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Lucretius Drn Book 1 Notes

Classics Notes > Latin Literature of the 1st Century AD Notes

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Discuss the tension between the proem and the rest of Lucretius 1. Lucretius, in his De Rerum Natura (DRN), follows the work of the Greek philosopher Epicurus and this means that he believes that the gods exist but that they never interfere in human affairs. However in the proem to book one he invokes Venus, without whom, he says, nothing is conceived, and asks her for assistance in writing beautiful verses for his friend Memmius. These two things seem to contradict each other when one first reads the poem with a degree of understanding of the principles of Epicureanism and more broadly what is to follow in the rest of the poem. There are a number of possible explanations; Lucretius may be using Venus as an allegory, he also may be using her for literary effect ("the honeyed cup" of the poem as he himself declares later) or he may be emulating the literary style, but importantly not the philosophy, of the Greek Empedocles. To recognise the apparent contradiction that the proem and its invocation to Venus brings it is useful to briefly examine the Epicurean ideas that Lucretius is following and the nature of the philosophy that follows in the rest of the book. Epicurus believed in atomic materialism which meant he thought that everything in the universe was not created by the gods, as traditional Greek religious views would have it (the story of the five races of men in Hesiod's Works and Days is a good example), but rather that everything was made up from tiny particles. This led him to attack the gods and the superstition around them which forced people to live in fear of them and the terrible afterlife associated with them which was often portrayed in Greek literature (for example the depressing scenes of the Odyssean underworld). He thought that the best way to acquire happiness was to achieve a freedom from fears (ataraxia) and bodily pain through an understanding of how the world really works rather than believing in a reality centred on appeasing gods who did not, in the truth as he saw it, care at all about human affairs. These views are certainly to be found in the DRN of Lucretius and the main argument of the first book (greatly elaborated) corresponds to sections thirty eight to forty two of Epicurus' letter to Herodotus. The very first line is a clue as to his adherence to Epicurean ideals because he includes the word "voluptas" which is surely a reference to the seeking of pleasures in life which Epicurus promotes. Later he portrays Epicurus as somewhat of a heroic figure at the start of book one saying that in a time when people felt the weight of religion and with heaven scowling down upon him (presumably from the point of view of everyone else because of course he would have believed that the gods did not care) one Greek man (Epicurus) took no notice of thunder and lightning and used intelligence to expose the secrets of nature and explain the way the world worked. He goes on to describe the oppressive nature of religion and how dangerous it can be if the gods are used as an explanation for every natural phenomenon in the world. The example he uses to illustrate his point is that of Iphigenia who was sacrificed by her father Agamemnon at Aulis so that the fleet would be granted fair winds to Troy; Lucretius is clearly struck by the horrible nature of this act which, if traditional Greek religious views were followed, would have some

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