Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.02.45 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.02.45

David Norbrook, Stephen Harrison, Philip Hardie (ed.), Lucretius and the Early Modern. Classical presences.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2016.  Pp. xv, 313.  ISBN 9780198713845.  $100.00.  


Reviewed by Patrick M. Owens, Calvin College (patrickm.owens@gmail.com)

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[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This slim, unassuming volume contains some of the most interesting and cutting-edge research in the reception of Lucretius' De rerum natura (hereafter DRN). The last decade has witnessed a major revival of interest in Lucretian studies, and there has been no dearth of scholarship on Lucretius’ reception in and influence on the early modern period. The editors of this volume have done an admirable job of publishing important current research by leading scholars in their fields. The work is comprised of twelve essays (including Norbrook’s introduction) which revolve primarily around Lucretius’ influence on the literary and philosophical underpinnings of the early modern period.

Norbrook’s introduction to the essays is, at the outset, insightful in its contextualization. It is unfortunate that the current habit of handbooks, whereby the editor attempts to introduce every single subsequent article, takes hold of his piece. This fact notwithstanding, the essay is an articulate prolegomenon to the subject matter. Harrison’s contribution in chapter one, ‘Epicurean Subversion?’ is a masterful look at the subversive aspects which undermine traditional Roman culture in favor of Greek Epicurean philosophy. Because the topic of the first chapter is only tenuously related to the volume’s theme of the Early Modern, this piece might be more at home in a general companion to the DRN. In the second chapter, Butterfield’s essay traces the rediscovery, textual transmission, commentaries (of Lambin and Creech) and early translations of the DRN. In chapter three, Brown argues that there are close parallels between Lucretius and Machiavelli, which demonstrate the influence of Epicurean naturalism on Machiavelli’s thought and his break with contemporary orthodoxy. Haskell’s chapter is a heavily footnoted tour of Lucretian influence and imitators in sixteenth-century Italy. This magisterial essay focuses on Paleario’s De animorum immortalitate, Palingenio’s Zodiacus vitae, Capece’s De principiis rerum, and Parisetti’s De immortalitate animae. Haskell calls attention to several desiderata in the study of these important authors, among them that Sacré’s useful commentary on Paleario’s poem remains unpublished. One hopes that this attention will help to persuade Sacré to bring his commentary or translation to market.

In chapter five, Davidson shifts the usual focus of Lucretian reception studies from Florence to the literary circles of Venice in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He demonstrates that there was not the prohibition on reading or discussing the DRN in the Venetian Republic that there was in Florence, and those who held views that were compatible with Epicureanism likely drew their influences from sources other than Lucretius. Through a careful reading of Montaigne’s Essais and the reproduction of eight manuscript pages with his marginal notes, Wes Williams investigates Montaigne’s ‘entanglement’ in Lucretius’ poetic eloquence and thought. The Epicurean revival of the mid-seventeenth century produced a number of influential vernacular translations; in chapter seven, Cottegnies offers a thorough treatment of the challenging history of French and English reception (primarily the translations of Evelyn [1656] Marolles [1659] and Creech [1682]), which Cottegnies argues is often intertwined and often perplexing. In chapter eight, Poole explores the early modern theories surrounding the genesis of the human race and their Lucretian origins, specifically La Peyrère’s Epicurean polygenesis and Milton’s inclusion of providence in the process of creation. Hardy offers the ninth chapter on some ancient and early modern perspectives on whether the DRN is a work of natural theology. Hardy’s discussion revolves mainly around the interpretations espoused in the translations of Evelyn (1650s), Hutchinson (1650s), and Creech (1682).

In chapter ten, Norbrook focuses on the tumultuous period in England between the regicides to the Exclusion Crisis (1649 - 1681). Norbrook’s chapter is admittedly rather narrow in its time span but it is rich in detail and insight. He explores the context of divergent readings offered by Gassendi and Hobbes during the 1650s, which influenced the subsequent receptions of the DRN, and the important role DRN held within English literature and political discourse. In the final chapter, Wilson pivots the discussion away from the significant and overt contribution that the DRN made to early modern thought to the “reasons why Epicurean themes have been largely invisible in political philosophy from Grotius and Rousseau” (p.260). Wilson presents two main reasons why the DRN has been understudied in the political philosophy of the period, namely that (1) contemporary philosophers were disinclined to identify themselves openly as Epicureans or militant atheists, and (2) there is a question of relevance, since the problems of early modern political philosophy (“authority and obedience, the legitimacy of sovereign power and the right of resistance to tyrants,” etc.) (p.261) are treated only tangentially by the DRN or Epicurean philosophy if at all.

The contributors and editors of this collection succeeded in creating an exceptionally readable and accessible volume, which will be of interest to students of Lucretius, Epicurean philosophy, early modern philosophy, and the history of political philosophy. There are some rough spots in the text that would have benefitted from closer editorial attention. The length of the chapters is very uneven. Haskell’s piece (chapter four) has a much higher than average word count due to the exhaustive footnoting. Norbrook allowed himself a great deal of space, which could have been condensed by one of his fellow editors. The proofreading was not done carefully enough to catch/eliminate several typos in the Latin quotations. For example, "Natura e ius …” should read “Naturae ius...” (p.76, n. 23); A letter quoted at length on p.165-6, n.18, is seriously marred by failed transcription and either typos or lack of bracketed sic.

Christina Alexandra Divioni Moirisotum, Burdelotio suadente, qui Reginae ibi aderat, accersiit. Post varios sermones, Moirisoti religionem inquisivit, qui se Catholicam profiteri asseveravit, simulque adjunxit, si aliâ imbutus esset, se tantae Reginae exemplo illam amplexurum, quam Christina. Ad ista subridens, sciscitata est num sciret que [sic] sacra illa coleret. Respondit illet [sic], palam esse accusavit [sic], seque Philosophorum religionem (verba Christinae sunt) omnibus aliis praeferre, testata est. Moirisotus haec sacra late patere innuens, explicationem dicti illius a Regina modeste efflagitavit, quam sic protulit: Philosophorum Religionem Lucretium optime depinxisse in libris de Natura Rerum [sic?], hancque [sic] se unice probare. Post exiguam moram eidem iniunxit, cum spe praemii regii, ut poetam illum commentario illustraret; qua mille [sic], ut pro cero [sic] mihi relatum, nunc adornat.

There is an index, which, unfortunately, does not include many authors mentioned in the footnotes.

Overall, this volume is a welcome addition to an ever-growing field of study on Lucretian reception. The editors should be congratulated on bringing together the scholars for this volume, and the authors for their insightful contributions.

Authors and Titles

Introduction, David Norbrook
1. Epicurean Subversion? Lucretius' First Proem and Contemporary Roman Culture, Stephen Harrison
2. Lucretius in the Early Modern Period: Texts and Contexts, David Butterfield
3. Lucretian Naturalism and the Evolution of Machiavelli's Ethics, Alison Brown
4. Poetic Flights or Retreats? Latin Lucretian Poems in Sixteenth-Century Italy, Yasmin Haskell
5. Lucretius, Irreligion, and Atheism in Early Modern Venice, Nicholas Davidson
6. 'Well said/well thought': How Montaigne Read his Lucretius, Wes Williams
7. Michel de Marolles's 1650 Translation of Lucretius and its Reception in England, Line Cottegnies
8. Lucretianism and Some Seventeenth-Century Theories of Human Origin, William Poole
9. Natural Reason and the Laws of Nature in Early Modern Versions of Lucretius, Nicholas Hardy
10. Atheists and Republicans: Interpreting Lucretius in Revolutionary England, David Norbrook
11. Political Philosophy in a Lucretian Mode, Catherine Wilson
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