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The Voice of Nature and its Consolatory Force in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura

Clifford A. Robinson

The University of the Sciences

Lucretius’ De rerum natura proceeds as a solo performance delivered in the voice of the poet himself. Leaving aside the indirect speech he employs to represent the plaints of sympathetic mourners in the so-called diatribe against death (3.894-930), only one other voice interrupts Lucretius’ flow: rerum naturaherself delivers two speeches near the end of book three (“Denique si vocem rerum natura repente / mittat et hoc alicui nostrum sic increpet ipsa…” 3.931-2). In writing that Nature’s voice intrudes upon his discourse “suddenly” (“repente,” 9.931), Lucretius signals to the reader a problem posed by Nature’s speeches. According to the orthodox Epicurean view and Lucretius’ own account, Nature ought not to have a voice, let alone speech and language. In this paper, I draw upon Lucretius’ Epicurean philosophical commitment, to clarify how the illusion of Nature’s speech is achieved. I argue that Lucretius lends his own voice to Nature, so that her voice appears through what the Epicureans call the προσδοξαζόμενα,or “added opinions,” with which the human imagination erroneously supplements naturally occurring phenomena (cf. 4.468). Lucretius’ use of this illusion reveals not only how the poet’s technique manipulates the Epicurean initiate through literary artifice, but also how the male poet evokes divine, female voices at crucial points of transition to secure his own authority.

Scholars have considered Lucretius’ use of prosopopeia in these two speeches as relatively unproblematic. Indeed, previous scholarship, as Reinhardt (2002) observes, has given surprisingly little attention to the two speeches of nature, which he regards as “a conspicuous climax” of the poem. He further clarifies the content of these speeches, showing how their arguments draw upon non-Epicurean sources to appeal to a novice. Stork (1970) gathered the source material from Greek consolatory texts and diatribes, upon which Reinhardt draws for his analysis. Nussbaum (1992) treats the philosophical implications of these speeches, emphasizing the paradigmatic status of the vessel figuring the human body in Nature’s first speech and the difficulty of developing consolatory arguments which presuppose the soul’s destructibility. Wallach (1976) emphasizes Lucretius’ dependence upon the Greek diatribe tradition, reading these speeches against the diatribes of Bion. What remains unexplained is why Lucretius chose to have Nature deliver these speeches, and how such a being appears as “no mere anthropomorphic figment” but rather “exists in her own right” (Kenney, 1984).  

My argument concerns the persona, the form, and the force of these two speeches at 3.933-949 and 3.954-962. While Holmes (2005) argues for the power of the daedala lingua to visualize reality through speechcraft, I show how they undercut Nature’s alleged power to participate in this activity. One solution to this problem can be found in a classic article by Clay (1998), who argues that, as the poem advances, Lucretius substituted the agency of Nature for the agency of Venus through an accretive expansion of the sense of the word natura. In this way, religio, the traditional superstition which falsely conceives of divine interest in human affairs, is overturned by stages, as Nature first appears to be a comparable divinity and then later becomes nothing more than nature, the total effect of atomic motion. Nature’s “speeches” can only be understood, then, as projections of Lucretius’ voice onto the totality of nature: just as humans mistake the voices echoing off of stones as the play and folly of Pan, satyrs, and the nymphs, so too is the voice of Nature a “res /animus ab se protinus addit,” or a construct “the mind extended outside of itself has added” (4.467-468). This projection of a voice onto Nature herself is not some legacy of old Rome’s superstitious religio. Rather, it is the invention of Lucretius himself, one he welcomes into his text as a novelty. He does this because Nature, unlike Venus, Calliope, or any other female divinity on whose authority he draws, stands halfway between the deluded superstitious view of the world and the clarity of true reason. 

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Latin Hexameter Poetry

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