The Early Modern Lucretius

May 24, 2012

Lucretius conference poster
The rediscovery of the De rerum natura by Poggio Bracciolini, vividly recounted in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, caused intense excitement throughout Europe as a previously little-know classic was reborn. The poem’s militantly secular accounts of the origins of the world, the nature of political society, the ends of life and the nature of the soul were quite outside the framework of traditional belief; in some respects, as in its consideration of the boundaries between the human and the animal, the poem can seem startlingly ‘modern’, and not very ‘early’. According to some scholars, indeed, such ‘atheistical’ opinions were effectively unthinkable. Given that the poem was indeed widely read – though for a long time much less widely translated – do we need to return to a more traditional idea of Renaissance free thinking, or should we look for different ways in which Renaissance readers may have approached the poem – as poetry rather than philosophy, as a curiosity of exploded or implausible ideas? The poem’s reception raises central questions about the intellectual horizons of the period, the history of reading, and the relations between literature and philosophy. Despite a recent revival of interest, many questions remain to be explored. Within the larger field of Epicureanism, the De rerum natura has often been treated as a mere supplement, quarried for ideas lacking in surviving writings of Epicurus, while the distinctive contribution of the poetic medium, and the work of early modern commentators, have been downplayed. If poetry sits a little uncomfortably with intellectual history, literary historians have been slow to understand why leading early modern scholars may have considered Lucretius a greater poet than Virgil, and have been uneasy with the mixed mode of didactic poetry. the number of women readers and translators is striking – could there have been some parallel between  the marginality of their own position and of Epicurean ideas?

The CEMS conference on ‘The Early Modern Lucretius’ (Oxford, 16-17 May, 2012) explored these questions with contributions from scholars of English, French and Italian literature, classics, history and philosophy. Stephen Greenblatt’s plenary lecture, ‘Lucretius and the Survival of Intolerable Ideas’, developing the theme of The Swerve, offered a history of religious intolerance and the challenge presented by the De rerum natura, not just in single ideas but as a coherent system of non-theistic thought. The de facto toleration of Lucretius’ intolerable ideas in the early modern period, in Greenblatt’s eyes, was the product of particular reading and writing strategies, including commonplacing and marginal annotations; it occurred through scholarly tendencies to ‘contain and sustain’ ancient texts rather than bringing them back to life; and it was assisted by critics’ focus on the text’s poetic qualities. Taken together, these strategies enabled the text to embody a certain aesthetic latency – a combination of disavowal, reassurance and silence about the  text’s ideas allowed it to percolate otherwise unacceptable arenas.

The remainder of the first day consisted of two panels and a masterclass. In the first panel Stephen Harrison used a combination of close reading and comparative study to suggest that DRN was a radical and unsettling text for Romans as well as for Renaissance writers, and indicated the strategies Lucretius used to domesticate and Romanise Epicurean ideas. Ian Maclean, in a paper on Lucretius, atheism and miracles, asked whether it were ‘possible to be Lucretian without Lucretius’, pointing out the history of the idea of de naturalibus naturalia in the writings of Albert the Great, Pomponazzi, Giambattista da Monte, and Liceti. In a broadly complementary paper, Nick Davidson provided a close study of irreligion in early modern Venice, where the Florentine anti-Lucretian edict held no force; he found little evidence that ecclesiastical trials in Venice prior to that of Bruno mentioned atomism or Lucretius, and pointed out that the report of Bruno’s trial suggests that he rather than his inquisitor raised the spectre of Lucretius. Rhodri Lewis then provided a close reading of the debate regarding atoms and agency between William Petty and Thomas Barlow, identifying the Lucretian sources for the debate, providing connections between Petty, Casaubon, Gassendi, Hobbes, and Bayle, and highlighting Petty’s anxieties in the light of Barlow’s critique that his cosmogony contradicted Scripture.

The second panel focused on Lucretius’ literary legacy. Philip Hardie provided some tantalising analogies between Lucretius’ feminisation of the Earth and anthropomorphic representations of God in early modern Biblical poetry (especially Du Bartas translated by Sylvester). Sharon Achinstein then provided a strikingly fresh reading of Milton’s Lycidas as a ‘shipwreck poem’, in which the poet draws on images of shipwreck in DRN but denies himself and his audience the ability to observe the shipwreck in true Lucretian empirical fashion. For Nick Hardy, Lucretius’ early modern English translators tended to flatten his views on the laws of nature, obscuring the differences between ‘foedus’ (treaty/compact) and ‘leges’ (top-down laws of the magistrate); contiguously, they had a tendency to rewrite Lucretius’ metaphors, reasserting the hierarchy of vehicle and tenor which (Hardy argued) tended to collapse in DRN as a metaphysical consequence of Lucretian materialism.

The material evidence for the editing and reading of Lucretius was explored in a masterclass by David Butterfield, who is undertaking the daunting task of a new edition of the De rerum natura. From the Bodleian’s rich holdings he and David Norbrook had selected nearly twenty manuscripts and printed editions, many of which offer avenues for future research. The ninth-century ‘Oblongus’ manuscript is now at Leiden despite Bentley’s efforts to keep it in England for the Bodleian, but a view of the facsimile brought out the impressive size and elegance of the manuscript that helped the fragile survival of this pagan text. The fifteenth-century ‘Tiptoft’ manuscript, for a long time the only manuscript in England of the De rerum natura, had been donated to the Bodleian early in its history by a woman Latin poet, Jane Owen, whose inscriptions recorded her love for the library. The 1570 printing of Lambinus’ great edition is interwoven with his attacks on his rival Gifanius for plagiarism; the Bodleian has fascinating evidence of his response, a densely-annotated copy of his own edition, revealing how seriously he took those criticisms. Amongst early translations on display was an impressive seventeenth-century English prose version whose authorship remains a fascinating mystery.

The second day of the conference consisted of two further thematic panels. The first provided a series of contextual readings of DRN Book 5, where Lucretius’ views on creation, human politics, and atheism appear in particularly sharp relief. Alison Brown argued that Lucretian naturalism helps to explain the evolution of Machiavelli’s ethics, including his discussions of the utilitarian origin of moral philosophy, his political realism, and his interest in the belief that religion results from the human domestication and civilisation; ethical naturalism and moral freedom thereby become analogous to brutal naturalism and ardent moralism. David Norbrook then provided a wide-ranging discussion of Lucretius and the politics of materialism in the seventeenth century; on the one hand, Hutchinson’s preface to her translation of DRN seemed to Norbrook to fit the culture of the 1670s rather than the 1650s; on the other, he emphasised that 1650s England was in an ‘Epicurean moment’, citing Gassendi’s intellectual dialogue with Hobbes on the origins of the state, which influenced the translations of Lucretius by Evelyn, Hutchinson and, later, Thomas Creech. Catherine Wilson identified a number of philosophical cruxes and problematics within Book 5 of DRN, showing that Epicurean naturalism differed from that of other Classical philosophical schools, and pointing to Lucretius’ discussion of humans’ ‘hunter-gathering past’ as a foil to Judeo-Christian histories. Like Hardy, Wilson identified the origin of justice to be a central conceptual problem within Lucretius’ text, showing how his readers have since attempted to explain it using theories of ‘gradual modification’ of the state of nature, ‘exhaustion rationality’ hypotheses, and theories predicated upon survival through ‘selection’ of community. William Poole, considering seventeenth-century responses to polygenesis, explored traces of Lucretian theories of generation in Gassendi, Stanley, Charleton, Milton , Lodwick, and la Peyrère; while intimating that theories of polygenesis were rare in the period, he also showed that writers like la Peyrère attempted (and in the eyes of contemporaries generally failed) to present theories of terrestrial generation within Augustinian theology, using the double metaphor of Earth as moral (good) and natural (bad) mother.

The final panel discussed Lucretius’ early modern French readers. In a lively and closely-argued paper Wes Williams suggested that Montaigne’s interest in Lucretius may be connected to his belief that a subject ‘well said’ is also ‘well thought’. Contrary to his own dictum that books need only be read once, Montaigne was ‘immersed, committed, entangled’ in DRN, as shown by his remarks on Lucretius, and his own marginal annotations to printed copy of his Essais and his copy of Lambinus’ edition. Richard Scholar then provided a narrative account of Montaigne’s experiences in front of the Roman censors, exploring their objections to his Epicurean understanding of ‘fortune’; for Scholar, Montaigne’s successful response was to claim the latitude to discuss pagan and Epicurean notions; his admission to the authority of the Church enabled freer discussion of contentious concepts, which Montaigne was able to frame as differences between philosophy and theology. Finally, Line Cottegnies stressed the vital position of Marolles’s French translation of DRN, presenting it as a greater influence on seventeenth-century English versions than has been recognised. In a paper which brought together many of the conference’s strands, she demonstrated that Lucretius’ influence operated through varied and often surprising channels, through a combination of political changes, religious scruples, and chance encounters.

The conference was generously supported by the English Faculty, University of Oxford; the Faculties of Music, Oriental Studies, Modern Languages, Philosophy, History and Theology; the Maison Française d’Oxford; the Centre for the Study of the Book, Bodleian Libraries; the Ashmolean Museum.

Mark Burden and David Norbrook


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