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Lucretius was Wrong!: Seneca’s De Rerum Natura

Christopher V. Trinacty

Oberlin College

Seneca knew Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura well. Quotations from DRN appear at a number of moments in Seneca’s prose works (e.g. Ep. 106.8, Ep. 110.6, de Tranq. 2.14), and certain scenes from his tragedies clearly recall Lucretius’ work (the plague of Oedipus, the second choral ode of Troades). Lucretius offers Seneca a rival exemplum of a philosopher-poet, but from a competing philosophical school. In his works, Seneca actively reinterprets the precepts that Lucretius promotes by providing different connotations to the language of Lucretius’ poetry. His most thorough, and creative, retorts to Lucretius can be found in his Naturales Quaestiones. If Lucretius’ poetry teaches Epicurean physics in order to help one live an ethically fulfilled life free from anxiety, so Seneca’s Nat. tackles physics to a similar end (cf. Graver 1999: 51). An audience who appreciates the dialogue between Seneca and Lucretius will recognize how Seneca creates an intertextual interlocutor by repeating key terms from DRN, only to deny their veracity. This ideal reader will ultimately judge the success of Seneca’s argument. This paper investigates both small-scale intertextual echoes as well as larger, book-length, responses to suggest that Seneca’s beef is not so much with the ethics of Lucretius, but with Lucretius’ larger conclusions about the divine.

In his opening preface, Seneca writes that “what is important…is to have seen the all with the mind” (quid praecipuum in rebus humanis est…animo omne vidisse, 3.pr.10). This opening salvo has been seen as the goal of the Nat. as a whole (Gunderson 2014: 68, Williams 2012: 135), but what has not been understood is how it restates Lucretius’ view of Epicurus. At DRN 1.74, Lucretius praises Epicurus as one who had “traversed the immense whole [of the universe] with his mind and spirit” (omne immensum peragravit mente animoque). For Lucretius such knowledge will lead to a victory that “raises us to heaven” (nos exaequat victoria caelo, 1.80), but Seneca trumpets the resulting self-knowledge and eradication of vice (qua maior nulla victoria est, vitia domuisse, 3.pr.10). Seneca’s Nat. draws a stronger connection between ethics and physics for the individual, which elides Lucretius’ religious attack and highlights how such understanding will aid one in day-to-day philosophical progress.

Certain topics of Seneca’s work correspond to those of Lucretius (e.g. earthquakes, lightning), but his first book offers a critique of Epicurean sense-perception (evoking the fourth book of DRN) in its investigation of celestial fires. If DRN 4 ultimately posits passionate love as yet another optical/mental illusion, so Seneca concludes Nat. 1 with the notorious story of Hostius Quadra and his multiple magnifying mirrors to illustrate (and exaggerate) the drawbacks of Epicurean tenets. Lucretius lurks behind the structure and language of this book – pointed references to Lucretian terms like simulacra and imago show how Seneca critically appraises Epicurean physics in order to comment on his view of the divine. Hostius becomes a satiric stand-in for the Epicurean who believes in Epicurean self-fulfillment via pleasure, not the ethical self-fulfillment of Seneca’s ideal reader. In the preface of this book, Seneca revisits his earlier allusion to Lucretius, now claiming that “I will know all things are petty, having measured god” (sciam omnia angusta esse mensus deum, Nat. 1.pr.17). If the universe had been immensum for Lucretius, Seneca’s own etymological play on this term shows his goal for the work as a whole, a marked shift from Lucretius’ view of the divine.

Lucretius is an important sounding-board and source for certain moments of the Nat. but Seneca is careful to limit his influence to certain physical and ethical connections. If Seneca’s true goal is to teach about the divine (cf. Inwood 2005: 157-200), then his careful repudiation of Epicurean theology is done, in part, through the pointed intertextual recollection of Lucretius’ language. Yes, the honey at the rim of Lucretius’ cup is sweet, but the bitter medicine must be spit out.

Session/Panel Title

Lucretius: Author and Audience

Session/Paper Number

71.4

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