Review of Lucrezio, la Natura e la Scienzia, ed. Marco Beretta and Francesco Citti, Florence 2008

Review of Lucrezio, la Natura e la Scienzia, ed. Marco Beretta and Francesco Citti, Florence 2008

(review copyright James Jope)

This volume, edited by Marco Beretta and Francesco Citti, comprises papers from an interdisciplinary conference between departments of the History of Science and Latin Literature on November 16 2006 in Ravenna.

Table of Contents

MARCO BERETTA – FRANCESCO CITTI, Premessa . . . . . . . . . . . . Page V

ANNA ANGELI – TIZIANO DORANDI, Gli Epicurei e la geometria. Un

progetto di geometria antieuclidea nel Giardino di Epicuro? . ................... » 1

LISA PIAZZI, Atomismo e polemica filosofica: Lucrezio e i Presocra-

tici . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ................................... » 11

IVANO DIONIGI, Lucretius, or the Grammar of the Cosmos . . . . ..........    » 27

GIOVANNI DI PASQUALE, Il concetto di machina mundi in Lucrezio...     .» 35

ELISA ROMANO, Tempo della storia, tempo della scienza: innovazio-

ne e progresso in Lucrezio . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .........................» 51

PHILIP HARDIE, Lucretian multiple explanations and their reception

in Latin didactic and epic . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ............................. » 69

FRANCESCO CITTI, Pierio recubans Lucretius antro: sulla fortuna

umanistica di Lucrezio . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ............................» 97

MICHELE CAMEROTA, Galileo, Lucrezio e l’atomismo . . . . . . . . .....     » 141

MARCO BERETTA, Gli scienziati e l’edizione del De rerum natura ...     » 177

Index of names. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ........................» 225

There is no consistent policy regarding translating quotations. In Elisa Romano’s article, for example, Italian translations precede the Latin quotations, whereas Philip Hardie provides no translations, not even for Greek. This circumstance suggests that the editors made no extensive effort of coordination. However, cross-references indicate that contributors were well aware of the other papers, although some are rewritten from previously published versions.

Two outstanding, complementary reception studies by the editors are the foremost feature, so that I shall begin with them. Both are meticulously documented surveys of material which could suffice for longer monographs. (In fact, Marco Beretta later published La rivoluzione culturale di Lucrezio: Filosofia e scienza nell’antica Roma.)

Beretta’s survey here focuses on Lucretius’ influence on scientists from the middle ages into the 20th century. To avoid (1) taking expressions of admiration for influence or (2) projecting modern ideas back, Beretta takes as the thread of his narrative editions of DRN (De Rerum Natura). Although he perhaps does not always strictly observe (1), this is a very fertile new angle, and by its very nature it makes his essay interdisciplinary.

It might be argued that some of the scientists cited do commit error (2), for example, when they identify Lucretius’ minimae partes with electrons, or the clinamen with indeterminacy in quantum physics. Perhaps an exception is Albert Einstein’s essay in Hermann Diels’ edition, which ascribes to Lucretius only prophetic intuition. But however questionable some citations may be, they do illustrate Beretta’s point that DRN was read not just as a poem but as a serious text for science.

To mention just one of the interesting findings in this survey: Pierre Gassendi edited fragments of Epicurus (1649) as well as Lucretius, whom he read until he was “presto a conoscere a memoria”, and he compared atomism with the findings of seventeenth-century experimental science. While Gassendi is commonly cited in general surveys of atomist influence, the Italian physician Giovanni Nardi had published his edition of DRN two years earlier, and it was the first edition by a scientist and with a scientific publisher. Although Nardi was a (moderate) Aristotelean, he found atomism more useful, e.g., to explain the plague which hit Florence in 1630.

An interesting section of Beretta’s paper traces ecclesiastical moves to suppress Lucretius’ influence. When Alessandro Marchetti completed the first Italian translation of DRN in1667 its publication was blocked by the Church, which placed DRN on the index of forbidden books. After several manoevers, it was finally published posthumously in England in 1717. Censorship was less direct, but still vexacious in the Protestant countries. Authors would purge the ‘impious’ content from Lucretius and elaborate a Christian version of atomism (God created the atoms, etc.) Newton’s letters reveal that he was considering writing a commendation of Lucretius, but he was warned not to publish it. Regrettably, this section could provide food for thought today as censorship is on the rise (political correctness, avoiding ‘offending’ anybody, etc.)

The title of Francesco Citti’s survey (Pierio recubans Lucretius antro) quotes an elegy written in 1447 by the humanist Pontanus (Giovanni Pontano), which also imitates Lucretius’ language. Citti’s survey complements Beretta’s by focusing on humanists. While many Renaissance humanists initially assumed, and even amplified, Jerome’s libel, others imitated Lucretius’ poetry extensively. Partly in order to express Greek scientific language, and partly too for metrical facility, Lucretius coined many hapax legomena, which provide a key for tracing Lucretius’ influence in the Renaissance texts. Citti offers an updated list of 116 of these neologisms--a valuable contribution in itself--on pp. 110-113, and then examines several interesting cases of humanists’ use of them. “In generale i composti ricevono una maggiore attenzione per la loro natura poetica, indipendentemente dal contesto originario”. (Citti seems to equate ‘neologisms’ with ‘hapax legomena’, which is not literally correct if the word is copied by a subsequent classical author.)

To mention just one example: Marcantonio Flaminio used Lucretius’ Latin translations of Empedocles’ terminology on Love and Strife in his own adaptation of Empedocles’ Greek.

Throughout the article, the author moves with impressive ease between Classical literature and Renaissance figures with whom most classicists, at least outside of Italy, will not be acquainted.

The other papers may be discussed in the order of their appearance.

Angeli and Dorandi attempt to reconstruct mathematical works, as well as argumentation regarding geometrical principles, by Epicureans from Epicurus to Lucretius, including fragmentary evidence, some of it recently obtained from the library of Philodemus at Herculaneum. Epicureans argued for the impossibility of the infinite divisibility postulated by Euclidian geometry, since it was incompatible with the Epicurean concept of indivisible minimae partes.

Lisa Piazzi examines both literary and philosophical aspects of Lucretius’ criticism of Presocratic philosophers in DRN I 635-920. She correctly observes that, in the tradition of Aristotelean doxography, he regards them only as atomist precursors. She contrasts Lucretius’ polemical abuse with the civility of Platonic and Ciceronian dialogue, and likens it to diatribe. Again, the comparison may be appropriate, but her apparent comfort with the dialogue writers seems rather naive. Plato’s dialogues are rigged; Socrates’ irony is notorious; and Cicero found ways to insinuate his own judgments into his dialogues.

Ivano Dionigi’s article is an English translation of a study published previously in Italian (for the complete reference, see the footnote on p. 27.) Its inclusion in a volume written mainly in Italian seems odd, especially since its interdisciplinary content relates more to comparative literature than to science.

Lucretius describes the way atoms combine to form different materials through concursus, motus, ordo, positura and figura (DRN II 1021). Referring to Heinrich Keil’s Grammatici Latini, Dionigi argues that these are all technical terms of Latin rhetoric, which leads him to highlight some interesting linguistic aspects of DRN. While it is plausible that Roman readers may have thought of the rhetorical usage when reading Lucretius, we can hardly be certain. The terms are physical in their primary meaning and in their use with reference to the atoms; and the author’s references to Italo Calvino and Gustav Flaubert do not corroborate his argument.

Giovanni di Pasquale’s innovative study contextualizes Lucretius’ machina mundi within a conceptual matrix linking philosophy with technology and engineering. Construction was the principal image of technology in the ancient world, but motion too became important from the Hellenistic period. Philosophers as early as the Presocratics were fond of mechanical models, and the author provides a detailed picture of some of these. Spheres, in particular, suggested mechanical models of a perpetual universe driven by god, but Lucretius’ model is mortal and driven by chance. The author shares the view that Lucretius goes beyond Epicurus and reflects contemporary Roman preoccupations when he believes that our world is old and in decline and its structural balance is fragile.

Elisa Romano explores apparent inconsistencies in Lucretius’ attitude toward newness or change, in what she calls a fenomenologia lucreziana della novità, e.g. in the repetitive cycle of life and death in nature, or in the development of civilization in book V. Lucretius shares the fear of change that gripped Romans in his day, but it is both underpinned and modified by Epicurean ethical theory.

Epicureans offered multiple alternative explanations for phenomena which could not be definitively explained, in order to keep people from resorting to supernatural explanations. Philip Hardie locates Lucretius’ multiple explanations in the context of Greek and Roman poetry. Similar multiple explanations were customary in poetry as early as Homer, but there they could include supernatural as well as natural causes. Roman poets after Lucretius continued the practice and imitated Lucretius’ language as well, but they too would not rule out supernatural causes.

Although Hardie certainly demonstrates that the Epicurean practice overlapped with an established poetic tradition, I would suggest that we can approach a better philosophical understanding of this issue if we ask why Epicurus adapted this very figure which was commonly used by the poets. He would hardly have followed their lead out of admiration. Multiple explanations, whether offered by epic poets, by Epicureans, by scientists discussing as yet unresolved phenomena, or by modern scholars who wish to skirt a disputed issue that they need not resolve in a given context, always pertain to matters for which they do not know the definite answer. Whether or not an epic poet actually supposed that a god intervened, the parallel expression of human and divine motivations was an obvious way to insinuate the divine into a narrative of human action. Perhaps Homeric bards were actually uncertain about gods meddling, whereas the Roman authors were simply reverting to the standard practice of the epic genre. In any case, Epicurus may have wished to challenge the poetic convention by using the very same device to exclude divine intervention rather than accommodate it.

Michele Camerota scrutinizes Galileo’s own writings and controversies during his career for evidence of Lucretian influence. Galileo owned two copies of DRN, but never referred to Lucretius explicitly. His views on the structure of matter were compatible with atomism, favouring quantitative and mechanical explanations against the qualitative and teleological views of the Aristoteleans. However, his own views are sometimes obscure and problematical. For example, he ascribed the specific weight of different materials to the density of ‘minimal particles’ inside them, but he avoided discussing the existence of the void. Camerota admits that Galileo’s interest in Lucretius can not be conclusively demonstrated, but his investigation is still constructive.

Interdisciplinary research between Classics and science (investigations of climate change in antiquity, etc.) has augmented since the turn of the millennium, and this book is a welcome step in that trend.

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