Approaches to Lucretius: -----a Review


                    © Copyright: James Jope

Approaches to Lucretius: Traditions and Innovations in Reading the De Rerum Natura [DRN] (2020, ed. Donncha O’Rourke) evolved from a conference on Lucretius in Theory at the University of Edinburgh in 2013. The innovations comprise a sampling of diverse critical theories employed in the study of Lucretius (as well as other classical authors) in recent decades. O’Rourke’s excellent introduction sketches the history of this scholarship and gives not only a summary, but some interesting additional information for each essay. The chapters are roughly grouped according to method: Author and Reader (“vaguely narratology”), atomology (after Friedländer), allusion (by an author) and intertextuality (perceived by the reader–although usually intended by the author). David Sedley did not contribute to the present volume, but should be mentioned as an eminence grise; several essays allude to or discuss his thesis that DRN is derived solely from Epicurus’ Peri Physeos. Sedley’s work might be classed as Quellenforschung (searching out source texts) albeit with the novel feature that the supposed source text is not fully extant and has to be reconstructed.

The most traditional essay–so much so that it seems to stand apart in this collection, showing, as it were, how classicists had to work up the text from the extant manuscripts before the literary theorists could amuse themselves with it–is an exemplary study in textual criticism. In Critical Responses to the Most Difficult Textual Problem in Lucretius, David Butterfield tackles the issue of the opening hymn to Venus followed by its apparent disavowal. First he sketches the problems in the manuscript tradition and scholarly debate since the Renaissance, then argues logically and systematically to his own solution: He postulates that there must have been a marginal note pointing out the correct Epicurean doctrine in the lost manuscript copied by our archetype, which the archetype then incorporated into the main text. Regrettably, Butterfield also exhibits nearly rude impatience, describing rival arguments as, e,g, “rhetorical bluster” (p. 30) or “perverse” (p. 34)–a propensity which has not been uncommon in the long history of textual criticism.

In Reading the ‘Implied Author’ in Lucretius’ DRN, Nora Goldschmidt applies Wayne Booth’s concept of the ‘implied author’. After Roland Barthes murdered ‘The Author’, leaving ‘The Reader’ in control of the text, Booth assisted The Reader by suggesting an ‘Implied Author’. Like the ‘persona’ or the ‘narrator’, the implied author has, of course, nothing to do with Titus Lucretius Carus; rather, it is the overall impression created by the reading of the text. Goldschmidt considers three apparently autobiographical passages about writing the DRN. Noting the ‘labor’ and ‘furor’ associated with composing a Latin poetic expression of Epicureanism, she surprisingly infers that Lucretius did not have peace of mind , i.e., he betrays an element of anti-Lucrèce. This is strange, because no matter how we translate these words, it seems clear from the context that Lucretius enjoyed his work. But surely the overall impression after reading the entire DRN is the static pleasure of contemplating the cosmic cycle with a new understanding.

Barnaby Taylor’s Common Ground in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura resembles close reading, but not of a continuous passage. Rather, he examines short passages throughout the text which use the first person plural. Differentiating inclusive (the reader is part of ‘we’), exclusive (the reader is not part of ‘we’) and collective (reader and author belong to some larger group) uses, he shows persuasively how Lucretius’ didactic technique of “mutual exploration... between... teacher and student” works differently but effectively for both uninitiated beginners and fully instructed Epicureans.

The concept of ‘distributed cognition’ in Coming to Know Epicurus’ Truth: Distributed Cognition in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura by Fabio Tutrone comes from Cognitive Science. It refers to the modern view (as opposed to Cartesian dualism) that knowledge does not reside solely inside the mind; rather, it involves the external world in connection with the brain. It is probably fairly obvious to students of epicureanism that the atomist theory of mind and the senses falls into this category. Tutrone is more concerned with convincing ‘cognitive scientists’, who, like so many modern intellectuals, like to assume that they had no ancient predecessors. His case is strong, but his determination to express it in cognitive scientists’ terms is embarrassing: “[the] DRN... is construed by Lucretius as a distributed cognitive artefact” (p. 94). While historical scholars will be shocked by the anachronism, “death of the author” enthusiasts may find its attribution to the intention of Titus Lucretius Carus disappointing.

In an important digression, Tutrone persuasively defends the ‘realist’ view of Epicurean gods (they exist) against the ‘idealist’ view (they are mental constructs).

Infinity, Enclosure and False Closure in Lucretius’De Rerum Natura is the editor’s own contribution. After discussing the comprehensible and incomprehensible aspects of the concept of infinity, he suggests some ways in which Lucretius’ poetry conveys a sense of infinity: for example, the ‘endless’ series of proofs of the mortality of the soul, which “seems to go on forever”. O’Rourke draws on various sources from Ovid to Umberto Eco, but not, as far as I know, on any particular school of literary criticism. Although he does show a deeper understanding of the philosophical issue than some classicists, this is essentially a standard piece of classical scholarship, and a good one.
Lucretian Echoes: Sound as Metaphor for Literary Allusion in De Rerum Natura: Jason Nethercut proposes a neat instance of the epicurean principle that poetic form and content should correlate. Previous scholars have noticed allusions to the Homeric Hymn to Pan and later texts in Lucretius’ discussion of echo in 4.549-94, but Nethercut argues that Lucretius makes those later texts ‘echo’ the Hymn. His argument is rather speculative and owes much to others (Philodemus, Schiescaro). Can it be backed up by similar passages elsewhere in DRN? The more are found, the stronger the case. Nethercut’s conclusion seems to recognize this.
Saussure’s cahiers and Lucretius’ elementa: A Reconsideration of the Letters–Atoms Analogy:
Wilson H. Shearin calls for a reconsideration of the dominant interpretations of the analogy famously explored by Friedländer between the many ways in which atoms/letters can combine to form different compounds/words. His point–without Saussure–is that the dominant views miss some implications of the analogy, in particular the creative potentiality of the atoms suggested by Lucretius’ term genitalia corpora. A point well taken. Unfortunately, he proposes as a model of creative potential Saussure’s so-called ‘anagrams’, an admittedly arbitrary “game” to find theme words hidden in the text. Thus, from

     . . sed Eo magiS acrem
    inritat animi virtutem, effringere ut arta
    natURaE Primus portarum claustra CUPIret.
(DRN I 69-71)

the eminent Swiss sorcerer conjured Epicurus’ name. It is sad to see an intelligent scholar turning to such frivolity for inspiration.

Arguing over Text(s): Master-Texts vs. Intertexts in the Criticism of Lucretius by
A. D. Morrison describes two kinds of readers who regard Lucretius’ use of his sources in different ways. ‘Master text’ sources are considered superordinate and the epigone is checked against them. This approach is more common among philosophers, and David Sedley’s thesis positing Peri Physeos as Lucretius’ source text is an example. Intertextuality is the dominant approach among students of Latin poetry, who see their authors as responding to, perhaps even correcting, his source texts. Morrison wishes to avoid polemics and concludes that the DRN can accommodate diverse readers. However, he shows that it does make a difference, and he notes that Roman readers themselves (e.g., Ovid) engaged more in intertextuality. This paper is actually a kind of ‘meta-scholarship’, reflecting on the assumptions implicit in different critical approaches–a beneficial and productive exercise that should happen more often.

Lucretius and the Philosophical Use of Literary Persuasion by Tim O’Keefe: In spite of the unconventional professorial image on Tim’s home page, this is a sober attempt to defend Lucretius’ originality by modulating some influential positions which tend to diminish it. First, O’Keefe argues that the debate over whether Lucretius only copied from Epicurus (Sedley looms here once again) or tailored his arguments against contemporary (esp. Stoic) sources can not be resolved, because the source texts are lacking and because Lucretius favored ‘catch-all’ arguments directed at anyone who shared a given position. Then he considers the poet’s use of emotive images and ridicule, which Martha Nussbaum would class with Epicureans’ irrational indoctrination practices. Comparing Cicero, who shows his originality by intervening in his dialogues, O’Keefe argues that Lucretius uses such moves only to remove popular Roman psychological barriers to his arguments, not to replace the reasoning. “In his use of literary and rhetorical methods of persuasion alongside his argumentation, Lucretius alone among the Epicureans shows a sensitivity for needing to present his arguments in a way that also takes into account the biases, stereotypes, and other psychological factors that hinder his audience from accepting the healing gospel of Epicurus.” Whether this constitutes philosophical originality is disputable, but it certainly means that Lucretius was what he set out to be–a first-rate popularizer.

The Rising and Setting Soul in Lucretius, De Rerum Natura: Emma Gee draws an intriguing comparison between Lucretius on souls and Cicero in his Aratea on stars, studying “the interaction of Lucretius’ text with Cicero’s” in its effect on the reader. Lucretius, she argues, subverts Cicero’s and other Stoic texts to which he alludes by altering their philosophical orientation.

This is an intertextual study. There seem to be two major differences between Quellenforschung and intertextuality: (1) Quellenforschung is old and therefore bad, and intertextuality is new and therefore good; (2) Intertextuality involves not only the authors, but especially The Reader. There is, however, a question about intertextuality which puzzles me: Is The Reader a contemporary Roman or a modern polymath? Granted that ancient authors, and Roman poets in particular, read, mined, and strove to upstage their predecessors, can we really assume that they always thought of the same allusions seen by the scholar?

Some of the verbal echoes cited by Gee are rare outside of the compared texts, but others are not. For example, Cicero’s quarum ego nunc nequeo tortos evolvere cursus becomes Lucretius’ quorum ego nunc nequeo caecas exponere causas. The echo effect depends mainly on the first four words, which are common words and likely to be combined in this way for metrical reasons. Like Nethercut’s essay, this would benefit from further instances.       

Was Memmius a Good King? by Joseph Farrell: If researching historical background to better understand literature is a ‘method’, classicists have been using it before, during, and after its discouragement by New Critics (remember them?). Astutely combining historical expertise and literary sensitivity, Farrell compares DRN with Philodemus’ treatise on how to be a good king, by investigating their addressees. Piso was a successful politician, and Philodemus was his dependent (cliens). Memmius was Lucretius’ equal in the Roman social hierarchy and a failure. That is why his teacher is much less indulgent than Piso’s. Farrell even “would not exclude the possibility that Lucretius chose Memmius as his addressee precisely because Memmius’ behaviour reflected so badly not just on himself but on the entire Roman political class, particularly in their relaxed attitude towards living the philosophies that they claimed to espouse.” (239) A notable example of the above ‘astute combination’ concerns DRN 3.992-3, where Tityos is in amore iacentem while having his innards savaged in Hades as punishment for attempting to rape Leto. This, of course, happened only after his crime. The image during the punishment is grotesquely inappropriate. But Lucretius wishes to allegorize the myth as representing the pain of passion... because sexual misconduct played a major part in Memmius’ downfall.                   

A Tribute to a Hero: Marx’s Interpretation of Epicurus in his Dissertation by Elizabeth Asmis is a ‘reception’study, i.e., it concerns the influence of classical authors later in history and in our day. ‘Reception’ has become fashionable partly because it helps classicists keep their jobs, but the reason why it is really needed is clear from Asmis’ observation that “Marx’s dissertation has received much attention from students of Marxism.  There has been very little attention, on the other hand, from students of ancient philosophy.” (241-2) Marx’s interpretation takes the random ‘swerve’ of the atoms as the key to free consciousness, which, evolving along enigmatic Hegelian paths, ultimately surpasses concrete reality. Asmis follows carefully, tracing Hegel’s influence and comparing modern scholarship and ancient evidence, to sift out what is valuable in Marx’s insight. Having consulted her scholarship over the years, I would have thought her well suited for this delicate task, and I am not disappointed.

Plato and Lucretius on the Theoretical Subject by Duncan F. Kennedy offers a critical view of Epicureanism based on its supposed resemblance to Plato, which is well presented rhetorically but so unsound that I must resort to a more polemical style to describe it.

Comparing Plato’s Cave myth with Lucretius’ image of Epicurus as heroic, Kennedy concludes that both philosophies are “metaphysical” because they claim to know the ultimate nature of ‘being’ (viz., the Ideas for Plato and the atoms for Epicurus) on the authority of a privileged reporter or prophet. This definition of ‘metaphysics’ muddles the critical difference: Atomism is verifiable, at least in principle, albeit not yet with ancient technology; the Ideas are not.

Metaphysics, Kennedy continues, is associated with violence, which he finds in the image of religio trodden under foot. But what about the goal of ataraxia (peace of mind)? Apart from the indoctrination alleged by Nussbaum–itself very mild compared with the history of religions–the closest Epicureanism comes to violence is in its calm acceptance of the self-inflicted troubles of the ignorant (suave mari magno etc.) Using the metaphorical image of defeated religio to label Epicureanism as violent is simply not fair.

Kennedy finds in Plato a model of thinking as dialogue, and sees the same model in Lucretius because of the way in which the poet often addresses his reader. What about the entire tradition of didactic poetry going back to the presocratics, and Lucretius’ place in it, which Monica Gale has explored so well?

The weakness of these arguments is hardly compensated by the array of authorities cited, from Socrates to Hannah Arendt. The most prominent of these is Latour, cited as surpassing Lucretius and metaphysics because he “suggests” precisely fifteen (15) different modes of ‘being’. His philosophy too is unconvincing, at least as presented here.

I am indebted to Donncha O’Rourke and his contributors for the opportunity to refresh my acquaintance with Lucretian scholarship through these intriguing essays.

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