Lucretius, face to face


Lucretius is the Marmite of Roman literature. For some of my colleagues the De Rerum Natura, “On the Nature of the Universe” (DRN), his attempt to express the complex philosophical creed of Epicurus in poetry, mixes incompatibles: even certain Bodley Medal laureates have been known to diss Lucretius in my presence. Others are more sympathetic, and for some of them it’s the very strangeness of this project that holds a lot of its appeal.

I count myself one of the latter group, predictably, and I’m especially intrigued by Lucretius’ skill in exploiting the resources of poetry to advance his key aim, converting the reader to Epicurus’ philosophy and the contented existence that he insists will follow. In the DRN poetry and philosophy are thoroughly interwoven, inseparable, which means that interpreting the poem requires as good a grip of his philosophical position as his poetic technique. David West’s great little book The Imagery and Poetry of Lucretius is still for me the best introduction to Lucretius’ intricate poetry, and I’d freely admit that I fall far short of competence on the philosophical side myself. When I was co-writing something on Epicureanism and Lucretius recently, I left as much of the seriously technical stuff as I could to my co-author, Barney Taylor, who’s got a surer footing in Epicureanism and Lucretius’ account of it than I’ll ever have.

All I’m going to do in this blog is develop a thought I had while Barney and I were revising our article over the weekend. The focus is Lucretius as philosopher-poet or poet-philosopher, a poet whose poetry is all about convincing us of his philosophical convictions.

The De Rerum Natura is addressed to “Memmius”, generally believed to be C. Memmius L. f., a senior politician in Rome in the 50’s BC. By “addressed to” I mean that Lucretius presents the detailed account of Epicureanism doctrine that he offers in the DRN as a private communication between himself and Memmius: the stated aim of the poem is the conversion of this one individual. That’s the initial set up, at any rate. In practice, across the whole of the poem, although that intimacy is maintained, Memmius is named only occasionally, and a well-established interpretation of Lucretius’ strategy here is that this allows the place in the conversation originally occupied by Memmius to become the reader’s. When Lucretius addresses “you”, in other words, it’s easy for readers to feel that it is with them, individually, that Lucretius is communicating. Certainly the ancients thought that reading the De Rerum Natura was like “discussing the nature of the Universe with Lucretius as if face to face” (cum Lucretio videbuntur velut coram de rerum naturam disputare, Vitruvius 9 praef. 17).

Well, that was once the established view. But in 1993 a very influential article by Phillip Mitsis upset it. Mitsis argued that Lucretius’ style of argument in the poem was too aggressive for it simply to be a case of Memmius standing in for the reader. Rather, he suggests, the reader is being encouraged to see the “you” addressed in the poem, Memmius, as a bit of an dunce, consistently failing to grasp Lucretius’ arguments; according to Mitsis, the reader does not slip into Memmius’ shoes, then, but instead, in the process of watching Memmius get it wrong over and over again, and wishing to avoid sharing Memmius’ slow-wittedness, imperceptibly absorbs the wisdom of Epicurus.

That would certainly be psychologically astute on Lucretius’ part, and everyone agrees that Lucretius has the psychology of teaching pretty much taped, but on a number of grounds I don’t find Mitsis’ theory very convincing. Barney Taylor is actually working on a comprehensive response to his article, which, as I say, is a very influential one, and I wouldn’t attempt to anticipate Barney’s arguments even if I could.

But I am going to suggest one potentially relevant consideration, which occurred to me last weekend when I came across a remark attributed to Epicurus himself (Epicurus fr. 208 Usener). It is from a letter written by Epicurus to a fellow Epicurean, and it’s preserved for us by the Roman philosopher Seneca (Epist. 7.11). It simply says, “I say this not to many people, but just to you: we are, each for the other, an audience large enough” (haec ego non multis, sed tibi: satis enim magnum alter alteri theatrum sumus). But what struck me about it was that the relationship that Epicurus here describes existing between himself and his correspondent, intimate communication between two individuals, is exactly what Lucretius also establishes between himself and Memmius in the DRN.

What Epicurus is describing is I think a kind of ideal for Epicureans, perhaps even the quintessence of an Epicurean life of pleasure and ἀταραξία, freedom from anxiety. The intimate colloquy with a friend answers to a cluster of things that Epicurus believed contributed to the good life. Epicurus’ school was located in the Garden (Κῆπος), a small property belonging to him just outside Athens, a place of retreat from public life which Epicurus shared with friends, and in which their friendship was expressed through communal living, eating, and conversation. Cicero caricatures Epicureans as “carrying on discussions in their own little gardens” (in hortulis suis … dicere, Leg. 1.39), while Epicurus himself, in a letter he wrote as he lay dying to a friend named Idomeneus, describes the intense pain he was in, but insists his suffering is offset by “the joy in my soul at the recollection of our past conversations” (τὸ κατὰ ψυχὴν χαῖρον ἐπὶ τῇ τῶν γεγονότων ἡμῖν διαλογισμῶν μνήμῃ, Diog. Laert. 10.22). As for friendship itself, there was no aspect of social life more highly valued by Epicurus or his followers. In Epicurus’ own words (Sententiae Vaticanae 78), “The man of noble character is chiefly concerned with wisdom and friendship. Of these the former is a mortal good, but the latter is immortal” (ὁ γενναῖος περὶ σοφίαν καὶ φιλίαν μάλιστα γίγνεται, ὧν τὸ μέν ἐστι θνητὸν ἀγαθόν, τὸ δὲ ἀθάνατον).

Epicurus and Lucretius are both replicating this ideal of the intimate conversation as approximately as they can in written form, by a letter (generally understood in Antiquity as conversation by other means), and by a poem that dramatises a similar discussion. And insofar as the De Rerum Natura styles itself a conversation with Memmius, it is a token of friendship, too. Lucretius says so explicitly early in Book 1, explaining his motivation for undertaking the writing of the poem, despite its difficulties (140-41), “your excellence and the pleasure of delightful friendship that I anticipate” (tua … uirtus … et sperata uoluptas/ suauis amicitiae). Friendship is here presented as an abundant source of pleasure, pleasure being the primary good in Epicurean philosophy. I might add, though, that this is a moment when Memmius goes unnamed. Is it in fact friendship with me, the reader, that Lucretius has in mind here? The possibility of an intimacy extending across two millennia, achieved by a poetic text, is one of those things that makes Roman literature kind of thrilling.

But enough of that. The basic dramatic setup of the De Rerum Natura seems designed to express this especially valued Epicurean social practice of friendship. It’s important in this connection that friendship, amicitia, was something highly valued by Romans in general. Lucretius’ task in the DRN is to convert ordinary Romans to a philosophy that promoted a radically different understanding of the world, not an easy task. He tries very hard not to alienate his reader, and to insist on the common ground between Rome and Epicureanism. Amicitia is one such: to Romans there would be little less threatening than a friendly conversation.

Nevertheless, what may seem perfectly Roman is also thoroughly Epicurean. Spend any time “discussing the nature of the Universe with Lucretius as if face to face” and you start to see the world as you should, you start to become an Epicurean; but as part of that process you start to adopt the social practices of Epicureans, the friendly discussions in a space (the De Rerum Natura, a kind of poetic Garden) free of the distractions and anxieties of everyday life. That’s as cunning a piece of psychological manipulation as Mitsis proposes, I think: by the very act of reading the De Rerum Natura, your behaviour is being moulded into an Epicurean shape.

I don’t think any of that represents an unprecedented insight. But I suggested earlier that thinking about one-to-one conversation might also give us a counterargument to Mitsis. What I have in mind is the paramount value that Epicureans attached to friendship, amicitia, φιλία. If Lucretius’ colloquy with Memmius, and with each of us, does indeed embody friendship, Epicurus’ immortal good, could an Epicurean, in a poem dedicated to conveying the life-transforming doctrines of Epicurus, contemplate betraying such a sacred thing? For a betrayal of friendship is surely what Mitsis’ theory amounts to: Lucretius is pretending to be Memmius’ friend, with his deepest interests at heart, but in fact is showing him up as an idiot for the benefit of the rest of us.

I can’t see that for an Epicurean that could be anything but unthinkable.

(P.S. 13.4.2016. In a text I’ve been encouraged to read by James Warren [see the discussion below], Philodemus’ Peri Parrhesias or On Frank Criticism, there is a lot of very interesting material on parrhesia, candid (and typically corrective) speech, as a mark of friendship and an essential component of the relationship between philosopher and pupil, itself figured as an encounter between friends, and on the candid speech that played a key role in Epicurean communities, a kind of group therapy maintaining the psychic and philosophical health of their members. As a corollary, we are informed (fr. 41) that “to act in secret is necessarily most unfriendly, no doubt.”)

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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

7 responses to “Lucretius, face to face”

  1. Christian Koefoed-Nielsen says :

    I wonder how Lucretius would have used Twitter……!?
    Another v interesting and thoughtful blog

  2. James Warren says :

    Interesting stuff. I wonder whether amicitia for an Epicurean might sometimes in fact require pretty harsh treatment, particularly in a teacher-pupil relationship. My impression of parts of Philodemus’ Peri Parrhesias, at least, is that there are times when a teacher will be pretty hard on the pupil for the pupil’s own benefit. So, the treatment of Memmius would not necessarily counts as a violation of any amicitia between M and L. The point may be instead to show that different pupils need different modes of instruction and the reader may be tempted to compare themselves favourably with M’s relative difficulty in making progress.

    • Llewelyn Morgan says :

      Thanks, James. Do you mean the treatment of Memmius assuming he is understood to be the primary addressee (and Lucretius is pretty firm, however you read it), or the treatment of Memmius as envisaged by Mitsis? Assuming the latter, it does seem to me to go beyond a robust kind of for-your-own-good friendship into something which is only a dishonest pretence of friendship, with a nudge nudge wink wink to the reader, at least in Mitsis’ telling.

    • Llewelyn Morgan says :

      (Now after reading the Peri Parrhesias!) The relation of parrhesia to friendship is very interesting, as also the variation in treatment of pupils envisaged, and the forcefulness that parrhesia might reasonably entail. The idea of a community constantly maintaining standards by talk between friends is fascinating, too. As I understand it, though, there is never not a need for candour, although there are modulations in how it is delivered depending on the character, status etc. of the pupil. The robustness of Lucretius’ pedagogy (though to be honest this more evident to me in his general address to “you” than in those moments when Memmius is explicitly the addressee) makes a lot more sense with this background. Now, this may not be a fair summary of Mitsis, but I think his model of the relationship between Lucretius and Memmius is different: very much a presentation of Memmius as the nepios who never gets it right, and from whose plight only the “other pupils”, i.e. we the reader, benefit. What I don’t think an authentic Epicurean could do is claim to respect Memmius, and assert friendship with him, but then two-facedly subvert that friendship. It would be definitively uncandid, for sure.

      • James Warren says :

        Yep. I haven’t read Mitsis in a while but my general impression isn’t that L.has totally given up on Memmius. You’re right that candour is always needed and sometimes that can involve some real plain speaking. (Sometimes you may need to stage that intervention to stop people going wrong.) I should also check how Diogenes of Oinoanda addresses the people reading his inscription – I don’t think he’s terribly polite most of the time. Fr. 3, anyway, more or less accuses them of being like sheep contracting diseased opinions from one another. Not the most obvious way to win an audience…

  3. Morgan Taubert says :

    I enjoyed your insight immensely, having just begun reading Lucretius.

    “The possibility of an intimacy extending across two millennia, achieved by a poetic text, is one of those things that makes Roman literature kind of thrilling.”

    It is precisely this intimacy which I address in my own writing, which you might also enjoy.

    Morgan Taubert

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