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Summoning Forth the Gods in Lucretius: an Idealist Interpretation of Venus and Mars

Gordon Campbell

National University of Ireland, Maynooth

In this paper I use the idealist interpretation of Epicurean theology to understand Lucretius’ ecphrasis of Venus and Mars in Book One of De rerum natura.  I conclude that we as readers ourselves summon the gods into existence, in partnership with Lucretius, and that they are a shared project, constructed from images stored in our minds, taken from the poems we have read and works of art we have seen.  The purpose of the ecphrasis is therapeutic - to give us a divine object of contemplation on which we can model our own ataraxia -  and its construction follows Epicurus’ own advice for the initiate on how the gods should be visualized.     

The main question in Epicurean theology is of whether the Epicurean gods exist as atomic entities living somewhere beyond this world, and that we receive images flowing from them into our mind’s eye (the ‘realist’ position), or whether their images are created by ourselves when we think of them, put together in our minds from locally available atomic images (the ‘idealist’ position).  It has recently been argued that Lucretius is following Epicurean ‘idealist’ practice in the passage in De rerum natura 3.18-25 where he summons forth a vision of the peaceful abodes of the gods, borrowed directly from the Odyssey (6.42-6) (Eckerman Forthcoming).  This, it is argued, follows Epicurus’ therapeutic advice to his pupil Menoeceus (Ep. Men. 23-4) on how to imagine the gods, giving instructions on imagining their perfect, peaceful natures.  The therapeutic function of Epicurean theology is served by correctly constructing them from pre-existing images or ideas, or schemata, to serve as health-giving objects of our contemplation. 

I will take this a step further and look at how acceptance of the idealist position might affect our reading of Lucretius’ portrayal of the gods in the famous ecphrasis of the seduction of Mars by Venus in book one of De rerum natura (1.29-40).  There the two gods are described in an embrace that follows an identifiable Hellenistic erotic schema - with Venus leaning over a reclining Mars - drawn from statues, poems, and wall paintings familiar to the reader and to Lucretius’ addressee Memmius.  Just as he does with Homer’s description of the gods’ homes on Olympus, Lucretius borrows an image from the familiar iconographic landscape of his readers’ minds to enable them to build a suitably edifying and therapeutic picture of the peaceful erotic union of two, often contrary, divine forces that we may contemplate and become godlike ourselves.  We ourselves as the readers, in partnership with Lucretius, create the gods that we are to worship in the poem, picturing their lives of perfect peace and happiness in their perfect abodes.  Thus, the gods do not exist as such until Lucretius writes them into being and we summon them forth as phantasmata in our minds.  But they then become real atomic images, since all images must have an atomic structure.  So, the gods do exist, and at the same time we also create them, according to our liking, but from ready made materials stored in our minds – prolēpseis in Epicurean terms.

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The Cosmic-Text: Metapoetics and Philosophy in Latin Literature

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