Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.38 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.38

Daryn Lehoux, A. D. Morrison, Alison Sharrock (ed.), Lucretius: Poetry, Philosophy, Science.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. x, 326.  ISBN 9780199605408.  $135.00.  

Reviewed by R. Allen Shoaf, University of Florida, Gainesville (


Full disclosure: I am a medievalist/early modernist currently finishing a monograph on Shakespeare's reading of Lucretius, under contract with Cambridge Scholars Publishing and tentatively scheduled to appear in 2015. I have studied Latin for well more than half my life, and I have spent the past 10 years in study of Lucretius, but I am not a classicist by profession.

This collection of essays is very welcome, especially to those who, like me, are fascinated by the extraordinary impact Lucretius had on sixteenth- and seventeeth-century writing in Europe. The ten essays in this volume demonstrate from the perspective of the three crucial differentiae listed in its title the principal facets of Lucretius's epic that mark it as the unique monument it is and that contributed also to its importance for the early modern world. After reading these essays, it is even more obvious why all kinds of writers, from “natural philosophers” (= today’s scientists) to poets to theologians, felt compelled to engage Lucretius’s masterpiece and its frequently spellbinding rhetoric. In particular, one comes away understanding that the atomic theory of matter was also, in effect, an atomic theory of language, which goes a long way toward accounting for why writers like Montaigne, Shakespeare, Jonson, Milton, among others, responded to the poetry in the ways that they did.

In the wake of Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern and in light of numerous recent studies of Lucretius in the Renaissance as well as in other periods of European intellectual history, this collection contributes directly to an increased awareness that the reception history of Lucretius, as fascinating a story as it is, is not for a moment more important than the actual content of his work. Above all, the ten essays assembled here demonstrate variously and convincingly the core Epicurean tenet of disciple Lucretius: he writes to alleviate the suffering of his fellow man. In the Master’s words themselves, "just as medicine is of no use, if it fails to banish the diseases of the body, so philosophy is of no use, if it fails to banish the suffering of the mind";1 and, just so, Lucretius writes an unforgettable witness to human suffering that is also a monumental testimony to human aspiration to physical and psychical health.

The volume began as a conference at the University of Manchester. (As witness to the increasing importance of understanding Lucretius in modernity, a similar, unrelated conference was held at New York University — “Lucretius and Modernity” [2011]. One assumes that its proceedings will be published in the not-too-distant future.) More and more, scholars are assembling to pool their collective expertise toward a more finely nuanced evaluation of the poem as well as its afterlife.

The collection opens with an introduction by Alison Sharrock in which she explains that "the volume is arranged with a ring-composed frame of intertextual pieces" (page 11), and in which she observes that “comfort-zone pushing is exactly what emerges from bringing our various positions into dialogue and challenging each other to rethink our material in new ways” (page 1), as all the authors attempt to come to grips with the extraordinary overlaps of disciplines and givens in Lucretius’s poem — poetry, philosophy, science.

Monica R. Gale then discusses Lucretius and Hesiod (“Piety, Labour, and Justice in Lucretius and Hesiod”), concluding that "Hesiod represents the old, mythological poetry to which Lucretius implicitly opposes his own poetics of scientific rationalism" (page 50). Next Duncan F. Kennedy, in a brief but compelling essay, “The Political Epistemology of Infinity,” argues for taking care in any approach to DRN in which one "would seek to read off republican politics for Lucretius’ poem, or see it as a potential source of opposition to the principate and the ideology of universal empire" (page 67). After all, Epicurus himself in some ways is “imperial” or, at least, imperious.

In chapter three, “Lucretius, Epicurus, and the Logic of Multiple Explanations,” R. J. Hankinson carefully explains that "the ‘doctrine of multiple explanations’ is … located centrally within the fundamental Epicurean framework of the subordination of physics to ethics. The study of the world is of no use unless it helps us to live well" (page 79). Multiple explanations actually contribute to peace of mind (ataraxia) by positing a certain humility about what we cannot know, so that, in our ignorance, and humility, we can and should privilege peace of mind before anything else.

In chapter 4, “Nature, Spontaneity, and Voluntary Action in Lucretius,” Monte Ransome Johnson undertakes a study of great importance to readers of later literature possibly influenced by Lucretius in his examination of the crucial phrase sponte sua, demonstrating especially "that what the atomists are committed to is not lack of order or violation of law, but rather lack of external constraint or control and domination" (page 101). This demonstration and its related conclusions are of undeniable importance if we want to be serious in understanding what later readers may have inferred from Lucretius about “freedom of the will,” especially in light of the notorious clinamen. In his summation Johnson argues that "in the context of voluntary human action, the spontaneous is as opposed to the accidental and contingent as it is to external force and coercion" (page 130).

This conclusion is helpful as we read chapter 5, “Seeing and Unseeing, Seen and Unseen.” Here, Daryn Lehoux, arguing that "Lucretius handles vision in ways that are … unique among ancient scientific authors" (page 134), demonstrates that Lucretius’s "appeals to seeing are not just appeals to physical evidence; they are also appeals to moral evidence” (page 151); moreover, "taking moral blindness as a common trope in the poem," he insists on "an important moral point about atoms … their complete and utter lack of a teleology. They act according only to physical law, and, from a Lucretian moral point of view, that law is blind" (page 151) — here, I take it, combining Lehoux’s and Johnson’s arguments, is the ground of free will in Lucretius, and much can be said about later reactions to this fundamental of the poem: it is precisely because of the clinamen that the will is free, sponte sua, to elect its own order.

In the next chapter, “The Poetic Logic of Negative Exceptionalism in Lucretius, Book Five,” by far the longest of the 10, Brooke Holmes concludes, after a subtle and complicated argument, that "the negative exceptionalism exemplified by the naked child at Lucretius 5.222-7" (page 189) becomes, under Lucretius’s careful development, "the positive exceptionalism that is initially represented by the image of a species that preserves other species and eventually equated with the idea of a species that takes its survival into its own hands" (page 189). In a moving summation, she writes, "the story that Lucretius plots converts the static truth of the negative exceptionalism into a historical one" (page 191). This historical truth, she concludes, leads to the human condition as we know it, in which "we need Epicurus and the security only his philosophy can afford" (page 191).

The next chapter, “Lucretius and the Epicurean Attitude towards Grief,” by David Konstan, follows in a very helpful way on Holmes’s. It enables us to grasp that Epicurean tranquility is not mere careless indifference. "The problem for us human beings is not that we have beliefs, but that we have false or empty beliefs, such as the idea that we continue to suffer or be aware after death. When we are under the influence of such beliefs, then grief, like other emotions, exceeds its natural limits and becomes morbid and permanent" (page 208). It is this morbidity that Epicureanism would expunge from mortal suffering (hence the “security” Epicurus “can afford,” as Holmes would have it), not the necessary and certainly human expression of grief at the loss of loved ones.

Again, with an impressive connectedness, the next chapter, “Nil igitur mors est ad nos? Iphianassa, the Athenian Plague, and Epicurean Views of Death,” by A.D. Morrison, looks at the claim of Epicurus and Epicureans that death is nothing to us. Here, in a very closely marshaled argument, marked by extensive quotation from original documents, Morrison demonstrates that, when Lucretius lavishes attention on the experiences of death and dying, he is not deviating from the Master's teachings, but is making, "a description of human experience and suffering the final test for an Epicurean reader to confirm that he has been convinced by the arguments of the poem and so expelled the beliefs and attitudes that hinder his ataraxia" (page 232). In effect, until the reader can look upon death, in the text, in tranquility, he cannot be expected to look upon death itself in tranquility.

The final two essays in the collection turn our attention to two other great writers in the Latin tradition, Ovid and Lucan, in their complex reactions and responses to Lucretius’s poem. Myrto Garani, in the fourth longest piece in the collection, “Lucretius and Ovid on Empedoclean Cows and Sheep,” considers Ovid’s reaction to and incorporation of both Lucretius and Empedocles in Fasti 1, his Aristaeus story within his narrative of the Agonalia festival. Here she demonstrates Ovid’s opposition to animal sacrifice and his complex expression of that opposition through his engagement with both Lucretius and Empedocles. In section VII of the eight sections of her argument, which she titles, "Ovid’s Empedoclean Reply to Lucretius," she concludes that "Ovid partly capsizes Lucretius’s narration of the plague, by shifting the balance between human beings and personified animals in favour of the latter; in this way he makes us sympathize with the sacrificial victims and condemn the process" (page 257).

In chapter 10, “(First-) Beginnings and (Never-) Endings in Lucan and Lucretius,” K. M. Earnshaw looks at Lucan’s Bellum Civile, especially book 3, addressing the question of dreams in the epic. Here again we have a chapter with extensive quotation from primary texts, which surveys the oneirology that one can infer from Lucretius's various accounts of dreams, their origins and their consequences. She observes in conclusion that "Lucan is alive to the possibility of channeling the authority of the Lucretian narrator into his dreamscapes” (page 284).

The collection concludes with 21 pages of bibliography, an index locorum, running to 14 pages, and a general index six pages in length. All three apparatus are impressive and helpful.

Finally, I found few typographical errors. I list here the few errors I did find in the event the list might prove helpful to the authors or the Press. Page 107, line 17, "the existence of truth and falsehood depend on" should read "the existence of truth and falsehood depends on"; page 226, footnote call number 19 is printed in two different styles; page 249, line 10, "turns to be" should be "turns out to be"; page 251, sixth line from the bottom, "harks back also at" should be "harks back also to"; page 279, line 5, "a daydream rather that a night-dream" should be "a daydream rather than a night-dream." In my page-by-page scan of the bibliography, I saw no errors or typos or mislineations. Clearly care was taken with preparation of the book.

I have prepared this review so as to show the concerns and conclusions of the contributors to the volume. But I have also wanted to convey in the combinations of their and my words not only why the book is important but also how it is important. All the contributors eschew postures of magisterial, don-like definitiveness, opting instead to share with readers both very difficult issues in De rerum natura and their own efforts to grapple with those issues. “We have sought to provide an opportunity to re-evaluate whether existing approaches, across a range of disciplines, are sufficient for understanding as difficult and important a text as the DRN, and which new questions it might be most productive to ask about the poem” (page 1). One crucial result of this procedure is the reader’s heightened awareness of the amazing expanse of Lucretius’s vision and the staggering breadth of his learning. Ovid was right: “carmina sublimis tunc sunt peritura Lucreti, / exitio terras cum dabit una dies” (The poems of exalted Lucretius will then perish, / When one day will give the land to ruin — Amores 1.15.23-24). That day has not yet come.


1.   Hermann Usener, Epicurea (Leipzig: Teubner, 1887), frag. 221.

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