Lucretius’ Poetic Epicureanism

There once was an Epicurean Roman named Titus Lucretius Carus, who lived in the 1st Century BC. I say “Epicurean” as a follower of the philosophy of Epicurus. Epicureanism began as a combination of an empirical epistemology (we can know things only insofar as we can observe them), atomistic materialism (there is nothing but atoms and the void) with concomitant naturalistic evolution, and a kind of agnostic Deism which early Buddhism would find agreeable. The simplistic reduction of all this, “seek pleasure, avoid pain” made the word “epicurean” a synonym for “libertine”. Mass awareness always destroys nuance.

Lucretius was an Epicurean of the old school, however, and composed a poem to Preach the Good News of Epicurus, called On the Nature of Things . It is not the most entertaining of works. Poetry can be a good vehicle for philosophy, but overall Lucretius appears to be one of those fellows in love with the sound of his own voice. I don’t mind volubility in Virgil; he’s telling a ripping yarn, and while the plot of the Aeneid moves slowly from point A to B, there’s plenty of action on the way. But listening to Lucretius tell me how good his arguments and sound his proofs are gets old quickly. Roman Stoics, at least going by Seneca, had at least the good sense to be laconic.

That said, one or two passages do leap off the page as good analogies:

Men shot; the hills
re-echoing hurl their voices toward the stars;
the cavalry whele, then suddenly post and pound
with earthquake power across the open fields.
Yet high in the hills there is a place from which
They seem a motionless bright spot on the plain.

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, II.327-332

This perspective-shift serves to explain a problem with atomism described several lines above (II.309-310), that of “why, though all the basic particles are in motion, their total seems to stand at total rest.” Lucretius is at his best at moments like this, painting a picture to honor the bright and illumine the dark parts of his adopted philosophy. I argued in my post about “Cuties” (remember that? That was only a few months ago. This year is a lifetime) that Art achieves its highest form as a vehicle for ideas. It does not have to do that consciously in order to be successful, but it can aim for immortality that way. There’s no reason that someone in 21st-Century America should have found this in the poetry section of a Barnes & Noble, other than its a higher and nobler form of Art. Stylistic quibbles aside, that merits the consideration.

Caligula will have things to say about him, as I have mentioned.

Ovid, Virgil, and Lucretius Walk Into a Palace…

Back when I first conceived The Meditations of Caius Caligulia, I had a list of books I wanted to read to give me inspiration and background. Writers have to be readers, and I had the broad strokes of what I wanted to do, without the details. Details are key.

So I needed to read, at the very least, Suetonius’ chapter on Caligulia, and I, Claudius by Robert Graves (I was familiar with the BBC miniseries). I wanted to have a go at Camus’ play of Caligulia, because I’d been reading some Camus anyway, and because the “ennui-into-tyranny” line intrigued me.

These were the books that gave me the narrative structure of the project: Who Caligulia was, and why he acted that way. The novella is now finished, or at least, drafted. What does it need now?

I greatly enjoy the voice of the character: how he dances between flights of theophanic fancy and rigorous political meditations. However, I need a certain level of climax for the ending, and to do that, I will have to deep dive into some of the literature current in Little Boots’ time. These are:

  • Ovid’s Love Books. Ovid was a poet of the creeping epicureanism of Rome’s upper class. A kind of window on the Satyricon (which I also might read).
  • Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. A Hellenized Roman, a philospher of the capital-E Epicurean school. He’s already mentioned in the existing first Chapter, when Caligulia refers to him as “that atomist”
  • The aforementioned Aeneid

I pick all of these because they were current to the time, i.e., the late 1st century BC-early 1st century AD. Caligulia might have actually read them. And they speak to the culture of that time: the dawn of Rome’s Imperial Age and the concomitant cultural syncretism. I need to feed a blend of them into my not-quite-mad emperor, so that he can rise to his fullest. I do not know when I’ll have finished this process, but I’ve already had fun doing it.