BMCR 1995.04.08

1995.04.08, Gale, Myth and Poetry in Lucretius

, Myth and poetry in Lucretius. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. xiv, 260 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780521451352. $59.95.

For many readers of Lucretius, it has long been an instinctive response to feel that there is a basic series of self-contradictions in the DRN. During the late 19th century and as long as Classical critics labored under the weight of Romantic theories, this self-contradiction was lodged in the psychology of Lucretius himself: he was, as Tennyson, a very different poet, represented it, torn apart by the tensions between his wild poetic sensitivity and the thorough rationalism of Epicurean philosophy. In more recent decades, scholars have tended to abandon the psychological explanation of the apparent inconsistencies, but they still focus on those inconsistencies and attempt to explain them in terms of the basic tension they attribute to the marriage of poetry and philosophy. The latest group of Lucretian scholars has set out to combat that assumption of fundamental inconsistency by various arguments that credit Lucretius with a unifying conception and a creative rhetoric that strives and largely succeeds in its effort to make the DRN an integrated poem of Epicurean exposition. Firmly in that new group of Unitarians, G. occupies her attention with various aspects of myth in the poem, which others have claimed illustrate the way Lucretius slips into poetic irrationality away from the tedious and dry rationality of Epicurus. On the contrary, G. sets out to demonstrate, “Lucretius follows a consistent and comprehensive rhetorical, poetic and philosophic strategy in his use of myth” and thereby reconciles philosophy and poetry.

G. has divided her investigation into six chapters, which may be grouped into roughly equal halves: the first three chapters focus on the background to Lucretius’s employment of myth. They deal with the use, reception, and criticism of myth in the Greek and Roman philosophical milieu; in the cultural setting of late Republican Rome; and in a literary context where all extensive hexameter poetry, narrative and didactic, was classified as epos. Each of these chapters ends with a discussion of how Lucretius reacted to this background. Then, the second set of three chapters takes us into the practice of Lucretius: his theory of myth, his employment of what can be called latent myth in the DRN; and finally two controversial examples of his ingenuity with myth, at the beginning and end of his poem, namely, the Advent of Venus and the Plague. This is a well-planned and highly readable study, and it has been carefully printed and proofread (apart from two very odd word-divisions on p. 6).

The longest single chapter, almost 80 pages, is the first one, in which G. deals with the questionable use of myth and mythology from a philosophic perspective. Questions began with the attack of Xenophanes on Homer and his admirers for the impious way they represented the gods as immoral, adulterous, vengeful, and generally inferior to human beings. Myth is fiction, a tissue of lies about the gods, and it deserves to be banned from education and from any good society such as Plato’s Republic. It is also irrational, unreliable explanation of phenomena. When Herodotus accounts for the defeat of Xerxes by resorting to his system of hubris-punished, then he can be accused of stooping to mythical untruth. Since the poets are the most regular purveyors of myth and its fictions, any philosopher is on guard against, and often militantly striving to destroy, the poetic way of representing reality.

The defense against this attack was early developed, and it is in use among such philosophers as Plato, who are among the severest critics of Homer and drama: myth, correctly employed, is allegory, an oblique way of approaching the mysteries of the gods and of existence itself. Judicious use of allegory allows Greek defenders of Homer to claim that sometimes he uses the gods to explain the psychological operations of human beings and sometimes to account for the physical operation of nature. He is not simply telling fictions for the amusement of an after-dinner audience. It is obvious that Epicurus and his followers would firmly agree with the general hostility to myth as unappetizing fiction. But G. goes on to argue plausibly that Epicurus would also have repudiated the use of allegory and interpretation by way of allegory: he would not have agreed with the Platonists that a myth was the way to present truth. It follows, then, that Lucretius inherited an Epicurean tradition that had no use for myth, in itself or in its allegorizations.

By choosing to write poetry, Lucretius was already adopting a method of exposition that Epicurus rejected; and he was aligning himself with earlier didactic poets, such as Parmenides and Empedocles, who found a genuine use for myth. Thus, while fully agreeing with his Master that myth was fiction and liable to serious and irrational abuse, Lucretius did not totally reject it. G. uses the famous passage about Magna Mater to exemplify his careful poetic use of myth, which perhaps slightly strains the severity of Epicurus, but at the same time makes intelligent Epicurean and poetic use of the situation. In 2.600-60, Lucretius starts out by repeating a poetic theme that has emerged in Book l, namely, that the earth is a mother. For over 40 lines, then, he proceeds to report the elaborated allegories that others have developed on this basic metaphor. In particular, we hear of the rites and religious associations of Cybele or Magna Mater in Rome and how her powers among human beings are rationalized. It is important, as G. insistently notes, that, although Lucretius may seem to be throwing himself enthusiastically into this narration, in fact he always attributes the doctrine and the excitement to others. Therefore, when he cuts off that development, after ironically praising its handsome presentation, he can indeed say, with complete self-consistency, that such allegory is far from the truth, in that it takes a useful metaphor and turns it into a religious dogma, making mother earth into a fearsome deity. Lucretius knows how to use myth for exposition; and he also knows how to use it as a target of Epicurean polemic when others misuse it. Yes, the poet does allegorize and does personify through allegory, but he scrupulously denies that these personifications are gods. G. recognizes that the opening address to Venus constitutes a serious difficulty for her, and she intends to deal with it in the last chapter. So she contents herself here with observation that, if Venus is allegorical in Book 1, the poet does not spell out the connections (as he does, in the words of others, in the case of Magna Mater in 2).

The second chapter covers in fourteen pages the area of myth and belief in Rome. It confronts the criticism, that Lucretius was flogging a dead horse when he made such an issue about protesting against credulity in myth in his time. Since Varro and Cicero agree with his thesis, that myth is negligible though pleasant, why is Lucretius so excited? G. suggests that perhaps he did not worry so much about belief in myth either, but that he aimed at the misuse of allegory. Apart from the theological use of myth in Rome, there was what might be called a heroic or patriotic use, with figures like Romulus and Aeneas. Properly used, such myths could be and were employed for good effect, and Augustan propaganda in art and literature would bring such myth into full bloom. Lucretius does not repeat such material. He does, however, subvert it by his strong polemic at the opening of Book 5 against mythical heroes like Hercules, whose fictional achievements are as nothing compared with the real benefits that Epicurus won for mankind from the lowering world of superstition.

Chapter 3 proposes to fill out the background to the DRN by situating the poem in the genre of epos. However, the question does not appear to be all that significant, nor does G. reveal how it is pertinent to her thesis until, after 30 pages, consciously like Lucretius she pauses to explain her point. “All this may appear to have been a rather lengthy digression from our main subject”, she allows (p. 128), and then pounces. It is valuable to elaborate an argument made by Murley almost fifty years ago, that the DRN is profitably viewed as a traditional heroic epic, because Lucretius actually aimed to rival Homer and Ennius on his own terms. That might be so, but we still seek the pertinence. G. attempts to make that in fixing on Homer’s and Ennius’ works as “mythological epics” and then defining DRN as “non-mythological epic”. G.’s generic arguments are not, to my mind, very subtle, and she would have been wiser to eliminate this chapter.

G. has a different problem of relevance with Chapter 4, which she notes at the start in her title: she really wants to broach the big question of the relationship between Epicurus and Lucretius and to deal with the question: “how original a thinker was the poet”? But her thesis requires her to focus on myth, so she explores Lucretius’ theory of myth to get at his poetic originality. After a short section on the way the poet accounts for the origins of myth and thus finds a place for it in his poem, she launches into the question of the truth of poetry, so that, by the end of the chapter, then, she is frankly summarizing his theory of poetry (p. 154) and validating him as an Epicurean poet. There is a way to bring these separate questions into relation, and G. does try at the end: Lucretius’ use of myth and of poetry both seem to defy Epicurus’ strictures, so defending both in the same chapter and suggesting that his use of myth arose out of his decision to elucidate Epicureanism in poetry, both in the service of truth, is not impossible. But G. could have helped herself and her readers by clearer preparation.

The “theory of myth” which G. presents is only a theory of the origin of myth, not about its usages. Using 5.1161 ff., she shows that Lucretius has myth originate in the instinctive attempt of ignorant average human beings to explain things to themselves. He does not, that is, talk of myth as the creation of irresponsible poets, as had been the traditional charge since Xenophanes. However, if myth is an effort to attain the truth rather than a deliberate lie by poets, then Epicurean poetry can provide a solution to human craving for truth. Lucretius rejects the Muses as his inspiration—they are too adept at lies—and turns to Epicurus, the fountain of truth and knowledge, and he intends to make his poetry a way to clarification of human ignorance. Hence, the frequent use of light-imagery in reference to his poetry.

In Chapter 5, G. develops an interesting reading of portions of the DRN in terms of what she calls “latent myth”. This is an example of what she elsewhere calls the “predatory” nature of Lucretius’ didactic techniques. Her two principal illustrations are the extensive anthropological section in Book 5 and the deification of Epicurus. In his account of the rise of man and human culture, she argues persuasively, Lucretius is aware of the Golden Age myth and expects it to be in his audience’s conscious background. Without directly and polemically attacking the Golden Age fiction, the poet yet implicitly dismisses its fabulous explanations for human development. He is what we call a “hard primitivist”, and, wherever he may seem to be describing primitive situations in wishful colors, he suddenly intrudes a rough note of realism that removes us from the poet’s Golden Age. For example, primitive men lived off the bounty of nature, not working at agriculture. But in fact nature was not all that bountiful, the food was precarious and unappealing (to modern tastes), and agriculture was not a curse but an art that human ingenuity had not yet invented. There were no great mythical “inventors”, such as Prometheus bringer of fire or Ceres mother of grain: human beings discovered these things in connection with natural events. As he explains these developments correctly, Lucretius is correcting the myths that lie hidden in his audience. Similarly, in his special treatment of Epicurus as god: he is replacing the fictional gods of myth, who are ineffective explanations of events, by a real person, who did indeed accomplish wonderful things, far better than the feats attributed to Hercules, Ceres, and Bacchus. By alluding to the old mythology, the poet makes his new truth that much more persuasive.

In her final chapter, G. bravely takes on the two difficult passages that begin and close the DRN. The toughest problem is the Proem to 1 and its presentation of Venus: that has been the target of innumerable attacks and attempted defenses, and there is not much new that anyone can now say about it. What G. does is to propose some kind of synthesis to justify the Epicurean poet. That Venus is steadily altered and diminished after the Proem should imply that Lucretius never thinks of her as an effective personality of myth. Yes, but he sure fools us at the start. He prays to her to inspire his poetry and confer on it Neoteric lepos and to use her unique powers to bring peace to the tense, war-prepared Roman world. The rest of the poem shows that poetry and peace arise in totally different circumstances, where Venus has no effect. G. rather weakly concludes that Venus “is a multifaceted figure” (p. 222). The issue, however, is her vivid mythological qualities in the Proem. Perhaps, G. could have resorted again to the “predatory” view of Lucretius here: that is, he riots in mythological poetry in his opening 50 lines, only to cut the ground from underneath all that in the Epicurean discourse that he proceeds to develop as a sure corrective.

The Plague of Book 6 has been given some effective defenses in recent years, and G. has, I think, an easier time working with it. She sees Lucretius’ account as a symbolic “Epicurean myth”, which functions in opposition to the proem of 1. (That is why I favor the idea of viewing the triumph of Venus as an “anti-Epicurean myth”.) Lucretius planned it as his ending for the DRN, and he even planned its abrupt close. It shows the destructive side of nature and the utter helplessness of Athenians (at the height of their political and cultural development) to deal either with the disease or their own despair. So it brings out the desperate life of the non-Epicurean, and it serves, as Clay suggests, to test the reader and also warn and urge him/her toward the “cure” and “health” that resides in Epicureanism.

This is an important book on a topic of continuing discussion. It offers some creative ways of treating Lucretius’ combination of myth and poetry as what he surely meant it to be: a realization of the true meaning of his Master’s thought.