Friday, June 21, 2013

“Clear verse about dark matters”: Thoughts on Book 1 of De Rerum Natura by Lucretius

Fools have more love and admiration, always
For things their blindness sees in hidden meanings;
They base their truths on what can sometimes tickle
Their ears, or what is soaked in sweetish sound.
(p. 38)*

Lucretius really lays into fans of Heraclitus in the preceding lines for the folly of believing that all things are made of fire rather than of a mixture of matter and void. Lucretius: If things are made of fire, then why don’t they get hotter the denser they are? You just got served.

**********General context************

9780253201256_med Around the time of the fall of the Roman Republic, Lucretius the philosopher/scientist/poet must have stumbled upon the philosophy of the Greek stoic, Epicurus, and thought it offered the most coherent and simple explanation there was for the behavior of observable reality. So he turned that philosophical system into an epic sort of poem. I’ve just finished the first of six books, and thought I’d share a few thoughts.

So instead of being filled with high drama, heroes, reversals of fortune, vicissitudes of fate, etc., The Way Things Are sings of scientific proofs, like: that nothing comes from nothing, that matter is indestructible, things are composed of matter and void, that matter resists motion and void makes way for movement, and that atoms must not be infinitely small but rather must be indivisible.

Frankly, I get why someone might find it boring. If you’re not an historian of science, the plainly didactic content of the poem is a pretty dry lesson. Much of Book 1 consists of Lucretius refuting the arguments of competing theories of nature. (The one refutation that got me to laugh out loud a bit concerned the idea that when a log is set on fire, then fire must have already been contained within the log before igniting. Lucretius basically asks, “then why, when we grind corn, doesn’t blood pour out? We eat the corn and it sustains us, so the blood must already be in the corn, but where’s the blood?”)

**********Critique of Religion************

Much more interesting to me is the critique of religion and superstition throughout the poem. Lucretius, true to the epic form, opens his verse with an invocation of Venus. However, his invocation, perhaps more than petitioning the goddess for inspiration, is primarily a request for Love to neutralize War, and give the human race some time and space to calmly think.

Ah, goddess, pour yourself around [War], bend
With all your body’s holiness, above
His supine meekness, drown him in persuasion,
Imploring, for the Romans, blessed peace. (20)

An anti-invocation, perhaps? Later Lucretius refers to that “grim Religion” that once forced human life to grovel until Epicurus dared “raise his mortal eyes / Bravely against this menace” (21), and he describes priests as fear-mongers, offering nothing but terrifying fantasies “to overturn your sense / Of logic” (22).

Plain about his intentions, Lucretius describes the purpose of the poem thus:

                                     I teach great things,
I try to loose men’s spirit from the ties,
Tight-knotted, which religion binds around them. (46)

So perhaps then, after all, there is something of high epic drama about The Way Things Are in the way Lucretius configures himself in opposition to the gods, as a liberator of human life from the foul tyranny of capricious overlords, except—you know—the gods are just bullshit, so no Krakens get released, no committees of elves and hobbits need forming, no cosmic battle require mythical weaponry, or anything like that.

**********Poetry as Sweetener************

Such epic framing, and yet when it comes down to it, the action of the poem is basically Lucretius saying: “Have a seat and make yourself comfortable. Let me tell you about these things called atoms. Now some guys are going to tell you that you can just keep cutting stuff in half forever, but those guys are idiots! Obviously….”

In fact, looking again at the epigraph at the top of this post equating “sweetish sound” with junk science, I wonder whether the choice of poetic form doesn’t overly-adulterate and thereby undermine the lesson. The Way Things Are is “edu-tainment,” and Lucretius admits as much:

Just as when doctors try to give to children
A bitter medicine, they rim the cup
With honey’s sweetness, honey’s golden flavor,
To fool the silly little things, as far
As the lips at least, so that they’ll take the bitter
Dosage, and swallow it down, fooled, but not swindled,
But brought to health again through double-dealing,
So now do I, because this doctrine seems
Too grim for those who never yet have tried it,
So grim that people shrink from it, I’ve meant
To explain the system in a sweeter music,
To rim the lesson, as it were, with honey,
Hoping, this way, to hold your mind with verses
While you are learning all that form, that pattern
Of the way things are. (46-7)

For Lucretius, obviously, the Epicurean system is true in any form, founded on clear logic and reason. The poetry merely conveys—does not corrupt, presumably because Lucretius knows his own intent is not disingenuous. But will this be the case? Will the pure and clear knowledge of ungodly nature not suffer violence from the mouth of the poet? Will the quiet serenity of the philosopher not give way to dithyrambic frenzy when aesthetic reason commands it?


*All quotations come from:

Lucretius, Carus Titus. The Way Things Are: The De Rerum Natura of Titus Lucretius Carus. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1969. Print.

which was purchased from Another Story Used Books in Allentown, PA for a buck seventy-five.

No comments:

Post a Comment