Saturday, November 18, 2017

Reading classics of Antiquity XI: Lucretius: De rerum natura

Lucretius: De rerum natura. In Latin, Copied by Girolamo di Matteo de Tauris for Sixtus IV, Italy, 1483 - Lucretius, De rerum natura // This elegant manuscript of Lucretius's philosophical poem, copied by an Augustinian friar for a pope, is an example of the interest in ancient accounts of nature taken by the Renaissance curia. The work, written in the first century B.C., contains one of the principal accounts of ancient atomism. The poem was little known in the Middle Ages and its author dismissed as an atheist and lunatic, but after the discovery of an early manuscript in 1417 by the humanist and papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini, it circulated widely in Italy. This is one of numerous copies made at that time. The coat of arms of Sixtus IV appears on this page. Vat. lat. 1569 fol. 1 recto medbio04 NAN.13. Wikipedia. Click to enlarge.

Lucretius: De rerum natura
On the Nature of Things. Written in [domicile unknown], the Roman Republic, 55 BC, in Latin, in dactylic hexameter, Golden Latin. Originally published on papyrus in the scroll format (in six tomes / volumines). Unfinished.
    Survival status: almost complete.
    Read in Finnish:
T. Lucretius Carus: Maailmankaikkeudesta
Finnish translation (in hexameter), introduction and glossary by Paavo Numminen. Series: Antiikin klassikot. 449 p. Porvoo / Helsinki: WSOY, 1965.

Hardly anything is known about Lucretius who introduced Epicurean philosophy to Rome. He is supposed to have lived in 15–55 BC in the Roman Republic where his grand philosophical poem De rerum natura was left unfinished.

The reigning philosophical currents in Rome were Epicureanism and Stoicism, seen as diametrically opposed. It is interesting to discover, reading Seneca, the first prominent representative of Roman Stoicism, that he has only praise for Epicurus and Lucretius. What was generally called Epicureanism was a vulgar form close to hedonism.

None of the works of the classics of Greek materialism survive. Leucippus, Democritus and Epicurus we only know from comments of others and a few scattered fragments. De rerum natura is priceless not only in itself but also as a condensation of this distinguished tradition of materialism. But Lucretius is not a strict materialist, having been influenced by the cosmologies of Empedocles, Xenophanes and Parmenides, although he has chapters denouncing Heraclitus, Empedocles and Anaxagoras.

Lucretius was following the model of his predecessors both in the vision of his grand cosmology and in his choice of expressing himself in hexameter: De rerum natura is epic philosophical poetry, a magnum opus that served as a model for Virgil. Philosophy and poetry form an inseparable whole. There are chains of free associations. Suspension of thought is a characteristic device. This was the age when Golden Latin was developed as a language of poetry.

De rerum natura is also a textbook and an encyclopedia. It starts with a hymn to Venus, the genesis, the mother of Aeneas. (Later there is a similar praise to the great mother Cybele). Lucretius attacks religion without being an atheist. His praise to the Gods is a poetic way of celebrating forces of life. The divine message of beauty is of the essence: the foundation is materialistic but the view of life is a celebration of the sacred.

Of the six books the books I–II are devoted to atomism and the eternity. Books III–IV focus on spirituality: animus (spirit) and anima (soul). Books V–VI discuss the university, the earth, and cosmic circumstances such as magnetism.

In Book IV Lucretius discusses the senses, the vision, based on a theory of atom-thin (143–173) and lightning-fast (143–173) membranes, simulacra that move between the objects and the eye. The membranes have also been translated using the term "fine films". There is a notion of a cinematographic stream (794–801). Dream is a limbo between being awake and death (907–961). At the end of the chapter Lucretius writes about the awesomeness of passion, the traps of Venus, and the ideal position for fertility (a tergo). In scientific terms, this chapter is a lot of nonsense, but in poetic terms, there is a dream vision of the cinema. Lucretius is also one of the pioneers of the concept of simulacrum.

In Book V Lucretius expresses thoughts that include early ideas of natural selection, archaelogical stages of human evolution, the development of society, and cosmology.

As a poet Lucretius immediately influenced Virgil, Horace, and Ovid, and as a writer also Cornelius Nepos (and even Seneca). When Lucretius was rediscovered during the Renaissance, Botticelli painted Primavera inspired by him. Ben Jonson, Thomas Jefferson, Montaigne and Goethe studied Lucretius, as did Saint-Exupéry and Santayana, and in Sweden, Levertin, and in Finland, Koskenniemi.

This book of the so-called materialist Lucretius is a wild flight of fancy with affinities with psychedelia. Lucretius was a visionary poet, and some of his visions are relevant for atom physics.

I read Lucretius in Finnish hexameter with excellent and thorough introductions to each book by the translator Paavo Numminen.

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