De Rerum Natura's Self-detracting Ambiguities

Undoubtedly, the intention underlying Lucretius’s creation of De Rerum Natura, i.e. to foster the intellectual liberation of man, was a valiant one. The logicality he employed to this end, however, was possibly spurious. As Cyril Bailey explained in his article “The Mind of Lucretius” in explaining Lucretius’s sense of purpose, while using the poet’s own words for elucidation,

“He will gather a glorious coronal for his head “first because” – and these are the important words- “first because I teach about great things and hasten to free the mind from the close bondage of religion, then because on a dark theme I trace verses so full of light, touching all with the Muses’ charm.” Here we have his own view of himself; he is primarily the teacher and profit of the emancipation of man’s spirit, and his verse, for all his love of the Muses, is but an ornament to attract” (Bailey 279).

It is possible that Lucretius’s eagerness to absolve his fellow man of his mortal fears as well as to relieve himself of his own metaphysical uneasiness, overcame his scientific inclination toward precision and rejection of the occult as an ersatz means of explaining ultimately unknowable phenomena. Surely, the mark of a logically flawless argument is watertight unity within which all constituents are in unquestionable concordance. De Rerum Natura, however, especially those passages dealing with death and its consequences, exhibits incongruities and even classical scholars have commented on certain peculiarities that seem to suggest either ambivalence or oversight on the author’s part.

Concrete biographical details pertaining to Lucretius’s state of mind and personal thoughts during the time of the writing, which might have shed light on such uncertainties, are unfortunately extinct. Conte comments:

“In all likelihood [the notion of] the madness of Lucretius ought to be rejected…The accusation must have first been made in a Christian setting in the fourth century in order to discredit Lucretius’s polemic against religion. Still, even today some critics attach importance to the accusation in order to support the improbable notion that Lucretius, as a pathological depressive, was a man without hope…”

which nevertheless supports the aforementioned supposition that some overpowering personal despondency could have forced a downtrodden Lucretius into stating in a convincing manner comforting but specious cosmic assertions to assuage his own crippling doubt. Lucretius himself makes an intriguing remark in opening his poem, one whose absolute meaning, devoid of personal context, is nearly impossible to tell: “since neither I, in our country’s time of trouble, can bring a mind untroubled to my task…” (Lucretius 41 ff).

Indeed, it is not so outrageous a conjecture to assume a hero so benevolent as to desire to free his fellows of fear, in himself standing on the precipice of human knowledge and peering into the abyss to report its composition, would find the truths of the gently indifferent universe so terrifying as to drive him to fabricate a pleasant tale for those depending on him for explanation. It is the same kindliness and concern which urges an adult to tell a frightened child a lulling though totally false fairytale.

Some of Lucretius’s breakdown of death and its effect on consciousness and the soul, though certainly not totally original, seems so consolatory as to be a willful aggrandizement, and the logically rough patches therein further its fantasticality. In Book 3, Lucretius assures us that death nothing to us because the mind itself is mortal and therefore feeling itself, and with it the potential for pain, both contained within the mind, die when we die. Even if the body and spirit were separated, even if the spirit were to persist beyond its fleshy vessel, we would still be free from pain since corporeality is the temporary fusion of mind and spirit and the dissolution of this bond would free the soul from nerves. Even if our matter were by chaos collected and rebuilt by some mathematical impossibility into our former selves, we would be free of mortal grief because our memories of our former selves, being nothing more than arrangements of atoms which our brains once retained, would have also scattered into oblivion during our atomically explosive deaths. But since Lucretius allows, albeit somewhat obligingly, for the possibility of the persistence of the spirit beyond the body, a precursor for an afterlife or consciousness’s survival of death, he consequently leaves open the possibility that autobiographical memories, contained in the spirit, which he implies would cause us pain by allowing us to lament our deaths post mortem, could persist to our detriment.

Additionally, in summarizing the poem, Conte synopsizes book 3’s spiritual ruminations by stating of Lucretius’s conceptualization of the soul “It therefore dies along with the body, and there is no expectation of heavenly reward or punishment” (Conte 159).

Though Lucretius achieved his purpose of assuaging fears of death or supernal retribution by asserting that the world was not created by gods and that gods should not be feared in Book 2, this encouraging sentiment seems incongruous with his conventional invocation of a muse, in his case Venus, in the very beginning of the poem. He describes, in language so laudatory as to be humble, a verbal oblation to a superior power, how all aspects of nature and all the life forms it cradles are at the very whim of Venus’s seemingly boundless power. “Since you and only you are nature’s guide and nothing to the glorious shores of light rises without you, nor grows sweet and lovely, you I desire as partner in my verses” (Lucretius 20-23). In the next breath Lucretius affirms that the seeds of war fall from Mars’s hand.

While an invocation and laudatory deference to the gods was indubitably a deeply rooted custom in Roman poetry when Lucretius was writing, his ascription of such authoritative acts to intelligent deities undermines his intent to free men from fear of the gods. In fact, his praise seems so extensive as to suggest that Lucretius in some part believed the myths he was thereby affirming. If he had truly such an obsessively pure devotion to the palliation of mortal concerns through clinical reasoning and non-occultist logic (and his fervid proclamations in book three are indisputable evidence of such a purpose: “When human life lay foul for all to see upon the earth, crushed by the burden of religion…” (62 ff)) one would suspect his sense of duty to his fearful audience would far outweigh a baser desire to appeal to a constricting traditionality of poetic form which conventionality would require. How can he possibly have hoped to reconcile his opening invocation of Venus with such verses as: “…first to take his stand against it, was a man of Greece. He was not cowed by fables of the gods or thunderbolts or heaven’s threatening roar…” (67 ff.)
and “Wherefore religion in its turn is cast beneath the feet of men and trampled down, and us his victor has made peers of heaven” (78 ff)?

Even supposing that there is a reconcilable separation of method and meaning between the invocation of omnipotent gods at the beginning of the poem as a mere and ineluctable bow to poetic convention and these later declamations against religion’s falsehood as the substance of the poem that is truly indicative of Lucretius’s ontological opinions, the disparity arising from his establishment of mutually exclusive positions with equal ardor in the same poem would be enough to weaken even a contemporary of Lucretius’s certainty in both the poet’s stance on the issue and his credibility. It is this unobvious but persistent ambiguity which so weakens a work that sets out to, by stacking logical infallibility upon logical infallibility, state absolute and comforting cosmic truth. The success of such an endeavor, i.e. it’s believability, is wholly dependent upon the creator’s perceived precision of method, certainty and, to a lesser extent, self-assuredness in deriving and stacking his deductions. If even the slightest self-doubt is evident or merely felt obscurely, the entire work is called into question, for a bold monument is only as strong as its encompassed structural elements, and any flaws in one piece caused by its craftsman’s infirmity will consequently weaken the entire structure.

Modern scholars’ inability to come to consensus on the reasons for these ambiguities likely stem from the confusion surrounding the poet’s death; both its circumstances and precise year. Knowledge of these would assist us in this inquiry by allowing us to establish whether or not Lucretius was mentally distressed at the time of his death and whether or not he had had ample time to look over his work before its eventual publication. If he was either hurried by ailing health or less than sane, then we might suppose the failure of some of the poem’s aspects to mesh perfectly a result of its distracted author’s inability to devote his full care to its completion. If we knew Lucretius to be both fully sane and hale when finishing the poem, we might with more confidence assume these ambiguities to be the result of unresolved questions within his own mind. However, it seems clear that some turbulence, personal or circumstantial, was so troubling as to mar the final product of De Rerum Natura. Conte states “It has already been said that the De Rerum Natura probably did not receive the final revision from the author. This is shown by some repetitions of verses and certain inconsistencies.” Page 159. Though he does not point to specific verses that conflict with each other or espouse mutually exclusive doctrines, there is evidence enough in a Latin scholar’s mention of the existence of inconsistencies in a work to suggest that its author was either subconsciously or consciously in conflict or simply did not have time to polish all of the elements of his poem into harmony. For whatever reason, Lucretius’s emancipatory missive is subtly discordant, and, for a work whose success is derived solely from its power to convince, such internal disunity is extremely detractive.

Works Cited

Gian Biagio Conte. Latin Literature: A History. Translated by Joseph B. Solodow. Revised by Don Fowler and Glenn W. Most. The Johns Hopkins University Press Baltimore and London, 1994.

Cyril Bailey. The Mind of Lucretius. The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 61, No. 3. (1940), pp. 278-291.