and the universe. The interesting thing here is that he insists on free will along with the pure materialist “atomic theory” that supposedly causes everything to happen. If you want to see into the heart of nature, you need first to understand that the movement of irreducible atoms is responsible for everything around you. You cannot see the atoms or their movements, but you can infer their existence from inferences based on sensory experience.

The Truth: What is his philosophical stance designed to accomplish? Well, of course, the first goal of a philosophy is simply to be true. However, practical Roman that he is, Lucretius also has a rhetorical task to accomplish for his learned hearers. That task is to offer an esoteric sense of permanence amidst the flux. Matter is neither created nor destroyed—an insight strikingly similar to that of Albert Einstein 2000 years later. Lucretius must describe one component of the world that is permanent—atoms; everything else must pass through the cycle of birth and death. It is not quite true, therefore, as Heraclitus says, that “all things give way, and nothing abides,” or that, as Shelley will write, “nought may remain but mutability.” That would be true of compound bodies, but not of the atoms that compose them. The atomic structure of the cosmos abides: there will always be space and atoms. Lucretius takes that for philosophical truth.

What to make of it? We must reconcile ourselves to the nature of things, and if we are wise, we may derive comfort from this knowledge. Lucretius probably would not see his solution as workable for everyone, but only for the learned and philosophically minded. What do you suppose Lucretius would say to someone who points out, “what terrifies ordinary Romans is also what comforts them. The source of both their anxiety and their hope is religious belief”?

Why Poetry and the Epicurean Muse? The fact that Lucretius is a materialist, not given to fanciful explanations of things, why then does he resort to “winged poesy” to get his point across? Why not write a nice dry prose tract, as I have it in my Latham translation? Here’s a fine hexameter passage from Book One that promises us that carefully chosen words crafted into poetry will help reveal to us the very heart of things:

Nec me animi fallit Graiorum obscura reperta
difficile inlustrare Latinis versibus esse,
multa novis verbis praesertim cum sit agendum
propter egestatem linguae et rerum novitatem;
sed tua me virtus tamen et sperata voluptas
suavis amicitiae quemvis efferre laborem
suadet et inducit noctes vigilare serenas
quaerentem dictis quibus et quo carmine demum
clara tuae possim praepandere lumina menti,
res quibus occultas penitus convisere possis.

Why do poets like Lucretius? Well, partly because he is such a keen observer of nature, and partly because he meditates so insightfully on the flux of things—the poet’s task is in part to achieve a sense of intelligibility and constancy while not covering up the difficulty of dealing with nature or with human passion. Lucretius offers us a chance to maintain a fresh perception of the universe and ourselves—”make it new” would be as good a slogan for him as it is for the Modernists.

In Book Five, Lucretius discusses many plausible alternatives for natural phenomena. In our own time, science offers the simplest possible theory to explain the order of things—we may recall Einstein’s remark about genius consisting in the ability to make things as simple as possible and no simpler. Lucretius does not seem very interested in this insistence on simplicity, even though he is a thoroughgoing materialist. It is not that he deviates from straight-line explanation in favor of arabesque curves, but rather that he is a pluralist who will give us several plausible explanations for the same thing. It is not far from this procedure to poetry.

To be continued with book-by-book notes as/if time permits....


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