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Lucretius on the Origin of the World: The Argumentative Structure of De Rerum Natura 5.91-508

Abigail Buglass

The fifth book of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura is concerned with arguments for the natural, not supernatural, development of the world; it contributes in large part to the argument against the impact of divine power on Earth, which is found more broadly throughout the DRN. Lines 91-508 of Book 5 posit that the world is part of a natural process, which began with a natural birth (rather than divine creation), and which will eventually lead to death. The argument against ‘design’ found in these lines clearly contributes to Book 5’s broader atheistic tendencies, yet this is by no means understood in Lucretian scholarship.

Two assumptions have obstructed the understanding of 5.91-508 for centuries, resulting in the dismissal of the passage. First, those who have attempted to understand the broader aim of lines 91-508 have always assumed that the only aim of the passage was to argue for the mortality of the world, without expanding on what they think this mortality means (Duff, Bailey, Costa, Gale). This misunderstanding has, in its turn, led scholars without exception to disregard 5.110-234 as an unnecessary digression which disrupts what they believe to be the argument of the passage promised in 5.91-109 and delivered in 5.235-379 (Lachmann, Munro, Duff, Bailey, Lightfoot, Smith, Costa, and Gale). Lachmann appears to be the first to dismiss lines 110-234, saying in his note on 235: hic poeta ea tractare incipit quae se acturum promisit supra usque ad versum 109, while in 2009, Gale writes that at 5.110-234 Lucretius ‘veers off into a digression’ and that this argument for the world’s mortality is ‘abruptly resumed’ at line 235. Ultimately, each of these problems has led to a belief that 5.91-508—418 lines: a third of the book’s 1457—adds little or nothing to the broader argument in Book 5.

It is inaccurate and incomplete to name the whole section as being for the world’s mortality. The primary argument is in fact against creation, while in addition the passage clearly indicates the world’s part in the natural process which leads eventually to death. When Lucretius introduces the fata, which will constitute discussion of Earth’s subjectivity to death, this introduction at 5.110-25 is followed by a lengthy discussion of so-called solacia (5.126-234) which will, according to Lucretius, comfort the reader through an assertion that to learn of the future death of the world is not to commit blasphemy: if the world is not a divine product, it cannot be blasphemous of the reader to understand that it will die and to discuss its eventual death. But this overt anti-blasphemy argument is a guise, and Lucretius smuggles into the anti-blasphemy argument at 5.110-234 an argument against creation. Such a strategy has already been employed by Lucretius in books 1 and 3. The argument against ‘design’ is the primary objective here, which has been seen as a digression from his (perceived) main point in lines 91-508: that the world will die. Two things appear to have led scholars to dismiss 5.110-234 as a digression: taking Lucretius precisely at his word, and a long-held belief that 5.91-508 argues for mortality. In fact, what appears digressive turns out to be crucial.

The paper proposes that the argument at 5.91-508 is a crucial part of the fifth book of DRN, as well as the poem more broadly, for it is here that the reader learns that the world had no architect, and that nil igitur mors est ad nos neque pertinet hilum (3.830), even when it is the world which decays. I argue that the line of reasoning, though complex, is logical and consistent if one is mindful of the aims of the poem more generally, and also of Lucretius’ particular intention to persuade and even manipulate.

Session/Panel Title

Epicurean Philosophy in Roman Poetry

Session/Paper Number

2.2

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