1902 Encyclopedia > Lucretius

Lucretius
(full name: Titus Lucretius Carus)
Roman poet
(99-55 BC)




Lucretius (T. Lucretius Carus), more than any of the great Roman writers, has acquired a new interest in the present day. this result is due, not so much to a truer perception of the force and purity of his style, of the majesty and pathos of his poetry, or of the great sincerity of his nature, as to the recognition of the relation of his subject too many of the questions on which speculative curiously is now engaged. It would be misleading to speak of him, or of the Greek philosophers whose tenets he expounds, as anticipating the more advanced scientific hypotheses of modern times. But it is in his poem that we find the most complete account of the chief effort of the ancient mind to explain the beginning of things, and to understand the course of nature and man’s relation to it. Physical philosophy in the present day is occupied with the same problems as those which are discussed in the first two books of the De Rerum Natura. The renewed curiosity as to the origin of life, the primitive condition of man, and his progressive advance to civilization finds an attraction in the treatment of the same subjects in the fifth book. The old war between science and theology, which has been revived in the present generation, is fought, though with different weapons, yet in the same ardent and uncompromising spirit throughout the whole poem, as it is in the writings of living thinkers. In comparing the controversies of the present day with those of which we find the record in Lucretius, we are reminded of the poet’s own description of the wart of elements in the world.-

"Denique, tantopere inter se cum maxima mundi
Pugnet membra, pio neuqaquam concita bello,
Nonne vides aliquam longi certaminis ollis
Possee dari finem?"

But this concurrence with the stream of speculation in the present day is really the least of his permanent claims on the attention of the world. His position both among ancient and modern writers is unique. No one else combines in the same degree the contemplative enthusiasm of a philosopher, and earnest purpose of a reformer and moral teacher, and the profound pathos and sense of beauty of a great poet. He stands alone among his countrymen as much in the ardor with which he observes and reasons on the processes of nature as in the elevation of feeling with which he recognizes the majesty of her laws, and the vivid sympathy with which he interprets the manifold variety of her life. It would have been an instructive study to have traced some connection between his personal circumstance and the intellectual and moral position which he holds. We naturally ask what influence of teachers in Rome or Athens first attracted him to this study and observation of natural phenomena, what early impressions or experience gave so sombre a coloring to his view of life, how far the delight, so strange in an ancient Roman, which he seems to find in a kind of recluse communion with nature, and the spirit of pathetic or indignant satire in which he treats the more violent phases of passion and the more extravagant modes of luxury, was a recoil from the fascination of pleasures in which his contemporaries and equals freely indulged. We should like also to know how far the serene heights which he professed to have attained procured him exemption from or alleviation of the actual sorrows of life. But such questions, suggested by the strong interest which the impress of personal feeling and character stamped on the poem awakens in the reader, can only be raised; there are no ascertained facts by which they can be settled. There is no ancient poet, with the exception of Homer, of whose history so little is positively known. Unlike Catullus, Horace, Virgil, Cicero, Tacitus, and nearly all the great Roman writers, he is absolutely silent on the subject of his own position and fortunes. Nor is this silence compensated by any personal reference to him in the works of his two eminent contemporaries by whom the social life of their age is so amply illustrated. Cicero and Catullus, although it is certain that each of then read his poem almost immediately after it was given to the world. The great poets of the following ages were influenced by his genius, but they tell us nothing as to his career. So consistently does he seem to have followed the maxim of his master, "Pass through life unnoticed," and to have realized, in the midst of the excited political, intellectual, and social life of the last years of the republic, the ideal of those ‘who do not wish to be known even while living."

Our sole information concerning his life si found in the brief summary of Jerome, written more than four centuries after the poet’s death. Scholars are now agreed that in these summaries, added to his translation of the Eusebian Chronicle, Jerome followed, often carelessly and inaccurately, the accounts contained in the lost work of Suetonius De Viris Illustribus. But that work was written about two centuries after the death of Lucretius; and, although it is likely that Suetonius used the information transmitted by earlier grammarians, there is nothing to guide us to the original sources from which the tradition concerning the life of Lucretius was derived. The strange character of the story which has been transmitted to us, and the want of any support to it from external evidence, oblige us to receive it with a certain reserve.

According to this account the poet was born in the year 94 B.C. he became mad (‘in furorem versus") in consequence of the administration of a love-philtre; and after composing several books in his lucid interval, which were subsequently corrected by Cicero, he died by his own hand in the forty-fourth year of his age. The statement of Donatus in his life of Virgil, a work also based on the lost work of Suetonius, that Lucretius died on the 15th of October 55 B.C., the same day on which Virgil assumed the toga virilis, is inconsistent either with the date assigned for the poet’s birth or with the age at which he is said to have died. A single mention f the poem (which from the condition in which it has reached us may be assumed to have been published posthumously) in a letter of Cicero’s written early in 54 B.C., is confirmatory of the date given by Donatus as that of the poet’s death. Similar errors in chronology are common in the summaries of Jerome; and, where there is an inconsistency between the date assigned for the birth of nay author and the age at which he is said to have died (as, for instance, in the case of Catullus), there are grounds for believing that the error lies in the first date. Taking the statements of Donatus and of Jerome together, we may consider it probable that Lucretius died in the October of 55 B.C., in the forty-fourth year of his age, and that he was born either late in the year 99 B.C. or early in the year 98 B.C. He would thus be about seven years younger than Cicero, a year or two younger than Julius Caesar, about the same age as Memmius, to whom the poem is dedicated, and about fifteen years older than Catullus and Calvus, the younger pots of his generation, from whom he is widely separated both by his more archaic style and rhythm and by the greater seriousness of his art and the more earnest dignity of his character. The other statements of Jerome have been questioned or disbelieved on the ground of their intrinsic improbability. They have been regarded as a fiction invented in a later time by the enemies of Epicureanism, with the view of discrediting the most powerful work ever produced by any discipline of that sect. It is more in conformity with ancient credulity than with modern science to attribute a permanent tendency to derangement to the accidental administration of any drug, however potent. A work characterized by such strength, consistency , and continuity of thought is not likely to have been composed "per intervalla insanieae." Donatus, in mentioning the poet’s death, gives no hint of the act of suicide. The poets of the Augustan age, who were deeply interested both in his philosophy and his poetry, are entirely silent about the tragical story of his life. Cicero, by his professed antagonism to the doctrines of Epicurus, by his inadequate appreciation of Lucretius himself, and by the indifference which he shows to other contemporary poets, seems to have been neither fitted for the task of correcting the unfinished work of a writer whose genius was so distinct from his own, nor likely to have cordially undertaken such a task.

Yet these consideration do not lead to the absolute rejection of the story as a pure invention of a hostile and uncritical age. The evidence afforded by the poem rather leads to the conclusion that the tradition contains some germ of fact. We need not attach any importance to the supposed efficacy of the love- philtre in producing mental alienation, nor are we called upon to think of Lucretius as one liable to recurring fits of insanity, in the ordinary sense of the word. But it is remarkable, as wasfirst observed by Mr Munro, his English editor, that in more than one passage of his poem he writers with extraordinary vividness of the impression produced both by dreams and by waking visions. It is true that the philosophy of Epicurus put great stress on these, as affording the explanation of the origin of supernatural beliefs. But the insistence with which Lucretius returns to the subject, and the horror with which he recalls the effects of such abnormal phenomena, suggest the inference that he himself may have been liable to such hallucinations, which are said to be consistent with perfect sanity, though they may be the precursors either of madness or of a state of despair and melancholy which often ends in suicide. Other passages in his poem, as, for instance, the lines

"Nos agree hoc autem, et naturam quaerere rerum,
Semper et enventam patriis exponere chartis,"

Where he describes himself as ever engaged, even in his dreams, on his task of inquiry and composition, produce the impression of an unrelieved strain of mind and feeling, which may have ended in some extreme reaction of spirit, or in some failure of intellectual power, from the consciousness of which he may, in accordance with examples which he himself quotes, have taken refuge in suicide. But the strongest confirmation of the existence of some germ of fact in the tradition is found in the unfinished condition in which the poem has reached us. the subject appears indeed to have been fully treated in accordance with the plan sketched out in the introduction to the first book. But that book is the only one which is finished in style and in the arrangement of its matter. In al the others, and especially in the last three, the continuity of the argument is frequently broken by passages which must have been inserted after the first draft of the arguments was written out. Thus, for instance, in his account of the transition form savage to civilized life, he assumed at v. 1011 the discovery of the use of skin, fire, &c. and the first beginning of civil society, and proceeds at 1028 to explain the origin of language, and then again returns, from 1090 to 1160, to pseculate upon the first use of fire and the earliest stages of politics life. These breaks in the continuity of the argument show what might also be inferred from frequent repetitions of lines which have appeared earlier in the poem, and from the rough workmanship of passages in the later books, that the poem could not have received the final revision of the author, and must have been given to the world by some editor after his death. Nor is there any great difficulty in believing that editor was Cicero. It is not necessary to press the meaning of the word "emendavit" as applied to the task fulfilled by him. Cicero certainly was incapable of ‘improving’ any of the poetry of Lucretius, and the slight mention which he makes of the poem in a letter to his brother ("the poem of Lucretius is, as you describe it, a work not of much genius but of much art") seems to imply that he was not very capable of appreciating it. But other motives, besides appreciation of the poet’s genius or sympathy with his doctrines, may have induced him to undertake a task which has not been very successfully performed. It may be remarked further that skepticism as to statements about their lives is less warranted in the case of the great Roman than of the great Greek writers, from the fact that the work of criticism went on at Rome contemporaneously with the progress of original creation, and that the line of grammarians and commentators by whom these statements were transmitted continued unbroken almost from the first beginning of Latin literature.

We find in the instance of nearly all the other Latin poets, even of the most obscure among them, that their birthplace has been recorded, and it has often been remarked that Latin poetry was an Italian and provincial rather than a purely Roman product. From the absence of any claim on the part of any other district of Italy to the honor of having given birth to Lucretius it is inferred that he was an exception to the rule, and was of purely Roman origin. No writer certainly is more purely Roman in personal character and in strength of understanding. He seems to speak of Rome as his native state in such expressions as "patriai tempore iniquo," "patrii sermonis egestas," and "patriis chartis." His silence on the subject of Roman greatness and glory as contrasted with the prominence of these subjects in the poetry of men of provincial birth such as Ennius, Virgil, and Horace, may be explained by the principle that the familiarity of long-inherited traditions had made the subject one of less wonder and novelty to him. The Lucretian gens to which he belonged was one of the oldest of the great Roman houses, nor do we hear of the name, as we do of other great family names, as being diffused over other parts of Italy, or as designating men of obscure or servile origin. It seems from the evidence of the name, confirmed by the tone in which he writes, as probable as any such inference can be that Lucretius was a member of the Roman aristocracy, belonging either to a senatorian or to one of the great equestrian families, living in easy circumstances, and familiar with the spectacle of luxury and artistic enjoyment which the great houses of Rome and the great country houses in the most beautiful parts of Italy presented. If the Roman aristocracy of his time had lost much of the virtue and of the governing qualities of their ancestors, they showed in the last years before the establishment of monarchy a taste for intellectual culture which might have made Rome as great in literature as in arms and law, if the republic could have continued. The discussions which Cicero puts in the mouth of Velleius, Cotta, &c., indicate the new taste for philosophy developed among members of the governing class during the youth of Lucretius; and we hear of eminent Greek teachers of the Epicurean sect being settled at Rome at the same time, and living on terms of intimacy with them. The inference that Lucetius belonged to this class, and shared in the liberal culture which it received, is confirmed by the tone in which the addresses Memmius, a man of an eminent senatorian family, and of considerable oratorical and poetical accomplishment, to whom the poem is dedicated. His tone to Memmius is quite unlike that in which Virgil or even Horace addresses Maecenas. He addresses him as an equal; he expresses sympathy with the prominent part hisfriend played in public life, and admiration for his varied accomplishment, but on his own subject claims to speak to him in the tones of authority.





Although our conception of the poet’s life and circumstances is necessarily vague and meagre, ye his personal force is so remarkable and so vividly impressed on his poem, and his language bears so unmistakably the stamp of sincerity, that we seem able to from a consistent idea of his tastes and habits, his sympathies and convictions, his moral and emotional nature. If we know nothing of the particular experience which determined his passionate adherence to the Epicurean creed and his attitude of spiritual and social isolation from the ordinary course of Roman life and belief, we can at least say that the choice of a contemplative life was not the result of indifference to the fate of the world, or of any natural coldness or even calmness of temperament. In some of his most powerful poetry, as in the opening lines of the second and of the third books, we can mark the strong recoil of a humane and sensitive spirit from the horrors of the reign of terror which he witnesses on his youth, and from the anarchy and confusion which prevailed at Rome during the later years of his life; while his vivid realization of the pains and disappointments of passion, of the unsatisfying nature of all violent, emotion, and of the restlessness and weariness of life which excessive luxury entails, suggest at least the inference that he had not been through his whole career so much estranged from the social life of his day as he seems to have been in his later years. Passages in his poem attest his familiarity with the pomp and luxury of city life, with the attractions of the public games, and with the pageantry of great military spectacles. But much the greater mass of the illustrations of his philosophy scattered through the poem indicate that, while engaged in its composition, and in the studies preparatory to it, he must have lived in the country or by the sea-shore, and that he must have passed much of his time in the open air, exercising at once the keen observation of a naturalist and the contemplative vision of a poet. He shows a fellow feeling with the habits and moods of the animals associated with human toil and adventure. He seems to have found a pleasure, more congenial to the modern than to the ancient temperament, in ascending mountains or wandering among their solitudes (vi. 469, iv. 575). References to companionship in these wanderings, and the well-known description of the charm of a rustic meal (ii. 29) enjoyed with comrades amid beautiful scenery and in fine weather, speak of kindly sociality rather than of any austere separation from his fellows.

Other expressions in his poem (e.g., iii. 10, &c) imply that he was an ardent student of books, as well as a sympathetic observer of outward phenomena. Foremost among these were the writings of his master Epicurus; but he had also an intimate knowledge appreciation of the philosophical poem of Empedocles, and at least an acquaintance with the works of Democritus, Anaxagoras, Heraclitus, Plato, and the Stoical writers. Of other Greek prose writers he knew Thucydides and Hippocrates; while of the poets he expresses in more than one passage the highest admiration of Homer, whom he has imitated in several places. Next to Homer Euripides is most frequently reproduced by him. There is an evident struggle between the impulses of his imaginative temperament, prompting him to recognize the supremacy of the great masters in art and poetry, and the influence of the teaching of Epicurus, in accordance with which the old poets and painters of Greece are condemned as the authors and propagators of false ideas both of nature and the gods. But his poetical sympathy was not limited to the poets of Greece. For his own countryman Ennius he expresses an affectionate admiration; and he imitates his language, his rhythm, and his manner in many places. The fragments of the old tragedian Pacuvius and of the satirist Lucillius show that Lucretius had made use of their expressions and materials. In his studies he was attracted by the older writers, both Greek and Roman, in whose masculine temperament and understanding he recognized an affinity with his own. He had a mostenthusiastic admiration for genius, especially when exercised in the investigation and discovery of truth. His devotion to Epicurus seems at first sight more difficult to explain than his enthusiasm for Empedicles or Ennius. Probably he found in his calmness of temperament, in his natural or acquired indifference to all violent emotion, even in his want to imagination, a sense of rest and of exemption from the disturbing influence of life which the passionate heart of the poet denied himself; while in his physical philosophy he found both an answer to the questions which perplexed him and an inexhaustible stimulus to his intellectual curiosity. The combative energy, the sense of superiority, the spirit of satire, characteristic of him as a Roman, unite with his loyalty to Epicurus to render him not only polemical but intolerant and contemptuous in his tone toward the great antagonists of his system, the Stoics, whom, while constantly referring to them, he doe not condescend even to name. With his admiration of the genius of others he combines a strong sense of his own power. He is quite conscious of the great importance and of the difficulty of his task; but he feels his own ability to cope with it. He has the keenest capacity for intellectual pleasure, and speaks of the constant charm which he found both in the collection of his material and in the exercise of his art. If his mind was overstrained by the incessant devotion to his task of which he speaks, he allows no expression of fatigue or discouragement to escape from him. The ardor of study, the delight in contemplative thought, the "sweet love of the muses," the "great hope of fame," all combined to bear him buoyantly through all the difficulties and fatigues of his long and lonely adventure.

It is more difficult to infer the moral than the intellectual characteristics of a great writer from the personal impress left by him on his work. Yet it is not too much to say that there is no work in any literature that produces a profounder impression of sincerity. No writer shows a juster scorn of all mere rhetoric and exaggeration. This is one of the main causes of the spell which the poem exercises over us. By no Stoic even could the doctrine of independence of the world, and of the superiority of simplicity over show and luxury, be more forcibly and consistently inculcated. No one shows truer courage, not marred by irreverence, in confronting the great problems of human destiny, or greater strength in triumphing over human weakness. No one shows a truer humanity and a more tender sympathy with natural sorrow. In reverence for the sanctities of human affection, Virgil alone is his equal, nor is it an unlikely surmise that it was to the power of this sentiment, and the influence which it had on his relation with others, that he owed the cognomen of "Carus" or the "beloved."

The peculiarity of the poem of Lucretius, that which makes it unique in literature, is that it is a reasoned system of philosophy, written in verse. The subject was chosen and the method of exposition adopted, not primarily with the idea of moving and satisfying the imagination, but of communicating truth. The prosaic title De Rerum natura, a translation of the Greek, implies the subordination of the artistic to a speculative motive. As in the case of nearly all the great works of Roman literary genius, the form of the poem was borrowed from the Greeks. The rise of speculative philosophy in Greece was coincident with the beginning of prose composition, and many of the earliest philosophers gave their thoughts to the world in the prose of the Ionic dialect; others however, and especially the writers of the Greek colonies in Italy and Sicily, expounded their systems in continuous poems composed in the epic hexameter. These writers flourished in the beginning and first half of the 5th century B.C.,- the great awakening time of the intellectual, imaginative, and artistic faculties of the ancient world. The names most famous in connection with this kind of poetry are those of Xenophanes and Parmenides, the Eleatics, and that of Empedocles of Agrigentum. The last was less important as a philosopher, but greater than the others both as a poet and a physicist. On both of these grounds he had a greater attraction to Lucretius. The fragments of the poem of Empedocles show that the Roman poet regarded that work as his model. In accordance with this model he has given to his own poem the form of a personal address, he has developed his argument systematically, and has applied the sustained impetus of epic poetry to the treatment of some of the driest and abstrusest topics. Many ideas and expressions of the Sicilian have been reproduced by the Roman poet; and the same tone of impassioned solemnity and melancholy seems to have pervaded both works. But Lucretius, if less original as a thinker, was probably a much greater poet than Empedocles. With the speculative enthusiasm of the Greeks he combines, in a remarkable measure, the Italian susceptibility to the charm of nature, and the greater humanity of feeling which belongs to a more advanced stage of human history. But what chiefly distinguishes him from his Greek prototypes is that his purpose is rather ethical than purely speculative. He shares with them the delight in inquiry and discovery; but the zeal of a teacher and reformer is more strong in him than even the intellectual passion of a thinker. His speculative ideas, his moral teaching, and his poetical power are indeed interdependent on one another, and this interdependence is what mainly constitutes their power and interest. But of the three claims which he makes to immortality,-

"Primuym quod magnis deceo de rebus, et artis
Religionum aninum nodis exsolvere pergo,
Deinde quod onscura de re tam lucida pango
Carmina museo contingens cuncta lepore,_"

That which he himself regarded as supreme was the second, - the claim of a liberator of human spirit from the cramping bonds of superstition.

This purpose is announced by him over and over again, as for instance at the beginning of the argument in the first, second, third, and sixth books. The main idea of the poem is the irreconcilable opposition between the truth of the laws of nature and the falsehood of the old superstitions. But it is not merely by the intellectual opposition between truth and falsehood that he is moved. The happiness and the dignity of life are regarded by him as absolutely dependent on the acceptance of the true and the rejection of the false doctrine. The ground of his extravagant eulogies of Epicurus is that he recognized in him the first great champion in the war of liberation, and in his system of philosophy he believed that he had found the weapons by which this war could be most effectually waged. Following in his footsteps, he sets before himself the aim of finally crushing that fear of the gods and that fear of death resulting from it which he regards as the source of all the human ills. Incidentally he desires also to purify the heart from other violent passions which corrupt it and mar its peace. But the source even of these-the passions of ambition and avarice-he finds in the fear of death; and that fear he resolves into the fear of eternal punishment after death.

The selection of his subject and the order in which it is treated are determined by this motive. Although the title of the poem implies that it is a treatise on the "whole nature of things," the aim of Lucretius is not to treat exhaustively the whole of nat5ual science, recognized in the Epicurean system, but only those branches of it which are necessary to clear the mind from the fear of the gods and the terrors of a future state. In the two earliest books, accordingly, he lays down and largely illustrates the first principles of being with the view of showing that the world is not governed by capricious agency, but has come into existence, continues in existence, and will ultimately pass away in accordance with the primary conditions of the elemental atoms which, along with empty space, are the only eternal and immutable substances. These atoms are themselves infinite in number but limited in their varieties, and by their ceaseless movement and combinations during infinite time and through infinite space the whole process of creation is maintained. In the third book he applies the principles of the atomic philosophy to explain the nature of the mind and vital principle, with the view of showing that the soul perishes with the body. In the fourth book he discusses the Epicurean doctrine of the "simulacra," or images, which are cast from all bodies, and which act either on the senses or immediately on the mind, in dreams or waking visions, as affording the explanation of the belief in the continued existence of the spirits of the departed. The fifth book, which has the most general interest, professes to explain the process by which the earth, the sea, the sky, the sun, moon, and stars, were formed, the origin of life, and the gradual advance of man from the most savage to the most civilized condition. All these topics are treated with the view of showing that the world is not itself divine nor directed by divine agency. The sixth book is devoted to the explanation, in accordance with natural causes, of some of the more abnormal phenomena, such as thunderstorms, volcanoes, earthquakes, &c., which are special causes of supernatural terrors.





It would be impossible, within the limits of this article, to give any detailed account or criticism of an argument which is carried on, with the interruption only occasional episodes, in which the moral teaching of the poet is enforced, through a poem extending to between six and seven thousand lines. Readers who are especially interested in the science of Lucretius will find the subject clearly treated in chapter v. of Lange’s History of Materialism. The consecutive study of the argument produces on most readers a mixed feeling of dissatisfaction and admiration. They are repelled by the dryness of much of the matter, the unsuitableness of many of the topics discussed for poetic treatment, the arbitrary assumption of premises, the entire failure to establish the connection between the concrete phenomena which the author professes to explain and these assumptions, and the erroneousness of many of the doctrines which are stated with dogmatic confidence. On the other hand they are constantly impressed by his power of reasoning both deductively and inductively, by the subtlety and fertility of invention with which he applies analogies, by the clearness and keenness of his observation, by the fullness matter with which his mind is stored, and by the consecutive force, the precision, and distinctness of his style, when employed in the processes of scientific exposition. The first two books enable us better than anything else in ancient literature to appreciate the boldness and, on the whole, the reasonableness of the ancient mind in forming hypotheses on great matters that still baffle the investigations of science. The third and fourth books give evidence of acuteness in psychological analysis; the fourth and sixth of the most active and varied observation of natural phenomena; the fifth of original insight and strong common sense in conceiving the origin of society and the progressive advance of man to civilization. But the chief value of Lucretius as a thinker lies in his firm grasp of speculative ideas, and in his application of them to the interpretation of human life and nature. It is in this application that the most powerful interest of his poetry lies. All phenomena, moral as well as material, are contemplated by him in their relation to one great organic whole, which he acknowledge under the name of "Natura daedala rerum," and the most beneficent manifestations of which he seems to symbolize and almost to deify in the "Alma Venus," whom, in apparent contradiction to his denial of a divine interference with human affairs, he involves with prayer in the opening lines of the poem. In this conception of nature are united the conception of law and order, of ever-changing life and interdependence, of immensity, individuality, and all-pervading subtlety, under which the universe is apprehended both by his intelligence and his imagination.

Nothing can be more unlike the religious and moral attitude of Lucretius than the old popular conception of him as an atheist and a preacher of the doctrine of pleasure. It is true that he denies the two bases of all religion, the doctrines of a supernatural government of the world and of a future life. But his arguments against the first are really only valid against the limited and unworthy conceptions of divine agency involved in the ancient religious; his denial of the second is prompted by his vivid realization of all that is meant by the arbitrary infliction of eternal torment after death. His war with the popular beliefs of his time is waged, not in the interests of licence, but in vindication of the sanctity of human feeling. The great and cardinal line of the poem,

"tantum religio potuit suadere malorum,"

is elicited from him as his protest against the wicked and impious sacrifice of Iphigenia by the hand of her father. But in his very denial of a cruel, limited, and capricious agency of the gods, and in his imaginative recognition of an orderly, all-pervading, all-regulating power, - the "Natura daedala rerum," – we find at least a nearer approach to the higher conceptions of modern theism than in any of the other imaginative conception of ancient poetry and art, unless we include the hymn of Cleanthes among the utterances of poets. But his conception even of the ancient gods and of their indirect influence on human life is more worthy than the popular one. They are conceived of by him as living a life of eternal peace and exemption from passion in a world of their own; and the highest ideal of man is through the exercise of his reason, to realize an image of this life.

"Ut nil impediat dignam dis degere vitam."

Although they are conceived of as unconcerned with the interests of our world, yet influences are supposed to emanate from them which the human heart is capable of receiving and assimilating. The effect of unworthy conceptions of the divine nature is that they render a man incapable of visiting the temples of the gods in a calm spirit, or of receiving the emanations ‘divine nuntia pacis" in peaceful tranquility.

"Nec delubra placido cum pectore adibis,
Nec de corpore quae sancto simulacra feruntur
In mentis hominumdivinae nuntia pacis
Suscipere haec animi tranquilla pace valebis."

It is in no iconoclastic spirit that he regards even the temples and solemn rites of the gods, except when he finds the acts of worship tainted with "the foul stain of superstition." Thus he describes with a grave solemnity of feeling the procession of the image of Cybele through the cities of men, and acknowledges the beneficent influence of the truth symbolized by that procession. The supposed "atheism" of Lucretius proceeds from a more deeply reverential spirit than that of the majority of professed believers in all times.

His moral attitude is also far removed from that either of ordinary ancient Epicureanism or ordinary modern materialism. Though he acknowledges pleasure to be the law of life, - "dux vitae diea voluptas," – yet he is far from regarding its attainment as the end of life. What man needs is not enjoyment, but ‘peace and a pure heart."

"At bene nonn poterat sine puro pectroe vivi."

The victory to be won by man is the triumph over fear, ambition, passion, luxury. With the conquest over these nature herself supplies all that is needed for happiness. Self-control and renunciation are the lessons which he preaches with as much fervor and as real conviction as any of the preachers of Stoicism. "Great riches consist in living plainly with a contented spirit"-

"Divitiae grandes homini sunt vivere parce
Aequo animo."

As was mentioned above, it is uncertain whether the short criticism of Cicero ("Lucretii poemata," &c.) concedes to Lucretius the gifts of genius or the accomplishment of art. Readers of a later time, who could compare his work with the finished works of the Augustan age, would, if they refused his claim to the full possession of the two necessary constituents of the greatest poets, have certainly disparaged his art rather than his power. But with Cicero it was different. He greatly admired, or professed to admire, the genius of the early Roman poets, while he shows that indifference to the poetical genius of his younger contemporaries which men who have formed their taste for poetry in youth, and whose own intellectual interests have been practical and political, often to do the new ideas and new modes of feeling which an original poet brings into the world. On the other hand, as one who had himself written many verses in his youth, and as one of the greatest masters of style who have ever lived, he could not have been insensible to the immense superiority in rhythmical smoothness which the hexameter of Lucretius has over that of Ennius and Lucilius. And no reader of Lucretius can doubt that he attached the greatest importance to artistic execution, and that he took a great pleasure, not only in propelling "the long roll of his hexameter" to its culminating break at the conclusion of some weighty paragraph, but also in producing the effects of alliteration, assonance, &c., which are so marked a peculiarity in the style of Plautus and the earlier Roman poets. He allows his taste for these tricks of style, which, when used with moderation by writers of a more finished sense of art such as Virgil and even Terence, have the happiest effect, to degenerate into mannerism. And this is the only drawback to the impression of absolute spontaneity which his style produces. But those who recognize in him one of the most powerful and original poetical forces which have appeared in the world feel, when they compare him with the greatest poets of all times, that he was unfortunate in living before the natural rudness of Latin art-the "traces of the country," which continued to linger "in rude latium" down to the time of Horace-had been successfully grappled with. His only important precursors in serious poetry were Ennius and Lucilius, and, though he derived from the first of these an impulse to shape the Latin tongue into a fitting vehicle for the expression of elevated emotion and imaginative conception, he could find in neither a guide to follow in the task he set before himself. He had thus, in a great measure, to discover the way for himself, and to act as the pioneer to those who came after him. The difficulty and novelty of his task enhances our sense of his power. His finest passages are thus characterized by a freshness of feeling and enthusiasm of discovery, as of one ascending, alone and for the first time, the "pathless heights of the Muses." But the result of these conditions and of his own inadequate conception of the proper limits of his art is that more than in the case of any other work of genius his best poetry is clogged with a great mass of alien matter, which no treatment in the world could have made poetically endurable. If the distinction suggested by a brilliant living poet and critic between the Titans and the Olympians of literature be a valid one, it is among the former certainly that Lucretius is to be classed.

The genius of Lucretius, as of all the greatest poets, does not reveal itself as any mere isolated or exceptional faculty, but as the impassioned and imaginative movement of his whole moral and intellectual being. It is the force through which the sincerity and simplicity, the reverence, the courage, the whole heart of the man have found an outlet for themselves. It is also the force from which both his speculative and his observant faculty derive their most potent impulse. His poetical style is as simple, sensuous, and passionate as that of the poets who reproduce only the immediate appearances and impressions of the world of nature and of human feeling. But it assumes a more majestic and elevated tone from the recognition of the truth that the beauty of the world, the unceasing life and movement in nature, the destructive as well as the beneficent forces of the elements, the whole wonder and pathos of human existence, are themselves manifestations of secret invisible agencies and of eternal and immutable laws.

The fullest account of the MSS. and of the various editions of Lucetius, and of the influence which he exercised on the later poets of Rome, is to be found in the introductions to the critical and explanatory notes of Mr Munro’s edition of the poet, a work recognized as the most important contribution to Latin scholarship made in England during the present century. For scholars that edition contains all that is needed for the full understanding of the author. For those who are not classical scholars, the work of C. Martha, Le Poème de Lucrèce, may be recommended, as containing an interesting and eloquent estimate of the genius of the poet, and of his moral, religious, and scientific position. Among recent English works on the author, an essay, by professor Veitch, and one by Mr. J. A. Symonds, are especially good. The subject is also discussed at length in chaps. xi.-xiv. of The Roman Poets of the Republic, by Professor Sellar. (W. Y. S)



The above article was written by William Young Sellar, M.A.; late Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford; Professor of Greek at St Andrews University, 1857-63; Professor of Humanity at Edinburgh, 1863-90; author of The Roman Poets of the Republic, The Roman Poets of the Augustan Age, and Horace and the Elegaic Poets.



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