You are here

Lucretian Temporality: the problem of the Epicurean Past in the De Rerum Natura

Georgina White

Reconciling Lucretius’ interest in mythological narrative with his Epicurean philosophy has long been considered a problem (see Gale (1994) for an overview of the issue and its most widely accepted solution). It has not, however, often been recognised that historical narrative offers similar challenges to the Epicurean: past events have no greater claim to independent existence than do the realms of the underworld, meaning that Lucretius’ use of historical narrative offers puzzles similar to his use of mythological narrative. This paper will briefly outline the Epicurean view that past events lack any independent existence, and show how this affects what can be said about the past and, consequently, the use which Lucretius makes of historical narrative in his poem. In particular, it will show how the Epicurean view of the past can shed light onto the hotly-contested issue of whether the Kulturgeschichte (“cultural history”) of Book 5 presents a view of “hard primitivism” (which sees modern developments as an improvement over primitive life) or “soft primitivism” (which sees human movement away from primitive life as a lapse) (see Segal (1990) for this debate).

This paper will firstly examine Lucretius DRN 1.459-82 to show that Lucretius follows Epicurean orthodoxy in subscribing to a form of Past Presentism (defending the position of Bigelow (1996) against the criticisms of Warren (2006)). On this view, past events have no independent existence, but can have being only as past-tensed properties of body and void. To give Lucretius’ own example, a past event such as the Trojan War does not itself exist, but a currently existing body, such as the land of Troy, can hold the past-tensed property “having been the location of a war”. As Lucretius emphasises in this important passage of his programmatic opening book, this means that we cannot speak of past events in the same way as we might speak of the independently existent entities, body and void: “so you can see that absolutely all things which have taken place are not real per se as is body, nor do they exist, nor are they spoken of in the same way (nec ratione cluere eadem) as that in which void exists” (1.478-80).

If past events are, in an important sense, not real, and they cannot be spoken about in the same way as existent entities, what interest can historical narrative hold for the Epicurean, and why does Lucretius embark on his extended Kulturgeschichte? This paper will argue that we need to view Lucretius’ historical narrative not as a series of statements intended to articulate truths about past events (this would, after all, be impossible for an author who claims that past events have no independent being), but as poetic paraphrase for descriptions of properties held by currently existing entities. Lucretius’ goal is not to describe what happened in the past, but to examine the properties of currently existing entities and to see what this means for our own lives. For example, the description of the thunderbolt which first brought fire to humanity can, on careful reading, be seen as a vividly dramatized description of the present power of lightening: “it was a thunderbolt that first brought fire down to earth from mortals… for we can see (videmus) that many things are struck by the heavenly fire and set ablaze” (5.1092-5). Indeed, the entire Kulturgeschichte is presented not as a direct description of past events, but as an examination of their vestigia (5.1447), the trace properties they have left in the world around us. This, then, explains the fact that an obvious position of neither “hard” nor “soft” primitivism emerges from this text. For Lucretius, the past is no more than the sum of the past-tensed properties of currently existent things, so, just as contemporary man is an uneasy mixture of potential excellence and habitual folly, a similar, ambiguous view of early man must necessarily emerge.

Session/Panel Title

Problems in Ancient Ethical Philosophy

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy