Scholia Reviews ns 11 (2002) 13.

W. R. Johnson, Lucretius and the Modern World. London: Duckworth, 2000. pp. x + 163. ISBN 0-7156- 2882-8. UK£9.99.


James I. Porter,
Classical Studies, University of Michigan


This book is a useful addition to a fledgling series, itself a welcome newcomer in the growing world of critical receptions of classical antiquity by professional classicists: Classical Inter/Faces, edited by Paul Cartledge and Susanna Morton Braund. The series, proclaiming itself 'radical', 'interdisciplinary' and 'intercultural', stakes out a unique piece of turf in this burgeoning new academic field: the aim is to 'show how Classical ideas and material have helped to shape the modern world' (cover). The idea, in other words, is not to trace lines of affiliation in the conventional way of compiling idées reçues, but rather something altogether different: it is to reveal how modernity into the present has continued to define itself through appeals to the classical heritage. Classics has been 'good to think with,' as Beard and Henderson have recently shown.[[1]] Thinking through the Classics -- both in education and in letters and the arts -- has been and continues to be one of the primary ways in which the historical present has imagined itself, whether as Classical (remembered differently with each generation) or as modern, enlightened, and anti- or simply un-Classical. Johnson's study is fully in line with this program. And it renders an additional service, in that it picks up one of the more neglected threads in this history of appropriations of antiquity: namely, the materialist heritage, and specifically the fate of Epicureanism, in its translation into Latin and then into European culture in the two-plus millennia after its invention. In effect, Johnson's book sets itself the challenge of retailing the history of an idea embodied in a poem -- the thought of atomism and the ethical vision that Epicurus imprinted upon this Presocratic doctrine -- as an element of the classical tradition. The challenge is twofold. First, atomistic materialism makes up a less familiar side of the classical tradition, so much so that one is tempted to call it the underside of that tradition. Second, and relatedly, materialism and classicism consort badly with one another: each is the other's spiritual and ideological obverse, the idealism of classicism being (on the surface at least) as many universes removed in thought as one could possibly get from the vision of atoms coursing relentlessly through the void spaces of an unbounded universe.


The rebarbative spectacle of atomism contributed in no small part to its exclusion from the highest and most venerated elements of the Classics. Its being inimical to organized religion and to Platonism of all kinds assured it a place near the top on the hit list of the Church Fathers, and all that followed from being placed on this conceptual index. And so you will look nearly in vain for mentions of Lucretius in the fathers of modern classicism (from Humboldt and Goethe to Byron), or for excerpts from his poems in Latin school textbooks before 1860. Winckelmann is an important exception: his ideal of edle Einfalt und stille Größe, 'noble simplicty and quiet grandeur', is directly calqued on the Epicurean image of divinity, the supreme instance of aloof tranquility, and he works the ancient doxography on both Democritean and Epicurean atomism into his aesthetic writings -- selectively purifying them of every trace of materialism in the process. Lucretian scholarship by classicists -- not to say Classicists -- took a back seat to scholarship on Homer, Sophocles, and Vergil, who were lavished with editions and commentaries; as a consequence Lucretius lagged far behind until relatively late in the day. (Lachmann's edition appeared in 1850, and was followed by Munro's in England a decade later; Munro's translation and commentary appeared in 1864.)[[2]] But even so the prejudice lingered. True, Wilamowitz would plead for a certain realism towards the study of the classics, scorning (near the turn of the century) the illusions of classicism, which behaved 'as though antiquity had had a single spirit that was shared by all those writers who were read in the schools (Homer, say, and Ovid, or else Plato and Demosthenes) and even by those who weren't selected for the young lads. But in that case, the materialism of Democritus, the critical skepticism of Carneades, and all the exact sciences must admittedly seem "unancient" (unantik -- if not unclassical [JP])'.[[3]] But Wilamowitz was in fact merely repeating the prejudices of classicism, not reversing them; and he would never devote an article to Democritus, Epicurus (save a single review) or Lucretius. Scholarship suffered for the most part an attention-deficit disorder towards ancient atomism until well into the twentieth century. And it is really only in the past three decades that a considerable boom in this field finally took place, largely thanks to a revival of interest in Hellenistic philosophy, one of the other areas banished from classically-oriented scholarship (along with other literature under the Ptolemies), which, Hellenocentric in the extreme, had eyes at most for the likes of Heraclitus, Socrates, and Plato. Not sufficiently philosophical, poetical, or original, too early to be part of the long, allusive Vergilian tradition, a Republican oddity, Lucretius still remains an uncertain quantity, someone to be tolerated or skirted but hardly a staple of graduate curricula (at least in the United States).


Not that the atomists were completely ignored over the centuries. If anything, the history of their reception is that of a kind of return of the repressed. When they weren't pilloried by Christian theologians, they lived on in the shadow of classicism from the early modern period onward, as a kind of alternate classical tradition, nourished by new secular trends in philosophy, morals, and science, but never fully embraced and always looked at partly askance and partly with admiration (Gassendi, Dryden, Creech, Diderot, and Voltaire are the chief players here, with Polignac's poem 'Anti- Lucretius' [1747] representing the then still- powerful counter-force of churchly thinking). Johnson breezes through these centuries in some twenty pages, entertainingly and informed, bee-lining to the conclusion that Lucretius emerged, in the nineteenth century, 'shaved, perfumed and powdered, . . . as the harbinger of a genteel and culturally viable, culturally nurturing deism' (p. 101).


This is all eye-opening material. Even more so is the chapter that follows on the Victorian reception of Lucretius. Here, Johnson is at his best, examining a poet writing about a poet: Tennyson, whose blustery Victorian romanticism struggles to make sense of the powerful attractions and utter inanity of the figure of Lucretius, whose portrait by Jerome continued to dominate (and plague) his Nachleben -- that of the mad, love-stricken, poisoned, contorted and uncertain follower of Epicurus, who penned his poem in fits of either sanity or madness, depending on a given reader's point of view (usually it was the latter), and who was tortured by his own poetic creation and the truths it revealed:


'A void was made in Nature; all her bonds Crack'd; and I saw the flaring atom-streams And torrents of her myriad universe, Ruining along the illimitable inane, Fly on and crash together again, and make Another and another frame of things For ever: that was mine, my dream, I knew it - Of and belonging to me. . . ' ('Lucretius' 40-47)


Dream, and nightmare. This is the famous 'Antilucrèce chez Lucrèce' thesis of Patin, translated now into verse.[[4]] Dazed and confused before his vision ('I have forgotten what I meant: my mind/ Stumbles, and all my faculties are lamed'), Tennyson's Lucretius acts out the historical resistance to atomism in his person, within his mind. The poem carries on:

'But now it seems some unseen monster lays His vast and filthy hands upon my will, Wrenching it backward into his; and spoils My bliss in being.' ('Lucretius' 226-29)


Johnson's commentary here is exquisite: '"Bliss in being" is a wonderful rendering of Lucretian voluptas. But it is the "unseen monster" . . . , not the speaker's nor Lucretius' atomistic truth or his gospel of pleasure, that (we now see) control[s] this poem. There is a sort of Gothic stench to this monster and the verses that incarnate him. But his evil is purer than that. He is not only the speaker's dark, secret self, spawn of "the brute brain within the man's" (he is Darwin's child, born 1859), he is also "an absence of being", he is "unbeing" that devours being' (pp. 118f.). The moral of Johnson's book is crystalized in this moment of criticism: the philosopher-poet Lucretius was hijacked over the centuries for various causes, and so too was variously misunderstood: either his poem was belittled (when it was not ignored) as a poem in favor of its potted contents, which were trotted out in the name of modern positivism, materialism, scientism, and the enlightened values and ideology of progress these stood for; or else Lucretius' voluptuary hedonism, the moral center of his philosophy, was rejected on ethical and on lingering religious (Christian) grounds. And yet, Lucretius continued to fascinate even the most obstinate of his detractors. His cataclysmic visions, sublimities, and seductive erotics never ceased to draw an attentive opposition. Tennyson is merely the most eloquent poet in this tradition as sketched out in Johnson's study. The afterlife of Lucretius, into the early twentieth century -- 'Our Lucretius' (as the title to the second part of the book reads) is nothing short of remarkable.


Most readers will probably be reading about the Lucretian tradition for the first time here. Those who know about it already will nonetheless be astonished to find how much energy went into molding successive visions of modernity around the figure of this Roman poet. But Johnson's book is more than a story that readers will either come to for the first time or come away from enriched with new perspectives. It purveys a thesis about the way the modern world has misunderstood Lucretius, and how one should understand him aright. The first half of the book, accordingly, is a self-contained summary and reading of Lucretius' poem and his philosophy. Teachers could do far worse than assign these eighty witty and lively pages from Part I to undergraduates and graduates as a general introduction to Lucretius, and they will find much to discuss and to debate here. A highlight for me is the treatment of Memmius, the most insightful study of Lucretius' dedicatee and internal audience I've ever seen. Johnson playfully reconstructs the relationship between Lucretius and his patron and internal reader Memmius as a dialogue, and in this way he artfully narrates a drama of resistant reading ('Early in Book 5, the poet . . . notices that Memmius seems unconvinced. . . . The poet tries a pinch of irony . . . .', p. 6). But Memmius is further shown to be a mere foil for constructing an ideal reader: a fiction of resistance, he is something the poem overcomes through its own powerful means, as Memmius fades off into irrelevance and the poet moves on, unobstructedly, to the heart of his own teaching. Students of didactic poetry would do well to study these pages.


The other centerpiece of the first part of the book, and indeed of the book as a whole, is the reading of Epicurean pleasure it argues for (what Johnson calls in a chapter title 'the gospel of pleasure'). Johnson's view here is a bit uneven, and perhaps it would have benefited from closer argumentation. The gist of the view is that pleasure (voluptas), which is to say the serene enjoyment of life's simplest pleasures, can be somehow derived from the physical spectacle of atomism; that a basic satisfaction with the world as it appears to us can be had and enjoyed once our illusions have been purged by a glimpse of the world's fundamental contingency and its lack of purpose (p. 24). 'The truth of Epicureanism cannot save us -- nothing can - - from the truth of our mortality . . . But if we can learn to ponder that truth, in its most dreadful aspect ( . . . just 'hostile' atoms tearing us to pieces), then we may have really heard what Epicurus and his Roman poet were really saying to us' (p. 76).

Why aren't these two truths, about pleasure and about death, one and the same truth? one might wish to ask. Johnson is right to try to connect up these two aspects of Epicurean philosophy. Most scholars simply acknowledge them, only to default on trying to put them into a coherent relationship. It is far from clear how the derivation from nothing to a minimal something can be made to work, however, and Johnson's claim amounts to an assertion rather than an argument. Johnson is keen to reduce Lucretius' view of pleasure to a form of hedonism and simple pleasures ('food, music, sunlight, but above all friendship,' p. 67). In just what way are these pleasures simple? This worry aside, it is unlikely that hedonism of this variety is the right solution to the problem: surely an Epicurean can experience tranquility in the absence of food, music, sunlight, and even friendship. If he cannot, what good is the promise of the doctrine? Johnson's reduction of pleasures may not be radical enough. I suspect that one has to take the reduction down to a more basic level. Only in this way can one make the connection back to atomistic physics, which after all is what provides the framework for pleasure and its theory. Starting with the statement that pleasure is taken in 'what is ready to hand' (quod adest praesto, 5.1412), we can extend the thought further and say that nothing is sweeter than life itself when it is experienced as an immediate object of the senses. That is the only value there is. But what is involved in this kind of experience? Ataraxy is the pleasurable mental grasp of a natural bodily pleasure; it is the recognition, and experience, of the natural (simplest and most rudimentary) preconditions of pleasure just when pleasures obtain, and it may also be the stable prolongation of this (cognitive) feeling, circumstances permitting, which is to say minus the desire for this prolongation. Consequently, it may just turn out that all pleasures are qualitatively identical and as such are stable ('static'), ataraxic pleasures (they tell us what is most pleasurable in pleasure itself, viz., what is qualitatively essential about pleasure); and, or alternatively, that they all derive from the root pleasure of vivacity (experience) itself. From here a link to Epicurean epistemology is conceivable. In canonic terms, pleasures (so described) naturally and essentially conform to the underlying prolepsis of pleasure; and it is in this sense that they provide us with a criterion of truth and reality. If this is right, then the central notion of self-evidence, or E)NA/RGEIA, and Epicurus' theory of mental focusing, E)PIBOLH/ TH=S DIANOI/AS (the production of clear mental apprehensions), may well be a source of pleasure in and of themselves. And that may be all the pleasure there is and all the pleasure we need in order to be happy on the Epicurean view.[[5]]


Whether or not this is one-hundred percent correct, an approach along lines such as these has the virtue of drawing upon the resources of atomism as a physical basis for an ethical theory. Unless we accept both facets of this ancient philosophical tradition we will end up repeating the mistakes of generations of readers who saw only an irreparable division in the mind of one of Rome's greatest poets ever. Divisions may be inevitable, but they will be of a different order, such as a reluctance on Lucretius' part to accept the truths of atomism, or perhaps his responding to some deeper incoherence in the theory which we would still need to lay bare. Only by reconciling the physical teachings with their ethical counterparts can we hope to reconcile that other, less difficult puzzle, that of a philosopher of atomism who is also a poet of mankind and the universe. And the answer to this last puzzle, in Johnson's words, 'cannot be ours if we cannot learn how to listen to the DRN and make it our own with every atom of our bodies' (p. 5). A tall order indeed, especially if it means that if you want to understand Lucretius' poem you have to become an Epicurean.


Which brings us to the final difficulty that is involved in any act of reception. Here we come face to face with the core concept of this book and of the series to which it belongs: how do we make something our own while also listening to it in its own language? Can we hope to arrive at a solution by treating 'The Poem Itself' (the title to Part I) as something distinct from 'Our Lucretius' (Part II)? Traditions of reception are dynamic processes that flow in two directions at once, both forward and backward. We are still a long way off from a satisfactory theory that might describe, let alone explain, how this process works, although we know that it somehow does work, and that we, and the classics, wouldn't be here if it didn't.




[[1]] M. Beard and J. Henderson, Classics: A Very Short Introduction (Cambridge 1995); for the phrase, see p. 106.


[[2]] The most informative accounts of Lucretius in the nineteenth century are Frank M. Turner, 'Lucretius among the Victorians' in Victorian Studies 16 (1972-1973) and Norman Vance, The Victorians and Ancient Rome (Oxford 1997), ch. 4, both filling in the inexplicable gap in George Depue Hadzsits' Lucretius and his Influence (London 1935), who appears as 'Walter Hadzsits' in Johnson's bibliography.


[[3]] Ulrich von Wilamowitz, 'Philologie und Schulreform,' in id., Reden und Vorträge (Berlin 1925-1926[4]) 2,114.


[[4]] Henri Patin, 'Du poëme de la nature. L'Antilucrèce chez Lucrèce,' in id., Études sur la poésie latine (Paris 1868). Patin's article reprints a lecture from 1859; Tennyson's poem appeared in 1868.


[[5]] I develop this line of argument in 'Love of Life: Lucretius to Freud,' forthcoming in Shadi Bartsch and Thomas Bartscherer (edd.), Erotikon: Essays on Eros, Ancient and Modern, and in 'Epicurean Attachments' (forthcoming).