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  • David Currell

The Atomist Age: Lucretius and the Poetry of Science

David Currell reviews recent books on a timely classic.

Imagine this review beginning with a little game. I have in mind a figure from intellectual history, and I invite you to guess the historical period to which he belongs to your best approximation. The person I’m thinking of asserted an infinite universe composed of atoms (themselves possessing subatomic structure), and even a multiverse composed of many worlds; denied intelligent design and believed in species extinction; rejected the possibility of an immortal soul, afterlife, or providence; and interpreted established religion as a social construct channeled into chiefly malign social effects.

Jacques Lezra and Liza Blake, eds. Lucretius and Modernity: Epicurean Encounters Across Time and Disciplines. The New Antiquity. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

The pleasure for me – for us when your pride recovers – would be seeing your confidence about getting the right century betrayed by your failure to get the right millennium. But in fact the game would be no fun, because the answer recently enjoyed all the publicity associated with a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. The Roman poet Lucretius was the pioneering prophetic possessor of these advanced opinions in the first century CE. And it was the fifteenth-century rediscovery of his six-book poetic opus De rerum natura (“On the Nature of Things,” hereafter DRN), buried like a time capsule (or rather an intellectual time bomb) in a monastic library, that was, as the subtitle to Stephen Greenblatt’s award-winning The Swerve (2011) modestly claims, How the World Became Modern. As my hypothecated propositions briefly, and Greenblatt’s bestseller more expansively indicate, one can very effectively dress Lucretius as avatar and vector of modernity and situate him on the side of the natural and social sciences, as exploder of myth and opponent of religion.

The poem sounds these notes early and often. Its first presentation of gods as indifferent and inactive beings dwelling interstitially between worlds they did not create comes within the first fifty lines:

the very nature of divinity must necessarily enjoy immortal life in the deepest peace, far removed and separated from our affairs; for without any pain, without danger, itself mighty by its own resources, needing us not at all, it is neither propiated with services nor touched by wrath. (DRN 1.44-49, trans. Rouse)

With the true nature of divinities known, the epithet “divine” is applied instead to the first bearer and communicator of this cosmic knowledge: Epicurus (341-270 BCE), founder of the eponymous philosophical discourse that Lucretius expresses in epic meter. Epicureanism founds an ethics of impassivity (ataraxia) upon twin bases of materialist physics and hedonistic psychology (“hedonistic” in so far as pleasure is its fundamental category of analysis; the practical consequences of that analysis we might more readily term ascetic). “He was a god … a god he was, who first discovered that reasoned plan of life which is now called Wisdom” (5.8-10), a discovery more valuable than corn (imagined gift of the goddess Ceres), wine (of Bacchus), and excelling the feats of Hercules (mascot of the rival philosophical school of Stoicism). The active savior is not such a fable but the bold disbeliever of fables:

When human life lay for all to see foully groveling upon the ground, crushed beneath the weight of Superstition [religio], which displayed her head from the regions of heaven, lowering over mortals with horrible aspect, a man of Greece was the first that dared to uplift mortal eyes against her; for neither fables of the gods could quell him, nor thunderbolts, nor heaven with menacing roar … forth he marched far beyond the flaming walls of the world, as he traversed the measurable universe in thought and imagination; whence victorious he returns bearing his prize, the knowledge of what can come into being, what can not … Therefore Superstition is now in her turn cast down and trampled underfoot, whilst we by the victory are exalted high as heaven. (1.62-79)

To adapt a remark from Longinus on Homer, Lucretius makes his gods philosophers and his philosophers gods. Epicurus’ wisdom is heavenly because it explains the physics of the (depopulated) heavens. His discourse bundles the gods offstage into a vague space between worlds (Epicureanism is not atheism, although it was close enough to be attacked as such) where they do … nothing, least of all design punishments for human souls. The soul cannot survive the body’s death in any case: there’s nothing to fear on the other side because there is no other side, this is your only life and you ought to enjoy it properly. And what an artful invitation and inducement the poet Lucretius provides for this doctrine in his opening invocation to the sensuous Venus, nourishing and pacifying our abundant planet:

Mother of Aeneas and his race, darling of men and gods, nurturing Venus, who beneath the smooth-moving heavenly signs fill with yourself the sea full-laden with ships, the earth that bears the crops, since through you every kind of living thing is conceived and rising up looks on the light of the sun … Since therefore you alone govern the nature of things, since without you nothing comes forth into the shining borders of light, nothing joyous and lovely is made, you I crave as partner in writing the verses, which I essay to fashion on the Nature of Things [de rerum natura] … Cause meanwhile the savage works of war to sleep and be still over every sea and land. For you alone can delight mortals with quiet peace, since Mars mighty in battle rules the savage works of war, who often casts himself upon your lap wholly vanquished by the ever-living wound of love. (1.1-34)

Moving words, but surely an acute embarrassment to Lucretius’ reputation for atheism? Yet his attachment to the sensuous resources of poetry and traditional mythic names for allegorizing natural principles is fundamental to his mission: sweetly seducing assent to Epicurean science. But how does Epicurean knowledge hold up in the light of modern science? I could give you a first-century Richard Feynman, and set down DRN beside pop-science classics like The Character of Physical Law and The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. But you might have read it, and the jig would be up. Lucretius’ atoms (he uses the expressions “elements,” “minima,” or “seeds of things”) fall outside the genuine lineage of atomic physics. The atom is what can’t be divided (Greek a-tomos), but there is an absolute division between Greek atomists (Leucippus, Democritus, Epicurus) Latinized by Lucretius and figures like Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr: neither common explanations nor intellectual influence connects ancient and modern in this field. Looking awry, one can read a theory of natural selection into Lucretius’ biology, but without the element of descent with variation it is a stretch to call it “proto-Darwinian.” Let’s have the worst of it: “The wheel of the sun and its heat cannot be much greater or less than is perceived by our senses … the shape also of the sun and its size must so truly be seen from the earth” (DRN 5.564-72).

David Norbrook, Stephen Harrison, and Philip Hardie, eds. Lucretius and the Early Modern. Classical Presences. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Is this the text that launched the modern world? Greenblatt, with his powerful, partisan, progressivist thesis, is among a large constellation of scholars worldwide who in recent decades have been investigating the conjuncture of Lucretius and modernity. His book made a big splash, but was not a big bang in the sense of an originary event. The striking clarity of the thesis that did read the story of Poggio Bracciolini’s 1417 manuscript discovery as a big bang, however, has a downside (and I refer not merely to fame and riches, such as a card-carrying Epicurean might feel were downsides). The sudden swerve into science and secularization is simply too alluring and honeyed a fable, one that threatens to overshadow the nuanced, involuted, dialectical, perverse, and contingent historical links that make up the story of Lucretius’ reception.

Each of the three volumes under review here takes up in various ways the challenge of excavating and exploring the reception of this classic in its full historical complexity: how it was disseminated, studied, interpreted, translated, and adapted in times and places beyond its originating culture. It is to be hoped that the stimulus effect of The Swerve had prepared the way for their own wide reception, as each is a signal contribution to a lively and exciting field of humanistic inquiry. Ada Palmer’s Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance (hereafter Reading) meticulously analyzes the material legacy of Lucretius’ transmission in the wake of Poggio: the fifty-two accessible surviving manuscripts of the Latin text of DRN and the annotations left upon them by scribes and readers. It asks: once this text was back in “modern” hands, what traces did those hands leave upon it? The other two books are collections of essays, each with points of origin in separate academic conferences held in 2012: Lucretius and the Early Modern (hereafter Early Modern) in an event under the same rubric at the University of Oxford; Lucretius and Modernity: Epicurean Encounters Across Time and Disciplines (hereafter Modernity) in the conference “Lucretius and Modernity” at New York University. The universe of Lucretian scholarship is not infinite, and there are contributors common to both volumes; but nor is that universe small, and scholars working across diverse disciplines in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and Australia are featured. The books represent profound and complementary reflections upon the term I just placed in quotation marks: “modern.” Lezra and Blake, in their introduction to Modernity, distinguish at least three ways that this word can signify: in a “flatly chronological sense” that designates “the era of print culture, of the emergent nation-state, of secular conceptions of association and identity, of interiority, of scientific method” – in these terms “early modern” frames the time of sufficient precipitation of these themes, generally in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; as a hypothetical predication, of a text or writer that appears “as if” of this period, “stylistically, conceptually, or thematically”; and lastly in terms of reception, because a chronologically modern writer has made the antique text newly relevant through fresh engagement.

Like Lezra and Blake I have been highlighting “secular conceptions” and “scientific method” because of how large they loom in the reception story. Early Christianity clearly recognized an enemy in Epicureanism, and when Lucretius’ full text came to be recirculated part of what conditioned its reception among the scholarly ecclesiastics of quattrocento Italy was their knowledge of, for example, Jerome’s tale that Lucretius died by suicide after an aphrodisiac made him mad (a poor example for the follower of an impassive sage), or Lactantius’ remark that, as in Wilde’s quip about the death of Little Nell, he could not read the work without laughing. One of Palmer’s fascinating chapters traces how these dozen or so allusive scraps culled from antique sources circulated along with the copied text of DRN, sometimes as a set of bare quotations (like the pod of extracts that open Moby-Dick) and sometimes stitched into a prose biography, charmingly detached from the standards of source criticism that condition the introductory author bios that might accompany a classic today. In fact a modern edition of Lucretius will, of circumspect necessity, spend fewer words on the life of the author than flowed from the pens of confident and competitive sixteenth-century editors like Denys Lambin or Hubert van Giffen.

Lambinus and Gifanius (to give their names in Latin) are just two of the teeming dramatis personae of scholars and editors with whom Palmer populates the Lucretian scene after Poggio’s brilliant prologue. Many of them are today obscure figures, but Lucretian manuscript reception also intersects with the lives of luminaries, such as Niccolò Machiavelli, who personally transcribed the several thousand lines of DRN in a manuscript securely identified as his in the twentieth century and held in the Vatican library. Alison Brown contributes a chapter to Early Modern that finds Lucretius’ representation of primitive humanity influencing Machiavelli’s ethics (with both parallels and contrasts to the moral philosophy of another infamous early modern tarred with “Epicureanism,” Thomas Hobbes). The part of Book 5 of DRN that Alison Brown uses to trace Lucretius in Machiavelli and Hobbes crops up repeatedly in the volume. William Poole, David Norbrook, and Catherine Wilson all show this to be a compelling intertext for early modern writers thinking about the origins of human societies, the workings of natural law, the relationship between humanity and other species (a special concern of Brown and Poole), and human concepts of justice. Norbrook goes so far as to call Book 5 a “mini-epic” within DRN, as if to suggest, on a formal level, a kind of many-worlds interpretation of the poem itself.

Ada Palmer, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance. I Tatti Studies in Italian Renaissance History. Harvard University Press, 2014.

Palmer’s paleographical survey shows that Book 5 was a notable site of interest for anonymous readers as well as Great Men (and Women: one of Catherine Wilson’s last points is the “mysterious appeal” of Lucretius “to his female readers,” including the republican and Puritan poet Lucy Hutchinson, author of the earliest preserved full translation of DRN who also features in Norbrook’s chapter). A striking result of Palmer’s work is that the scientifically controversial atomism upon which part of Lucretius’ “modern” reputation rests were not marked up with marginal notes, lines, parentheses, manuscules, or other kinds of indication of readerly engagement and interest. On this score, Machiavelli is exceptional, and one of the 26 facsimile pages reproduced from a diversity of manuscripts and editions of DRN in Reading shows Machiavelli’s summary note on the infamous swerve: “that motion is variable, and from this we have free will.” More typical annotations, however, concern obscure vocabulary or the conjectural emendations of erroneous or confused text: a philological and rhetorical approach that shows readers treating Lucretius with the common humanist toolset applied to classical texts of much less perilous provenance. One kind of “modern” reader, then, scoured DRN for radically untimely ideas. The best represented kinds of early modern readers, however, read in the dominant mode of the time. But it was this very conservatism of humanist culture that let it play host to dangerously alien matter: “Humanists’ love of Latin drove numerous orthodox scholars to defend this capsule of radical heterodoxy in a period when genuine radicals were very rare.”

The criterion in relation to which a text needed defending in the early modern period took very concrete form: the Catholic Church’s index of prohibited books. The Latin DRN was a candidate for inclusion at various times as the Counter-Reformation began, but it generally evaded proscription (a 1517 ban on teaching the text in Florence is an evident exception, although limited in its scope). N. S. Davidson’s essay in Early Modern pairs this information with an investigation of the records of the Venetian Inquisition and asks whether the propositional content of Lucretius was really the target of this anxious policing. In Venice, at least, the evidence points towards the persecution of those whose views might have superficially resembled the tenets of Epicureanism (mortalism, for example), but whose illiteracy or other circumstances precluded influence from the learned culture of pagan antiquity. If radicalization by reading Lucretius was not (or at least not everywhere) on the radar of early modern iterations of the UK’s Prevent program, perhaps its radicalism has been overstated? This is the self-consciously iconoclastic thesis of Joseph Farrell in his contribution to Modernity. Farrell addresses the poem’s scientific pretentions to modernity and finds them wanting not only with respect to contemporary science but also with respect to ancient science: Ptolemy has a much more robust claim to “modernity” on these terms, being deferentially handled and used as a source of primary observation in the writings of Copernicus, his supposed dethroner. Farrell presents a DRN worthy of the phrase that Sir Walter Raleigh applied to Paradise Lost in 1900: “a monument to dead ideas.” Lucretius’ veneration of a prophet and his scripture, and his own proselytizing zeal resemble religious fundamentalism more than any kind of science. In the subsequent essay, however, David Konstan adduces a cutting-edge concept of number, lifted literally from the pages of Scientific American, that answers to the mathematical lexicon of DRN and obviates a common-sense geometrical objection to Lucretius’ account of the internal structure of atoms. The stark difference of perspectives clarifies the stakes and bases of the different senses of “modernity,” as set out in Lezra and Blake’s introduction; one or other essay may confirm a reader in her own sense, but a more ambivalent reader will find the contours of their ambivalence more navigable. It is also an example of how these both collections, unlike Lucretius’ universe, betray throughout the evidence of intelligent design.

Palmer’s book is both learned and delightfully readable. Eloquent guides willing to labor over their object are a great, and perhaps essential asset in approaching a text as unfamiliar and potentially daunting as DRN. There is a self-referential justice to the title of Wes Williams essay “Well said/well thought,” on Michel de Montaigne’s use of Lucretius. The use was both physical and intellectual. Williams, like Palmer, is interested in the marks made in Montaigne’s personal copy of DRN. These are multitudinous, and Williams conscientiously and compellingly unfolds the heavy and increasing imprint that Montaigne’s processing of the poem left upon his Essays. This is philology that materializes the sense of loving care in the etymology of that word. And love is an eminently Lucretian theme (I have somehow omitted to mention until now the sex manual in Book 4) announced, as we have seen, in the rapturous hymn to Venus that gets the whole poem going. Stephen Harrison, in the opening contribution to Early Modern, closely reads these lines and identifies an anti-imperial, and therefore counter-cultural, message underlying the image of Venus dominating Mars. We are reminded of the image again by Wilson, in bringing the volume to a close, and by Brooke Holmes in the opening chapter of Modernity. Holmes’ double historicization of Lucretius and one of his most influential recent French modernizers, Michel Serres, establishes the expectedly more contemporary cast of thinkers discussed in that volume: John Locke (Philip Mitsis makes a patient case for an Epicurean understanding of free will in Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding); Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (whose treatise on taste Thomas Kavanagh brings into the orbit not only of Epicurean pleasure but also of Epicurean physics and politics); Karl Marx (Lezra generatively exfoliates Marx’s notes towards his doctoral dissertation on ancient atomism); Gilles Deleuze; and Leo Strauss. The wide chronological ambition of Modernity necessarily entails a lesser degree of focus in comparison to Early Modern; but this is to be expected, and its sweep and swerve have their own satisfaction. Philip Hardie’s learned and tightly orchestrated final chapter in Modernity brings that volume to a close as well as chiming across volumes: like Yasmin Haskell, Line Cottegnies, and David Norbrook in the book which Hardie coedited, his essay is interested in Neo-Latin, vernacular, and translational poetic engagements with Lucretius, showing how a Christian poetic tradition extending from late antiquity to the seventeenth century practiced a kind of inocculation with respect to Lucretius, between “oppositional inversion” and “accommodation.”

Motivated poets found a way to handle the poetry of Lucretius, as the monks, bishops, scholars, printers, and readers to whom Palmer introduces us handled material texts of DRN, and philosophers, scientists, and theologians tried to get a handle on his thinking. Modernity, it was once assumed, cleaved science and religion. Lucretius is a part of that modernity, but these books give the interested reader the opportunity to engage today’s lively debates about how and why, and, beyond that, alternative conceptions of modernity corresponding to diverse ways of reading Lucretius. And at a moment when both science and apocalyptic religion increasingly urge the Lucretian theme of the perishability of worlds, loving attention – including these scholars’ philological attention – to an ancient poem committed to thinking through the philosophy of action under such conditions feels timely as never before.


David Currell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the American University of Beirut, specializing in early modern literature and culture.


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