BMCR 2021.07.32

Approaches to Lucretius: traditions and innovations in reading the De rerum natura

, Approaches to Lucretius: traditions and innovations in reading the De rerum natura. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xii, 326. ISBN 9781108421966 $99.99.

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

This rich volume will help all students and readers of Lucretius’s poem challenge their preconceptions about it. The various chapters model how to think differently about the De Rerum Natura, using a range of approaches to do so. The volume’s achievement is that, thanks to thoughtful editorial arrangement, that array of approaches sits coherently together, provoking new thinking about their ultimate subject, the De Rerum Natura.

O’Rourke’s exemplary introduction moves briskly but thoughtfully. After a summary of the poem’s resurgence alongside its tendency to find contemporary relevance, he gives an engaging survey of its varying receptions that locates the volume as a whole in an awareness of the importance of such questions, before a very useful outline of the various chapters and their groupings. The subdivision of the volume into coherent themed parts (“The Text”, “Lucretius and His Readers”, “The Word and the World”, “Literary and Philosophical Sources”, and “Worldviews”) adds to its utility as a guide to the range of ways of doing what its title describes.

My only regret about the book’s organisation is that there is just one offering in the first part. David Butterfield’s essay teasing out the ongoing role that textual criticism has to play in our approaches to the De Rerum Natura is a superb introduction to the idea of textual criticism more generally, and will be essential reading for anyone interested in starting out in that area of scholarship. His focus on the opening hymn to Venus and its contexts shows how textual questions are relevant to philosophical and literary critical ones, and using such a famous and familiar passage as the basis of his argument allows for greater accessibility in his discussion. His succinct polemic refocuses our attention on the importance of getting to grips with the poem at every level, and will likely encourage  discussions to complement it in the future.

The second section focuses on approaches that are foregrounded by the poem itself, which demands attention for the author-reader relationship. The pieces here complement each other while pulling to the fore different strands of approaches to the author and reader of the De Rerum Natura that will encourage a multiplicity of ways of reading that relationship and the poem by which it is created. Barnaby Taylor offers excellent close readings of the relationship through the lens of 1st person verbs. Nora Goldschmidt uses the poem’s “long and rich biographical reception history” (48) as a springboard for an illuminating analysis of the text’s implied author, offering an incisive interpretation of that long, rich history in the process. Fabio Tutrone’s essay, “Coming to know Epicurus’ Truth: Distributed Cognition in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura,” represents one of the most original approaches on the poem for some time, by  discussing how, as he states, “the very concept of distributed cognition, broadly construed, has a history of its own with deep roots in Greco-Roman physiology” (81). Blending this approach with an analysis of the didactic tools used in the poem to introduce its reader gradually to Epicurean physics, Tutrone’s contribution is essential reading for its sharp analysis of the realist and idealist schools of thought about Epicurean gods, and its determined reminders of the Romanness of the poem in his discussion of DRN 4.678-83.

The collection’s editor also contributes one of three chapters in the book’s third section, The Word and the World. All three, in different ways, drill down to the words and letters that comprise the poem, something Lucretius would of course wholly have approved of, given his famous analogy between atoms and letters, which Wilson H. Shearin’s contribution reconsiders via Saussure’s cahiers. O’Rourke’s essay subtly addresses the representation of the infinite in the poem, with a hugely enjoyable teasing out of the implications of the omne immensum Lucretius has Epicurus wander through at DRN 1.74 among a number of superb close readings in the chapter. Jason Nethercut offers a reading of allusion in Lucretius’s explanation of echoes (de Rerum Natura 4.549ff) that sheds greater light on the interaction between poetry and physics; as he concludes, his reading forms an excellent starting point for digging more deeply still into this crucial crossover point in our analysis of Lucretian poetics.

Ongoing questions are approached in new ways: in the fourth section, Literary and Philosophical Sources, the essays all touch in different ways on the thorny question of whether Lucretius was, in David Sedley’s formulation, an Epicurean fundamentalist or in fact engaged with later texts and later philosophies alongside those of the master. A.D. Morrison uses Sedley’s comparison of the DRN with Epicurus’s On Nature as an example of a “master-text” reading of the poem; the essay as a whole is a convincing and powerful plea to remain open to the plurality of readings and readers made possible by a text as rich as Lucretius’s. Emma Gee’s discussion of possible allusions to contemporary philosophical works challenges her readers to allow for greater polemical engagement by a reader well-versed in the details of the texts alluded to (though by themselves some of the allusions discussed seem a little thin, the body of evidence as a whole convinces). Tim O’Keefe powerfully makes the case for Lucretius as a philosopher in his own right, using a comparison with Cicero’s philosophical dialogues to show the philosophical significance of Lucretius’s poetic form. His careful cataloguing of Lucretius’s use of various rhetorical techniques gives a sharp and focused overview of the importance of form in making the philosophical content clear; he pulls out a reading based on an understanding of the poet’s own grasp of “human psychology and … the point of philosophical argumentation” (193) that leads to the intriguing but persuasively formulated conclusion that the verse, far from just the honey on the cup that Lucretius claims it to be, makes the poem in some respects “a more effective embodiment of Epicureanism than anything written by Epicurus” (194). It is refreshing to see Lucretius given the philosophical, as well as poetic, credit he deserves.

The volume’s final section, Worldviews, focuses on the range of ways in which the poem and the philosophy at its core have engaged with and been engaged by various cultural and socio-political contexts. Among three thought-provoking contributions, Elizabeth Asmis’s stood out. Taking possibly the least read part of the collected works of Karl Marx, his doctoral thesis on Democritean and Epicurean atomism, Asmis shows the centrality of Lucretius to Marx’s analysis, and, through her detailed examination of Marx’s argument, teases out a fascinating response to the Epicurean notion of the atomic swerve (for which we have only Lucretius’s poem as Epicurean testimony).

The volume is typeset and proofread well. An index locorum complements the general index.

All in, this volume represents an exciting collection of views on Lucretius that will undoubtedly inspire further scholarship – not simply by setting out practical approaches for others to draw on and build upon but by showing how risking the unusual in our literary and philosophical thought can yield rich harvests from the seemingly familiar.

Authors and titles

O’Rourke, Donncha: “Introduction: Approaching Lucretius”
Part I: The Text
Butterfield, David: “Critical Responses to the Most Difficult Textual Problem in Lucretius”
Part II: Lucretius and His Readers
Goldschmidt, Nora: “Reading the ‘Implied Author in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura
Taylor, Barnaby: “Common Ground in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura
Tutrone, Fabio: “Coming to Know Epicurus’s Truth: Distributed Cognition in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura
Part III: The Word and the World
O’Rourke, Donncha: “Infinity, Enclosure and False Closure in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura
Nethercut, Jason: “Lucretian Echoes: Sound as Metaphor for Literary Allusion in De Rerum Natura 4.549-94”
Shearin, Wilson H.: “Saussure’s cahiers and Lucretius’ elementa: A Reconsideration of the Letters-Atoms Analogy”
Part IV Literary and Philosophical Sources
Morrison, A.D. “Arguing over the Text(s): Master-Texts vs. Intertexts in the Criticism of Lucretius”
O’Keefe, Tim” “Lucretius and the Philosophical Use of Literary Persuasion”
Gee, Emma: “The Rising and Setting Soul in Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 3”
Part V: Worldviews
Farrell, Joseph: “Was Memmius a Good King?”
Asmis, Elizabeth: “A Tribute to a Hero: Marx’s Interpretation of Epicurus in his Dissertation”
Kennedy, Duncan F. “Plato and Lucretius on the Theoretical Subject”