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Empedocles in the Crossfire: Two Critical Subtexts in De Rerum Natura 1.716-733

Anna D. Conser

Columbia University

The pre-socratic Empedocles is widely acknowledged as an important model for Lucretius’ philosophical poetry, but his description of this predecessor (DRN 1.716-733) has played little role in the scholarship on form and content.  This paper bridges that gap by identifying two layers of didactic persona in this passage, showing how a philosopher’s stern lesson is intertwined with a poet’s playful commentary on literary style.  The revelation of a neoteric voice behind this apparently earnest passage undermines the prevailing emphasis on Lucretius as a philosopher who merely exploits poetic form.

As a means of reviewing the most relevant scholarship on Lucretius’ poetic persona, I begin my argument with a brief discussion of the ‘Apology’ at the end of DRN 1 (1.921-942) in two sections: (i) lines 1.921-934 adopt the self-referential persona typical of Latin didactic (Volk 9-11) and justify the poet’s choice of an esoteric subject in overtly Callimachean terms (Donohue 40-2); (ii) lines 1.935-950 present the famous simile of the ‘honeyed cup,’ in which the didactic teacher is cast as a doctor delivering a bitter but medicinal philosophy.  Many scholars address these two sections separately and focus on the second as evidence for the “subordination of poetry to philosophy” (Gale 141), and for viewing Lucretius as “a committed adherent to Epicureanism” (Warren 19) who aims with “evangelistic fervour . . . to help men and attain happiness” (Kenney 2).  Reading the passages together, I suggest instead that Lucretius is establishing two distinct layers of didactic persona: the aspiring poet and the stern teacher.

These two concurrent voices create playful layers of meaning in DRN, which are evidenced in Lucretius’ discussion of Empedocles.  My argument is best illustrated with one detailed example.  After rejecting Empedocles’ theory of the four elements, Lucretius digresses to describe his native Sicily (lines 1.716-725).  Scholarship consistently interprets this digression as laudatory, going so far as to call it a “paean of praise” (Sedley 61-2) that “produces an impression of grandeur, which supports the encomiastic tone” (Montarese 223; cf. Garani 2-4, Tatum 185, MacKay 210).  However, closer analysis reveals two layers of critical subtext: one each from teacher and poet.

Indirectly, Lucretius suggests Sicily is the etiological embodiment of Empedocles’ poem.  First, the theory of the four elements finds a metaphor in the intermingling of natural forces: sea water surrounds and sprinkles the earth (718-21); earth in turn gushes with flames (722-24), and the fire is carried into the upper airs (725).  The combination of this scientific analogy with pointed references to mythic Sicily (722: hic est vasta Charybdis et hic Aetnaea minantur) suggests Empedocles’ poem is a venue for wonders rather than realities.  This is the scoffing criticism of the teacher-persona.

In these same lines, a series of playful double meanings mock an unrefined literary style.  Sicily’s sea is described as fluitans (‘flowing’ or ‘being doubtful’) with magnis anfractibus (‘huge breakers’ or ‘long digressions’).  The literary subtext is more explicit in the metaphors applied to Aetna (1.722-725): the volcano’s murmura threaten that it is gathering strength, so that it may vomat flames that burst from its jaws (faucibus eruptos).  These puns, at once clever and biting, display a flair for invective reminiscent of Catullus.  While the “otiose” language (Bailey ad loc.) imitates the over-the-top style it criticizes, the intricate layers of subtext affirm the poet-persona’s professed Callimachean taste.

The paper presents additional examples of layered meaning taken from the remaining discussion of Empedocles (1.726-733), as well as points of comparison from Ennius (1.117-126) and Heraclitus (1.638-44).  In my final analysis, I reflect on how Lucretius’ two didactic voices define literary success in these passages.  My evidence shows that “wonder” plays a key role for both: as an essential element in poetic form and as a potential danger to philosophical content (cf. Asmis).

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Lucretius: Author and Audience

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