Tag Archive | de rerum natura

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.”)

John Dryden to an unidentified person

Creech figure

A hardcore Latin-grammar blog, this one, leavened with some Jacobites. You have been warned.

Stephen Bernard, author of this excellent publication, is now producing an edition of the surviving letters of the poet John Dryden (1631-1700), and he’s asked me to help him make sense of what is known as Letter 7, a letter (now in the Beinecke Library at Yale University) written by Dryden to an unidentified correspondent. Latin grammar is my job, and Jacobites one of my longterm fascinations, and since one certainly and the other possibly feature in the story of this letter, I was hooked.

The subject of the letter is the celebrated translation of Lucretius’ masterpiece of philosophical poetry De Rerum Natura by Thomas Creech (1659-1700), first published in 1682, and specifically Creech’s version of lines 225-6 of the first book of the DRN. (At this point Lucretius is making his initial argument for atomism, that all matter consists fundamentally of tiny, indestructible particles.) It seems that someone had questioned whether Creech’s lines made any grammatical sense, and someone else had defended Creech; at which point Dryden was asked to adjudicate. In the letter he presents a series of arguments to the effect that Creech’s couplet could be nudged into making sense. Then, rather more convincingly, Dryden turns to the original text of Lucretius, translates it himself, and explains how Creech had misrepresented, if not positively misconstrued, the original Latin. For me the letter raises interesting questions about Dryden’s Latin, since his discussion of grammatical points seems more than a bit dubious. It’s always possible I’m failing to understand his point, though, and that should be borne in mind.

Here’s the letter in full:

“The two verses concerning which the dispute is raisd, are these;

Besides, if o’re whatever yeares prevaile
Shou’d wholly perish, & its matter faile,

The question ariseing from them is whether any true grammaticall construction, can be made of them? The objection is, that there is no nominative case appearing, to the word, Perish: or that can be understood to belong to it. I have considerd the verses, & find the Author of them to have notoriously bungled: that he has plac’d the words as confus’dly, as if he had studied to do so. This notwithstanding, the very words without adding or diminishing, in theire proper sence, (or at least what the author meanes[)], may run thus.– Besides, if whatever yeares prevaile over, shou’d wholly perish, & its matter faile,–

I pronounce therefore as impartially as I can upon the whole, that there is a Nominative case; and that figurative, so as Terence & Virgil amongst others use it. That is; The whole clause precedent is the nominative case to perish. My reason is this; & I thinke it obvious; let the question be asked, what it is that shoud wholly perish? or that perishes? The answer will be, that which yeares prevaile over. If you will not admit a clause to be in construction a nominative case; the word (thing) illud, or quodcunque, is to be understood; either of which words, in the femi[ni]ne gender, agree with (res) so that he meanes, whatever thing time prevailes over shou’d wholly perish & its matter faile.

Lucretius his Latine runs thus:

Praetereà, quae cunque vetustate amovet aetas,
Si penitus perimit, consumens materiem omnem,
Unde Animale genus, generatim in lumina vitae
Redducit Venus? &c.*

which ought to have been translated thus:

Besides, what ever time removes from view,
If he destroys the stock of matter too,
From whence can kindly propagation spring
Of every creature, & of every thing?

I translated it (whatever) purposely; to show that (thing) is to be understood; which as the words are here plac’d is so very perspicuous, that the Nominative case cannot be doubted.

The word, perish, usd by Mr Creech is a verb neuter; where Lucretius puts (perimit) which is active: a licence, which in translating a philosophicall Poet, ought not to be taken, for some reasons, which I have not room to give. But, to comfort the looser, I am apt to believe, that the cross-graind, confusd verse put him so much out of patience, that he wou’d not suspect it of any sense.

The company having done me so great an honour, as to make me their judge, I desire from you the favour, of presenting my acknowledgments to them; & should be proud to heare from you, whether they rest satisfied in my opinion, who am, Sir Your Most Humble Servant
John Dryden.”

The problem that “the company” have identified with Creech’s lines is that there doesn’t appear to be any subject (the “Nominative case”, as Dryden describes it) for the verb “should perish”: it’s unclear what “shou’d wholly perish”, in other words. Dryden starts by acknowledging that Creech’s expression is poor, but then argues that if the words are less “confus’dly” organised (rearranged as “Besides, if whatever yeares prevaile over, should wholly perish, and its matter faile”), the construction makes sense and is also grammatical. In the next paragraph he expresses what seems to be the same point in more grammatical terms. The whole clause “Whatever years prevail over” is the subject of perish, he proposes, or else (an alternative version of the same idea) a word or phrase is unspoken but understood which stands for the previous clause and acts as the subject of the verb.

It’s actually quite hard to reconstruct Dryden’s thinking in this third paragraph, and part of the problem, I suspect, is that his mind is starting to wander from Creech’s translation to Lucretius’ original, which he goes on to quote and translate in the following paragraph. What makes me suspect this is that Dryden is making arguments he doesn’t need to make if his only aim is to rescue the grammatical status of Creech’s English (“whatever yeares prevaile over, should wholly perish, and its matter faile” makes perfect sense), but which he does need to make if he wants to establish that Creech’s English bears some relation to the grammar and meaning of Lucretius’ Latin. The fundamental problem there is that “whatever” in the Latin is quaecumque, which is a plural form (“whatever things”), and thus cannot be coordinated with the verb perimit, “perishes/should perish” (in Creech’s translation, but see below), because that is a singular form. Hence, I think, Dryden is tying himself into knots making “whatever years prevail over” a (singular) clause that is the subject of “should perish”, and then suggesting that, rather than treating the whole clause as a (singular) subject, one might understand a word/phrase like illud or illa res, “that thing”, recapitulating the preceding clause and acting as the subject of perimit. Quodcumque couldn’t work the same way as illud in such a construction anyhow, but Dryden seems to want to introduce quaecumque res, “whatever thing”, as if it might explain Lucretius’s quaecumque, or maybe Creech’s rendering of quaecumque. I’m struggling here, I admit, but I’m struggling because I can’t really make sense of Dryden’s grammatical argument, and I find myself wondering, heresy though it may be, that Dryden himself is struggling, too. None of the arguments he advances in this third paragraph can convince me that Dryden’s formal understanding of Latin grammar wasn’t, on this evidence, rather wobbly. There’s every chance I’m missing something, however, so please tell me if you think so.

In that paragraph Dryden may be heading for a γ=, but he’s on much safer ground in the next paragraph when he abandons Creech’s translation and offers his own. The major difference between his own translation and Creech’s is that, despite the fact that Creech was an Oxford academic, Dryden renders the Latin much more faithfully. As he explains in the penultimate paragraph, Creech took perimit to be an intransitive verb, a verb that has no object (this is what Dryden means by “neuter”, neither active or passive): “perish.” But perimit is in fact an active verb, “destroys”, and although Dryden politely treats Creech’s translation as a “licence” rather than an error, we may have our suspicions. In Dryden’s version (and I think this is the point of the prepenultimate paragraph, I translated it … cannot be doubted), the elusive subject of perimit is quite clear, if interestingly gendered: “he” in the second line is “time”. That, I think, is fine, but I’m still bothered by what seems to me a grammatical dog’s breakfast in the third paragraph.

Let’s just step back and wonder what occasioned the request to Dryden to adjudicate this dispute. Stephen Bernard thinks the letter may be to Anthony Stephens, an Oxford bookseller who published Creech’s translation of Lucretius, pointing out that Creech’s translation of this couplet changes between the first and third editions of this (phenomenally successful) publication in 1682: as if Stephens has consulted Dryden about Creech’s version, and then Creech had adapted his translation in response. Stephen knows everything about this period of English publishing history and is much more likely to be right (since I know absolutely nothing), but what makes me a bit sceptical is that although Creech’s translation changes, it doesn’t change in a way, I think, that someone who has read Dryden’s critique would change it. The new version is, “If all things over which long years prevail,/ Did wholly perish, and their matter fail,” which makes explicit the plural form in the Latin which may or may not have been bothering Dryden, but it continues to use the “neutral” verb “perish”, “a licence, which in translating a philosophicall Poet, ought not to be taken,” as Dryden had bluntly stated.

I’m not sure how strong a counter-argument that is, but another reason to wonder about a connection to Anthony Stephens is what for me is the most exciting thing about this letter, another letter that survived alongside it, dating to May 7, 1811, and written by Edmond Malone, apparently to the husband of a Mrs Smith who owned the Dryden letter as part of her “collection of autographs”: Malone had borrowed the letter, and in return supplemented Mrs Smith’s collection with one of Alexander Pope’s receipts for his “translation of Homer”, although he expresses regret that he couldn’t find any example of Shakespeare’s handwriting for her. (In this respect Malone and Mrs Smith were kindred spirits: Malone’s enthusiasm for autographs was such that he even cut out examples from historical manuscripts.) What Malone’s letter also does, however, is describe his conclusions about the addressee of Dryden’s letter.

From what he had heard from the Smiths about where the letter originated, Malone has been able to “ascertain, almost without a chance of error”, that Dryden had addressed his letter to Edward Radcliffe (though Malone calls him Francis), later the second Earl of Derwentwater, a person from whom Dryden might reasonably have hoped for support and patronage. Radcliffe was an interesting figure, a Catholic and a Jacobite; indeed one of his sons, James, was executed after the Jacobite rising of 1715, and another, Charles, after the 1745 Rebellion. Edward himself married an illegitimate daughter of James II, Mary Tudor, and all of this placed the Radcliffes very close to the royal family displaced by the Revolution of 1688: the letter is perhaps most likely to date to the family’s period of greatest influence during the reign of James II (1685-8), around which time Dryden also converted to Catholicism. The key evidence on which Malone bases this identification is the provenance of the letter. The seat of the Radcliffes was at Dilston Hall in Northumberland, and Malone informs us that it was at Dilston, “in a box containing papers of the Derwentwater family” (or possibly he means, in a box containing papers of the Derwentwater family from Dilston, but the difference is not significant), that the letter had been found.

Malone(Edmond Malone, by his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds)

Now Malone doesn’t help things by confusing Edward Radcliffe’s name with that of his father Francis, but if the detail about the box at Dilston is to be believed, it’s strong evidence of a connection with one of the Radcliffes, at least. What strengthens the case is the identity of our informant, Edmond Malone. I’m still only part way through Peter Martin’s biography of Malone, but the LRB review nicely summarises the achievements of this trailblazing literary biographer: “In the hands of this apparently diffident Irishman, the practice of literary history changed for ever: as far as the privileging of meticulous textual scholarship and painstaking archival research is concerned, Malone wrote the book.” Malone’s long hours in the archives ultimately ruined his eyesight, but he was instrumental in exposing the Chatterton forgeries, for example, and was the the first to establish a working chronology of the works of Shakespeare. Malone’s commitment to factual accuracy could even be felt to be excessive. Peter Martin describes his Life ofDryden, which introduced his edition of Dryden’s prose works (1800), as “the most thoroughly researched literary biography written up to that time” (p. 232), and he was satirised for a meticulousness of detail that tended to swamp his narrative. “The Life of A,” wrote George Hardinge in his parody The Essence ofMalone (1800), “should be the lives of B, C, D, &c. to the end of the alphabet.” But if it made for turgid reading, Malone’s determined recovery of the facts of Dryden’s (and Shakespeare’s) lives has ensured his status as a pioneer of scholarly method.  If Malone says “with certainty” that the letter is addressed to Radcliffe, it’s a view worth considering.

Well, what I think this letter is about is a wager among upper-class men close to the Court. A dispute about a couple of lines from Creech’s famous translation arises, and it is proposed to resolve it by asking the Poet Laureate John Dryden to adjudicate: hence Dryden’s reference to a “looser” (of the wager) in the penultimate paragraph; and to his own impartiality in that difficult third paragraph; “company” in the final paragraph simply means the gathering of people present when the wager was struck and (presumably) the letter to Dryden was written.

That’s my theory, but let’s end by returning to the key question that this letter poses for a Classicist: was Dryden’s Latin a bit iffy? Since my whole being revolts at the thought, here is my final stab at an explanation, with thanks to Paul Davis for encouraging me to think less about the accuracy of what Dryden says in such private writing, and more about how he wanted to present himself. It’s a natural surmise that it was Radcliffe who believed that Creech’s couplet made sense and another member of the company (the loser referred to in the third person) who doubted it. Radcliffe was an important man, and Dryden had no wish to upset him, and hence the awkwardness of the letter, as Dryden tries everything he can to justify adjudicating that Creech’s inaccurate and internally nonsensical couplet does indeed make sense, as Radcliffe had wagered. From his familiarity with Dryden’s handwriting, Stephen could tell me that Dryden’s hand in this letter is unusually careful (such a wonderful observation to be able to make after the lapse of three hundred years!). Perhaps he is trying to impress the recipient of the letter; perhaps that is wild speculation. But it is surely true that “the looser” in this wager was robbed blind: Creech’s couplet was a stinker in all kinds of ways, but even on its own terms MAKES NO SENSE. Dryden’s adjudication was a travesty.

But maybe Dryden’s focus was less on grammar and more on forging or maintaining a potentially very fruitful relationship.

*My translation:
“Besides, whatever things time by lapse of years removes,
If it utterly destroys them, consuming all their material,
From whence is the race of animals, class by class,
restored by Venus to the light of life?”