Titus Lucretius Carus (ca. 99 BC- ca. 55 BC) was a Roman poet and philosopher. His only known work is the epic philosophical poem on Epicureanism De Rerum Natura, On the Nature of Things.
Life of Lucretius
Very little is known about Lucretius' life. One source of information is St. Jerome, who mentions Lucretius in the Chronica Eusebii. Here we find the following notice: "Titus Lucretius the poet is born. Later he was driven mad by a love potion, and when, during the intervals of his insanity, he had written a number of books, which were later emended by Cicero, he killed himself by his own hand in the 44th year of his life." In most manuscripts this notice is entered under the year 94 BC, but in others under 93 or 96. This gives us the following alternative dates for Lucretius' life and death: 96-53/52, 94-51/50, and 93-50/49.
In the Oxford World's Classics edition of "On the Nature of the Universe," the editors, Don and Peta Fowler, note that the story told by St. Jerome is unlikely. The Fowlers state that Lucretius was most likely an aristocrat and his poem "shows familiarity with the luxurious life-style of great houses in Rome."
Another biographical notice is found in Donatus' Life of Virgil. The statement runs as follows: "The first years of his life Virgil spent in Cremona, right until the assumption of his toga virilis, which he accepted on his 17th birthday, when the same two men held the consulate, as when he was born, and it so happened that on the very same day Lucretius the poet passed away." The information in this testimony is internally inconsistent. Virgil was born in 70 BC, and his 17th birthday therefore took place in 53 BC. However, the two consuls of 70 BC, Pompey and Crassus, stood together as consuls again in 55, not 53. So which year should we take as the year of Lucretius' death?
A third piece of information is found in a letter Cicero wrote to his brother Quintus in February 54 BC. Cicero writes: "The poems of Lucretius are as you write: they exhibit many flashes of genius, and yet show great mastership." Apparently, by February 54 BC both Cicero and his brother had read De Rerum Natura. However, internal evidence from the poem suggests that it was published without a final revision, possibly due to its author's untimely death. If this is true, Lucretius must have been dead by February 54 BC. Therefore, if we have to pick one of the dates mentioned above, 55 BC would be Lucretius' most likely year of death, and if Jerome is accurate about Lucretius' age (43) when he died, we can then conclude he was born in 99 or 98 BC. These are a lot of ifs, and it may be wisest to simply say that Lucretius was born in the 90s and died in the 50s BC. This ties in well with the poem's many allusions to the tumultuous state of political affairs in Rome and its civil strife.
Jerome's claim that Cicero "emended" Lucretius' work must be met with equal scepticism. The casual remark in Cicero's letter to his brother (see above) sounds like the remark of a first-time reader, not an editor. It might of course be argued that Cicero and his brother had been given access to Lucretius' unpublished manuscript, and that later, after writing the letter, Cicero took it upon himself to correct and edit the work. However, this seems to be quite out of character for Cicero. Firstly, there is no indication that he ever involved himself with the publication of any literary works but his own, and, secondly, there is no indication of any personal acquaintance with Lucretius, which might have prompted such an involvement.
As for the rest of Jerome's account, his claims about Lucretius' life are not generally now believed, because:
- First, the Epicurean philosophy expounded by Lucretius sets great store on reason and discourages romantic attachments.
- Second, it would have been exceedingly difficult for Lucretius to compose a sustained poetic masterpiece if he were raving mad most of the time. See, for instance, Cicero's positive remarks in the letter to his brother Quintus quoted above.
- It is likely that Jerome, as one of the early Church Fathers, would have wanted to discredit Lucretius' philosophy, which includes disbelief in any kind of life after death and in any divinity concerned with man's welfare. This defamation involved ad hominem attacks imputing immorality, the use of witchcraft and insanity to the poet.
- Finally, Virgil writes in the second book of his Georgics, clearly referencing Lucretius, "Happy is he who has discovered the causes of things and has cast beneath his feet all fears, unavoidable fate, and the din of the devouring Underworld" As M.F. Smith argues in his introduction to the Loeb edition of the poem, Virgil would have been a heartless sarcastic cynic to write such sublime lines about a man who had in fact taken his life in deranged depression. (John Godwin)
However, the only certain fact of Lucretius' life is that he was either a friend or a client of Gaius Memmius, to whom he dedicated De Rerum Natura.
Purpose of the poem
According to Lucretius' frequent statements in his poem, the main purpose of the work was to free Gaius Memmius' (and presumably all of mankind's) mind of superstition and the fear of death. He attempts this by expounding the philosophical system of Epicurus, whom Lucretius apotheosizes as the hero of his epic poem.
Lucretius identifies superstition (religio in the Latin) with the notion that the gods/supernatural powers created our world or interfere with its operations in any way. He argues against fear of such gods by demonstrating through observations and logical argument that the operations of the world can be accounted for entirely in terms of natural phenomena -- the regular but purposeless motions and interactions of tiny atoms in empty space -- instead of in terms of the will of the gods.
He argues against the fear of death by arguing that death is the dissipation of a being's material mind, and so, as a simple ceasing-to-be, death can be neither good nor bad for this being. Being completely devoid of sensation and thought, a dead person cannot miss being alive. According to Lucretius, fear of death is a projection of terrors experienced in life, of pain that only a living (intact) mind can feel. Lucretius also puts forward the 'symmetry argument' against the fear of death. In it, he says that people who fear the prospect of eternal non-existence after death should think back to the eternity of non-existence before their birth, which they probably do not fear.
Structure of the poem
The structure of the poem over the six books falls into two main parts. The first three books provide a fundamental account of being and nothingness, matter and space, the atoms and their movement, the infinity of the universe both as regards time and space, the regularity of reproduction (no prodigies, everything in its proper habitat), the nature of mind (animus, directing thought) and spirit (anima, sentience) as material bodily entities, and their mortality, since they and their functions (consciousness, pain) end with the bodies that contain them and with which they are interwoven. The last three books give an atomic and materialist explanation of phenomena preoccupying human reflection, such as vision and the senses, sex and reproduction, natural forces and agriculture, the heavens, and disease.
Style of the poem
His poem De Rerum Natura (usually translated as"On the Nature of Things" or "On the Nature of the Universe") transmits the ideas of Epicurean physics, which includes Atomism, and psychology. Lucretius was one of the first Epicureans to write in Latin.
Lucretius compares his work in this poem to that of a doctor healing a child: just as the doctor may put honey on the rim of a cup containing bitter wormwood (most likely Absinth Wormwood) believed to have healing properties, the patient is "tricked" into accepting something beneficial but difficult to swallow, "but not deceived" by the doctor (Book IV lines 12-19). The meaning of this refrain found throughout the poem is debatable.
Stylistically, most scholars attribute the full blossoming of Latin hexameter to Virgil. De Rerum Natura however, is of indisputable importance for the part it played in naturalizing Greek philosophical ideas and discourse in the Latin language and its influence on Virgil and other later poets. Lucretius' hexameter is very individualistic and ruggedly distinct from the smooth urbanity of Virgil or Ovid. His use of heterodynes, assonance, and vigorously syncopated Latin forms create a harsh acoustic to some ears, although this is probably merely an impression created by contrast with later poets and general unfamiliarity with Latin poetry recited by skilled readers. John Donne has a similar reputation in English poetry because of his powerful and thought-laden discourse. The sustained energy of Lucretius' poetry (even when treating highly technical particularities, such as the movement of atoms through space or the films which give rise to vision when they strike the eye) is virtually unparalleled in Latin literature, with the possible exception of parts of Tacitus's Annals, or perhaps Books II and IV of the Aeneid. The six books contain many formulaic elements such as deliberately repeated lines, refrains, and regularized emotional peaks.
Among many poetic high points a few should be mentioned. The introduction to Book I (the invocation to Venus and Spring) is unsurpassed, both in its initial ecstatic address to the life-force and regeneration, and in the celebration of the courage and clear-sightedness of Epicurus and the vitriolic polemic against superstition (Latin: "religio") which provide the bridge to the main didactic body of the poem. The opening sections of the various books emphasize the novelty of the undertaking Lucretius has set himself and the gratitude mankind owes to Epicurus for delivering it from unfounded terrors and an empty, joyless and servile life. And the great conclusions to Book III (on death and why it holds no terrors) and Book VI (on disease, especially the plague) are as graphic as anything in literature, as are various accounts throughout the poem of storms, battles, fire and flood.
Appreciation of Lucretius' work
Cornelius Nepos, in his Life Of Atticus, mentions Lucretius as one of the greatest poets of his times.
Ovid, in his Amores, writes: Carmina sublimis tunc sunt peritura Lucreti / exitio terras cum dabit una dies (which means the verses of the sublime Lucretius will perish only when a day will bring the end of the world).
Vitruvius (in the De Architectura), Quintilian (in his Institutiones Oratoriae) and Statius (in the Silvae) also show great admiration for the De Rerum Natura.
Transmission of the text
The textual survival of the poem is remarkable considering the hostility of the Church (the main transmission channel for Latin writings) towards Lucretius and Epicurean ideas. The surviving manuscript tradition (accounts will be found in the references given below) is often mangled, and a great debt is owed by modern readers to the ingenious work of generations of scholars to produce a faithful, coherent, and readable text.
- ^ Cyril Bailey in the "Prolegomena" of his 3-volume commentary on Lucretius' De Rerum Natura (1947), pp.1-3; and Martin Smith in the introduction to the Loeb edition of the poem (1992), pp.x-xi
- ^ E.J. Kenney in the introduction to his commentary on De Rerum Natura III (1971), p.6; and C.D.N. Costa in the introduction to his commentary on De Rerum Natura V (1984), p.ix
- Lucretius. De Rerum Natura. (3 vols. Latin text Books I-VI. Comprehensive commentary by Cyril Bailey), Oxford University Press 1947.
- On the Nature of Things, (1951 verse translation by R. E. Latham), introduction and notes by John Godwin, Penguin revised edition 1994, ISBN 0-14-044610-9
- Lucretius (1971). De Rerum Natura Book III. (Latin version of Book III only– 37 pp., with extensive commentary by E. J. Kenney– 171 pp.), Cambridge University Press corrected reprint 1984. ISBN 0-521-29177-1
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