Gods of the Philosophers and Gods of the City

Part of the Recovering Political Philosophy book series (REPOPH)


Given the nature of political life and its fundamental limits, we may begin to understand why Lucretius fits within Burke’s understanding of the less enterprising Epicureans.1 In light of Lucretius’s account of the origins of philosophy, as seen in the analysis of the proem to Book I, philosophy must at some point justify its challenge to the city. That justification of philosophy must be understood with due consideration to Lucretius’s account of traditional religious piety. The purpose here is to show how Lucretius focuses on the political significance of the traditional religious teaching. Religion’s political significance as we began to see in the previous chapter is tied to Lucretius’s account of the spread of religious belief. Having outlined the full political dimensions of religious belief, Lucretius offers an account of the gods that presents an alternative view of religious piety that attempts to shield philosophy from accusations that philosophy undermines the political community. We will then be prepared to return to the fear Lucretius voices in the proem to Book I to consider the extent that this new theology succeeds in securing philosophy’s life in the city. The manner in which Lucretius seeks to fulfill this task can only be appreciated by serious consideration of what has been taken to be one of the more curious aspects of the poem: its finale.


Religious Belief Political Community Political Life Religious Teaching Rational Account 
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  1. 2.
    The military metaphor is sketched by David West in his The Imagery and Poetry of Lucretius (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1969), 57–67.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    For a good historical treatment of the procession see Erich S. Gruen, Greek Culture and Roman Policy (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), 5–33.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    When Lucretius takes up this cosmological teaching later in Book V he appears reluctant to overthrow the pleasing fiction depicted in the procession. See Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, trans., W. H. D. Rouse (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1992) V, 536–564.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Compare Cyril Bailey, The Greek Atomists and Epicurus (New York: Russell and Russell, 1928), 477. As with much of the classicist writing on Lucretius Bailey’s primary focus is on Lucretius’s physical doctrines. The classicists’ literature treats Lucretius exclusively as a natural philosopher. This focus necessarily fails to justice to Lucretius’s intention. To fully appreciate the place of the physics in Lucretius one must begin with the political and religious difficulties that attend his primary intention. On this score the classicists are not very helpful.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    See René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 14.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    Leo Strauss, Liberalism Ancient and Modern, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1989), 131.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    See James Nichols, Epicurean Political Philosophy: The De Rerum Natura of Lucretius (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976), 165–166. Nichols’s book is the only other full length study of Lucretius’s poem that argues explicitly that Lucretius’s poem is a work of political philosophy. Nichols rightly argues that Lucretius is more than an elaboration of epicurean physics and is primarily a study of man and society. Nichols, however, remains with the traditional understanding of the address to Memmius as motivated by a desire for philosophic friendship. This limitation in Nichols’ study leads him to overemphasize the didactic and pedagogical nature of the poem and not appreciate the extent of the limitations to leading men towards the truth. Nichols, therefore, does not sufficiently detail the tension between philosophy and the city.Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    A tradition of the pious labeling atheists and their philosophic opponents as Epicureans is well known. See Leo Strauss, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion (New York: Schocken Books, 1982), 29.Google Scholar
  9. See also the understanding of the roots of atheism as professed by Kleinias in Plato’s Laws, trans., Thomas Pangle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988) 886 a8–b2.Google Scholar
  10. 19.
    See, Eve Adler, Vergil’s Empire (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2003). The thesis of Adler’s book is that Vergil, while agreeing with Lucretius’s account of the nature of things, sought to correct its negative political consequences by creating a new myth of the founding of Rome. The thesis of Virgil as an improvement on Lucretius relies heavily upon the idea that Lucretius is not mindful of his own dependency upon the city’s religious foundation. The purpose here is to reveal the extent to which Lucretius is not only mindful of this problem but that the theological-political problem within Lucretius thought emerges out of his awareness of the problem.Google Scholar
  11. 20.
    See, J. D. Minyard, Lucretius and the Late Republic (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1985), 18. Minyard’s thought-provoking book argues that this acceptance of the materialist physics without the ethics can be seen in action through an analysis of the speeches of Caesar in Sallust’s recounting of the trial of the Cataline conspirators. Another example of an Epicurean who appears to adopt the physics as it can be applied to politics but not the ethics is Shakespeare’s Cassius from Julius Caesar.Google Scholar
  12. See, Allan Bloom, Shakespeare’s Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 75–112.Google Scholar
  13. 21.
    Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Thomas Hobbes (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1959). See Book II, sect. 48 for Thucydides’ own aff liction and 47 for the effectiveness of medicine. See also Sect. 51 where it is held that medicine benefited some but not others.Google Scholar

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© John Colman 2012

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