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Lucretius and the Question of Epicurean Orthodoxy

Zackary Rider

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

This paper challenges two prominent trends in Lucretian scholarship: the use of the De rerum natura as a reliable source for Epicurean orthodoxy, and the related view of the DRN as a poem whose “meaning” is solely one of Epicurean persuasion and whose inconsistencies can be explained away in furtherance of this goal.  The former position is articulated most forcefully by Sedley 1998, who argues that Lucretius is a “fundamentalist,” following Epicurus’ On Nature with little divergence.  Advancing the latter position, scholars such as Gale, Hardie, and Farrell have demonstrated how the poem’s contradictions, far from negating Lucretius’ Epicurean message, reinforce its central points by putting the poet’s sensibilities to the task of expounding philosophic truth.  This argumentative strategy is in need of examination, however, as it runs the risk of forestalling understanding of the poem by assuming the same answer (Epicurean persuasion) for any question concerning inconsistencies in the text.   Here I offer counterpoints to both lines of thought discussed, offering examples wherein Lucretius explicitly diverges from Epicurean orthodoxy, and calling into question a solely “Epicurean” meaning for the text.  In so doing, I hope to nuance our understanding of Lucretius’ text and expand the interpretative possibilities available to readers of the DRN.

To show how Lucretius’ program differs from orthodox Epicureanism, I turn to Lucretius’ depictions of religion.  After briefly discussing Lucretius’ un-Epicurean portrayal of the value of sacrificial rite, I examine the poet’s deification of Epicurus. As has been recognized, particularly by Gale, Epicurus’ apotheosis in the DRN owes much to Euhemeristic discourse, as the philosopher is routinely praised on account of the great service he provided to humanity through his teachings.  Scholars have preferred, however, to view this deification through the lens of Epicurean doctrine, according to which it is the wise man’s wisdom that allows him to reach a state of ataraxia akin to that of the gods.  Even Gale sees the Euhemeristic rationale as secondary to this more doctrinally sound explanation: “it was above all [Epicurus’] own achievement of ataraxia, and only secondarily the fact that he enabled others to achieve it, which earned him the title of deus” (Gale 1994, 79).  Yet I argue that such interpretation sticks too strictly to doctrine rather than following the poet’s actual words.  Rather, passages of the DRN arguing for the deification of Epicurus invariably emphasize his benefits to humanity as the primary reason, as in the culmination to Lucretius’ praise of Epicurus in the opening to book 5, where the poet claims that Epicurus deserves to be counted in the number of the gods especially because he gave discourses (dicta) on the gods and on nature (nonne decebit / hunc hominem numero divom dignarier esse? / cum bene praesertim multa ac divinitus ipsis / immortalibu’ de divis dare dicta suerit / atque omnem rerum naturam pandere dictis, 5.50-54).  Here Lucretius’ emphasis is not solely on Epicurus’ discovery of these facts, but on his communication of them; focus on what Lucretius “should” be saying instead of what he is saying obscures this.

From here, I move briefly to examples of self-contradiction within Lucretius’ work that resist easy explanation, to explore the interpretative potential of taking Lucretius “at his word.” I focus on the discussion of creation in book 5, where Lucretius denies that the earth could be an animate being, before repeatedly using metaphors likening the earth to an animate being to explain features of its development.  Declining to offer “authoritative” interpretation of such self-contradiction, I instead show how a resistance to assume the orthodoxy of the DRN and a prioritization of the poet’s own words can deepen our understanding of Lucretius’ poem.

Session/Panel Title

Traditions and Innovations in Literature

Session/Paper Number

44.5

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