BMCR 2009.05.24

Empedocles Redivivus: Poetry and Analogy in Lucretius. Studies in Classics

, Empedocles Redivivus: Poetry and Analogy in Lucretius. Studies in Classics. London/New York: Routledge, 2007. xii, 324. ISBN 9780415988490. $95.00.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Myrto Garani, in her revised dissertation Empedocles Redivivus: Poetry and Analogy in Lucretius, has written an important book which challenges the influential assertion of David Sedley, that Lucretius’s debt to Empedocles goes little beyond poetics, generic affiliation, and discrete physical descriptions of certain cosmic processes.1 Instead, Garani follows the argument of David Furley, that Lucretius’s philosophical affiliation to Empedocles is deep and foundational.2 But more significantly, Empedocles Redivivus comes within a decade of the hundred-year anniversary of the publication of the seminal works of Diels and Jobst, whose impact on the study of the Greek and Roman physiologoi strikes deep.3 Although it is too early to know for sure, it seems that we are witnessing an Empedoclean revival similar to that witnessed in the 1960s (itself undoubtedly catalyzed by the publication of Diels and Kranz in 1956) as suggested by the publication of Annette Rosenfeld-Löffler’s La poétique d’ Empédocle: Cosmologie et métaphore in France in the same year as Empedocles Redivivus. A century from now Sedley’s groundbreaking work concomitant with the publication of the Strasburg papyrus by Martin and Primavesi in 1999 will be considered the terminus post quem of this resurgence. While scholars have been grappling with the profundity and complexity of our fragmentary Empedocles and his influence on Lucretius’s poetry, the time is ripe to build upon this recent scholarly energy and to explore Empedoclean poetics and philosophy in Roman poetry beyond the De Rerum Natura. As Garani herself states in the final sentence of her study, Empedocles Redivivus could be a catalyst for a more formal and thorough investigation of Empedocleanism in Augustan Poetry, and ultimately this potential is the most important consequence of Garani’s book.

Garani argues that when Lucretius praises Empedocles’ praeclara reperta at De Rerum Natura 1.731-33, he is motivated by his “predecessor’s epistemological methods of inquiry into the unseen” (16), methods which come in the form of personifications, similes and metaphors. These literary devices are employed by Empedocles to create analogies between the visible and invisible world, between the macrocosm and the microcosm, which lift the mask from reality to reveal the true physical and philosophical face of the universe. Garani suggests that epistemological methods are accompanied by intertexts between Lucretius and Empedocles through which one is able to see a twofold strategy in Lucretius’s reception of Empedocles: (1) in those instances where Empedoclean analogies contain an Epicurean kinship, Lucretius utilizes Empedocles’ innovative arguments to prove Epicurean points; (2) with respect to analogies that are untenable according to Epicurean philosophy, Lucretius rejects the Empedoclean content and situates the analogy within an Epicurean context.

Empedocles Redivivus begins by covering the necessary scholarly background and lays the analytical foundations upon which the remainder of the book rests. The Introduction is followed by Chapter One: Personification, Chapter Two: Similes, and Chapter Three: Metaphors. The book ends with a brief Epilogue, rich and detailed Endnotes, a Bibliography, a useful Index Locorum, and a General Index.

I will proceed by summarizing the contents of each chapter, highlighting their merits, and will end the review with a few criticisms. The Introduction begins with the famous encomium to Empedocles ( De Rerum Natura 1.714-741). Garani discusses the deep and marked respect Lucretius grants to his materialist predecessor in order to rehearse the scholarly debate over the implications of this praise. She succinctly covers the ancient evidence of Epicurean hostility to Empedocles’ theory of the four elements and Lucretius’s own dismantling of various aspects of Empedoclean philosophy. But further investigation into Lucretius’s thought shows that Epicureanism shares much with Empedoclean notions of eternal growth and decay, the subdivision of the cosmos into four roots (at a level once removed from the atom), and certain features of zoogonicactivity (to name only a few examples). Garani sides with the suggestion of G.L. Campbell, that Lucretius possibly saw close connections between the philosophy of Epicurus and Empedocles and therefore infused his poem with further Empedoclean elements on the basis of their shared or similar tenets. The common denominator that most forcefully connects Empedocles to Epicurus and Lucretius is the value of analogical thought; through sensory experience of perceptible reality the natural processes occurring within the macrocosm can be used as a point of analogy for the unseen actions of the microcosm. Therefore, similes, metaphors, and personifications are not instances of poetic artifice, but the tools of the trade of physiologoi and didactic poets.

In Chapter One: Personification, Garani explores the use of personification in the De Rerum Natura as a way to illuminate abstract natural forces and to visualize the invisible first principles. Her investigation moves through a vast array of topics on the animation of primary elements, the role of sexual imagery and friendship, socio-political imagery, warfare, the universe as Makranthropos, and the earth-mother personification. While showing great sensitivity to the multiplicity of associations in Lucretius’s opening hymn to Venus, her analysis moves through the well-trodden path of its Empedoclean influence and the allegorical embrace of Love and Strife in the form of Venus and Mars. Her discussion reminds one of the fact that “openings” of texts are major points of interpretation, and at a certain level the scholarly aporia concerning the opening of the De Rerum Natura is in actuality a function of the general interpretative problems inherent in openings themselves.4 Garani shows with varying degrees of success that at each point of contact between Lucretius and Empedocles, Lucretius divests the original Empedoclean personification of its philosophical content, replacing it with Epicurean doctrine.

Chapter Two: Similes is a wide-ranging study in which Garani shows that while all ancient physiologoi use similes in order to speculate about astrological or invisible aspects of nature, Empedocles, in particular, impacted the form and content of Lucretius’s similes. She investigates the role of the Homeric simile in the works of both poets and how Lucretius adopts particularly useful Empedoclean strategies for philosophical exegesis. Garani dissects with illuminating precision the subtlety and ingenuity of Lucretius’s utilization of multiple correspondence similes (called “multi-dimensional similes” by Garani). Through the accumulation of “vehicles” around a single “tenor” Lucretius elucidates the obscure operations of the unseen world and shows a marked improvement over Empedocles’ deployment of vehicles. In fragment B100, for example, Empedocles compares respiration to the operation of a clepsydra, but he then characterizes the clepsydra in martial terms, ignoring how this metaphor might actually obscure the operation of the lungs, his original tenor. Empedocles, Garani suggests, sacrificed clarity for poetic effect. Lucretius, on the other hand, maps vehicles upon vehicles in order to approach the myriad qualities of the tenor from as many perspectives as possible, resulting in more vivid clarity. Her discussion goes beyond just Empedoclean influence on Lucretius; Lucretius is merely one of many philosophers who followed Empedocles’ analogical approach, but Lucretius is the most successful and profound successor in his employment of multiple-correspondence similes and transfusion.

Garani concludes her study with a thorough analysis of Lucretius’s deployment of Empedoclean metaphors. She focuses on four metaphors in particular: “piecing together the primary elements,” “filling or emptying the atomic container,” “flowing water,” and “squeezing out the sponge.” She organizes the metaphors in this way in order to focus on the fact that Empedocles’ metaphors for the admixture of primary elements rely on the presence of effluences and pores. The evidence of Empedoclean influence on Lucretius on this point is scant, being based on just a few fragments, but she suggests that Epicurus shared Empedocles’ general notion that two things are best joined when the pores of one object are symmetrical with the effluences of another. Based on this common point, Garani suggests that Lucretius was sensitive to the debt his master owed to Empedocles, and that Lucretius’s inclusion of Empedocles’ metaphors concerning theories of admixture and pores is a gesture to Empedoclean influence on Epicurean physics. While Garani argues that Lucretius found in Empedocles’ poetry the source metaphors for his own depiction of atomic action, she concludes that the notions of atoms and void regulated Lucretius’s reception of Empedoclean metaphors. Furthermore, Lucretius went well beyond Empedocles, and even Epicurus, by synthesizing conventional and unconventional metaphors into a coherent metaphorical methodology, which allowed the poet to incorporate seemingly dissimilar concepts and processes into an overarching theory of universal action that emphasized the underlying homogeneity of the cosmos. The book ends with a restatement of her findings in a short Epilogue.

Garani’s conclusions suggest that because Epicurus shared many doctrinal beliefs with Empedocles, Lucretius was free to mine the poet for innovative and useful analogies, provided that he injected a healthy dose of Epicureanism into them. Furthermore, if Lucretius is as intellectually indebted to Empedocles as Garani claims, then scholars must reevaluate Lucretius’s relationship with other non-Epicurean philosophers.

While the general thrust of Garani’s arguments throughout the book is illuminating, and one will have learned a great deal about Lucretius’s methodology in reading the Empedocles Redivivus, I do have a few criticisms. Garani attempts to buttress Empedocles’ philosophical influence on Lucretius, but her evidence does not so much present a case for philosophical dependence as it does for methodological affiliation. These are not the same thing, and outside of the theory of pores and effluences, little evidence is presented that would refute Sedley’s claim that the primary Empedoclean influence on Lucretius is poetic, generic and concerned with discrete physical processes. Furthermore, many of Garani’s claims rely on supposed intertextual connections between Empedocles and Lucretius. Certain readers will not accept some of the instances of intertextuality. It is often the case that a possible Empedoclean interntext is just as likely—if not more likely—derived from Epicurus or some other philosopher. Even more detrimental to her analysis is her lack of interest in unearthing the underlying rationale for cases of intertextuality. When she does dig into these references, her results are exciting, but there are many intertexts left behind. Garani would have been well served to employ Richard Thomas’ typology of intertextual reference in order to distinguish between those instances that are merely casual and those that have a more profound force.5 Outside of a few significant examples, most cases of intertextuality are casual at best.

Lastly, I would like to highlight a pitfall of elucidating Lucretian thought primarily through Greek texts to the exclusion of broader concerns. Garani states that the meaning of “bonds” in the phrase foedera naturai is a particularly innovative semantic shift, and without a doubt the phrase is highly marked. She states that the idea ultimately looks back to B30.3, Empedocles’ horkos between Love and Strife. She points to horkos‘ etymological connection to herkos, “constraint” or “enclosure,” and argues that Lucretius “revives the concept of binding that was already latent in Empedocles’ oath and transfers it to foedera.” She then suggests that alte terminus haerens reflects the fact that Lucretius married foedus and terminus in order to transfer horkos and herkos into his poem. It is unlikely that Lucretius is alluding to Empedocles here, and it is less likely that he uses foedera naturai to transfer into his text horkos and herkos. The idea of “binding” was always an inherent quality of Roman foedera as we see in Cicero’s definition of foedus at Pro Balbo 10.7: contra foedus, id est contra populi religionem et fides. This religious “binding” (if this is in fact the true etymology) is carried over into international policy, whereby words such as obligare, adligare, inligare, and tenere often describe the restraints imposed through foedera on allies of Rome (see AUC 3.56, 21.18, 35.46, 38.33, 42.23, and 45.25). Furthermore, foedera were implicitly concerned with the creation of fines and termini between states. To take one example from Livy (AUC 21.2.7): a foedus with Hasdrubal outlines, ut finis utriusque imperii esset amnis Hiberus Saguntinisque mediis imperia duorum populorum libertas servaretur. Or we could look to Lucan’s description of the Rubicon as Gallica certus/ limes ab Ausoniis disterminat arva colonis (BC 1.215-16). It is notable that Caesar states procul hinc iam foedera sunto (BC 1.226) the very moment after he has crossed the limes and terminus. In addition, fides, without which foedera could not exist, and the performance of fides by a iunctio dextrarum, are much more influential on Lucretius’s choice of foedera naturai than any text. There is no need to look to Empedocles, ablaut patterns, and Greek culture to see that fines, termini, iunctiones, ligationes, et cetera were innate qualities of foedera. I would even go so far as to suggest that it was these cognitive associations implicit in foedera that motivated many of Lucretius’s profoundly influential descriptions of atomic activity.

Ultimately, Empedocles Redivivus is an important contribution to the study of Empedocles and Lucretius, and in spite of my criticisms, there is a great deal of original and careful thought here that powerfully reveals Lucretius’s profound and creative reception of his poetic and philosophical predecessors. Introduction
Chapter One: Personification
Chapter Two: Similes
Chapter Three: Metaphors
List of Translations


1. See D. Sedley, Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom (Cambridge) 1998 and “Lucretius and the New Empedocles,” LICS 2.4 (2003) 1-12.

2. D. Furley, “Variations on Themes from Empedocles in Lucretius’ Proem,” BICS 17 (1970) 55-64.

3. H. Diels, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (Berlin) 1903 and F. Jobst, Über da Verhältnis zwischen Lukretius und Empedokles (diss., Munich) 1907.

4. See the recent publication B. Richardson, ed., Narrative Beginnings: Theories and Practices (Nebraska) 2009.

5. R. Thomas, ” Virgil’s Georgics and the Art of Reference,” HSCP 90 (1986) 171-98. This reference is absent from Garani’s bibliography.