BMCR 2008.05.39

Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Lucretius

, Lucretius. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 1 online resource (x, 441 pages).. ISBN 0191531987 $47.95 (pb).

Table of Contents

Monica R. Gale’s collection of 18 previously published papers on Lucretius not only admirably fulfills the stated purpose of the series, viz. to provide “students and scholars with a representative selection of the best and most influential articles on a particular author”,1 but also constitutes a demonstration—indeed, a celebration—of the high quality of Lucretian scholarship of the last half-century. Ranging from very good to excellent, the pieces chosen by G. attest to the existence of a contemporary approach to Lucretius that is sophisticated, international (two of the papers are translated from German, one from French), and (amazingly enough) free of major controversy. To a certain extent, this may betray the editor’s bias, but I still believe that it is indicative of the current state of Lucretian studies that all the articles in the volume are more or less “on the same page” and that it is pretty much possible to agree with all of them. Of course there are minor differences of approach—one may be more inclined to regard the figure of Venus in the first proem as largely influenced by Empedocles (thus David Sedley, Ch. 2) or instead prefer to see her as modeled on the Stoic Zeus (as maintained by Elizabeth Asmis, Ch. 3)—but at the end of the day, a consistent image of Lucretius emerges from the papers.

This comparative single-mindedness may have something to do with the fact that, as G. shows in her useful Introduction, it is only in the last few decades that scholarship has freed itself from the belief that there is something “wrong” with Lucretius. Tellingly, the only biographical notice from antiquity (Jerome) informs us that the poet was insane, and for centuries, especially those dominated by a Christian outlook, the Epicurean content of his work was an irritant to many readers. Even once these ideological concerns had become less prevalent, there was a lingering sense that Lucretius’ undertaking was somehow problematic, either because poetry was romantically viewed as a medium unsuited for philosophy or because the supposed conflict between the two was projected onto the mind of the poet himself, who, it was believed, could not but have suffered under the intrinsic tension between his two contradictory pursuits (this is the infamous “anti-Lucrèce chez Lucrèce”-scenario). By contrast, the Lucretius of contemporary scholarship is at the same time a serious thinker and a sophisticated poet, someone who consciously employs the medium of poetry to convey his philosophical message. A highly intertextual writer, he is well acquainted with such diverse traditions as Archaic Greek didactic, Callimachean poetics, Ennius, and of course the works of his master Epicurus; being extremely original (and self-consciously proud of it), he is also an unmistakable product of the first century BC and its literary, intellectual, and political culture. As G. points out (15-17), this scholarly orthodoxy which views Lucretius as being “of one piece” and considers his integration of poetry and philosophy successful may be waning, as recent studies increasingly stress the “discontinuity” of his text. This inevitable and welcome turn (paralleled in the study of other writers) will no doubt contribute to our appreciation of the complexities of the DRN; however, there will be no going back to viewing Lucretius as anything but a self-conscious masterful manipulator of language to a higher purpose.

The volume falls broadly into two halves. Chapters 1-10 for the most part discuss individual sections of the DRN and issues related to them, while chapters 11-18 treat larger topics ranging from Lucretius’ style, to his relationship to other writers, to his political stance.

The book opens with Diskin Clay’s “The Sources of Lucretius’ Inspiration” (1976, also reprinted in Paradosis and Survival, 1988), which discusses Lucretius’ self-representation as a poet and which (I assume) G. intends to serve as an introduction to the poem as a whole. The piece is somewhat loosely structured: Clay moves from topic to topic but manages to bring out nicely numerous aspects of Lucretius’ poetics, including his use of path metaphors, his claim to originality, the parallelism between Lucretius and Epicurus, and the honeyed-cup simile.

David Sedley’s “The Empedoclean Opening” (from Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom, 1998, but published in part already in 1989) then turns to the beginning of the DRN and argues (following earlier suggestions by David J. Furley, BICS 17, 1970) that the first proem with its hymn to Venus is based on the proem to Empedocles’ On Nature. In the course of his highly sophisticated argument, Sedley reconstructs Empedocles’ lost proem on the basis of Lucretius’ text, demonstrating, among other things, that it contained a discussion of the doctrine of metempsychosis, which would explain why Lucretius, too, included this somewhat unexpected topic in his proem (in the context of Ennius’ dream).

Sedley’s argument is speculative but ultimately convincing; still, I can see how the reader might equally well buy into Elizabeth Asmis’ rival theory in “Lucretius’ Venus and Stoic Zeus” (1982), namely that the Venus of the proem is an allegorical goddess designed to rival Stoic Zeus (as presented, e.g., in Cleanthes’ hymn). As a force in and of nature, Venus stands for the pursuit of pleasure, and Asmis makes the elegant case that the goddess therefore—only apparently paradoxically—represents the very “freedom of the world from divine intervention” (101), since hedonism is an inherent trait of all creatures.

Moving on somewhat within the first proem, Vinzenz Buchheit in “Epicurus’ Triumph of the Mind (Lucr. 1.62-79)” (German version 1971) discusses Lucretius’ celebration of the philosopher’s achievement, pointing out that the poet depicts Epicurus as though he were a Roman triumphator. Buchheit examines the tradition of contrasting intellectual with military endeavors and convincingly suggests that Lucretius is making use of an earlier trope by which the wise man (or, specifically, Epicurus) is favorably compared to the ruler and general (or, specifically, Alexander).

W. J. Tatum’s “The Presocratics in Book 1 of Lucretius’ De rerum natura” (1984) considers the discussion of the doctrines of Heraclitus, Empedocles, and Anaxagoras in DRN 1.635-920. These three Presocratic philosophers are the only philosophical opponents Lucretius names, and Tatum proposes that the poet singles them out in order to reflect on the topic—so important to him—of the right use of language in writing philosophy. While Heraclitus is ridiculed for his linguistic obscurity and Anaxagoras (implicitly) criticized for his use of jargon (such as homoeomeriae), Empedocles emerges as the mean, someone whose conceptual clarity and use of poetry as a medium provide a model for Lucretius’ own practice.

In “Distant Views: The Imagery of Lucretius 2” (1964), Phillip De Lacy demonstrates how the proem to DRN 2 relates to themes found throughout the book. Just as the wise man is able to view the turmoil of a battle or shipwreck with distanced calm, Lucretius generally stresses the necessity of taking a “distant view” in order to gain a correct understanding of things, including atomic motion. While other philosophical schools use the army and the ship as analogies to demonstrate the inherent order of the universe, in Lucretius these same images stand for the world’s intrinsic randomness and disorder, from which we are to keep a knowing distance.

There are no papers dealing specifically with passages from DRN 3 and 4. This is a pity given that these books with their discussion of human psychology and sense perception and their great diatribes against the fear of death and against love are of particular interest to readers and that especially Book 3, with its accessible “green-and-yellow” commentary by E. J. Kenney, may be the part of the poem most often read by students. I will admit, however, that no obvious titles come to my mind.

We next find ourselves in Book 5, where David J. Furley in “Lucretius the Epicurean: On the History of Man” (1964) tackles the difficult issue of Lucretius’ history of mankind. He concludes that the poet is neither a primitivist nor a progressivist: while there is a clear development in civilization, this does not imply either improvement or deterioration. Instead, people have always been suffering from anxiety, albeit for different reasons. This changed only with the advent of Epicurus who, as it were, stands “above” regular history. In this context, Furley neatly points out that owing to the necessity of including the achievements of Epicurus, Lucretius’ approach to history is in fact different from that of his master.

The following two articles address the much-discussed finale of Book 6 and Lucretius’ description of the Athenian plague. In “Lucretius’ Interpretation of the Plague” (1957), H. S. Commager, Jr. explains discrepancies between Lucretius’ and Thucydides’ accounts with reference to the Roman poet’s “marked tendency to regard the plague less in physical terms than in emotional, moral, and psychological ones” (188). Commager suggests that Lucretius may have been influenced by the metaphor of “disease” as connoting psychological and philosophical ills; he maintains, interestingly, that the poet himself may not have been entirely aware of the symbolism he was creating and that he did not himself intend his plague to be an allegory.

Peta Fowler’s “Lucretian Conclusions” (1997) discusses the ending of the DRN as, indeed, an ending, in terms of both interpretation and of text. Following F. Bockemueller, she advocates transposing 6.1247-51 after 1286, arguing that these lines are more indicative of closure. After demonstrating in detail the closural nature of the passage, Fowler addresses the question of how this bleak finale affects the reader. She comes down on the side of those scholars who, like Diskin Clay and Gerhard Müller, maintain that the ending is supposed to be a kind of test: having been instructed in Epicureanism for six books, readers should now be able to maintain tranquillity even in the face of disaster,

Gerhard Müller proposed the “ending as test” thesis in the article that follows on Fowler’s piece, “The Conclusions of the Six Books of Lucretius” (German 1978). It is an examination of the endings of all six books of the DRN, which, as Müller shows, all in one way or another depict wrong human opinions about the nature of things and the anxiety they cause. In the case of the plague, we find the Athenians characterized by helplessness and despair in a situation where an Epicurean perspective—now held, one hopes, by Lucretius’ attentive readers—would have guaranteed peace of mind.

The first of the volume’s papers on general topics is P. H. Schrijvers’s “Seeing the Invisible: Lucretius’ Use of Analogy in the De rerum natura” (French 1978). The translation and reprint of this great article is, in my opinion, the single most valuable contribution G.’s collection makes to the study of Lucretius in the Anglophone world. Schrijvers not only offers insightful reflections on analogy in the DRN (probably the most prominent rhetorical figure in the poem) but also shows the inherent “dangers” of Lucretius’ use of metaphors. As a learned writer of the late Hellenistic period, the poet avails himself of a wealth of traditional images and employs them for his own purposes, despite the fact that many of them (e.g., “Mother Earth,” the universe as an organism, and the body as the container of the soul) have implications that contradict Epicurean doctrine. Schrijvers’s discussion of these issues is very interesting and theoretically sophisticated and anticipates later scholarship on the same questions.

David West’s “Lucretius and Epic,” a short excerpt from the author’s well-known Imagery and Poetry of Lucretius (1969), treats Lucretius’ use of epic language. This is the only selection in the volume whose rationale is not clear to me. The charm of West’s book does not quite come across in this random snippet, and as far as the DRN’s relationship to epic is concerned, perhaps it would have made more sense to reprint one of those works that maintain that Lucretius’ poem is itself an epic of sorts, such as Roland Mayer’s “The Epic of Lucretius” (PLLS 6, 1990) or—in a somewhat different vein—Gian Biagio Conte’s “Instructions for a Sublime Reader” (in Genres and Readers, 1994).

West’s piece is followed by E. J. Kenney’s famous “Doctus Lucretius” (1970). Today, when every Latin poet’s doctrina is taken for granted and allusions to Callimachus are spotted in, seemingly, every line, it is somewhat hard to imagine that 38 years ago, the case needed to be made that Lucretius was not a backward-looking archaizer hopelessly out of touch with the contemporary literary scene and Alexandrian poetics. It was Kenney who made it and established once and for all that Lucretius “was a conscious artist and craftsman of a very high order” (326). Kenney focuses in particular on the satirical treatment of love at the end of Book 4, showing that Lucretius is well versed in the conventions of Hellenistic epigram and may be reacting specifically to Catullus.

Following in Kenney’s footsteps, Robert D. Brown in “Lucretius and Callimachus” (1982) examines in greater details the DRN’s debt to its poet’s Alexandrian predecessor. Brown maintains that Lucretius’ use of Callimachean imagery such as the untrodden path and untouched fountain does not necessarily amount to a statement of allegiance to Callimachus’ poetics; he also discusses instances of allusion to the Hellenistic poet in non-programmatic passages and raises the possibility of influence from Callimachus’ scholarly writings as well as his poetry.

The oldest paper in the collection is P. Friedländer’s “Pattern of Sound and Atomistic Theory in Lucretius” (1941). In this classic discussion of Lucretian wordplay and puns, Friedländer demonstrates in fascinating detail how in the DRN, sound is often expressive of reality, as the elementa of language appear to correspond to the atoms of the natural world. Friedländer’s observations on “atomology” have been very influential, yet also criticized on the grounds that the Epicurean theory of language does not entail such an essential mirroring between speech and reality. Bearing in mind P. H. Schrijvers’s points (see above), it could be argued that Lucretius’ creation of correspondences between language and physics is yet another example of his creative use of modes of thought and speech that do not in fact agree with his doctrine—and of the danger of misreading that this practice entails.

One of Friedländer’s followers is Jane M. Snyder, known especially for her excellent book Puns and Poetry in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (1980) and represented here by “The Significant Name in Lucretius” (1978). Concentrating on a particular subcategory of Lucretius’ verbal play, she discusses the poet’s use of speaking names and names that are invested with special meaning through phonetic associations with nearby words, for example, CALLIda musa CALLIope (6.93-4). Especially coming after Friedländer, this piece is somewhat lackluster and might have been left out.

Snyder’s paper is followed by the volume’s most recent publication, Duncan Kennedy’s typically elegant “Making a Text of the Universe: Perspectives on Discursive Order in the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius” (2000). Kennedy reflects on the inherent difficulty of representing a “theory of everything” in verbal form and on the specific challenges faced by Lucretius, who—not unlike Darwin—was writing in a cosmological language saturated with images and associations hostile to his theories. In showing how Lucretius cleverly used notions of design and anthropocentricity for his own purposes (all the while risking being misconstrued), Kennedy makes points that are remarkably similar to those of Schrijvers (see above), albeit from a different theoretical viewpoint (he does not appear to have had knowledge of Schrijvers’s paper).

The volume concludes with D. P. Fowler’s “Lucretius and Politics” (1989), which examines Lucretius’ political views from two perspectives. First, Fowler looks at Epicurean ideas of political structures and public life and their reflection in the DRN; he then concerns himself with the “social metaphor,” Lucretius’ frequent description of the conglomerations of atoms in terms of social compounds. According to Fowler, the poet in both contexts projects a “realistically sceptical view of social institutions” (430): political structures are preferable to anarchy but always imperfect, and the wise man will stay away from political engagement.

As mentioned above, the collection strikes me as a great success and will be a trusty companion to the DRN for both novices and more experienced scholars. Of course, there are many more outstanding papers on Lucretius, and it is possible to disagree on what exactly should have been included. The only missing aspect that I would like to have seen covered is Lucretius’ didacticism and his relationship to his student. Philip Mitsis’s mildly provocative “Committing Philosophy on the Reader” (in Mega Nepios = MD 31, 1993) would have been an obvious candidate.

One final quibble: instead of relegating bibliographical information to the footnotes of the individual articles, it would have been nice to have a general bibliography and “Harvard-style” references. Not only would this have been more convenient for the reader, who would not then have to hunt for the first mention of each title, but a catch-all bibliography would also have been an extremely valuable tool in itself, especially for students on the search for secondary literature.


1. As demonstrated by Glenn C. Lacki in his review of Peter Knox’s volume on Ovid in the same series (BMCR 2007.09.19), it is possible to question the aims and underlying assumptions of the entire Oxford Readings enterprise, though I suspect that most readers are more interested in the usefulness of the individual collections than in the philosophical considerations that may or may not have gone into their making. Full disclosure: I myself have edited two Oxford Readings volumes, on Vergil’s Eclogues and Georgics, to appear this fall.