Reason and emotion in Lucretius

Too often the voice of poets is misunderstood, underestimated, neglected, mistreated and even forgotten. I guess it comes together with the gift of sensitivity, a sort of a “side effect” of talent. Yet Lucretius is in my opinion one of the most marvellous examples of how poetry, which I consider the utmost human expression of feelings and emotions, can survive and resplend, against any adversity or fate and thus be timeless. Clearly I am talking about true poetry and not the one that, alas, too frequently outcomes from many practised rhyme-artisans or worse self (or press) alleged artists.


Because of his De Rerum Natura Lucretius was ere ignored, then hated and fought and finally deserted and forsaken even by his late contemporaries. He has been the object of such an aversion that actually it is still a mystery if he really was a drug addicted and/or half mentally instable; and even the circumstances of his death – supposedly suicide – most likely will never be ascertained. His poem is now widely judged a fundamental treatise in Latin language on the Epicurean philosophical doctrine: its six books space with scientific tone and marvellously conceived hexameters on themes that range from the universe, atoms and matter to time/space and the nature and mortality of body, mind and soul. It cannot be denied that De Rerum Natura contains many ideas that were in those days judged too reactionary and that it suggests and stimulates alarming revolutionary reflections and behaviours.

The deceiving role of religion, which Lucretius to a certain extent considered mere superstition, in misguiding and influencing all mankind actions procured him enemies within the Church:

“Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum”

His radical approach marred his image and reputation for a long time. For instance St. Jerome stated that Lucretius was able to write his poem only during his little intervalla insanie; Tertullian and Lactantius, convinced Christians, will mention him just and solely in order to point out a bad example for nobody to follow:

“This is where materialism drives to: folly and suicide”

On the political side Lucretius firmly denounces the worthless rush for power and its consequences: war, political struggles, everyday compromises and the vast development of the rooted habit of deception, the diffusion of false prophets such as monarchs, politicians, middlemen and priests. Small wonder that he was almost immediately disregarded… I wish to underline though, that in that age some poets chose to live aside of reality, in a sort of ivory tower, unengaged in any social and political activity; others flung themselves in libelling against depravation and corruption. Lucretius instead chose deliberately to devote himself and his talent to fight not simply the current political establishment and its decadence, but the whole social status quo, he was not afraid to point the finger and contest the commonly accepted philosophy and religion; he endeavoured to unveil all the false myths and the misleading ideologies.

Apart from his determined and revolutionary courageous approach, Lucretius mostly impresses and conquers me because he reveals in his verses to be a deep and attentive observer of human nature. His entire composition is permeated with hints that clearly manifest his remarkable ability to understand and depict feelings, sensations and emotions: joy, fear, amazement, distress and love. As to this latter Lucretius vividly describes and enumerates and comments in details all those contrasting feelings and the turmoil of passion and distress that lovers feel. And he achieves this representation masterly, efficiently and most of all timelessly.

Lucretius perfectly describes and reproaches that reckless and distressed state of mind that often lovers go through whenever they fear or simply feel unsure and causelessly prepare them for the worst to happen. This restless attitude meanwhile keeps them away from their business, their social life and friends and forces them to be more and more secluded and alone:

inde redit rabies eadem et furor ille revisit,
cum sibi quod cupiant ipsi contingere quaerunt,
nec reperire malum id possunt quae machina vincat.
usque adeo incerti tabescunt volnere caeco.
Adde quod absumunt viris pereuntque labore,
adde quod alterius sub nutu degitur aetas,
languent officia atque aegrotat fama vacillans.

The description of jealousy is neatly written and reported with efficacy: a treacherous gesture, a misdirected smile or an inappropriate word will suffice to spark discouragement or rage in the disappointed lover:

pocula crebra, unguenta, coronae, serta parantur,
ne quiquam, quoniam medio de fonte leporum
surgit amari aliquid, quod in ipsis floribus angat,
aut cum conscius ipse animus se forte remordet
desidiose agere aetatem lustrisque perire,
aut quod in ambiguo verbum iaculata reliquit,
quod cupido adfixum cordi vivescit ut ignis,
aut nimium iactare oculos aliumve tueri
quod putat in voltuque videt vestigia risus.

Lucretius depicts clearly all those reminders such as images, sounds and odours that all lovers normally use to rely on in order to “survive” during the absence of their soul-mate, when they are distant and far away:

Haec Venus est nobis; hinc autemst nomen Amoris,
hinc illaec primum Veneris dulcedinis in cor
stillavit gutta et successit frigida cura;
nam si abest quod ames, praesto simulacra tamen sunt
illius et nomen dulce obversatur ad auris.

Moreover in addition to the perfect description of these common scenes from everyday life, he wisely suggests to rationalise and to give a fair right importance to things, persons and events:

at lacrimans exclusus amator limina saepe
floribus et sertis operit postisque superbos
unguit amaracino et foribus miser oscula figit;
quem si iam ammissum venientem offenderit aura
una modo, causas abeundi quaerat honestas
et meditata diu cadat alte sumpta querella
stultitiaque ibi se damnet, tribuisse quod illi
plus videat quam mortali concedere par est

In dispensing his advice Lucretius admonishes and alerts men, following the classic misogynist attitude of ancient Greeks and Romans, to always beware of the insidious behaviour of women:

nec Veneres nostras hoc fallit; quo magis ipsae
omnia summo opere hos vitae poscaenia celant,
quos retinere volunt adstrictosque esse in amore,
ne quiquam, quoniam tu animo tamen omnia possis
protrahere in lucem atque omnis inquirere risus
et, si bello animost et non odiosa, vicissim
praetermittere [et] humanis concedere rebus.
Nec mulier semper ficto suspirat amore,
quae conplexa viri corpus cum corpore iungit
et tenet adsuctis umectans oscula labris;
nam facit ex animo saepe et communia quaerens
gaudia sollicitat spatium decurrere amoris

To a certain extent Lucretius, wishing his readers to reach the ataraxia, a peace of mind perhaps humanly unreachable, but to which every one is supposed to tend, can be considered the first poet trying to describe and somehow solve the mal d’être both social and individual that I guess accompanies human beings from the dawn of civilisation. And he definitely succeeds with his splendid verses:

Carmina sublimis tunc sunt peritura Lucreti
exitio terras cum dabit una dies [Ovid]

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7 comments on “Reason and emotion in Lucretius

  1. Ana de La Robla says:

    Una vez más, con tu sensibilidad exquisita, vuelves a ocuparte de uno de los grandes. Te aporto un dato que es posible que desconozcas, dado que es una teoría de formulación muy reciente: y es que está empezando a proponerse que Lucrecio como tal no existió, sino que era una suerte de “pseudónimo” tras el que se encubría un poeta que no deseaba ser reconocido. En este sentido, se apuntan como prueba sustantiva el hecho de que Lucrecio no haya sido citado por ninguno de sus contemporáneos. Lo escabroso de los temas tratados por “Lucrecio”, que cuestiona el sistema romano de los pies a la cabeza en un momento político bastante crítico, es otra de los razones que impulsa a los especialistas a justificar que el poeta de “De Rerum Natura” se escondiese tras el nombre de un ficticio Lucrecio. La invención de la leyenda sobre su persona (el filtro de amor, su locura, su epilepsia, su suicidio…) es, por supuesto, bastante posterior.
    Estas teorías tan novedosas y revolucionarias deben tomarse con cautela, pero nunca está de más conocerlas. Siempre es un placer leerte.

  2. Grete says:

    Hullo Captain! At last I went through your weblog! Beautiful and complicated, just like some “guy” I know… XXX Grete

  3. Monica says:

    It is amazing how modern are the thoughts and poems of the authors you write about. Thank you for creating this link with our past, Monica

  4. stoa says:

    Ana, I must confess I was not aware of this new theory, in fact really intriguing, which adds even more mystery to this insightful and delicate poet I am very fond of.
    Thank you indeed for your compliment and also for your erudite enlightenment.

  5. stoa says:

    Hi Grete! What a nice surprise! Thank you for visiting! Say hullo to the other old-salts…

  6. stoa says:

    Thank you Monica,
    you are perfectly right: we really have a lot to learn from our predecessors; if only people could pay more attention to the ancient wisdom how many silly mistakes would be avoided.

  7. Collin Moon says:

    If only more people could read this..

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