BMCR 2004.06.26

Lucretius on Creation and Evolution: A Commentary on De Rerum Natura Book Five, Lines 772-1104

, Lucretius on creation and evolution : a commentary on De rerum natura, book five, lines 772-1104. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. xii, 385 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0199263965. $80.00.

One of the oddest parts of the De rerum natura is Lucretius’ description in Book 5 of zoogony and early human prehistory. Intended as a rationalistic account of the development of life on earth and the foundation of societies, the passage includes such seemingly fantastic elements as the birth of living beings, not simply from the earth, but from actual wombs inside the ground; the creation and subsequent demise of severely deformed monsters; the brutal but also unexpectedly idyllic life of the solitary first humans; and finally their first non-aggression pacts, established without the help of language, a skill invented only later. In an extensive commentary on the lines in questions (5.772-1104), a work based on his Oxford thesis supervised by the late Don Fowler, Gordon Campbell (C.) has tackled this difficult chapter of Lucretius’ poem with imagination and enthusiasm. The result is a fascinating, if occasionally baffling, book.

Despite its outwardly traditional format (the work consists of an introduction, a Latin text and translation of the passage, the commentary, and two appendices, plus bibliography and indices), C.’s book is really a monograph masquerading as a commentary. Of course, anybody reading this part of the De rerum natura could, and should, look up individual lines and see what C. has to say about them. However, such a reader will not find much in terms of grammatical explanation or basic exegesis; in fact, for some verses, he or she will not find any comment at all and may be better served by the more traditional commentaries of C. Bailey (1947) and C. D. N. Costa (1984). It is obvious that C. is not writing for the person who encounters Lucretius for the first time, but rather for a more seasoned reader already acquainted with the issues of the De rerum natura and ready to engage with some of the more arcane aspects of Epicurean philosophy. With its long introductory discussions of the individual subsections of the text — discussions that go on for pages and make the actual lemmata appear a bit like afterthoughts — C.’s book presents a continuous argument and can in fact be read cover to cover, something that cannot be said for most commentaries.

There is obviously nothing wrong with C.’s unorthodox but effective use of the commentary format, but one wishes that the author had been a bit more forthcoming as to his aims in adopting it and the kind of readership he had in mind. Generally speaking, the book is strangely lacking in methodological reflection, and we are never told explicitly why C. has chosen to treat this particular section of the text or what his approach is. This lack of “instructions” on how to use the book makes for a reading experience more typical of fiction than a scholarly text; as a matter of fact, C. employs a positively Homeric, disorienting in medias res-type opening when on p. 1, he plunges the unsuspecting reader right into the “great battle” between teleologists and anti-teleologists, without any introductory remarks of any kind.

C.’s reticence as to what he is doing extends to his Latin text. As every Lucretian knows, nothing comes from nothing, but where is C.’s text coming from? One assumes, of course, that the author has simply collated the major editions, but it would have been nice if he had said so and provided, as a service to his readers, a conspectus of his divergences from, say, Bailey’s OCT and Martin’s Teubner. I have no particular comments on C.’s textual choices (some of which are discussed in the commentary), except that his apparatus is strangely eclectic. On occasion, C. fails to mention that a particular reading that he has adopted is not found in the manuscripts but instead is a scholarly emendation. This is true, for example, of the e added in line 833 by Marullus and the change, in line 1020, of violare to violari, which was made by Lachmann (both Marullus and Lachmann are given credit for other emendations elsewhere in the apparatus). Apropos of line 1067, C. claims that at is Lachmann’s correction of the manuscripts’ et, but as a matter of fact, the opposite is true (C. may have been confused by the converse case in line 925). Clearly, textual criticism is not a priority of C., who is primarily interested in the interpretation of the text and the larger issues that arise from it. No one will consult the book for its Latin text and apparatus alone, but it is still a pity that this part of the work should be marred by the imperfections mentioned.

Given the complexity and richness of the material C. presents, the book defies easy summary. However, some of C.’s major insights and arguments are the following. In his discussion of the development of life on earth and of human society, Lucretius is clearly an anti-teleologist, someone who seeks to prove that all things “are the products of the interaction of chance and necessity over time, and that they owe nothing to God” (p. 10). Does this make the Roman poet an evolutionist in the Darwinian sense? Not really, according to C., who astutely points out that for Lucretius, unlike for Darwin, species are fixed from the beginning, and that while life-forms that are not viable are subject to extinction, the viable species are fully formed from the moment they arise (e.g., lions were always characterized by prowess, uirtus, 863). Interestingly, the only exception to this rule is human beings, who undergo an important development when they turn away from their solitary wandering to become sedentary and form the first societies on the basis of friendship (1011-1027). Taking theoretical recourse to a modified form of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, C. explains that cooperation (which goes hand in hand with the adoption of the principle imbecillorum esse aequum miserier omnis, 1023) is a “powerful individual survival strategy” (p. 258) and turns out to be the specific characteristic (comparable, say, to the lions’ uirtus) that allows human beings to survive as a species.

As for the debate whether Lucretius’ view of human prehistory is primitivist or progressivist, C. comes to the conclusion that it is neither or, rather, a little bit of both. While there is clearly a positive development in the movement, just described, from the solitary roaming to the first settling down in communities, the subsequent history of human civilization (beyond the scope of C.’s commentary) takes a turn for the worse with the introduction of the kinds of false notions, especially about the gods, that according to Epicurus are responsible for all the evils of human life. Instead of a clear rising or falling line, Lucretius’ account of civilization thus describes something like a curve. Matters are made additionally complicated, however, by the fact that the poet depicts the earliest, most primitive stage of beastlike wandering in terms that are sometimes positively idyllic. The reason for this, as expounded by C., is the traditional Golden Age imagery and vocabulary that Lucretius uses despite his view that there is no such thing as a Golden Age. Adopting the terminology of Richard Dawkins, C. describes these romanticizing notions as the “memes of prehistory,” “generally accepted background ideas” about the early stages of human life, “whose origins are untraceable, and that tend to exist and evolve as if they have a life of their own independent of any writer” (pp. 180f.). In C.’s opinion, L. cannot escape these preconceived ideas (i.e., he cannot write about prehistory without using Golden Age topoi), but he is able to employ them to his own advantage, as a didactic strategy: by using these familiar and pleasing notions, he is (to use the poet’s own image) sweetening the rim of the cup of his rather different, and much less pleasing and familiar, Epicurean message. Of course, readers less willing to give that much credit to authorial intention might prefer to see the unexpected presence of the Golden Age in Lucretius’ prehistory as a sign of the poet’s being overpowered by his own language and thus — in a kind of “Anti-Lucrèce chez Lucrèce” moment — of his unconsciously undercutting his own overt message.

C.’s commentary contains extensive discussion not only of Lucretius’ possible sources (esp. of Empedocles, whom C. views as an important model for Lucretius’ account of zoogony) and other ancient texts of relevance, but also of many later parallels throughout the ages. These are not necessarily reception documents influenced by Lucretius, but often simply works (not restricted to literature) that C. feels somehow express concepts similar to the ones found in the De rerum natura. Thus, the reader will have the exhilarating experience of coming across references to such diverse products of western civilization as C. S. Lewis’s novel The Magician’s Nephew, Piero di Cosimo’s painting “The Forest Fire,” and Cecil Frances Humphreys Alexander’s hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” In particular, however, C. quotes modern biological theory in an attempt to view Lucretius using the background of the debate between Creationists and Evolutionists and to consider his arguments as a contribution to an ongoing discussion. What this means is that he is taking Lucretius seriously as a thinker rather than treating the De rerum natura as a document of merely historical interest. This is apparent also from the many times that C. concludes his treatment of a specific Lucretian passage with a brief discussion of whether the poet’s claims are borne out by modern science: for example, it turns out (apropos of line 1023) that pity for the weak indeed had a place in prehistoric society but (apropos of lines 931-932) that pastoralism did not arise earlier than agriculture. This approach lends a somewhat “ahistorical” feel to the book: it seems to be less important who said what when than what can be said and, ultimately, what the truth is. This can be disconcerting and may not appeal to everyone, but it certainly is thought-provoking, intellectually stimulating, and a lot of fun.

A great part of the fun arises from the fact that C.’s book is clearly a labor of love, and one can positively feel the author’s excitement at having uncovered yet another Empedoclean passage, Creationist website, or Flann O’Brien novel that may have some bearing on Lucretius. The book is a treasure-trove of odd and fascinating information, including, for example, everything you always wanted to know about the topos of eating acorns (pp. 200-202) and about the onomatopoetic expressions different languages use to depict the whinnying of horses (e.g., “Hungarian: nyihaha, Icelandic: hoho, Thai: hee hee (with high tone),” etc., a list of which Borges would have been proud; p. 316, with reference to a website by Cathy Ball). Unfortunately, the short index is not up to providing satisfactory access to this wealth of topics (alas, no “acorns”), but the book offers a different and extremely useful service to the reader in its two appendices. These are a “Table of Themes in Accounts of Creation, Zoogony, and Anthropogony” and a “Table of Themes in Prehistories and Accounts of the Golden Age (including Isles of the Blessed, Ideal States, Noble Savages, etc.),” which list hundreds of passages from antiquity and beyond on such topoi as the autochthonous birth of human beings, the absence of seafaring in the early stages of prehistory, and, indeed, the diet of acorns, which is traced from Hesiod to Mary Shelley. Generations of scholars will find these appendices a helpful and fascinating tool.

C.’s book, if somewhat idiosyncratic, constitutes a major contribution to the study of Lucretius and the history of ideas. Anybody interested in the De rerum natura, Epicurean philosophy, and the various contentious issues surrounding the question of creation versus evolution and the early development of the human species will do well to consult it.