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Lucretius and the High Pressure Life--World Poetry Project
In Titus Lucretius Carus, 95-54 BCE, we have an artist facing life and death in a philosophical treatise walking as poetry in De Rerum Natura . The sample given in World Poetry is very brief in comparison with the 6 books of the larger work. I read the whole in translation during my first college attempt, as my Latin was at best rudimentary, and is even less than that now. Lucretius is known to us primarily through this work alone, with a few biographical notes, often brief and suspect, scattered through other sources. For example, St. Jerome, writing with his customary hatred of the pagan past, tells us that Lucretius, driven mad by a love potion, committed suicide, leaving his work in the hands of Cicero. Certainly the philosophical position that Lucretius promotes and defends in De Rerum Natura is not one early Christians found acceptable, positing as it does a world of matter, of perishable souls, supporting a rejection of the religious practices that leave men cowards before the unknown.
Lucretius in this work is following a tradition, but not a Roman one. He is following in a Greek tradition of philosopher-poets, such as Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Empedocles. His was the first work in the tradition in Latin hexameter, and this exercise seems to counter his Epicurean position, for Epicurus, much like Plato, rejected poetry itself. For Lucretius, the choice is conscious, and he defends it as a philosopher-doctor, the poetry being honey for the soul's medicine contained in the philosophy. The medicine so taken is to cure man of fear, his fear of death, pain, and the gods, with the truths of a material world of atoms and void.
There were a number of competing philosophies produced to cure man of fear, to enable him to live with more comfort, greater reason, and in better relation to the world as it existed, current in Rome, most of them originating in Greece. The philosophy most identified with Rome is not the Epicureanism that Lucretius followed, but the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations . Stoicism, with its stress of duty and submission to the universe, was more in line with the demands of Roman social and political existence, than Epicureanism, with its turn towards the ease of the individual in retreat from the disturbing strife of the Roman world. There are historians, especially historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who pointed to the prevalence and strength of Stoicism in the later empire as a contributor to the ultimate success of Christianity in the Empire. Of course, Gibbon made Christianity the great corruption and ultimate destroyer of the Empire itself.
What do we do today when life is hard and we are frustrated in our personal lives as well as our public ones? We may turn hedonist and concentrate on the joys we can create, the pleasures we can satisfy. We may turn epicurean and allow for the temporary nature of all our troubles, all our pleasures. We may turn stoic, and bear our burdens while remaining conscious of our wider duties, even if they involve us in pain and difficulty. We may turn all over to a higher power and wait for the end of our personal troubles and the larger universal catastrophe. In short, we deploy the attitudes and coping mechanisms we inherit from the classical past, sometimes rephrasing them in modern terms and systems of self-improvement, meditation, and acceptance.
Epicureans, Lucretius among them, denied, if not the existence of gods, the activity of those gods in life lived by mortals. The gods do not interfere, for good or for evil in the world of mortals. Man is on his own, and his life is his own to construct, navigating the perils of existence on his own. This is, to men and women of faith, a bleak position, but it is not so to Lucretius, nor is it to many men and women without faith in the world today. Without god or gods, the world remains beautiful and worth affection, as Lucretius acknowledges in a long paean to Venus in De Rerum Natura :
…For you the sky is clear,
the tempests still. Deft earth scatters her gentle flowers,
the level ocean laughs, the softened heavens glow
with generous light for you.
Beauty is not destroyed in a world of matter, nor are joy and pleasure. Of course, joy and pleasure are temporary in this world: it all passes away into void and non-being. But pain is temporary as well, similarly ending and passing away into void and non-being. Life does not extend beyond the moment. Its quality lies in its presence, its presence between non-being before birth and its non-being at death. For this is how Epicureanism counsels one to think of death in Lucretius: death is not to be feared because it cannot be felt. Death will not hurt, for that which does not exist cannot feel. That which does not exist does not witness and is not witnessed. Our fear of death arises from a mistake in conceptualizing it: we treat death as another form of existence, in which we are witnesses and perceive our own lack of being, and it is not this. We will no more feel death than we feel before we are born. The unborn and the dead exist, or do not exist, in the same manner. Death is, therefore, nothing to worry about, both unavoidable and, to some men at some times, welcome.
Everywhere, through all seas mountains and waterfalls,
love caresses all hearts and kindles all creatures
to overmastering lust and ordained renewals.
Epicureanism was one way to respond to the pressures of Roman life. Stoicism was another, and, among Romans, more respectable. Epicureanism did not support the life of ambition, of striving, of competition, enshrined in Roman civic life and virtues. The most appropriate response to all that striving, all the perils of civic life and the battle for honors, under Epicurean thought was to flee from it into the management of pain and pleasure to one's personal benefit. Epicureans did not believe that pain could be completely escaped, but they did believe it could be managed, that individual life could be made pleasant enough, and when it could not be pleasant, it could, and would, be easy enough to escape completely into the void of death. A society of Epicureans would not have conquered the known world, although they would have made pretty music and had pleasant parties not conquering it.