BMCR 1999.07.13

Lucrèce et les sciences de la vie. Mnemosyne supplementum

, Lucrèce et les sciences de la vie. Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica Batava. Supplementum, 186. Leiden: Brill, 1999. 231 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9789004102309

This is a collection of eleven articles previously published by Schrijvers between 1974 and 1997. All are reprinted in their original form, apart from some unexplained changes in their titles and a certain amount of cross-referencing. Ten are in French, one (from Mnemosyne) in German. The book is handsomely produced, although it may be mentioned that the lack of a collected bibliography causes some tiresome difficulties with ” op. cit.” in the footnotes.

In spite of the differences in time and place of the original publication of the “chapters,” the book is remarkably well coordinated in style and mode of treatment. It is a book for classical scholars familiar with the problems of reading Lucretius. Schrijvers’ arguments are careful and always worth studying, even if some are not ultimately convincing.

We have a set of careful and detailed studies of fairly short passages of the Latin text, in two distinct groups, with the addition of a final more general study. The first group deals with Lucretius’ account, in book 5, 780-1160, of the formation and development of the human species; the second is concerned with sleep, dreams, and optical illusions (book 4, 907-1036 and 387-461). The final chapter is about the use of analogy in the whole poem.

The first half of the book, then, follows the rather erratic path laid down by Lucretius in the fifth book: first, the origin of mankind from the earth. Commenting on 5.823-4 (p.15) maternum nomen adepta / terra tenet merito, quoniam genus ipsa creavit / humanum, Schrijvers attributes to Lucretius an attractive etymological point: the genus humanum is “né de la terre, né de l’ humus.” The suggestion is probably wrong, if the next words are emended to atque animal, as they usually are, and the word humanus is actually allied to homo rather than to humus, but it is an entertaining idea.

Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the birth of deformed beings, and the imagined monsters of mythology. Chapter 4, on man and animal, connects the relevant section of book 5 (783-924 and 1028-90) with passages on biological subjects in book 2 and book 4. This is particularly interesting because of the interplay between materialistic explanation, the mechanisms of survival, and the consequent appearance of natural teleology. The theme is continued in chapter 5, on the origin of language, concluding with an illuminating comparison with the beginning of Galen’s De usu partium.

In chapters 6 and 7, “La vie sauvage” and “La vie sociale et politique,” Schrijvers proposes that Lucretius, like Cicero, was well acquainted with the work of the Peripatetic Dicaearchus, and drew some of his ideas directly from that source. This opens up a general problem that recurs in the later chapters: namely, the question of Lucretius’ sources and the objects of his criticisms. Frequently Peripatetic and Stoic sources are suggested; in chapters 8 and 9, on sleep and dreams respectively, late-Hellenistic medical and philosophical schools in general and Asclepiades in particular; in chapter 10, the Sceptics of the New Academy.

In chapter 11, which describes and analyses Lucretius’ use of analogy in the whole poem, Schrijvers sums up his conclusion on the question of sources by saying (p. 196) that Lucretius, an eclectic author of the late Hellenistic epoch, composed his work by drawing upon the reservoir of scholarly philosophical and scientific themes which formed the Bildungsgut of his time.

Reading chapter 11 sent me back to its original publication, in the Fondation Hardt’s series vol. 24, Lucrèce (1978), where it was accompanied by my paper on “Lucretius the Epicurean” and Knut Kleve’s “The philosophical polemics in Lucretius.” I defended my view of Lucretius as one who drew almost entirely on Epicurus’ own works, rather than a contributor to later Hellenistic philosophical debates. Kleve drew attention to Epicurus’ own polemics against opponents in the surviving works and in the papyrus fragments of his On nature, and noted that Lucretius could be shown to be indebted to many such passages of Epicurus, although he cautiously allowed that there might be some influences from later philosophical debate.

But now there is a much more formidable opposition to Professor Schrijvers’ position in this respect, in David Sedley’s book, Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek wisdom (Cambridge University Press, 1998), which has taken advantage of the great progress recently made in the reading of the fragments of Epicurus’ On nature. Sedley produces powerful evidence and arguments for his conclusion that Lucretius was “an Epicurean fundamentalist.” His chapter 3 ends thus: “Contemporary philosophical and scientific debate played no part in [Lucretius’ enterprise]… His sole philosophical source and inspiration from early in book I until late in book VI is Epicurus’ great philosophical treatise, On nature.

Students of Lucretius will want to read both Schrijvers and Sedley. We have moved a long way from the position of Bailey and his predecessors and contemporaries, who often asserted that certain arguments of Lucretius were “no doubt” aimed at the Stoics. In Professor Schrijvers’ articles, all written before the publication of Sedley’s book, we have some learned and carefully researched examinations of Lucretian texts, explaining them as being inspired by the philosophy and science of the period between Epicurus and Lucretius. Sedley claims that Lucretius’ motivation comes not from recent controversies but almost wholly from his devoted study of Epicurus. We have the materials for a very interesting debate.