BMCR 2020.12.12

Lucretius and the language of nature

, Lucretius and the language of nature. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 240. ISBN 9780198754909 $80.00.

This monograph offers a nuanced and fresh reading of Lucretius’ creative use of language with a special focus on Epicurean linguistic theory. That Lucretius is a creative wordsmith will be news to few readers of De Rerum Natura; that Lucretius’ creativity is a fusion of Hellenistic poetics, Roman linguistic debates, and his active Latin translation of Greek source material may raise some eyebrows. The book wisely chooses not to discuss every aspect of Lucretius’ language and style, but provides us tastes of subjects such as Lucretian metaphor, etymologies and code-switching. While this may limit some of its applications and readership, I found it to be a refreshing deep dive into linguistic issues that are often passed over, scorned, or misunderstood in De Rerum Natura.

The introduction sets the stage and contextualizes Lucretius’ claims that the novelty of the material and the egestas linguae (1.139) hamstring his prospects; in fact, they spur his creativity. Taylor explains that current debates about rendering Greek philosophy in Latin (e.g. Cicero’s N.D. 1.8, Fin. 3.5) may shed light on Lucretius’ stated anxiety about his project, but stresses that his poetic imagery and vocabulary indicate his place in a larger Alexandrian matrix (Callimachus looms large). Such poetic vocabulary, which imbues language with supplementary meaning, may seem to clash with Epicurean linguistic theory and the naturalism that underlies much of it. The first chapter, however, aims to clear up such an assumption, as Taylor outlines Epicurean ideas about the evolution of language, linguistic naturalism, and conventionalism.[1] He judiciously finds parallels and points of clarification in Lucretius’ work, especially Book 5, to elaborate thorny issues in language development and finds that the “post-natural stages of the Epicurean theory of linguistic development are … highly relevant to our understanding of the creative linguistic activity of Lucretius” (31). Although Epicurus encourages using words in their proper and ordinary meanings, Lucretius can be seen as an authority who is able to stamp new meanings on existing words and provide new names for obscure and difficult ideas.

Taylor continues his investigation of the relationship between linguistic naturalism and conventionalism in the following chapter, which examines the use of metaphor in Lucretius and Epicurus. Epicureans had a specialized vocabulary, and we can see how Lucretius utilizes terms like inane and simulacra as a sort of philosophical dialect that the readers have to pick up to be a part of his philosophical community. In his discussion of Epicurus, Taylor underscores that certain metaphors and metaphorical leaps of language are necessary for Epicureans to describe imperceptibles (like atoms), but that Epicureans preferred terms that had some sort of similarity with phenomenal experience or preconceived notions. Taylor belabors the point a little here, but the writing picks up when he turns to Lucretius’ assessment of metaphor and metonymy (e.g. when it is acceptable to use “mother earth”). Taylor shows that Lucretius is not an opponent of these tropes but does have a strong sense of propriety concerning their employment.

His findings are further expanded in the following chapter, which appraises how Lucretius repurposes language as well as metaphors found in the Greek tradition and Epicurus’ works. Taylor stresses how odd phrases like foedera naturai (1.586) or animi iniectus (2.740, 2.1047) may first have appeared to the Roman reader and notes potential instability or misapplication in these metaphors, depending on the reader’s predilections and knowledge of Epicurean phrases. His willingness to admit to uncertainty and instability in Lucretius’ language allows Taylor to test out various possible readings; I found this refreshing, although others might believe such deconstructive interpretations and “creative misreading and misprision” (108) weaken his argument(s). I especially enjoyed his glance at the language of visual perception being used for Lucretius’ larger didactic purpose: “The familiarity and clarity of the reader’s everyday perceptual experience, together with the terms which describe the nature and mechanics of that experience, are transferred, as it were, onto the colourless, anodyne, invisible domain of atoms and atomic motion” (88). The repetition of such figurative language, analogies, and imagery throughout the poem often will not just reiterate important points, but subtly change the valence of that material (such as the everyday sense of inane and its specialized meaning as “void”). This trope (diaphora) appears throughout Lucretius (and much Latin poetry) and allows Lucretius to challenge his reader to trace meaning backward and forwards in the text. The didactic back-and-forth between poet and reader thus can be observed and tested on a word-by-word basis and the reader is encouraged to be active in her hermeneutic approach. One wonders if this could be the reason why Lucretius would prefer poetry instead of prose to express his Epicurean views, a point that Taylor hints at in his conclusion of this chapter,[2] but could be stated more strongly throughout the work.

The fourth chapter considers Lucretius’ etymologies. It begins by espousing a weak form of Friedländer’s “atomological” reading to help understand synchronic relationships between words.[3] These are rather limited in Lucretius, and the remainder of the chapter digs into more fertile ground, namely “derivational connections between words—connections that would have emerged as a result not of the naturalism of the first stage, but rather of the rationalism and conventionalism of the second stage” (124). He examines the etymological explanations given for Avernus, prester, magnes, and amor, which are explicitly laid out in the text as well as some implicit etymologies from Latin and Greek. This wordplay and Lucretius’ interest in etymology probably will not surprise many readers of Lucretius, and, at times, the examples seem rather scattershot, but Taylor is a sure guide to how such derivations suggest language development and change in De Rerum Natura.

The final two chapters discuss linguistic features that derive from Lucretius’ interaction with the Greek language. Taylor shows how sensitive Lucretius was in his employment of Greek syntax, tmesis, Greek words, and even their terminations. His section on the code-switching involved in DRN 4.1160-69 is particularly persuasive, showing how the Greek terms besotted lovers use for their beloveds actually indicate mistaken opinions and mental instability. In commenting on the various compounds and calques (e.g. altitonans for ὑψιβρέμετης) that appear in De Rerum Natura, Taylor notes the foundational work of Sedley and stresses how these words creatively expand the lexicon of Latin philosophy.[4] Some Greek calques surely come from Empedocles, but Taylor cautions that many such compounds can be found in early Latin verse and may derive from various Greek sources. In order to prove this, Taylor prints pages of such calques from Greek sources and prefixed words from Epicurus, which does not make for the most exciting reading, but it is convincing. Many of these entries read like commentary lemmata, but they do get the point across: “calquing should be considered a strategy of central importance to the Lucretian project of rendering Greek Epicurean vocabulary into Latin, and as a major element of the lexical creativity of DRN” (191).

A short conclusion wraps up this monograph, which underscores the major features of Lucretius’ language and his ability to present himself as one of the enlightened few who is able to expand the reach of language (technical, poetic, philosophical). As stated above, I appreciate that Taylor does not try to do everything in this book, but I did hope that the conclusion would lead him to muse further on his findings. What does this help us to understand about Lucretius’ decision to write a didactic poem about Epicurean natural science? Does this shed light on the old question of prose vs. poetry? Or particularly notable cruxes in the work such as the proem to Venus (metaphor? metonymy? something else?) or Lucretius’ relationship to Memmius or the reader in general? Taylor’s own readings often accentuate the various connotations of words and metaphors, and specify how mis-/re-interpretation can occur, but aside from a lone passage of Boethius, he does not suggest how such reception operates in later writers. Obviously, a good book often provokes further questions, but I would have welcomed some more moments of panning-out on the big picture rather than zooming-in on the thirteen calques of Epicurean vocabulary.


[1] C. Atherton (cited by Taylor) offers a similar helpful overview of these topics in her “Epicurean philosophy of language,” in J. Warren (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2009.

[2] “From an external perspective…we may see the open-endedness of Lucretius’ densely figurative style less as a potential risk (or even flaw) in the text and more as a certain kind of gift to the poetic tradition of which DRN forms a foundational part” (112).

[3] Cf. P. Friedländer “Pattern of Sound and Atomistic Theory in Lucretius.” AJPh. 62 (1941) 16–34. Much of this chapter also engages with D. Marković’s strong monograph, The Rhetoric of Explanation in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. Leiden: Brill. 2008.

[4] D. Sedley. Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1998 and his article “Lucretius’ Use and Avoidance of Greek.” In J.N. Adams and R.G. Mayer (eds.) Aspects of the Language of Latin Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999: 227-46.