Written for a 2010 class on Roman Civilization.
I’d like to give you a little background on the Lucretius De Rerum Natura, which can be a tough read if you don’t go into it with the right attitude.
From what we are told of Titus Lucretius Carus, he lived from 99 to 55 BCE, and was probably a well-to-do sort of Roman Citizen. Jerome leaves the following notice: “The poet Titus Lucretius was born. Later he was turned mad by a love potion, but in the intervals in between the madness he composed some books, which Cicero afterwards edited. He killed himself when he was 44 years old” (Chron. 171.3). Much of this is probably hogwash, but what has been defended is his affiliation with Cicero. Certainly, based on his popularity among later Roman authors (especially Virgil), he was well respected and probably ran in circles that would include people like Cicero. You can read more about him in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Entry.
The sole extant work from Lucretius is the De Rerum Natura, or “The Nature of Things”. It is principally a hexameter poem (I chose a prose translation for the course as I thought it would be easier to digest), written in six books which set out a Epicurean philosophical agenda. Epicureanism was a strain of ancient philosophy originally set out by Epicurus (341 – 270 BCE), which David Konstan describes as “a complete and interdependent system, involving a view of the goal of human life (happiness, resulting from absence of physical pain and mental disturbance), an empiricist theory of knowledge (sensations, including the perception of pleasure and pain, are infallible criteria), a description of nature based on atomistic materialism, and a naturalistic account of evolution, from the formation of the world to the emergence of human societies” (2009). In short, a theory of everything. You can read a short article on the link between the two on this page.
What I find interesting, which you will see in the prologue, is the persistence of epic forms into a formulation of philosophy. We are used to thinking of philosophy as a primarily a prose genre, but that was not always the case in antiquity. Early Presocratic philosophers such as Parmenides of Elea and Xenophanes of Colophon wrote in verse; Plato is primarily thought of as prose, but in fact wrote dialogues more akin to modern drama. Aristotle is probably the first major philosopher that we think of as a prose writer, but we know that even he wrote dialogues as his primary works and what we have from him is actually tantamount to lecture notes. In sum, we should not be surprised to see Lucretius writing in a poetic form, even if the school does not have a major Greek poem to its credit (extant Epicurus are in the epistolary genre).
Things to think about when you are reading, and try to bring some preliminary thoughts with you to class:
- What is the argument he is trying to make? How does he structure his argument.
- Lucretius talks about the problems of religion, but at the same time has an invocation to Venus at the start of his poem. How does one reconcile these two things? And, to bring back a bit, what is the relationship between Religion and Philosophy? How does Lucretius view it, and how do you view it?
- How does Lucretius use examples from nature to prove his point? Does it make it more convincing or less? Is it just part of his poetic style?
- Lucretius spends a good amount of time talking about is conception of the world, but also about ways to carry about living your life. What are the characteristics of this system, and how does he tie it in with moral/ethical philosophy?
- A common saw for ancient moralists runs something like “count no man happy until he is dead, for fate may change his circumstances in an instant.” What role does fate play in Lucretius’ philosophy?
- What do you think of Lucretius’ view of the development of the world in the selection from book 6? How does it compare with Sallust?
Enjoy the reading!