Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.11.33 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.11.33

Alexandra Morenval, Le tout et l'infini dans le 'De rerum natura' de Lucrèce. Lexis ancient philosophy, 12.   Amsterdam:  Adolf M. Hakkert Publishing, Pp. 460.  ISBN 9789025613235.  €80,00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jason S. Nethercut, University of South Florida (

In this revised dissertation, Alexandra Morenval offers the first systematic study of the dialectic between the Whole and Infinity in the De Rerum Natura. Her major arguments are that Lucretius a) was one of the first philosophers to bridge the ontological divide between the Whole and Infinity by positing an infinite universe that contains all things; b) was a foundational figure in introducing the lexicon of Infinity to Rome; c) implicated physics, ethics, and epistemology into his own idea of the infinite universe, and, therefore, made the idea of Infinity essential to his didactic project; and d) developed this multivalent conception of the infinite universe primarily through his poetic sensibilities in order to provide his readers with a conceptual tool to help in the attainment of ataraxia. Morenval’s book certainly will become essential reading for anyone looking into the concept of Infinity in Epicureanism, especially as its most successful sections are those that survey what Epicurus and Lucretius say about the Whole and Infinity. The level of argumentation is uneven, however, which may tax the patience of even the most generous reader.

A general introduction (pp. 13-27) sets the stage for Morenval’s contribution and forecasts her major arguments. Here she tracks the history of conceptualizing the Whole (i.e. a quantifiable and, therefore, bounded concept) versus Infinity (i.e. an unquantifiable and, therefore, unbounded concept) in western philosophy, noting that this central question allows one to categorize thinkers in opposition to one another: those that privilege the idea of the Whole and those that privilege the idea of Infinity. After canvassing thinkers like Godin and Burali-Forti who tried to resolve the two ideas, Morenval suggests that already in antiquity Lucretius anticipated the resolution of this paradox, by positing that the Whole is infinite. One of Morenval’s primary objectives is to show the pivotal position the Epicureans hold in the history of the dialectic between the Whole and Infinity. For Morenval, Lucretius was the most pivotal of all, developing what he found in the writings of Epicurus. Morenval divides her study into eight chapters grouped in three major sections: 1. Lexical Considerations (pp. 29-154), 2. Didactic Considerations (pp. 155- 288), and 3. Poetic Considerations (pp. 289-425). The end-matter (pp. 429-460) comprises a conclusion, a series of appendices, a bibliography that includes most relevant studies, and an index nominum.

In her first section on the lexicon of the Whole and Infinity, Morenval argues that one of Lucretius’ major contributions to the philosophical history of these two concepts was the introduction of a robust vocabulary for describing Infinity. Chapter 1 provides a survey of passages from Epicurus that discuss to pan and to apeiron, on the basis of which Morenval concludes that Epicurus considers the Whole an absolute. At the same time, he elevates limitlessness as a principle, making it a characteristic of the Whole. By characterizing the Whole as limitless, Epicurus makes it possible to conceive of Infinity in spatial terms. The end result of this line of thiking, is that Epicurus can now articulate a cosmology without teleology. Chapter 2 argues that Lucretius’ translation of Epicurus’ terms for the Whole (omne quod est; omne) and “infinite” (infinitus) makes use of language that was current and free of jargon. The effect was to render complex concepts accessible to lay readers. At the same time, Lucretius is able to fuse conceptual planes, as, for example, he does with the frequently repeated ex infinito, connecting for his reader number, space, movement, and time. In this way, Lucretius juxtaposes different valences of Infinity to emphasize the stability and equilibrium of the Whole. In Chapter 3, Morenval shows that Lucretius employs variatio in his lexicon for the Whole and Infinity; this allows him to define and explain these ideas as clearly as possible, while it also facilitates the comprehension of these concepts in his neophyte readers. Meta-lexicography is involved in this procedure, as the preponderance of variant terms, periphrases, and multiple associations are all deployed in an attempt to express the immensity and power of Infinity. This above all is the Lucretian contribution to the idea of Infinity. As Morenval says: “Infinity contaminates the entire poem” (“l’infini contamine tout le poème,”152). In the process, Lucretius develops what Epicurus says by using different terms for spatial Infinity that highlight its three dimensions; all this allows the reader to understand better the Epicurean conception of Infinity. This section is by far the most successful, and showcases effectively Morenval’s argument that Lucretius, more than Epicurus, should be credited with the major Epicurean contribution to the philosophy of Infinity.

Morenval builds on this presentation of Lucretius’ philosophical contribution in the second section of her book by showing that Lucretius scatters many passages throughout the DRN that handle the relationship between the Whole and Infinity. Chapter 4 analyzes all of these passages, finally arguing that Lucretius expands on the synoptic account of the Whole and Infinity that Epicurus provides (Hdt. 41-45); he does this by emphasizing the links that these concepts have in physics, ethics, and the four principles of the tetrapharmakos. Infinity thus becomes in Lucretius what amounts to a first principle of the Epicurean system. In Chapter 5, Morenval argues that Lucretius advances Epicurus’ method regarding the study of the infinite universe by connecting the words with which he describes Infinity to the atoms themselves. This facilitates memorization for the Epicurean student, who now can more easily apprehend the doctrine of the infinite universe and, thereby, make progress towards achieving ataraxia. By developing a dense semantic field regarding Infinity, Lucretius encourages his reader to connect different linguistic concepts analogically. In this way, Lucretius’ literary choices reinforce his pedagogical aims, as he emphasizes how fundamental the concept of Infinity is for the human mind in its journey towards understanding the laws of nature. While this section is less cogently argued than the first, it contains what is perhaps the most innovative argument in Morenval’s book, that Infinity is for Lucretius something of a foundational concept to which he constantly makes reference in order to ground his reader’s understanding of Epicureanism.

Morenval concludes her study with her least successful section. Here her major argument is that the originality of Lucretius lies in setting up for his reader a desire for universal Infinity, which he suggests in the course of the poem is not only accessible but mentally attainable. The poetic feat of Lucretius is to fuse the Greek ideas of Epicurus with Roman culture in order to insinuate that the Lucretian conception of Infinity is available for all humans to comprehend. Morenval analyzes how Lucretius accomplishes this by investigating three “heroes of Infinity” (“héros de l’infini”) in the DRN: Epicurus, Memmius, and Lucretius himself. In Chapter 6, Morenval argues that in the famous presentation of Epicurus’ mental triumph over Infinity (DRN 1.60-79), Lucretius uses allusion to connect Epicurus to Homer’s Odysseus, Hesiod’s Prometheus, and less convincingly, to Orpheus. Odysseus successfully overcomes both Poseidon and Polyphemus, the boundless sea and the limitless monster; Prometheus explodes the boundaries of the cosmos in his fight with Zeus; and Orpheus metaphorically conquers the final limit of human life by emerging from the Underworld. Lucretius’ Epicurus, therefore, both accesses this immanent discourse on Infinity in earlier Greek poetry and is shown finally to master Infinity as he wanders through the omne immensum with his mind. Chapter 7 argues that Lucretius uses the figure of Memmius to incorporate specifically Roman notions of Infinity into his poem. This is the most speculative chapter in the book. For example, a crucial point in Morenval’s argument is that Lucretius establishes a connection between Epicurus and Memmius by suggesting that Memmius is on the path to attaining Epicurean apotheosis and that Lucretius “Romanizes” Epicurus by associating him with Romulus. This association derives, Morenval argues, from allusion to Ennius (Cic. Rep. 1.41= Ann. 105-109 Sk), although the allusion is simply accepted and never defended. In juxtaposing this Ennian fragment with various descriptions of Epicurus in Lucretius (especially the proems to DRN 3 and 5), Morenval affirms that a) both Ennius’ Romulus and Lucretius’ Epicurus are deified, b) both are invoked as fathers, c) both create blessings for others, and d) the phrase luminis orasoccurs in passages describing Ennius’ Romulus and Lucretius’ Epicurus. The only unambiguous criterion, therefore, that she adduces to anchor an allusion here is this last verbal echo, yet, as Morenval herself notes, this Ennian tag appears frequently throughout the poem (1.22; 1.170; 1.179; 2.577; 2.617; 5.224; 5.781; 5.1389 (omitted by Morenval at 335 n. 182); and 5.1455). It seems dangerous, therefore, to make such flimsy evidence the basis of an entire line of argument about the role that this Romanized Epicurus plays in Lucretius’ Romanization of Infinity. In her last chapter, Morenval argues that Infinity characterizes Lucretius’ poem at all levels, including the grapheme, phoneme, word, phrase, and discourse. In a series of close readings, she analyzes the processes Lucretius employs that ultimately reconcile Totality with Infinity: Lucretius offers the reader a totalizing Infinity and an infinite Totality.

I assume that Morenval’s book will serve most specialists chiefly as a codification of the primary material relevant to the Epicurean conceptualization of Infinity. Morenval’s argument that Lucretius provides the first sustained presentation of an infinite cosmos in the Roman literary imagination obviously will prove important to many Latinists, especially those who work on Augustan and Imperial literature, where the political ramifications of such universalizing perspectives are especially pointed. This book is well structured and the arguments are nicely sign-posted, making it easy for the reader to focus on those parts of the book that may be of use. Typos are infrequent (e.g. funis in the last paragraph on p. 71 should read finis; “chochs incessants” on p. 230 should read “chocs incessants”) and should not affect the reader significantly.

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