BMCR 2001.01.17

Lucretius and the Modern World

, Lucretius and the modern world. Classical inter/faces. London: Duckworth, 2000. 1 online resource.. ISBN 9781472502278 £9.99.

This lepidus libellus from the pen of W. R. Johnson (J.) makes for a fun read. Appearing in a new series with the trendy title “ξλασσιξαλ ιντερ” the book provides an introduction to the De rerum natura itself and tells the story of Lucretius’ reception from the seventeenth century onward. To judge from the title as well as from the book’s cover, which shows Lucretius in profile before a billowing nuclear mushroom, the purpose of the work is to present a Lucretius “for our times.” But make no mistake about it: this is not some well-meaning and well-mannered humanistic attempt to make a classic palatable to a wider audience. What this fascinating and unabashedly personal book amounts to is nothing less than an impassioned Epicurean manifesto.

The first part (“The Poem Itself”) offers an excellent discussion of some of the major aspects of Lucretius’ poem from the construction of the teacher-student-relationship to the purpose of the description of the plague at the end of Book 6. However, J.’s perspective is somewhat skewed toward issues of human ethics: after treating the basics of Epicurean philosophy and the set-up of the De rerum natura in under 30 pages, the author devotes more than 40 pages to the discussion of sexuality at the end of Book 4 and the history of civilization in Book 5. These topics are clearly dear to J.’s heart, and they are also, perhaps, a bit more exciting and accessible than the issues of physics that make up the greater part of Lucretius’ poem. To the reader unfamiliar with the De rerum natura, though, J.’s treatment will be somewhat misleading: Lucretius, after all, talks a lot about atoms; J. hardly ever does.

The author’s interpretations of the Lucretian text are typically insightful and presented in an extremely clear, albeit idiosyncratic, manner (see below). Needless to say, though, not everybody will agree with all of J.’s points. I cannot follow him, for example, in his adoption of G. B. Townend’s “Fading of Memmius”-theory (pp.4-11). I also think that J. is mistaken in believing that Lucretius is advertising a loving but unsentimental marriage with lots of good sex as the solution to man’s sexual and cultural anxieties (pp.39-46 and 50-53); furthermore, I see no evidence that female orgasm is particularly high on Lucretius’ list of values (p.44) and cannot help understanding the remark that “ladies don’t move” (4.1277) as a misogynistic comment rather than merely a reference to the fact that married women do not require birth control (p.45).

Be that as it may, the most exciting thing about J.’s book is the fact that just as Lucretius presents the teachings of Epicurus not in some detached way but rather with missionary fervor, J., too, emotionally identifies (or affects to identify—but I think it must be the former) with his subject matter in a way that lends enormous power to his exposition. Using the cunning technique of continually changing from direct quotations from the De rerum natura to paraphrases of the Lucretian text to his own formulations of Epicurean doctrine, J. successfully blends his own voice with that of the Roman poet. He also takes over, to great effect, the Lucretian method of employing the first-person plural to refer not only to mankind in general but to both the author and the reader specifically in order to inextricably involve them in his argument and the message it entails. Take a sentence like the following: “Learning to rejoice in that truth [sc. Epicurean philosophy] will not rescue us from death, but it can make us look directly at the meaning and limits of our mortality, and when we see that truth we will be free and able to live our portion of spacetime decently, in the light of pleasure’s gospel” (p.73). If Epicureans went door to door in the manner of Jehovah’s Witnesses, J.’s book would be their Watchtower.

If J. replicates Lucretius’ argumentative technique, his style could not be more different from that of his master. While the Roman poet indulges in majestic archaism, his modern commentator strives to sound contemporary, colloquial, and hip—and, to my ears, he largely succeeds. J.’s riffing style, his decidedly non-scholarly idiom, his personal involvement with the subject matter, and the casual way in which he throws out learned allusions to everything from Leopardi to Sylvester Stallone make for an extremely enjoyable reading experience. It may not be everybody’s cup of tea, though: what this reviewer finds entertaining may strike other readers as merely annoying, and it must be admitted that J. is a bit nimium amator ingenii sui. I did cringe at such solecisms as “Lucretius perishes the thought” (p.7) and wordplays like “the amatory life he has misled” (p.39), and I am also not sure we all wanted to know that J. thinks of the Venus in Lucretius’ proem as “a sort of music video featuring the shifting faces and smiles of Sophia Loren, the picture of Neapolitan fertility, wit, variety, vitality, awash in a rendition of Carl Orff’s Trionfo di Afrodite” (p.27). Nobody, however, could accuse J. of being boring; I for one could hardly put the book down, which is not the way I have felt about many other books on Latin literature.

To return to the contents of the work, the first two-thirds of the second part (“Our Lucretius”) constitute a riveting narrative of reactions to the De rerum natura in France and England from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century. J. shows how the reception of the poem was always linked to contemporary debates over materialism vs. theism/deism in which Lucretius could be either enlisted as a supporter or vilified as an enemy—or even (as in the various versions of the “Antilucrèce chez Lucrèce”-theory) himself appear as a battle-ground of the unresolved tensions between these two world-views (shades of Jerome’s mad Lucretius). In discussing these issues, J. treats such interesting and entertaining texts as Cardinal de Polignac’s Anti-Lucretius (1747; a beautifully Lucretian Latin hexameter poem aimed at disproving both the Roman poet and his latter-day followers), Voltaire’s “Letters of Memmius to Cicero” (1771; a fictive correspondence in which, after Lucretius’ death, his former student and his editor discuss the many points where the author was mistaken), and Tennyson’s poem “Lucretius” (1868; a lurid description of how the Roman poet, under the influence of the love-philter administered by his wife, goes mad and dramatically loses faith in his own philosophy).

In the last 20 pages of his book, J. leaves discussion of Lucretius and his influence behind and turns, somewhat paradoxically, to what J. perceives as Lucretius’ deplorable lack of influence in our present technology-driven society. Lashing out against the mysticization of cosmology (in which the exploration of space becomes a metaphysical quest) and particularly against the unethical use of science in the service of corporate greed and political agendas (which J. regards as responsible for such global ills as social injustice, pollution, and the threat of nuclear annihilation), the author presents Lucretian philosophy as an alternative that would help people realize the true hierarchy of pleasures and desist from their self-destructive tendencies. However, I believe that J. is fundamentally mistaken in his attempt to co-opt Lucretius as a political activist. While it is presumably the case that true Epicureans would not engage in the practices that J. denounces, it seems very unlikely to me that Lucretius, or any other Epicurean, would concur with the author’s outrage. After all, getting upset about things that are as difficult to influence as our modern technocracy is bad for your ataraxia, and, contrary to what J. appears to believe, Epicureanism, a pronouncedly apolitical philosophy, is not about securing the greatest possible happiness for the greatest number of people but solely about securing your own happiness. Lucretius, who writes so eloquently about the pleasure afforded by watching, from a secure spot, other people as they are blown about by a storm at sea or engage in battle (2.1-6), is hardly the right person to invoke as a patron saint in the fight to save the planet. J. here succumbs to the typical believer’s mistake, thinking that because he agrees with what Lucretius has to say, Lucretius will likewise support his point of view.

As with all books aimed at a larger audience, one has to wonder who will actually read Lucretius and the Modern World. The logo of the series “ξλασσιξαλ ιντερ” is a head of Janus, who dutifully looks both forward and backward (and, as a matter of fact, frowns)—but who is that double-faced non-specialist reader who might pick up J.’s book in order to find out about the lasting relevance of a long-dead Roman poet? It is to be hoped that some part of the so-called “general public” will in fact discover the Epicurean pleasures of J.’s work; professional classicists, at any rate, will be riveted by this refreshing new look at one of the good old texts they know and love.