Lucretius and the Symptomatology of Modernism

  • Joseph Farrell
Part of the The New Antiquity book series (NANT)


Considerations of Lucretius and modernism generally take it for granted that Lucretius’s modernity, proto-modernity, or impact on modernity is exceptional. The usual story is that Lucretius, in some way, anticipated and perhaps made possible certain intellectual developments that one commonly associates with the modern. He was “ahead of his time,” and, in this way, we may see Lucretius as somewhat like ourselves, in contrast to more representative denizens of classical antiquity. This perspective is presumably meant to do honor to Lucretius, but it is not without its share of self-regard.


Ancient World Usual Story Classical Antiquity Heavenly Body Willful Ignorance 
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  1. 1.
    On the genealogy of this trope from Schiller to Hegel and Nietzsche, see Andrew Bowie, Aesthetics and Subjectivity from Kant to Nietzsche (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990). The tradition continues in the work of Lukács, Auerbach, and Bakhtin.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    For the record, if I were asked to recommend a single meditation on the subject of Lucretius and modernism, my preference would be for Italo Calvino’s marvelous Six Memos for the Next Millennium, trans. Patrick Creagh (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), which were written as the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures on Poetry for 1985–86. Lucretius, with Ovid, frames the five lectures that Calvino lived to write. Regarding Lucretius’s reception during the Renaissance and his impact on early modernism, I would cite Alison Brown, The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), Gerard Passannante, The Lucretian Renaissance: Philology and the Afterlife of Tradition (Chicago: IL University of Chicago Press, 2011), and Ada Palmer, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).Google Scholar
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    Ptolemy erected an inscription in 146 or 147 AD in which he records an earlier version of work that he would later present in the Almagest, which is accordingly dated to no earlier than about 150; and since he refers to the Almagest in several later works, he is assumed to have gone on working for some time. On this basis, he is estimated to have lived from about 100 to 175. For details, see G. J. Toomer, “Ptolemy,” in Dictionary of Scientific Biography, ed. C. C. Gillespie, vol. 11 (New York: Charles Scribner, 1975), 186–206.Google Scholar
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    In fact, already by the mid-fourth century BC, when Aristotle wrote his treatise De caelo, the Earth had been proven to be a sphere, and its size had been estimated with reasonable accuracy. Subsequent advances in geometry and trigonometry permitted Eudoxus of Cnidos (c. 410–350 BC), Autolycus of Pitane (c. 360–290 BC), Aristarchus of Samos (c. 310–230 BC), Apollonius of Perga (c. 262–190 BC), and Hipparchus of Nicaea (c. 190–120 BC) to refine considerably their understanding of cosmic distances and of solar and lunar movements. For an overview, see James Evans, The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 20–23.Google Scholar
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    Cf. the dismissive assessment of Manilius’s greatest editor, A. E. Housman: “The inordinate length of Manilius’ exposition is perhaps after all less due to a low estimate of his reader’s knowledge than to the pleasure he takes in exercising that eminent aptitude for doing sums in verse which is the brightest facet of his genius” (M. Manilii Astronomicon liber secundus, 2nd ed. [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1937], xiii). For a more sympathetic treatment of Manilius, see Katharina Volk, Manilius and His Intellectual Background (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For Lucretius’s place in the history of atomism, see Duncan Kennedy, Rethinking Reality: Lucretius and the Textualization of Nature (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), a balanced assessment of what is at stake in emphasizing either continuity or discontinuity in tracing the history of a concept such as “the atom,” noting its “historical tenacity” but admitting that “we stress [the element of] continuity only by negotiating or suppressing some potentially discomfiting discontinuities” and asking in what sense the atom of Lucretius is really the same as that of Dalton, Rutherford, or Bohr (3). Monte Johnson and Catherine Wilson, “Lucretius and the History of Science,” in The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, ed. Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 131–48, write that “the Lucretian conception of nature as ‘accomplishing everything by herself spontaneously and independently and free from the jurisdiction of the gods’ was a major driving force in the Scientific Revolution experienced in Western Europe beginning in the early seventeenth century.” But they go on to note that “there are nevertheless profound differences between ancient and modern materialism” (147). More recent interventions, particularly Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011), seem to me to have greatly exaggerated perceived continuities between Lucretius and modernism; consequently, my aim in this chapter is to redress the balance by emphasizing certain discontinuities. In general, however, I believe that accounts like Kennedy’s and Johnson and Wilson’s are correct.Google Scholar
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    The possibility that Aristarchus directly influenced Copernicus is raised by Owen Gingerich, “Did Copernicus Owe a Debt to Aristarchus?” Journal for the History of Astronomy 16 (1985): 37–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (hereafter DRN) 5.656–79. I cite the Latin text as printed in Bailey’s editio maior (Titi Lucreti Cari De Rerum Natura libri sex, vol. 1, prolegomena, text and critical apparatus, translation, ed. Cyril Bailey [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1947]); all translations are my own. Lucretius’s explanations of astronomical phenomena are minutely and illuminatingly analyzed by F. A. Bakker, “Three Studies in Epicurean Cosmology” (PhD diss., University of Utrecht, 2010), 39–53, especially 48–50. Bakker argues persuasively against the view that Lucretius expresses any preference for the different explanations that he offers.Google Scholar
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    This is a famous and much discussed paradox; see Monica Gale, Myth and Poetry in Lucretius (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 208–23, with further references.Google Scholar
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    Jerome, Chronica s.a. Abr. 1923 = Ol. 171.3 (94 BC): Titus Lucretius poeta nascitur. Qui postea amatorio poculo in furorem versus, cum aliquot libros per intervalla insaniae conscripsisset, quos postea Cicero emendavit, propria se manu interfecit anno aetatis XLIIII [“The poet Titus Lucretius is born. Later, having become insane by drinking a love potion, after writing during periods of remission several books, which Cicero later edited, he committed suicide at the age of forty-four”], in Eusebius Werke, ed. R. Helm, vol. 7, Die Chronik des Hieronymus, 3rd ed., Die Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller der Ersten Jahrhunderte, 47 (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1984), 233. Excellent reflections on the reception of Lucretius’s “insanity” can be found in W. R. Johnson, Lucretius and the Modern World (London: Duckworth, 2000), 79–133.Google Scholar
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    Cf. DRN 4.1058, haec Venus est nobis, “this is Venus for us,” that is, this is what Venus really is, not as a goddess, who in Epicurean terms is perfectly happy and so utterly unconcerned with mortal affairs, but as a metonym of human sexuality. This revelation is made as the culmination of a lengthy diatribe: see Robert Brown, Lucretius on Love and Sex: A Commentary on De Rerum Natura 4.1030–287, with Prolegomena, Text, and Translation, Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition 15 (Leiden: Brill, 1987).Google Scholar
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    Epicurus’s views on the movements of the heavenly bodies are best preserved in Epistle to Pythocles, 91–93, which is probably a summary of Peri physeos, 11, both in Epicuro: Opere, ed. G. Arrighetti, 2nd ed. (Turin: Einaudi, 1973); see David Sedley, Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 119–21. For an overview of the place of cosmology in Epicureanism see Liba Taub, “Cosmology and Meteorology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism, ed. James Warren (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 105–24. It is worth noting that a fragment of the inscription in which Diogenes of Oenoanda lays down his own Epicurean beliefs, refers to someone as “dismissing the unanimous opinion of all men, both laymen and philosophers, that the heavenly bodies pursue their courses round the earth both above and below” (Martin Ferguson Smith, ed. and trans., Diogenes of Oenoanda: The Epicurean Inscription, La scuola di Epicuro, 1 [Naples: Bibliopolis, 1993], fr. 66). This implies that in the second century AD, when Diogenes wrote, even professing Epicureans accepted the idea of a geocentric world.Google Scholar
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    See Richard Janko, Philodemus, On Poems, Book One (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 11–119.Google Scholar
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    On the remains of Epicurus’s works, see Sedley, Transformation, 94–133, and his “Epicureanism in the Roman Republic,” in The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism, ed. James Warren (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 29–45. On Philodemus, see Marcello Gigante, Philodemus in Italy: The Books from Herculaneum, trans. Dirk Obbink (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995). For the possibility that the same library contained a copy of Lucretius’s poem, see Dirk Obbink, “Lucretius and the Herculaneum Library,” in The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, ed. Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 33–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    On these aspects, see Dirk Obbink, Philodemus and Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
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    These Philodemus characterizes as “the philosophers”: see Elizabeth Asmis, “Crates on Poetic Criticism,” Phoenix 46 (1992): 128–69; Janko, Philodemus, On Poems, Book 1, 129–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    On the debate over Lucretius’s interest in philosophy after Epicurus, see James Warren, “Lucretius and Greek Philosophy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, ed. Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 22–25, with further references.Google Scholar
  24. 41.
    DRN 5.8 with C. D. N. Costa, Lucretius De Rerum Natura V (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 50 ad loc.; cf. Bernard Frischer, The Sculpted Word: Epicureanism and Philosophical Recruitment in Ancient Greece (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982; rev. ed. 2006), 412–36, accessed April 18, 2013,;cc=acls;view=toc;idno=heb90022.0001.001Google Scholar
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    The literature on this subject, which goes back to the foundational works of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, is vast. In general, sociologists distinguish between “traditional” and “modern” societies by recognizing that various forms of material and technological advancement in the latter are purchased by the loss of many structures (religious, hierarchical, ceremonial, and so forth) that created social cohesion in the former. Although most social scientists consider either that the benefits of “modernization” are worth the cost, or else that the cost of maintaining cohesion in “traditional” societies is exorbitant, contemporary perspectives on alienation expand upon the classic sociological theory to consider alienation from many perspectives, questioning, for instance, whether the economic and social history of Western Europe is a suitable or adequate paradigm for evaluating the experience of “modernization” and “development” in other parts of the world, or from an ecological perspective whether alienation from the environment is too high a price to pay for the human race as a whole. For a spectrum of ideas on the subject, see Lauren Langman and Devorah Kalekin-Fishman, eds., The Evolution of Alienation: Trauma, Promise, and the Millennium (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).Google Scholar
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    Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, trans. J. E. King (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950), 4.6–7.Google Scholar
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    On Piso and Philodemus, see, briefly, R. G. M. Nisbet, Cicero, In L. Calpurnium Pisonem oratio (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), 183–86, with further references.Google Scholar
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    See Oswyn Murray, “Philodemus On the Good King According to Homer,” Journal of Roman Studies 55 (1965): 161–82 and Oswyn Murray, “Rileggendo Il buon re secondo Omero,” Cronache ercolanesi 14 (1984): 157–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Joseph Farrell 2016

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