Coaxing and Seducing

Richard Jenkyns

  • Lucretius: ‘On the Nature of the Universe’ translated by Ronald Melville
    Oxford, 275 pp, £45.00, November 1998, ISBN 0 19 815097 0

Lucretius is unique among the great poets of the world – and he ranks with the greatest – in having failed completely in his central purpose not only in his own time but ever since. For he is an evangelist, and his aim is to save us; unmistakably, he is a man who has been through a conversion experience, and he now wants to convert us, too. If we will only accept the truth of the philosophy of Epicurus, and live in accordance with its precepts, we shall be freed from the fear of death – indeed, death will become a matter of indifference to us – and enjoy a life worthy of the gods.

Lucretius’ single poem, De Rerum Natura, which can be translated ‘On the Nature of Things’ or (as it is here) ‘On the Nature of the Universe’, may well be thought the best philosophy in classical Latin, superior to Cicero or Seneca in intellectual seriousness and sustained power of argument. Yet Cicero, who greatly admired him as a poet, never mentions him as a philosopher, and Seneca is equally neglectful. Ironically, the one person anywhere near his own time who praises him as a philosopher is a poet – Virgil. In an eloquent tribute in the second book of the Georgics, Virgil celebrates Lucretius as the man with intellectual grasp, the one who has been able to penetrate, to understand. But then Virgil had read him more acutely and more intently than anyone had done: the Georgics as a whole is saturated in Lucretius’ influence.

Why was philosophy of such quality, presented in such magnificent dress, so entirely neglected as philosophy? The obvious answer seems to be: because it was written in verse. If a philosopher today were to submit an article to a learned journal written in blank verse or heroic couplets, we should think them ready for the funny farm. In the Rome of the first century BC serious philosophy in verse, if not quite as bizarre as it would be now, was none the less markedly eccentric. Back in fifth-century Greece, four hundred years before Lucretius, it was still possible to compose philosophy in verse: Empedocles, much admired by Lucretius, and Parmenides had done so. But by the end of that century it had become clear that prose was the natural medium for history, philosophy and science, and that view has been sustained ever since. Almost all didactic poetry is therefore pseudo-didactic. This was already true in the third and second centuries BC. If you really wanted to know about astronomy, did you consult Aratus’ poem, the Phaenomena? No, you read the prose treatise of Eudoxus. If you were bitten by a snake, did you take the Theriaca of Nicander from the shelf and search for a remedy in his polished hexameters? No, you called a doctor. No one supposes that Virgil’s Georgics is the handbook for farmers that it purports to be; alone among didactic poets, Virgil sought to rival Lucretius in passion, seriousness and moral vision, but since he was not deeply implicated in his subject in the way that Lucretius was, he had to achieve that moral seriousness by other means.

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