lucretius:agonizing doubts of logic and reason

The clash of major and minor keys is heard throughout his poem, The Nature of Things; again and again, in a passage that opens with serene confidence in Epicurean logic and the liberating power of the intellect , Lucretius will falter, and flag, and begin to brood, while the firmness of his reasoning seems to be overborne by the dark, confused power of his imagination. What begins as a clear-brained, optimistic analysis of a problem changes into something more like the cloudy, melancholy monologues of Hamlet.

painting: Lodewijk de Vadder. Harold Bloom:The German and English Romantics (Shelley aside) got Spinoza wrong. Reading his superbly cryptic masterwork, the “Ethics,” I find myself agreeing with Strauss that Spinoza pragmatically was an Epicurean materialist. As in Epicurus and Lucretius, Spinoza’s God is scarcely distinguishable from Nature, and is altogether indifferent to us, even to our intellectual love for him as urged upon us by Spinoza. Many Americans are persuaded that God loves each of them, personally and individually. Is that our blessing, in this era of George W. Bush, or is it not the American malaise, partly productive of the daily slaughters on the streets of Baghdad? A transfusion of Spinoza into our religion-mad nation could only be a good thing. Read More: image:

And so the poem ended; a poem designed to free mankind from fear, and life can be lived in tranquil happiness, morphing into this grim corpse strewn, perverted rite of burial as final chord:

And stood each fane of the Celestial Ones
Laden with stark cadavers everywhere-
Places which warders of the shrines had crowded
With many a guest. For now no longer men
Did mightily esteem the old Divine,
The worship of the gods: the woe at hand
Did over-master. Nor in the city then
Remained those rites of sepulture, with which
That pious folk had evermore been wont
To buried be. For it was wildered all
In wild alarms, and each and every one
With sullen sorrow would bury his own dead,
As present shift allowed. And sudden stress
And poverty to many an awful act
Impelled; and with a monstrous screaming they
Would, on the frames of alien funeral pyres,
Place their own kin, and thrust the torch beneath
Oft brawling with much bloodshed round about
Rather than quit dead bodies loved in life.

And on a far larger scale there is another problem. Admitting that the last book is imperfect, and supposing that we could somehow reconstruct its lost or unwritten conclusion- would the poem then be complete? Most critics seem to fancy it would. They consider that these six books- which give us a reasonably complete Epicurean analysis of the physical universe, the body-and-soul-unity, the inception of this world and the evolution of mankind, the sexual instinct, the origins of religious belief, and certain major scientific questions such as volcanic activity- were all that Lucretius intended to write; yet they may be mistaken.

Jules Bastien-Lepage painting. Harold Bloom:the third on “The Skeptical Sublime,” which fascinates me, Lucretius and Epicurianism, since any sublimity we have right now has to be very skeptical right now. This is why Leopardi and the other people are there. It fascinates me that every time I spent any time with Wystan Auden we had the same fight. He couldn’t stand Shelley, Whitman or Wallace Stevens. One day I said to him, “Sir, it’s no accident that all of them are Lucretian.” He said, “Yes, I can’t stand Lucretius either!” Of course he couldn’t. The Christianity was deep in him, though free of any of the atrocious attitudes found in his mentor, T.S. Eliot. He was always a good comic poet, though I must admit I never liked his poetry. —Read More: image:–the-london-bootblack-by-savio-s-vintage-art-qpps_335310781510564/

The central purpose of Epicurus’s teaching was not to explain atoms and earthquakes, but to teach men how to live. The motive for understanding physics and cosmology and psychophysical interaction and so forth was, says Lucretius, to escape from fear- and then to learn how to live rightly. And it was Epicurus’s highly individual ethical system that made the greatest impression on Greek and Roman thinkers. Therefore it is probable that Lucretius, having explained the physical universe in his first six books, meant to go on to analyze moral and social problems in his second six books: to give us the Epicurean method of attaining and preserving happiness, to explain the true meaning of “pleasure” as a state of calm well-being, to show why the wise man will shun social duties and responsibilities, prefer the status of a resident alien, and “live in secret.”

These essential teachings, more than any amount of knowledge about cosmology, would really bring happiness to his readers, and to himself. To himself. Is that not the key to all these problems of poetic structure and imagination.


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end) …That is, if Hitchens’ book is meant to be an argument for atheism as over against Christianity, then De Rerum Natura misses the point. More importantly, however, it was Christians–not atheists–who agreed with Lucretius, saw the world as following natural laws, and thus established (in the 16th and 17th centuries) modern science.

As glaring as are these problems in De Rerum Natura itself, there’s an arguably bigger problem with Hitchens’ introduction to it. Having established that Lucretius’ atomism was a superior, more reasoned understanding of the world (than the religious superstitions of that day), he writes,

Atomism was viciously persecuted as heresy throughout the early Christian era, and only one printed manuscript of De Rerum Naturum survived the flames.

What is one to make of such a statement? Is it revisionist history foisted on us by someone for whom the ends (turning readers into unbelievers) justifies the means (making up history)? To be sure, atomism didn’t carry the day, and the Greeks and Romans continued to worship their pantheons of gods. But there was no persecution of the ancient Greek naturalists. (Lucretius may have committed suicide, but if so it appears to be a direct consequence of his disbelief in an afterlife, and not because of any contemporary reaction against his views.) There is no evidence that atomist books were burned; the reason such books did not survive is because they were written on papyrus or animal skins, and the same fate faced every ancient writing regardless of its metaphysical claims. Read More:

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