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Lucretius – Can he be trusted?

The other day I asked a Classicist friend, Dr Armand D’Angour, what benefits if any Classics had brought to his life. He replied, ‘many,’ and particularly drew attention to Epicureanism. This caught my attention because I had just heard an edition of the Radio 4 programme In our Time, on Epicureanism. Although I have never studied Epicureanism directly, exposure to Lucretius gave me a fairly clear idea of its elements. Armand’s comment also recalled to me a term of commendation I heard Carlotta Dionisotti apply to Lucretius: she described his poem as pabulum (I am reminded of Paul Johnson, in the Spectator, calling Armand’s own book on innovation, The Greeks and the New, ‘nourishing’).

This conversation prompted me to get a copy of Lucretius De Rerum Natura from one of the boxes where the remnants of my library are stored. I took out the Bailey edition, the Monro edition, and the Oxford Classical Text. I was required to read this book as an undergraduate, and I recall reading the Latin text three or four times, and Monro’s commentary once, so it seemed time to look at Bailey.

Incidentally, some modern university teachers may regard the Latin as too difficult for undergraduates, but in fact that is a misleading first impression: if they were to persist a little with Lucretius they would notice that the Latin is not inherently difficult when one gets used to not being thrown by some of Lucretius’ slightly mad or at least odd turns of phrase. Lucretius perhaps struggles to adapt philosophical thoughts to the poverty of the Latin language (to which he refers himself), just as Germans once tried to write science in a German language free of foreign words (a policy they have long since abandoned in favour of writing in English, or at least, of using English words and turns of phrase in their German).

Perusing Bailey, I found a passage which expresses well my scepticism that treaties on ancient philosophy can assist us to live better. It is on p.11 of the first volume of C. BAILEY Titi Lucreti Cari De Rerum Natura Libri Sex (Oxford, 1947). Bailey is discussing the poet’s alleged madness (which is said, in the meagre evidence about his life, to have led to suicide):

The gospel of Epicureanism, of which Lucretius was the preacher, is a gospel of happiness in a life freed from the terrors of religion by a materialist philosophy. But amid Lucretius’ professional happiness from time to time surgit amari aliquid [something of bitterness arose]; ‘the voice’, as Guissani puts it, ‘of his own intimate soul, troubled and tormented by the violence of its feeling, by the violence of its own enthusiasm for the serentiy of the truth’. In this sense it is not difficult to imagine Lucretius suffering from a recurrent depression, which even had its influence on the ‘lucid intervals’ in which his work was done.

When someone invites his readers, (or, like the unfortunate James Arthur Ray, his high-paying students) to a belief and a practice which, it is promised, will make life so much better, and his own life or state of mind or ‘outcomes’ are a poor advertisement, does that matter? If the appeal of Epicureanism, for example, is to stimulate and ‘nourish’ your own exploration, which will lead you to a better life, then it may not matter. Setting aside that the testimonies for Lucretius’ madness and suicide are flimsy, it is easy to answer doubts about trusting the philosopher, like the psychotherapist, who is himself screwed up, with the rebuttal, “but how much more unhappy would he be without his philosophical or therapeutic system for making life more bearable?”. It is a question we can never answer. As soon as one decides, for some more or less inscrutable reason, to invest time, energy, and perhaps money in system promising a better life without any credible evidence base whatsoever, well it is a lottery.

With that in mind, I think I will while away a little more time on Lucretius. There are worse occupations. I am not sure how much time I will spend on Bailey. He displays an impressive industry for which few modern academic Classicists find time. But I will give Bailey too a chance, not least for the penetration of his subject’s apparent self-deception in the phrase ‘professional happiness.’

By way of postscript I will mention I was taught Lucretius by the late Dr. David Vessey, whose attitude was that we could work out linguistic and literary points for ourselves, so he should in teaching us draw our attention to philosophical issues which we risked missing. These were not required for the exam (does any modern teacher have the courage to focus specifically and deliberately on what will not be in the exam? I hope so). When I pointed out to him how distracting from reading Lucretius, reading Bailey could be, he suggested that one should read commentaries as self-standing works, and not at the same time as reading the text itself. So trying out this suggestion is part of my experiment. I am not sure it will work: I fear not that Bailey will distract me from Lucretius, but that Lucretius will distract me from Bailey.

Here is to a happier life of Epicureanism!

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