Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.02.38

L. Rumpf, Naturerkenntnis und Naturerfahrung. Zur Reflexion epikureischer Theorie bei Lukrez. Zetemata 116.   Munich:  C.H. Beck, 2003.  Pp. 285.  ISBN 3-406-51181-3.  €59.90.  

Reviewed by Tobias Reinhardt, Somerville College, University of Oxford (
Word count: 1350 words

[The reviewer apologises for the lateness of this review.]

Rumpf's (R.'s) monograph, a revised and abbreviated version of the author's Frankfurt Habilitationsschrift of 2001/2, takes its cue interestingly and unusually from a branch of Lucretian scholarship which today receives attention mostly by way of being the kind of interpretation scholars feel they have to overcome. His overall thesis is that attempts to explain those passages in Lucretius (L.) which seem hard to reconcile with Epicurean doctrine and the overall didactic purpose of L. (e.g. the prooemium of Book 1 or the description of the plague at the end of Book 6) as rhetorical devices, which must be decoded and translated so as to be subservient to the doctrinal content of the work, have suppressed, undervalued or failed to appreciate important aspects of the text which need to be accounted for on any plausible reading, simply because they are 'in the text'. He suggests that these elements which refuse to fall into place cohere with each other and amount to a theme that is playing alongside the doctrinal message of the work, supplementing rather than undermining it; in that respect his way of reading L. can be compared to similar approaches to Virgil (and, by now, other authors), as R. himself points out (p. 30). According to R., L. hence engages as a poet, i.e. not on the level of argumentative content in the narrow sense, with issues which have a philosophical dimension, e.g. the need for Epicurean doctrine to relate to a world which feels true and real and powerful before and while it is set against an Epicurean world view. For R. it is here that the reconciliation of philosophy and poetry in the De rerum natura resides.

Chapter 1 is introductory. R. cites two important monographs on L. by Diskin Clay and David Sedley as representatives of a 'didactic interpretation' of L., characterised by the assumption that L. is first and foremost a teacher of Epicurean philosophy, and a poet to the extent that this supports his didactic purpose.1 Scholars of this persuasion agree according to R. on the way in which the wormwood simile is to be read: as a reasonably straightforward self-declaration, which opens up a clear dichotomy between poetic form and philosophical content. Problematic passages like the proem to Book 1 are either reconciled with Epicurean philosophy, by showing that 'in fact' they do not conflict with Epicurean teachings and practises or that they can be read allegorically or symbolically, or they are seen as rhetorical devices, which make the author encroach on enemy territory for strategic reasons (p. 15, p. 17 end of first para.), which then necessitates a more or less orderly 'retreat' later in the work. In response, R. urges that the persona of the teacher is in the text and as such potentially gives rise to an intentional fallacy just like any other self-declaration of the narrator (19). This 'didactic' reading of L. is seen as a response to scholars like Patin or Regenbogen,2 who emphasise tensions and contradictions within L., and divergences from Epicurus. While R. does not side with this second group, he nonetheless states that the rejection of their overall approach has led scholars to ignore observations made by them which are worth considering. R.'s approach is then one which makes a point of retaining a keen ear and an open mind without falling into the same traps as Patin and Regenbogen (p. 29).

Chapter 2 develops R.'s way of reading the text. He points out that, while it is true that intertexts create meaning, they can do so only after some primary understanding of the target text has been acquired, which allows intertexts to be identified as such in the first place. He also urges that the 'presence' of intertexts in the target text should make it possible to retrieve much of the meaning which reference to intertexts would provide from a careful reading of the target text in a deliberately 'naive', slow-going, immanent, and microscopic mode of reading, which is set apart from other immanent ways of reading texts. Then R. goes on to address all the objections which this approach might invite, including the obvious one that he is reviving an antiquated way of reading texts. And he says what he means when he makes 'Lucretius' the subject of sentences. This chapter is interesting and stimulating, and does not reinvent the wheel; however, the lucidity which otherwise pleasantly characterises this monograph occasionally gives out in this chapter (e.g. p. 63).

The other chapters are close readings which are hard to summarise. Ch. 3 deals with the proem to book 1, ch. 4 with 1.271-97 which prepares for the introduction of atoms, ch. 5 with the declaration of poetic intent and the wormwood simile in 1.921-50, ch. 6 with the end of book 2, ch. 7 with extracts from the second half of book 3, and ch. 8 with 'two passages on infinity', the description of Mount Aetna in 6.639-702, and 5.1341-49. In a final chapter the extra layer of meaning which R. wants to accord to L. the poet is characterised, and it is explained how it is supposed to be squared with the doctrinal content L. wants to communicate. The common ground between the various close readings is 'eine Art impliziter Theorie des wahrnehmenden Subjekts. Immer wieder kommt ein spezifisch betrachtendes Weltverhaeltnis zur Geltung, in dem sich das kontemplierende Subjekt selbst als Teil der Welt erfaehrt' (p. 233; R.'s emphasis).

This book offers a series of original and acute interpretations of parts of L.'s work which have been very extensively studied, and is effective in questioning long-cherished preconceptions about them. It deserves to be studied alongside Clay and Sedley. Followers of the 'didactic interpretation' of Lucretius may not change their minds but may prefer to think that R. has pushed the bar a little higher for them. Those theoretically minded readers who are at all sympathetic to immanent reading may feel that R. goes some way to returning Lucretius the poet to them (whom they prefer to Lucretius the philosopher who has one and one meaning only, at least according to some of his advocates). Traditionalists will feel that reading practices which they would claim for themselves ('returning to the texts' etc.) have been provided with a theoretical underpinning. All of them would have a point but would fail to do justice to R.'s careful argument.

A general problem which R.'s arguments raise is this: R. repeatedly states that his interpretations are meant to bring out aspects of the text which supplement rather than question or undermine the didactic content (e.g. p. 28). That becomes an easier proposition if we (somehow, on some level, and despite declarations to the contrary) assume that what the De rerum natura wants to teach is the truth, and that its didactic aim is that its readers apprehend the truth. If, however, we appreciate that Epicureans generally are ultimately not interested in truth, or at least not in truth for truth's sake, but rather in freeing human beings from anxiety and in enabling them to lead a happy life (an insight we do not need to carry into the text from outside), then R.'s Lucretius may seem more 'anti-Lucretian' than he himself makes him out to be in his general statements of purpose; complementarily to that, the detailed interpretations at times present the tensions as rather more fundamental (e.g. p. 92, end of first para.). It is interesting to see how R. reads the end of Book 6. On p. 238, end of first para., there is a brief remark on this, which may illustrate the point: 'Immer wieder -- und hier endgueltig -- steht am Schluss nicht einfach die siegreiche Theorie, sondern ein Zeichen der Unaufgeloestheit.' R. might point out that this sentence has to be viewed in the light of his way of reading texts immanently, in the sense that the tension is simply in the text. Proponents of the 'didactic' interpretation would perhaps retort that this just shows that reading texts immanently only gets you so far.


1.   D. Clay, Lucretius and Epicurus (Ithaca, 1983); D. Sedley, Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom (Cambridge, 1998).
2.   M. Patin, 'L' Antilucrèce chez Lucrèce', in Études sur la poésie latine, vol. i (Paris, 1868), 117-137; O. Regenbogen, Lukrez -- Seine Gestalt in seinem Gedicht (Leipzig and Berlin, 1932).

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