Manual Oxford Readings in Lucretius (Oxford Readings in Classical Studies)

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Language emerged 5. The same part of book 5 is rich in other cultural reconstructions, including the origin of friendship and justice in a primitive social contract 5. To conclude his poem, Lucretius works through a range of the phenomena that physical theorists were standardly called upon to account for: storms, waterspouts, earthquakes, plagues and the like. Once more the exclusion of divine causation undoubtedly motivates the account, the phenomena in question being nearly all ones popularly regarded as manifestations of divine intervention.

Lucretius not only explains them naturalistically, but is ready to mock the rival, theological explanations: for example, if thunderbolts are weapons hurled by Zeus at human miscreants, why does he waste so much of his ammunition on uninhabited regions, or, when he does score a hit, sometimes strike his own temple 6. The De rerum natura is, as its title confirms, a work of physics, written in the venerable tradition of Greek treatises On nature. Nevertheless, Lucretius writes as a complete Epicurean, offering his reader not just cosmological understanding but the full recipe for happiness.

Certainly to eliminate fear of the divine through physical understanding is one component of this task, but not the only one. According to the Epicurean canon, the fear of death must also be countered, and the rational management of pleasures and pains learnt. The magnificent finale of book 3 — is a diatribe against the fear of death, taking as its starting point the preceding demonstration that death is simply annihilation. To fear a future state of death, Lucretius argues, is to make the conceptual blunder of supposing yourself present to regret and bewail your own non-existence.

The reality is that being dead will be no worse just as it will be no better than it was, long ago, not yet to have been born. The proem to book 2 extols the Epicurean life of detached tranquility, portrayed as maintaining modest and easily satisfied appetites while shunning lofty ambitions and the disquiet these inevitably bring in their wake. For it is Epicurus alone who has made life genuinely worth living, not only by releasing us from the torment of fear but also by teaching us how to manage our desires to the point where we can enjoy their genuine and lasting satisfaction.

The root cause of our troubles lies elsewhere, Lucretius is implying, and, even after civilization had reached its peak, it remained for Epicurus to bring that cause to light. Good is easily attainable, evil easily endurable. How was evil to be endured? It is hard to believe that Lucretius, with his deep understanding of Epicurean ethics, did not plan to rectify its glaring omission from his poem. Those who believe that the poem is unfinished, and that Lucretius had he lived would have developed or restructured its final part, may justifiably suspect that the possibility of good cheer and optimism in the face of pain was the motif that he was saving for that role, wherever and however he might eventually have chosen to work it in.

Epicurus had insisted on the existence of the gods, but the mode of existence he attributed to them has become a matter of controversy. Some scholars take this constitution out of simulacra to describe a highly attenuated mode of biological being which somehow makes the immortal gods an exception to the rule that compounds must eventually disintegrate, so that they are able to live on forever, not in any world like ours since all worlds must themselves eventually perish but in the much safer regions between worlds.

Lucretius shows signs of assuming the realist view of the gods 2. And this is the function Lucretius too gives them, especially in the proems to books 1, 3, 5 and 6. The gods live a supremely tranquil life, never disquieted by either favour or anger towards us.

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By contemplating them as they truly are we can aspire to achieve that same blissful state within the confines of a human lifespan. But Lucretius adds another dimension to this theology: for as the poem progresses Epicurus himself is increasingly presented as a god. In itself this apotheosis is probably consistent with Epicurean theology: Epicurus did after all attain the same morally paradigmatic status which characterizes the gods. But in the proem to book 5 Epicurus is permitted to go beyond this paradigmatic role, and to become a heroic benefactor of mankind.

What Lucretius effectively asserts is that, on a Euhemeristic ranking, Epicurus is a far greater god than Ceres or Bacchus, held to have originally been the institutors of, respectively, agriculture and wine, and also a far greater god than the divinized Hercules. Epicurus on the other hand has offered us real and permanent salvation from monsters, namely those truly frightful monsters that haunt our souls, such as insatiable desires, fears, and arrogance.

But, he adds in an important codicil, this usage is permissible only if one avoids the pernicious religious beliefs that such locutions imply. The same suspicion recurs with even greater force when we focus on the proem to book 1. In it Lucretius prays to Venus, not only as the universal life force but also as ancestress of the Romans, begging her to intervene with her lover Mars and save the troubled Roman republic from civil strife.


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Readers, as they progress further into the poem, are no doubt expected to accumulate the appropriate materials for understanding the proem as in tune with the true Epicurean message, but there is little agreement as to how this is meant to be achieved. One possibility is as follows. If so, the prayer for Venus to pacify Mars is no more than the expressed hope that Romans will return to appreciating the true peaceful nature of divinity, which for an Epicurean like Lucretius is nothing different from their themselves striving to emulate this paradigm of peacefulness.

Lucretius: Bibliography

Lucretius was both admired and imitated by writers of the early Roman empire, while in the eyes of Latin patristic authors like Lactantius he came to serve as the leading spokesman of the godless Epicurean philosophy. Life 2. Epicurean background 4. Physics 5. Ethics 6. Religion 7. It falls into three matching pairs of books: The permanent constituents of the universe: atoms and void How atoms explain phenomena The nature and mortality of the soul Phenomena of the soul The cosmos and its mortality Cosmic phenomena The sequence is one of ascending scale: the first pair of books deals with the microscopic world of atoms, the second with human beings, the third with the cosmos as a whole.

Epicurean background Epicurus founded his system in the late 4 th and early 3 rd century BCE, and it became one of the most influential of the Hellenistic age. Physics Book 1 sets out the fundamental principles of Epicurean atomism. Book 2 explains the nature of atomic compounds. Book 3 turns to the soul and its mortality. Books 5 and 6 set out to explain the cosmos as a whole and its phenomenal contents.

Ethics The De rerum natura is, as its title confirms, a work of physics, written in the venerable tradition of Greek treatises On nature. Influence Lucretius was both admired and imitated by writers of the early Roman empire, while in the eyes of Latin patristic authors like Lactantius he came to serve as the leading spokesman of the godless Epicurean philosophy. Bibliography Editions Bailey, C. Monumental edition, with translation and commentary. Brown, P. Brown, R. Butterfield, D. Costa, C.

Ernout, A. Fowler, D. Lucretius on Atomic Motion. A Commentary on De Rerum Natura 2. Gale, M. Godwin, J.


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Kenney, E. Piazzi, L. Un commento a De rerum natura 1, — , Pisa: Edizioni della Normale. Smith, M. Translations See Bailey and Smith, above. Also: Englert, W. Latham, R. Fowler, Oxford: Clarendon Press. Stallings, A. Commentary Algra, K. Asmis, E. Bright, D. Classen, C. Clay, D. Commager, H.

Dalzell, A. De Lacy, P. Edwards, M. Griffin, J. Barnes, eds. Furley, D. Garani, M. Gillespie, S. Gordon, C. Greenblatt, S. Hadzits, G. Holmes, B. Hutchinson, G. Johnson, M. Johnson, W. Jones, H. Kennedy, D.

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Classical Studies: Companions: Oxford

Kleve, K. Kollman, E. Konstan, D. Lehoux, D.