The Triumph of Chaos
This post is inspired by a Very Important Classicist saying something quite shocking. “I can’t stand Lucretius,” s/he admitted to me.
Actually, and to be fair, that’s not such an outlandish opinion. Lucretius is a Marmite poet, with passionate detractors and equally passionate devotees, and maybe that’s inevitable given what his six-book epic poem, the De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of the Universe”), sets out to do. Lucretius was an Epicurean, a follower of a philosophical school established by Epicurus in Athens in the fourth century BC, and the De Rerum Natura aims to convert his readers to Epicureanism by explaining his theories of the nature of the physical world, which in turn underpinned Epicurus’ radical ideas as to how humans should live their lives. In other words, the DRN is essentially a pretty austere exercise in philosophical doctrine, albeit one managed by a genius (at least as far as his fans are concerned) who managed to locate the common ground between meticulous philosophy and exquisite poetry.
Well, the best way that I know to learn to appreciate Lucretius (and this happens to be the way an inspirational teacher at school switched me onto him) is a little book by the late, great Latinist David West. Another way is to read Emma Woolerton’s excellent series of articles on Lucretius in the Guardian. I can’t hold a candle to either of those Lucretius experts, but what I can do is try to explain my own enthusiasm for his poetry. I’ll do so with special reference to a short passage very early in the poem (DRN 1.62-79) that celebrates the achievements of Lucretius’ great mentor Epicurus. But what this passage also does, I think, is illustrate what an astonishingly radical and exciting project Lucretius considered his poem to be.
More precisely, this passage celebrates what Epicurus did to traditional religious beliefs. The Epicureans were not atheists, strictly speaking, but their view of the gods was still at dramatic variance with the god-fearing consensus of antiquity. They thought that while gods existed, they did not interfere in human existence, and instead lived a blissful, carefree life in the intermundia, the space between worlds (“playing ping pong on the other side of the Universe,” as Charlotte Easton put it to me). In fact the main use of the gods, as far as Lucretius is concerned, is as a model of the happiness humans can achieve if they can only free themselves from their irrational fears and superstitions.
We might pause here to imagine how well this philosophy was likely to go down among the Romans, a people convinced that the only explanation of their precipitous rise to power was that they were chosen people and the gods had made it so.
Here is Lucretius’ account of Epicurus v. Religion, in the translation of Ronald Melville (with notes by Don and Peta Fowler, another excellent introduction to the poem):
When human life lay foul for all to see
Upon the earth, crushed by the burden of religion,
Religion which from heaven’s firmament
Displayed its face, its ghastly countenance,
Lowering above mankind, the first who dared
Raise mortal eyes against it, first to take
His stand against it, was a man of Greece.
He was not cowed by fables of the gods
Or thunderbolt or heaven’s threatening roar,
But they the more spurred on his ardent soul
Yearning to be the first to break apart
The bolts of nature’s gates and throw them open.
Therefore his lively intellect prevailed
And forth he marched, advancing onwards far
Beyond the flaming ramparts of the world,
And voyaged in mind throughout infinity,
Whence he victorious back in triumph brings
Report of what can be and what cannot
And in what manner each thing has a power
That’s limited, and deep-set boundary stone.
Wherefore religion in its turn is cast
Beneath the feet of men and trampled down,
And us his victory has made peers of heaven.
Powerful stuff, and there’s lots to say about it. But Lucretius’ essential idea here is to imagine Epicurus’ debunking of religious belief as his scaling of Mt Olympus, the traditional home of the gods, from where he drags religio (“religion” or “superstition”) down to be trampled underfoot by humanity. Humanity, meanwhile, with Epicurus’ help, captures the high ground for itself, assumes the condition of gods, in other words.
Lucretius is actually playing here with a very well-established mythical model, the Battle of the Giants or Gigantomachy. This myth told how rebellious forces, the giants, revolted against the gods on Olympus, and tried unsuccessfully to overthrow them. It embodied ideas of order and chaos and political authority, and hence we find it represented in the great frieze that ran around the base of the Pergamon Altar, now the centrepiece of the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin: the giants are the figures with the snaky tails. This building was constructed by a Greek king of Pergamon (in modern Turkey) known as Eumenes II, and the frieze expressed in symbolic form the protection against forces of disorder that Eumenes claimed to provide to his subjects.
The gods’ defeat of the giants was a myth of civilization, then, but alongside statements of political legitimacy like Eumenes’ altar, the myth of Gigantomachy also became associated with the form of poetry with the most public, political character: epic poetry. Of all ancient genres of poetry, epic was the one with the greatest interest in issues of order and authority, and celebrating the achievements of political leaders, and hence it came about that the myth of Gigantomachy became effectively synonymous with the epic poetry written by such figures as Virgil, his great predecessor Ennius, and in his idiosyncratic way also Lucretius.
Let me illustrate how interchangeable epic poetry and Gigantomachy were to ancient minds with a very different kind of poet, Ovid. At the start of his second book of love poems, the Amores, Ovid pokes fun at this idea of epic-as-Gigantomachy in his typically irreverent way. He was planning to write a respectable epic poem, he claims, but then his girlfriend shut him out and the only poetry of any use to him in that situation was (his usual) love poetry. But that’s not quite how Ovid puts it. In fact he says that he was staging a Gigantomachy (an epic) when his girlfriend forced him in the role of an excluded lover: the locked-out lover is the quintessential scenario of Roman love poetry just as Gigantomachy is of epic. Here is Ovid (Am. 2.1.11-28), as translated by Peter Green:
One time, I recall, I got started on an inflated epic
About War in Heaven, with all
Those hundred-handed monsters, and Earth’s fell vengeance, and towering
Ossa piled on Olympus (plus Pelion too).
But while I was setting up Jove–stormclouds and thunderbolts gathered
Ready to hand, a superb defensive barrage–
My mistress staged a lock-out. I dropped Jove and his lightnings
That instant, didn’t give him another thought.
Forgive me, good Lord, if I found your armoury useless–
Her shut door ran to larger bolts
Than any you wielded. I went back to verse and compliments,
My natural weapons. Soft words
Remove harsh door-chains. There’s magic in poetry, its power
Can pull down the bloody moon,
Turn back the sun, make serpents burst asunder
Or rivers flow upstream.
Doors are no match for such spellbinding, the toughest
Locks can be open-sesamed by its charms.
Normality is restored to Ovid’s poetry, the epic is aborted, and the Romans get another book of love poetry from their favourite poet.
Ovid is notoriously self-aware, trading happily in stereotypes of his own and other genres to witty effect. But a more conventional poet like Virgil in the Aeneid is also acutely aware of the subtext of Gigantomachy that underlies his epic poem, even when its plot, Aeneas’ quest to found Rome, bears little obvious resemblance to that myth. The myth of Gigantomachy surfaces periodically in the Aeneid, for example in the fight between the hero Hercules and the monster Cacus which Evander, king of early Rome, recounts to Aeneas in Book 8. This is a moment where an Olympian figure (Hercules) wrestles and overcomes a giant-like force for disorder (Cacus); it’s also a passage which functions as some kind of (rather elusive) key to the story that fills the remainder of Virgil’s poem, the struggle of Aeneas and Turnus for the hand of the princess Lavinia and control of Latium.
Now Virgil is far too subtle and thoughtful a poet to play the Gigantomachy theme absolutely straight: in Book 10, for example, when Aeneas goes berserk after the death of his comrade Pallas (for me, as I said in my last blog, by far the most disturbing and challenging section of the Aeneid), Virgil describes his hero raging like Aegaeon, a monster with a hundred hands and fifty fire-belching mouths, who wielded fifty swords against Jupiter’s lightning–which is to say, Aeneas in his grief and anger has become like a giant, sworn enemy of the Olympian gods, a force of chaos and destruction. But what makes this moment so arresting, of course, is that Virgil is making his hero precisely the opposite of the Olympian, civilized figure we want him to be. Some thoughts on this, again, in my last blog.
The key point for understanding Lucretius is the intimate relation that held between Gigantomachy, with its message of providential order, and the poetic genre of epic. When we find Lucretius representing the achievements of his hero Epicurus, the guiding spirit of his poem, in the guise of the myth of Gigantomachy, one implication is obvious enough: Lucretius’ poem, despite its very unconventional contents, was indeed, as its length and metrical form suggested, an epic, a poem aspiring to the same central role in Roman culture as Ennius’ Annals had enjoyed in the past, and Virgil’s Aeneid would achieve in the following generation.
But there’s more to it than that, because the really radical thing about Lucretius’ version of the Gigantomachy is that here the force of Good takes the role not of the Olympian gods, but the giants: uncowed by Jupiter’s thunderbolts, Epicurus presses on and conquers the realm of religion. To a reader familiar with the conventions of Greco-Roman poetry, this passage, which sits early enough in the poem to carry a strong programmatic force for the whole work, implies not only that the De Rerum Natura is an epic, but that it is the strangest, most revolutionary epic you’ve ever seen, because in this epic the forces of disorder, the giants, will prevail.
I started off by acknowledging that a poem explaining in quite precise detail the scientific theories of a Greek philosopher might not add up to a very enticing recipe. But for me, what adds spice to it all is that the whole enterprise is just a tiny bit unhinged. Lucretius was aiming to convert Romans to a way of life, Epicureanism, which could hardly be less compatible with their traditional practices. To that end he was hijacking Rome’s cultural forms, epic poetry first and foremost, and using them to blazon a belief system which, if properly implemented, would mean in effect the end of anything recognizably Roman. All of that, I think, is embodied in Lucretius’ radical and brilliant twist on the epic myth of Gigantomachy: what you are about to read is an epic, but an epic the burden of which is the complete overthrow of established notions of civilization.
I think another detail of Lucretius’ Gigantomachy reinforces this impression of an epic poem with a revolutionary agenda. When Lucretius describes Epicurus “breaking apart the bolts of nature’s gates” he is suggesting the originality of Epicurus’ thought, and the boldness of his cosmological theories, but he also seems to be reminding us of a moment in the Annals of his great predecessor Ennius. In Book 7 of the Annals, Ennius’ epic of Roman history (now a very melancholy bundle of fragments), we encounter the hellish Fury Discordia, who “shattered the iron-clad gates and doorposts of War” (fr. 225-6 Skutsch). Discordia is the great-grannie of Virgil’s ghastly hell-hound Allecto, like Allecto a demon who makes it her task to disrupt the orderly plans of Providence. Here in Ennius’s poem Discordia is apparently reigniting conflict between Rome and Carthage after the treaty that had ended the First Punic War, before (again like Allecto) she disappears back into the Underworld where she belongs.
If there is indeed a hint of Discordia taetra, “ghastly Discordia”, in Lucretius’ Epicurus, well, that’s as stunning a move as his topsy-turvy Gigantomachy: once again, though in even more arresting fashion, the founder of Lucretius’ philosophical school is equated to chaotic, anti-Olympian forces. But Discordia, like the giants, communicates a key message about the De Rerum Natura, and an accurate perception on Lucretius’ part: the philosophical system of the Epicureans, properly realized, was a truly revolutionary creed, one that might, if the Epicureans were right, create individual happiness and a better world, but would certainly dismantle society and culture as the Romans knew it. The conquest of heaven is a bold metaphor, but what else could capture the enormity of Lucretius’ project?