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Creating an Epicurean Audience – Lucretius and his Reader

Sonja K. Borchers

Tuebingen University

This paper focuses on the relationship of the two main images used by Lucretius in order to describe his audience. On the one hand, the readers of De rerum natura are presented as sick children in the need of treatment. As patients, they are forced to put themselves entirely in the power of their teachers, completely giving up their autonomy. On the other hand, the readers are compared to a well-trained hunting dog, following up by themselves the vestigia certa of a particular argument (DRN 1, 406-407). Depending on which of these two images is interpreted as dominant, Epicurean teaching is seen as a coercive therapy, depriving readers of their autonomy (Nussbaum 1986, Mitsis 1993) or as, at least partly, enabling the reader to exercise autonomy (Clay 1983). This paper argues that these two images do not, in fact, conflict, but rather express very adequately a seeming paradox of Epicurean teaching: Epicurus himself and the subsequent members of his school viewed him as an autodidact who discovered the truth on his own initiative. At the same time, Epicurean teaching is dogmatic in character and its writings are considered canonical (Erler 2013). Imitating Epicurus, thus, required an imitation of self-education, but this autodidactic self-education had to be placed within a fixed dogmatic frame. While the dogmatic frame calls for a concept of teaching as coercive therapy, the value of self-education calls for a different idea of teaching, one that includes the possibility of contributing personal opinions, as long as they are consistent and coherent with established doctrines (Erler 2013). Only a few ideal readers will be able to follow the scent (and possibly compose new Epicurean texts), while many others may only succeed in being heeled from their illness, that is, from their fear of death. However, the communication pattern between author and audience in De rerum natura is structured in a way that encourages the wider audience to strive for more than just treatment: The implied reader is put in the privileged position of eavesdropping on a therapy session between Lucretius (the teacher / therapist) and Memmius (the student / patient). Thus, the audience is granted the opportunity to perceive themselves as Lucretius’ partners rather than as Memmius’ equals (Konstan 1993). They may even understand that Lucretius himself is – just like them – a disciple of his master Epicurus. This distance between the named addressee of the poem and the implied readers who can pride themselves on a greater scope of sophistication motivates those readers with a keen mind to hunt for new, coherent insights and become creative, yet dogmatic Epicureans. This is central for Lucretius, as the translation of Greek Epicurean teaching to the Roman world can be successful only if it continues to be carried on by new Roman Epicureans, who must be both innovative and dogmatic.

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Lucretius: Author and Audience

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