Near the end of Book 3 of his poem On the Nature of Things, Lucretius personifies Nature and has her issue an ultimatum (3.931–962). Responding to the complaint of humans that they must die, she rebukes her plaintiffs, as though defending herself in a court of law: Either you have experienced pleasure in the life you have lived so far, in which case “why don’t you withdraw like a satisfied banqueter?”; or you have taken no pleasure, in which case “why don’t you rather put an end to life and toil?”
This ultimatum has traditionally offended readers by its harshness.Footnote 1 Why does Lucretius take this turn? He started his poem with a seductive picture of Venus as sole governor of nature (1.21), bringing joy through the renewal of life in the springtime. Subsequently, he addressed the first great fear identified by Epicurus, fear of the gods, by showing that the gods have nothing to do with the governance of the universe: The nature of things does it all, consisting of nothing but atoms and void. Then, in Book 3, Lucretius takes on the second great fear of Epicureanism: the fear of death. Epicurus called death “the most frightening of evils.”Footnote 2 Following him, Lucretius argues in detail that “death is nothing to us,” for there is nothing of us left to experience anything.
Like Epicurus, however, Lucretius well recognizes that there is more to the fear of death than simply the fear of an afterlife. There is also the fear of being deprived of pleasures that one might still have had. To put it another way, death seems like an evil because it takes away goods that we look forward to having. In recent decades, scholars have given much attention to this so-called problem of deprivation, and the Epicureans have been widely accused of not having a satisfactory answer.Footnote 3 Still, they did address it, and Lucretius elaborated the Epicurean position in new ways. Nature’s ultimatum is part of his answer, and this is where Nature stops being nice.
This chapter seeks to show that Nature’s ultimatum serves as a way of reinforcing a message that Lucretius has been developing from the beginning of his poem: This is the necessity of accepting the natural conditions of our existence as a prerequisite for the attainment of happiness. Through the ultimatum, Lucretius now formulates this message as a threat: If you do not accept my conditions, Nature warns, you might as well be dead. At the same time, Nature mitigates her threat by showing that the conditions themselves are not harsh. In fact, she has provided us with everything we need to attain happiness within a lifetime. There is nothing to complain about; instead, we ruin our lives of our own will by complaining about what we lack. In sum, Nature does not deprive us, for she has made it possible to flourish fully within the limits she has placed on us.
I shall begin by giving a brief sketch of the ultimatum and raising a number of questions. Next, these questions will be addressed by considering, first, Nature’s audience and, second, Nature as speaker. As speaker, Nature reveals the truth about herself. I divide this truth into two parts: Nature’s bounty and the sameness of the natural order of things. Nature’s case hinges on both the opportunities she has provided and their everlasting sameness. Instead of ever yearning for something new, therefore, we must focus at every time on renewing our pleasure in the present. After returning to the other questions raised initially, I conclude that, through Nature’s ultimatum, Lucretius displaces the problem of deprivation from Nature to us: Instead of being deprived, we deprive ourselves by failing to accept the natural order of things.
An Overview and Some Questions
Nature zeroes in on the issue immediately by addressing her plaintiff as a “mortal” (mortalis, 3.933). At issue is the traditional complaint of humans: They are doomed to unhappiness because they are mortal instead of immortal. Nature responds by going on the offensive. Directing her attack at “one of us” (alicui nostrum, 3.932), she gives her opponent just two choices (3.935–945): Either go to your death satisfied with what you have enjoyed; or, if you have not enjoyed anything, you might as well put an end to your life. In the remainder of the ultimatum (3.946–962), Nature develops her attack by distinguishing between two ages among her detractors: There is the person who is still at the height of his powers and wants more life (3.946–951); and there is the old person, who has become frail and bewails his impending death. Nature heaps abuse on the latter for having missed out on all the pleasures of life (3.952–962). The final words “it is necessary” (necessest, 3.962) hammer in the necessity of accepting death.
Nature’s speech is likely to strike the reader as not only abusive but also logically defective. In the first place, how sound is her initial disjunction between two kinds of plaintiffs at 3.935–945? The first type is described as one who has enjoyed his previous life (3.935) and has not wasted “all advantages” (3.936–937). This results in a very wide range, from those who have enjoyed life as a whole to those who enjoyed just a little of it. Everyone in this range is said to be “stupid” for not departing like a “full banqueter” (3.938). This entire group is then opposed to those who have not enjoyed anything about their life and hate it (3.940–941). Why does Nature not distinguish an intermediate category (those who have partially enjoyed life and partially disliked it) between two extremes (those who enjoyed life and those who hated it)?
Further, Nature gives no consideration whatsoever to circumstances outside a person’s control. Apart from one’s vulnerability to disease and violence, there are serious obstacles to acquiring the right kind of education. Lucretius has been stressing all along that we are deeply imbued with false beliefs that make life miserable for us. Epicurus said that it is never too late to engage in philosophy; everyone should engage in it whether young or old (Men. 122). Clearly, however, not everyone has the opportunity to attain philosophical enlightenment, and a longer life may provide it. Young persons deserve special consideration on this score, besides missing out on many other opportunities. Lucretius’ personified Nature omits any mention of young people. This is made all the more conspicuous by her division of her opponents into those who are still at the height of their powers and those who are already frail with old age. If she exempts the young from her attacks, why does she not do so explicitly? In general, it seems entirely reasonable for any person, young or old, to want to enjoy some pleasure if she has had none, and to want to enjoy more if she has had some. Why does Nature insist on the need to give up these aims, even to the point of giving up life altogether?
By contrast, Philodemus takes a much more complex approach in his treatise On Death. He mentions young people a number of times. We “think” of them, he says, as “unfortunate” (δυστυ[χ]εῖς, 14.1) in dying early; and he regards it as reasonable to desire extra time “to be filled (πληρωθῆ[ναι], 14.6–7) with goods.”Footnote 4 He also credits Pythocles, a student of Epicurus, for already having achieved a huge amount by the age of eighteen; and he recognizes that a “youth” (μειράκιον, 13.9) can get himself “unstinting” (ἄφθ[ον]α, 13.9–10) goods, so as to have lived “more” than those who have lived ever so many years without enjoyment.Footnote 5 Further, Philodemus states that it is “natural” for someone who is capable of making philosophical progress to “feel a stab/prick” (νύττεσθαι) at being snatched away by death.Footnote 6 Likewise, he says, people feel a “most natural sting” (φυσικώτατον δηγμόν) about leaving family members without their protection.Footnote 7 Lucretius’ Nature says nothing whatsoever about “stings.” What accounts for this difference?
Nature’s ultimatum has rightly been linked to a Cynic tradition of diatribe.Footnote 8 But what is the philosophical point? As I shall argue, Nature has two main reasons for being so harsh. The first concerns her audience. Although Nature says she is addressing “one of us,” she is not addressing just anyone. She has a particular target: the type of person who laments “too much.” “You,” she says, “indulge too much in lamentations that are diseased” (nimis aegris | luctibus indulges, 3.933–934). Likewise, the old person “laments more than is right” (lamentetur … amplius aequo, 3.953).Footnote 9 Nature directs her remarks at those who transgress the boundary of what is healthy or right. They are in the grip of a disease that Lucretius himself diagnoses a little later as “so great a bad desire for life” (mala … vitai tanta cupido, 3.1077). Underlying their complaints, therefore, is an excess desire for life.
As so often in Lucretius’ poem, we need to bring into consideration a background of theory that Lucretius does not mention explicitly. Epicurus divided desires into natural and unnatural; and he further subdivided natural desires into necessary and natural only.Footnote 10 This results in three kinds of desire: natural and necessary; natural and unnecessary; unnatural and unnecessary. The third kind is said to be “empty,” for although it aims for pleasure it results in an excess of pain over pleasure. Lucretius’ “bad” desire for life belongs to the last, “empty” group. By contrast, Philodemus’ “stings” are natural, as he says, for they remain within the boundary of a natural desire for life. We naturally feel a pang, under certain circumstances, when confronted by death. Lucretius’ Nature does not reject such pangs; she does not mention them because she directs her attack against excess lamentation.
Epicurus made two further kinds of distinction, which help to explain what is so “bad” about an excessive desire for life. Finally, he subdivided natural and necessary desires in turn into three kinds: necessary for happiness, necessary for bodily comfort and necessary for life itself.Footnote 11 Examples of the last category are the desire for food and drink. Importantly, this does not make the desire for life itself a necessary desire. A desire for life is indeed hypothetically necessary (to use Aristotelian terminology), for it is necessary for happiness and bodily comfort, but it is not necessary in itself. The desire for life must come to a stop when confronted by the necessity of death. This makes it a natural desire, bounded by the necessity to yield to death. If it exceeds this boundary, it becomes both unnecessary and unnatural.
The other additional distinction concerns the nature of pleasure. We desire life with a view to attaining its goal, which is happiness, and this consists in pleasure. Epicurean pleasure, however, differs from what we usually think of as pleasure. Epicurus divided it into two kinds: katastematic and kinetic.Footnote 12 Very briefly, the former consists of an absence of pain and belongs to the stable condition of a sensory organ or the mind; the latter consists of a movement, or stimulation, of a sensory organ or the mind. To this division, Epicurus added the unique view that the absence of pain is the height of pleasure; kinetic pleasure merely varies the pleasure without increasing it.Footnote 13 It follows that, whereas the desire for katastematic pleasure is necessary, the desire for kinetic pleasure is unnecessary. As such, the desire for kinetic pleasure is either natural or unnatural. If natural, it merely varies the pleasure, without adding anything or taking anything away from it; if unnatural, it must be avoided because it results in an excess of pain over pleasure.
The first main reason, then, that Nature is so harsh is that she is addressing people who lament “too much.” All transgress the natural boundary of desire. In particular, those who have enjoyed some pleasure fail to be grateful for what they have already attained. As for those who have enjoyed no pleasure, they might as well not go on, for, as will become clearer, they have willingly shut themselves off from having any pleasure in the past.
Nature as Speaker
This brings us to the second main reason for Nature’s harshness. It lies in her own role as speaker of the truth about the nature of things. In short, Nature speaks the truth about herself. This is an objective truth, applying to the nature of the universe and everything in it. By nature, Nature tells us, all things are always the same, bounded forever by the same limits. Nature herself cannot change these limits. Within these limits, however, she has provided an abundance of things that we can enjoy. The harshness of Nature’s words emphasizes the fixity of these limits, together with her generosity.
I shall first discuss Nature’s abundance before turning to the sameness of the order she has established. This benefit needs to be put in context. Lucretius already devoted most of Book 3 to showing another benefit, which is of the utmost importance: the dissolution of the human being at the time of death. By removing a life after death, nature removes the source of a terror that, as Lucretius puts it, leaves no pleasure pure, but “suffuses everything with the blackness of death” (3.38–40). Nature alludes to this benefit in her ultimatum when she tells her plaintiff to “take with a serene mind a sleep without care, you fool” (3.939, cf. 962).Footnote 14
To this after-death benefit, Nature adds the power to live a life “worthy of the gods” (dignam dis, 3.322). Along with inner faculties, as crowned by reason, this requires some external resources. In her ultimatum, Nature refers to these resources as “advantages” or “benefits” (commoda) that have been “heaped up” (congesta), as it were, into a sieve in the case of those who fail to enjoy them (3.936–937).Footnote 15 She also refers to them as “prizes of life” (vitai praemia, 3.956). They are not in themselves pleasures; rather they are sources of pleasure, which it is up to us to enjoy.
Lucretius shows us the abundance of these advantages throughout his poem. Family life is a major benefit: Replete with kisses from wife and children and protected by prosperity (factis florentibus), it bestows “so many prizes of life” (tot praemia vitae, 3.894–899). The products of the crafts are another large fund of prizes of life: They consist in part of things that are useful, such as ships and agriculture, and in part of “delights” such as paintings and poems (5.1448–1456). Greatest of all, Epicurus’ discoveries are “prizes” (praemia, 5.5) that illuminate the “advantages of life” (commoda vitae, 3.2). In addition, Lucretius’ poem overflows with depictions of sensory sources of pleasure. Among them, Lucretius singles out acts of sexual intercourse as “advantages” (commoda, 4.1074) conferred on us by our sense of touch. In all of these cases, the advantage becomes void if it is contaminated by false opinions.
Overall, this abundance may be divided into two kinds: natural occurrences and craft products or arrangements, as devised by humans. Nature is directly responsible for the former. In an extended sense, she may also be regarded as responsible for both, for she has equipped humans with the inner powers and external resources to develop the crafts and arrange our lives for the best. In either case, Nature presents herself as a kind of cosmic craftsman when she declares that she cannot “devise or invent” any source of pleasure beyond what she has already devised (3.944). This self-portrait is indebted to a long philosophical tradition. Strictly speaking, Epicurean nature does not devise anything, for she lacks purposes. Still, by personifying Nature as a craftsman, Lucretius is able to emphasize not only that nature operates in ways that are useful to us, but also that we should be grateful for these benefits. Nature’s repeated warning not to let things pass by ingratum/ingrata (3.937, 942 and 958), a term that signifies both “unenjoyed” and “without gratitude,” implicitly demands such gratitude. This is the correct attitude to Nature’s governance, instead of wailing.
There is a precedent for this portrayal of Nature in Epicurus’ own extant writings:
χάρις τῇ μακαρίᾳ φύσει, ὅτι τὰ ἀναγκαῖα ἐποίησεν εὐπόριστα, τὰ δὲ δυσπόριστα οὐκ ἀναγκαῖα.
Thanks be to blessed Nature, because she made what is necessary easy to obtain (εὐπόριστα) and what is hard to obtain not necessary.Footnote 16
We do not expect the device of personification from Epicurus, nor the divinization that clings to “blessed.” It seems he let go, in this case, of his more prosaic self. What prompts his exhortation is the basic ethical tenet that it is naturally easy to satisfy one’s necessary desires. Elsewhere, Epicurus says that it is easy to obtain (εὐπόριστα) what is “natural,” thereby enfolding the entire range of natural desires.Footnote 17 It turns out that we should be grateful to nature for making it easy not only to obtain the height of pleasure, namely, the absence of pain, but also to vary our pleasures with an abundance of kinetic pleasures.
Lucretius rounds out Epicurus’ conception of what is “easy to acquire” by the notion of an “abundance” (εὐπορία) of sources of pleasure. Philodemus touches on this abundance when he says that even a young person can enjoy “unstinting” goods (On Death, col. 13.9–10). There is, however, a limit to this abundance. As Lucretius argues explicitly in Book 5 in opposition to the notion of divine providence, there is much about the natural arrangement of things that is harmful to humans. Citing numerous examples of hardships, including premature death (mors immatura, 5.221), he declares that the nature of things “is endowed with such great fault” (tanta stat praedita culpa, 5.199). To confirm the charge, he offers the memorable image of a baby, lying naked on the ground, “filling the place with funereal wailing, as is right (aequum) for someone who must pass through such great evils in life” (5.225–226).
In her ultimatum, by contrast, Nature admits of no blame. How can these two views be reconciled? Behind the Epicurean view, there lurks, I think, a traditional myth: Homer’s story of Zeus’ two jars, one full of good things, the other filled with bad things, from which Zeus either bestows a mixture of good and bad, or else bestows only bad things (Il. 24.527–533). Challenging this myth, Lucretius’ Nature insists there are good things, and plenty of them. There is no reason to wail, for humans are naturally endowed with the ability to take their fill of them. What justifies Nature’s focus in her ultimatum is that she wants to pull her plaintiffs away from their absorption in what is wrong and to guide them toward a recognition of what is right.
I turn now from Nature’s abundance to the sameness of her arrangements. Lucretius introduces this theme in his attack on the sort of person who has wasted all sources of enjoyment so far: Why don’t you, she says, just put an end to your life (3.943)? There is a precedent for this piece of advice, too, in Epicurus’ extant writings (Men. 126–127). Epicurus first attacks one piece of common wisdom – that a young person should live well and an old person die well – by saying that life is not only “welcome” (ἀσπαστόν) but demands the same care in both cases. Then he turns to a saying of Theognis, which he calls “much worse.” This is that it is good not to be born, “but if born, to pass as quickly as possible through the gates of Hades.” Epicurus responds: If the speaker really means it, why doesn’t he leave life? There is a hint that since he has not done so already, he is attracted by life, just like everyone else.
Lucretius takes over the sentiment, but adds an explanation (3.944–995):
Nature first presents herself, as already mentioned, as the author of all our pleasures. But what does she mean by adding “all things are always the same”? One interpretation, which comes to mind immediately, is: For you, given your attitude, things will always be the same, for you will always continue to waste whatever source of pleasure comes your way. The upshot is: There is nothing more I can do for you, so why don’t you just end your life? On this interpretation, Nature is speaking a truth about the subjective experience of her plaintiff: For him, things will always be the same.
There is, however, another possibility. Instead of describing a subjective attitude, Nature is declaring an objective truth about the natural order of things. “All things,” she says, “are always the same,” for this is how I have arranged all things. This is a universal arrangement, encompassing the universe as a whole and including pleasure as part of the whole. It follows that, unless her plaintiff changes his attitude, he will indeed always be dissatisfied. This is a consequence, however, of what Nature is saying. What she is stating directly is an objective reason for changing one’s attitude: Since the arrangement of pleasures (along with everything else in the nature of things) is always the same, it is up to the plaintiff to accept this sameness, instead of always expecting things to be different.
Lucretius emphasizes the fixity of the natural order from the very beginning of his poem, where he first credited Epicurus with discovering the following (1.75–77):
Repeated three more times in the rest of the work, these lines serve as a kind of physical leitmotif for Lucretius’ poem.Footnote 18 By nature, the development of things is always confined within the same boundaries. As Lucretius makes clear in the second occurrence of the lines, this sameness applies to kinds of things: Each created thing is generically always the same, having the same boundaries of what it can and cannot do, together with a fixed life-time. Lucretius illustrates this truth rather whimsically by the sameness of spots that differentiate the various kinds of birds (1.584–590):
Lucretius here refers to the arrangements of nature as “pacts” (foedera). Like the political pacts that humans make with one another, these natural pacts distribute powers to each kind of thing within fixed limits.Footnote 19 Unlike political pacts, however, these natural pacts cannot be broken; and, while they can be ignored, they will nevertheless always endure.
To return to the ultimatum, Nature is so insistent that “all things are always the same” that she repeats the message, with elaboration, in what she says next (3.946–949):
Nature now singles out the sort of plaintiff who is still at the height of his powers and still has some time left to live. Suppose now that he could live longer – much longer, and even forever. All things would still remain the same (especially if he were to live forever). At this point, it seems to me the subjective interpretation recedes into implausibility. The repetition of “all things,” together with the extension of their sameness to infinity, suggests ontological concreteness rather than a personal attitude. We now see the plaintiff as an observer, confronted by the objective sameness of all things for all time, rather than merely as a sufferer wrapped up in his own subjective misery. The sameness of things does indeed condemn to unending misery those who do not recognize it as a source of pleasure. For those who do, however, it offers a path to happiness. There is nothing inherently distressing about the natural sameness of things, nor is it inevitably boring (as commentators tend to suggest), but it provides an opportunity to enjoy life to the fullest.Footnote 20 Just as the gods enjoy to the fullest the infinitely extended sameness of their lives, so it is possible for humans to enjoy fully the finite sameness of their lives.
Nature rises to a height of invective in the final section of her ultimatum. She now returns to the theme of a full life by adding the example of an old person, who has become feeble. He has “gone through all the prizes of life” by letting them slip past him (3.956–960):
Paradoxically, the old man’s life is incomplete, even though he is on the brink of death. This is an appeal to Epicurus’ conception of a “complete” life. In opposition to the conventional view of a biologically complete life, Epicurus identified a complete life as one for which “the mind has reasoned out the limits of corporeal pleasure and removed the fears concerning eternity.”Footnote 21 Such a life, Epicurus adds, does not require an infinite time; nor does this sort of person go to his death, whenever it is ready for him, in such a way as to either “flee” pleasure or consider anything “lacking from the best life.” A finite period contains “equal pleasure” as an infinite time.Footnote 22 It follows that the prolongation of pleasure, after one has achieved a complete life, adds nothing to one’s pleasure.Footnote 23 The reason, as mentioned earlier, is that all we need in order to obtain the maximum of pleasure is the absence of pain, or katastematic pleasure, for both body and mind.
Lucretius avoids going into these details. Instead, he supplies the basic reason why a person has not achieved a complete life: He has let slip by his opportunities. Here, again, he is following Epicurus, who warned against always deferring one’s enjoyment.Footnote 24 Lucretius, however, goes further: He underpins Epicurus’ ethical injunction with an argument derived from his physics. He shows what is wrong about letting go of one’s opportunities by having Nature argue that things are always the same. Just as the man in his prime is forever looking for what is new, so the old man is forever seeking what is absent. Both ignore the natural sameness of things by fleeing forever toward what is different.
In short, Nature berates humans for refusing to take their place in the order she has established. Lucretius later sums up this message in his own words in his conclusion to Book 3. Straining to make his meaning clear, he declares (3.1080–1084):
The first verse is noteworthy for the density of meaning. versamur has a wide range of meanings, including “dwell,” “live,” and “are situated.” In addition to suggesting placement, it has the connotation of being active. ibidem, “in the same place,” picks up the spatial sense, as does insumus, which reinforces the idea of being contained in a place. The second verse reiterates Nature’s claim that she cannot devise any new pleasures; the verb procuditur, “hammered out,” suggests her role as a craftsman. By nature, all pleasures have already been hammered out as a condition for our having a place within the world.
The entire summary confirms, in my view, the objective reading of Nature’s insistence that all things are always the same. Objectively, we are always situated in the same place in the natural order of things, so as to have always the same powers to enjoy the same pleasures. Humans ignore this truth by yearning forever to step beyond these boundaries, with the result that we are forever dissatisfied. This is to run away, as it were, from our present, unalterable situation to an empty realm of fancy.
Lucretius offers a visual image of this very situation at 3.1053–1075, prior to the cited summary. He imagines a person who is so burdened by the fear of death that he keeps wanting to “change his place” (commutare locum, 3.1059).Footnote 25 Bored with life in his urban mansion, he rushes off to his country villa; and once he gets there, he immediately yawns and either falls into a deep sleep or rushes back to the city. Behind the literal change of place lies a deeper yearning. As Lucretius explains, what this person really wants is to escape his own diseased self. Not realizing, however, what ails him, he is forever caught in a futile frenzy to put his own self behind him. The right way to live, Lucretius implies, is to be grounded in one’s natural condition, taking advantage of the pleasures that are available within these boundaries. The sameness of nature is a kind of haven, or home, where one must stay put in order to live a full life.
If this is right, what makes Nature so harsh is that she is dealing with run-aways, as it were, who fail to recognize that she has provided for them a place, which is always the same, where they may attain full happiness. Their life has fixed boundaries, but these boundaries enclose a space that is full of opportunities for happiness. Although the conditions are always the same, the place is not boring; rather, it flourishes with opportunity. What is devastating, on the other hand, is the frustration that comes from trying to escape it.
How does this help with the problems I noted earlier? Here, I can offer only a bare sketch. First, there is the disjunction between those who have enjoyed their previous life, whether in part or as a whole, and those who have had no enjoyment. Like Epicurus, Lucretius has no patience with those who lament a life of no enjoyment: They are simply irrational. There remain those who have enjoyed life, even if only in part, yet mourn their death. They, too, are fools, for they failed to transform the pleasure they had into a full banquet, or a complete life. At bottom, all these complainers are alike; for whatever pleasure they had leaves them dissatisfied.
Further, Nature appears to ignore the difficulty of rooting out false opinions, as well as the special problems confronting young people. One way to respond is to appeal to Epicurus’ distinction among three types of causes: Some things, he says, happen by “necessity,” others by “chance” and others by “our own responsibility.”Footnote 26 Epicurus called chance “unstable” (ἄστατον); he also said that chance furnishes “starting-points for great goods and evils.” In her ultimatum, Nature focuses on one type of necessity: the fixity of the natural order of things, with special attention to the limits of pleasure. Epicurus’ description of chance as “unstable” marks a contrast with this stability. Lucretius’ Nature ignores chance, not because it does not exist, but because it falls outside her realm as an everlastingly fixed arrangement of the universe. Instead, she pairs personal responsibility with the necessity of her arrangement of things in order to impress on us our responsibility for accepting our place within the natural order of things.
One may object that Nature has arranged things in such a way as to give enormous scope to chance and, furthermore, has made humans unduly weak, both physically and intellectually. Still, she might argue, she has conferred on us both the inner strength and the external resources we need in order to use chance as a starting-point for good things, instead of letting it defeat us. There are exceptions: As Seneca attests, there is no necessity to put up with necessity; one is always free to make an end to life.Footnote 27 This is a different kind of necessity from the necessity of natural limits; and it appears to be viewed as rare.Footnote 28 As for the special problem of youth, neither Epicurus nor any other source specifies the amount of time that a person needs to achieve a complete life.Footnote 29 What is needed, in the first place, is a period of learning, then a period of living with happiness.Footnote 30 In principle, there seems to be no reason why a person might not be so gifted as to achieve a complete life while still young; but this would likely be difficult.Footnote 31 This difficulty would help to explain why, in her speech, Nature neither exempts young people nor singles them out for attack. There is no reason for anyone to bewail the prospect of death; but the middle-aged and the old are especially culpable for doing so.
This brings us to the problem of deprivation in general, as it applies to anyone at all, young or old, wise or fool. Granted that it is natural for a person to desire life, as attended by pleasure, how is it not a deprivation to have death cut off pleasure? Bernard Williams held that the desire for life is categorical, as opposed to the type of desire that is conditional on being alive.Footnote 32 On the Epicurean view, the desire for pleasure fits the latter category. In addition, however, the desire for life is itself conditional in the sense that one must yield to the necessity of death. It is futile to desire life beyond its natural boundary. Lucretius’ Nature shows how to live within this boundary: One must avail oneself of one’s present opportunities so as to reach the goal of a complete life within a finite period.Footnote 33 The person who does so accepts death, whenever he is confronted by its necessity, with gratitude for what he has had. By contrast, the person who has wasted his opportunities rejects death, lamenting his demise as a deprivation.
Given one’s natural desire for life, then, how is it possible to put a limit to it. Thomas Nagel’s distinction between a subjective and an objective point of view underscores the difficulty, but also suggests an answer. Taking a subjective view, we view death as an evil because it deprives us of goods that we might still have had; taking an objective view, we see ourselves as a contingent, dispensable part of the world, needing to give up goods. This results in a clash, Nagel believes, which cannot be fully resolved.Footnote 34 The Epicureans claim that it can be resolved by the victory of reason, which takes an objective point of view, over desires that are merely subjective. Lucretius puts Nature on the scene to demand this victory: While harsh to those who refuse to yield to reason, she holds out the promise of a fully contented life to those who recognize themselves as they really are – as a part of nature. The pangs that Philodemus mentions are a sign of the clash, but they are overcome in the end by a rational recognition of the objective conditions of our existence.Footnote 35
Finally, what does Nature have to do with Venus? As Monica Gale and others have shown, Lucretius creates myths of his own to counteract the pernicious myths of the past.Footnote 36 He starts his poem by putting Venus on the scene to represent the joy of life. Death is a different matter. When he comes to the topic, Lucretius again offers an anti-myth: Unlike traditional deities, his personified Nature is immovable, both in the sameness of the conditions she has established and in the demand that we accept her conditions. This personification complements the image of Venus we saw initially; for the limits she has placed on our existence are laden with all the pleasures we need to live life to the fullest.
The exhortation carpe diem – a hackneyed counsel offered along with instructions to pour the wine – reduces Epicureanism to a trite saying. Similarly cloying is a platitude lampooned by Lucretius: “Brief is this pleasure for us insignificant humans; soon it will have passed, and we can never call it back” (brevis hic est fructus homullis; | iam fuerit neque post umquam revocare licebit, 3.914–915). These trivializations are not merely simplifications of a serious philosophical position. Rather, as I shall explain, “Epicurean” platitudes are profoundly anti-Epicurean. To put it another way: From its inception, Epicureanism was fundamentally opposed to kitsch. This essay explicates that anti-kitsch stance and explores how Lucretius combats kitsch, even as kitsch was enthusiastically circulated in other Roman contexts in the form of Epicurean objects and clichés. My concern is the ethical rather than the aesthetic ramifications of kitsch, and my primary focus is the revelation of Epicurean thanatology in the third book of On the Nature of Things that is often described as a diatribe against the fear of death. I offer my reading not as a replacement of that apt identification, but as a supplement. My argument is that the most vehement strains of Lucretius’ diatribe against the fear of death are a polemic against kitsch, and that this polemic intersects with a broader Epicurean tradition of frank criticism.
Rather than starting with a definition of kitsch and a defense of my anachronistic use of a modern concept, let me open with a simple Epicurean pronouncement most likely culled from a larger work: “Against other things it is possible to find security, but when it comes to death we human beings all dwell in an unwalled city,” (Πρὸς μὲν τἆλλα δυνατὸν ἀσφάλειαν πορίσασθαι, χάριν δὲ θανάτου πάντες ἄνθρωποι πόλιν ἀτείχιστον οἰκοῦμεν, VS 31). In its original context, the metaphor of the defenseless city may have been complex enough to reveal Epicurus’ specific cultural location as he wrote in proximity to the Athenian Acropolis and the Long Walls. But the isolation of the metaphor as it has survived magnifies its blunt representation of the vulnerability of all human life. The starkness of the image is an Epicurean stand against kitsch. I use the term kitsch as it appears in Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which the narrator asserts that “kitsch is a folding screen set up to curtain off death.”Footnote 1 Kundera’s metaphor is more useful than a dictionary entry, and in the course of this essay I will supplement Kundera’s sweeping declarations on the essence of kitsch with further elucidations.
Before examining the confrontation with kitsch in On the Nature of Things, it is necessary to take a closer look at Kundera’s account of kitsch. Kitsch, he writes, is a word born in Germany “in the middle of the sentimental nineteenth century.”Footnote 2 Since then it has been used to describe paintings of Elvis on velvet, bad poems about sunsets and drawings of large-eyed kittens. But by focusing on what he sees as the fundamental urge that creates kitsch, Kundera returns us to a deeper import of the word:
Behind all the European faiths, religious and political, we find the first chapter of Genesis, which tells us that the world was created properly, that human existence is good, and that we are therefore entitled to multiply. Let us call this basic faith a categorical agreement with being.Footnote 3
For Kundera, this “categorical agreement with being” requires a refusal to acknowledge the existence of excrement.Footnote 4 Thus Kundera’s narrator in The Unbearable Lightness of Being describes the ideal he calls kitsch as “the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.”Footnote 5 In a world of kitsch, no one eliminates and nothing rots.
Ways of thinking that require kitsch, and the various shapes in which kitsch appears, are of course not universal or timeless, and readers may reasonably protest that I am rashly coopting a term designed for a critique of modern culture. Nonetheless, my hypothesis is that for Lucretius, kitsch is the absolute denial of putrefaction. To refuse to acknowledge putrefaction is to deny that everything is mortal, that the nature of things is larger than human existence and that “the entire world can be felled with a shocking, resounding crash” (succidere horrisono posse omnia victa fragore, Lucr. 5.109). This is why Lucretius refers so directly to the decomposition of the body in his most trenchant and sarcastic attacks against kitsch in the third book of On the Nature of Things. To some extent, moreover, Lucretius’ repudiation of kitsch may be understood as the impetus behind the harrowing description of the plague at the conclusion of the epic.Footnote 6
One sign of Lucretius’ unflinching stare at death appears in the “vivid and repellent picture of the wriggling mass of white maggots” that are one of Lucretius’ demonstrations that a soul cannot survive the destruction of the body intact.Footnote 7 For Lucretius, some particles of the soul remain in the decaying flesh (3.717–721):
The gleeful wordplay of viscere vermes (“from flesh … worms”) expresses latent inevitability. Like Lucretius’ well-known ignis/lignis puns (1.905, 1.907, 1.912 and 2.386–387) that capture the idea of wood (lignis) containing atoms capable of making fire (ignis), the phrase viscere vermes signals that flesh yields inexorably to worms. The poet follows this with an image of souls hunting for new homes among the maggots, “an especially outré example” of Lucretius’ use of a sarcastic reductio ad absurdum of an opposing explanation (3.727–729).Footnote 9
After describing the finality of death and the mortality of the soul, Lucretius sums things up with frank Epicurean wisdom: “Therefore death is nothing to us” (Nil igitur mors est ad nos, 3.830), and he explains dispassionately that death is so final that it is as though we had never been born “once immortal death has taken away mortal life” (mortalem vitam mors cum inmortalis ademit, 3.869). But then we have an abrupt change of tone. As E. J. Kenney writes of lines 870–893, “this is the point where the diatribe-satirist takes over”Footnote 10 (3.870–875):
The essential word indignarier (“to resent”) connotes irrational indignation and childish whining, and reappears when Lucretius adds that the complainer “resents that he was born mortal” (indignatur se mortalem esse creatum, 3.884). Servius Sulpicius Rufus uses the same term to describe misguided resentment “of us manikins” in a letter to Cicero after the death of Tullia (Fam. 4, 5, 4; 248 SB, March 45 BC). The letter avoids Lucretius’ graphic clarity, but the implication is clear: Death and decay are compulsory conditions, and protestations are futile.
When used in reference to the human body, the term putescere has shock value, as does its English cognate “putrefaction.” The phrase corpore posto (3.871) probably connotes placement in a grave, and putescat (3.871) could serve as a matter-of-fact reference to the decomposition of the interred body after a conventional funeral. Nonetheless, the word putescat conjures up the notion of defilement and a body’s resultant disgusting odor and appearance.Footnote 11 The word putescere is at home in the context of abandoned corpses, as when Cicero describes a body ignominiously left out to rot (Tusc. 1.102) and Horace describes what happens to the dishonored Ajax when burial is denied (cur Ajax putescit, Sat. 2.3.194). Comparison with Diogenes of Oenoanda’s reference to rotting flesh is instructive, and both he and Lucretius may have had a common source. Diogenes of Oenoanda writes that he does not fear Hades or shudder at the thought of the putrefaction (μύδησις) of the body (fr. 73 Smith). Elsewhere μυδάω and μύδησις (relatively infrequent words) appear in medical treatises to describe necrosis, ulcerated flesh and infected eyelids (Aret. CD 1.4; Galen 14.770; HP VC. 15). Significantly, Sophocles uses μύδησις in the context of the horrific exposure of the body of Polynices, the state of which compels the guards to sit up wind (Soph. Ant. 410). Lucretius’ reference to “birds and beasts” (volucres … feraeque, 3.880–883) brings to mind the “classic fate of the unburied corpse in literary allusion from Homer onwards.”Footnote 12 Whether conceived as oblivion or as rotting flesh, death is nothing to the Epicurean. Lucretius stresses the absurdity of the fear of mistreatment after death with the stark image of an impossibility: The deceased standing by in horror as he witnesses his own defiled corpse (3.879–883).
Lucretius’ blunt references to worms and the decomposition of the body compel the reader to face the stark reality of death. With each elaboration of the theme, the reader sheds another false fear and clings less tightly to commonplace beliefs in immortality. But if his concern is kitsch that obscures the inescapable finality of one’s own death, why does Lucretius focus such harsh and unsympathetic attention on the lamentations of the bereaved? Here it is important to keep all of Book 3 in view. After ridiculing the fear of the mistreatment of one’s own corpse, Lucretius asserts that one may as well be afraid of being disposed of in a conventional manner: being set on fire, piled over with heavy earth or – a reference to embalmment – being suffocated with honey (while already dead). But then Lucretius shifts abruptly to a vignette of mourners bewailing the death of a young father. The scene offers a brief but vivid picture of the bereft home, wife and children. The lampoon of these grief-stricken mourners displays a sarcasm that seems to many readers particularly gratuitous, misdirected and even cruel (3.894–899):
Two aspects of this passage are parodic. First, the allusion to the happy home is expressed in overly sentimental language. In another time and place, the children would be emerging from the gate of the proverbial picket fence. Second, grief is expressed here in markedly maudlin tones. The words optima (“the best”) and dulcis (“sweet”) are typical epithets on sepulchral monuments, and the colloquial phrase misero misere (“wretched … wretchedly”) sounds especially mawkish, as does una dies infesta (“one hateful day”).Footnote 13 Kenney aptly stresses the “scornful echoes of the clichés of mourning,” but protests that Lucretius’ “implicit rejection of the natural concern of a man for what will happen to his family when he dies, though of a piece with his scornful rejection of all conventional mourning, denies a basic human need.”Footnote 14 To further emphasize Lucretius’ apparent lack of human understanding, Kenney adds that the concern for survivors, when expressed by Homer’s Hector as he parts forever with Andromache, “forms part of one of the most moving episodes in all literature.”Footnote 15 But perhaps this is the point: Although nothing in Lucretius’ language suggests a lampoon specifically of the Iliad, Lucretius may be mimicking clichéd imitations.
Tobias Reinhardt has argued that the shift in perspective from the readers’ fear of their own deaths to the topic of mourning the death of someone else is due to Lucretius’ determination to keep the focus on irrational fear. He notes the following: “What Lucretius is doing is trading one argument for the other, offering us an argument that is actually pertinent only to a particular kind of grief and to the fear of being dead.”Footnote 16 For Reinhardt, Lucretius is aware that a parent’s fear of dying young, and leaving the children defenseless, is a rational fear – when viewed from the perspective of a parent’s wish to protect a child. Such a fear might reasonably trouble a living parent. But the novice Epicurean reader is not yet equipped to comprehend the full Epicurean response to that reasonable fear, so Lucretius needs the reader to focus single-mindedly on the simple argument that the dead have no concerns. A parent who no longer exists cannot miss the children. Reinhardt is right to examine how Lucretius steers the reader’s philosophical progress as the books of the epic unfold. But his explanation is not entirely satisfying as an answer to the question of why Lucretius satirizes grief. Why does the poem turn so abruptly to a send-up of lamentation for someone whose passing might reasonably distress us: A man who has left behind his young family? Here too, a consideration of late twentieth-century explorations of the concept of kitsch is illuminating. When its broadest trajectory is read as a polemic against kitsch, the coherence of Lucretius’ attack on the fear of death becomes clearer. In Kitsch and Art, Thomas Kulka writes that “[t]he success of kitsch depends on the universality of the emotions it elicits.”Footnote 17 Their spontaneous response to a kitschy work of “art” pleases its consumers, but so does their awareness that they are responding in the right way, the way that everyone else responds. Here Kulka quotes Kundera’s well-known concept of the second tear:
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass.
The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!
It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.Footnote 18
In the second tear there is an element of self-congratulation, but also a pleasure in this manifestation of universality. Continuing his own exploration of the definition of kitsch, Kulka writes: “It breeds on universal images … Since the purpose of kitsch is to please the greatest possible number of people, it always plays on the most common denominators.”Footnote 19 For Kulka, three conditions are essential. First, kitsch displays objects or concepts that are “highly charged with stock emotions.” Second, the subject matter must be immediately and effortlessly recognizable. Third, “kitsch does nothing substantial to enrich our associations relating to the depicted objects or themes.”Footnote 20 Although his focus is on the visual arts, and the examples he cites are conventionally pleasing (puppies, kittens, cute children), Kulka’s observations are relevant to the stock phrases indulged in by Lucretius’ lugubrious mourners of the prematurely departed father.
The mourners, Lucretius continues, ought to add that the dead have no yearning for the pleasures whose loss they lament (3.900–901). Taking another tack, the mourners continue with a reference to the endless sleep of the deceased, which contrasts with their own anguish (3.904–908):
Again, the language mocks the commonplaces of sepulchral monuments and formal lament. Of the three-word line, insatiabiliter deflevimus aeternumque (3.907), Kenney writes: “The effect of this verse on the cultivated Roman ear cannot have been other than grotesque.”Footnote 21 David West points out that insatiabiliter (“insatiably”) occurs elsewhere in Lucretius only in a description of swine enjoying a roll in the muck (6.978). He also reminds us that these lines are spoken in the voice not of Lucretius, but of unenlightened mourners: “Surely these pathetic rhetorical figures and astonishing rhythms are meant as sarcastic caricatures of the mawkish clichés used by such stulti and baratri.”Footnote 22 Noting the pompous and pretentious tone, Barbara Wallach identifies these lines as a parody of a now lost genre of consolatory literature that would have resonated with Lucretius’ Roman readers.Footnote 23 Kenney also points out the triteness of aeternumque … maerorem (“everlasting grief”).Footnote 24
Continuing his lampoon, Lucretius describes maudlin drinkers who philosophize in clichés and lament their own deaths: “Brief is this pleasure for puny humans; soon it will be gone, nor can we ever call it back” (brevis hic est fructus homullis; | iam fuerit neque post umquam revocare licebit, 3.914–915). As though, Lucretius retorts, they think the worst thing about death is that they will be thirsty (3.916–918). Not all theoretical considerations of kitsch are germane to my reading of Lucretius, and I reiterate that foregrounding the anti-kitsch impulse of Epicureanism is not the only way to read Lucretius’ diatribe against the fear of death. But relevant here is Jason Wirth’s observation that “humor and irony are lethal to kitsch.”Footnote 25 Or, as Kulka formulates it: “Kitsch is indeed totally incompatible with even the mildest form of questioning; that is, with irony.”Footnote 26 Mildness is not Lucretius’ métier, and his oblique irony often surges into sardonic contempt as he questions conventional responses to death.
Lucretius does not, however, condemn grief itself, nor does he present human sorrow as something contemptible. His strenuous critique of the irrational fear of being dead is not a full exposition of Epicurean theory and practice regarding the proper attitudes toward death. We know from Philodemus of Gadara’s On Death, for example, that Epicurean theory could countenance the fear of the consequences for the survivors of one’s own premature death as a rational cause for disquiet.Footnote 27 Rather, in the vignettes of the departed father and the maudlin drinkers, Lucretius’ focus is on the way that kitsch – the image of the stereotypically sweet children, the maudlin lamentation, the pseudo-philosophy, the falseness – diverts our attention from the reality of the unwalled city.
The clichéd lamentations for the young father have something in common with the inapt tombstone erected for the character Tomas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “HE WANTED THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN ON EARTH.”Footnote 28 Asserting the heir’s right “to express his father’s life in his own vocabulary,” the erstwhile estranged son chose the phrase despite his awareness of the incongruity with Tomas’ own worldview.Footnote 29 The disparaging ending to this section of the novel, while not closely applicable to Lucretius, stresses the incongruousness between the reality of death and the mourners’ hackneyed response: “Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.”Footnote 30
A Parallel from Philodemus
Epicurean candor obliterates kitsch. Sometimes Lucretius stages a direct confrontation, as when he emphasizes putrefaction or gives a voice to a personified Nature who addresses not just Memmius or the implied reader, but all humanity (3.933–934):
But as I have argued, parody also leads to clarity. Pertinent here is a poem by Philodemus that I would also identify as an Epicurean critique of kitsch. The male speaker in Epigrams 3 addresses Xantho, who is described with a string of hyperbolic praises. She is “formed of wax” (κηρόπλαστε, 1), an inscrutable compliment unless it refers to her doll-like quality, a sense confirmed when she is equated to “a beautiful statue of the double-winged Pothoi” (διπτερύγων καλὸν ἄγαλμα Πόθων, 2). Two adjectives sound pedestrian in translation – “with the face of a muse” (μουσοπρόσωπε, 1) and “with perfumed skin” (μυρόχροε, 1) – but the fact that for us they are hapax legomena suggests that they would have sounded comically inflated or even bizarre. That suspicion is heightened by the only other attestation for the adjective “double-winged” (διπτερύγων), which occurs elsewhere as a descriptor for mosquitoes (Meleager 33). Next we have a plea that she sing a “sweet” maudlin song (Epigrams 3, 4–7 Sider = AP 9.570):
Some scholars see a disjunction between the composer of this epigram and Philodemus as an Epicurean scholar. Thus Philip Merlan asks: “Is this the same Philodemus who quoted the tetraphramakos, with its ‘Death is nothing to us?’”Footnote 31 But the answer is an emphatic “yes” when we read these couplets as the words not of Philodemus “himself,” but as the ironically misguided words of his insufficiently Epicurean persona. Not all readers hear the repeated ναί, ναί as a maudlin refrain, but Sider is right to adduce the repetition in “No longer, no longer will your happy home give you welcome”(iam iam non domus accipiet te, Lucr. 3.894).Footnote 32 The male speaker in the epigram espouses an outlook on death that is as suspect as his exaggerated praise of Xantho, which has something in common with Lucretius’ ridicule of the language of lovers (4.1160–1169).Footnote 33 Xantho, however, plays the role of the candid Epicurean who simultaneously deflates the would-be lover’s schmaltzy language and his extravagant reference to the sleep of death. Rather than complying with his request to sing the sentimental lyrics, Xantho rebukes him with a parody of the song (Epigram 3, 8–9 Sider):
Her use of the vocative ὦ ἄνθρωπε (ὤνθρωφ᾿, 7) marks her response as a philosophical exhortation, or more generally as a notice to the addressee that he should stay aware of his human limitations. As examples of this usage in Epicurean contexts, Wolfgang Schmid cites Diogenes of Oenoanda’s “O fellow human being” (fr. 3, col. 3.9 Smith; ὦ ἄνθρωπε) in his address to potential readers of his epigraphical invitation to Epicureanism, and “O mortal” in Nature’s speech, quoted above (Lucr. 3.933–934).Footnote 34 Thus, in what Schmid aptly calls a “philosophical palinode,” Xantho, as Sider puts it, offers a blunt Epicurean corrective in order to “bring him back to his Epicurean senses.”Footnote 35 The song he had requested refers to death illogically and histrionically as a “deathlessly long” sleep in a redundantly stony, rocky tomb, a conceit she ridicules by heightening the illogicality: If he is asleep, he must be perpetually alive in this poetically embellished tomb.Footnote 36 Sider hears a similarity between Xantho’s reproof and Nature’s “chiding tones,” but I would put a strong stress on Xantho’s parodic tone.Footnote 37 If we had more of Epicurus’ extensive corpus, we would know whether he too sometimes lampooned commonplace misconceptions and conventional platitudes.
Epicureanism into Kitsch
In On Ends, Cicero tells a story about a stroll around Athens with some erudite companions. Among them is Cicero’s friend Atticus, who had a serious interest in Epicureanism and might – perhaps with qualifications – be called an adherent.Footnote 38 As they walk, an array of monuments and locales remind them of the Greek past. When they pass the Garden, Atticus remarks: “I could not forget Epicurus if I wanted to; my confrères have his image not only on plaques, but even on their drinking cups and rings” (nec tamen Epicuri licet oblivisci, si cupiam, cuius imaginem non modo in tabulis nostri familiares, sed etiam in poculis et in anulis habent, 5.3). Atticus acknowledges that he frequents the Garden, but adds an indication of his disinclination to revere the long-gone founder: “As the old proverb says, I remember the living.” A defense of my argument that Epicureanism was profoundly anti-kitsch requires that I acknowledge the proliferation of Epicurean accoutrements. In other words, I must acknowledge Epicurean kitsch. One person’s art is another’s kitsch, but I would assert that a ring depicting a philosopher qualifies as the latter, and the touch of amusement I hear in Atticus’ remark suggests he would agree.
Several rings and intaglios depicting busts of Epicurus in profile have survived, and are presumably examples of the objects Atticus refers to.Footnote 39 Bernard Frischer counts six rings: five gems catalogued in Richter’s Gems of the Greeks and Romans, and a gold ring.Footnote 40 To these Frischer tentatively adds a gem in Munich and I would add a glass gem at the British Museum.Footnote 41 Richter identified the miniature portraits through their resemblance to sculptures of Epicurus, and the appearance of the inscription “Epicurus” on one (a Carnelian ring). In addition, Richter catalogs two gems that might represent Metrodorus. Sadly, the dates and provenance of these apparently first- to third-century objects are not known. Before concluding that Epicureans in particular were assiduous ring-wearers, it is important to note that Richter also catalogs other relevant rings, including two depicting Aristotle and fourteen depicting Socrates. Thus, material philosophical kitsch was by no means uniquely Epicurean.
It is hard to know what sort of plaques or “tablets” (tabulis) Atticus has in mind, but Pliny the Elder also records with disdain that Epicureans among his contemporaries “bear portraits of Epicurus around with them, both privately and abroad” (Epicuri voltus per cubicula gestant ac circumferunt secum, NH 355). Pliny’s remark is in some ways inscrutable, and he may mean that people wear or carry (gestant) Epicurus’ portrait literally around their bedrooms (per cubicula) and also parade it around publicly (circumferunt secum). Disparagement is certainly implied, as the remark occurs in the context of Pliny’s complaint that instead of preserving wax models of themselves and recent ancestors (on display in the home and ready to carry in funeral processions), his contemporaries buy expensive works by foreign artists and “prize the likenesses of strangers” (alienasque effigies colunt, NH 355). After describing their ostentatious picture galleries, he adds that “the same people” display portraits of athletes in their “anointing rooms” (apparently where they and their guests prepare for exercise), and – in the passage quoted above – pictures of Epicurus in their private rooms (or specifically in their bedrooms). Here he takes a passing swipe at Epicureans, grumbling that they also observe Epicurus’ birthday and the traditional gathering on the twentieth of every month, but his general complaint is the broader collecting habits of his contemporaries. This brief tangent on Epicurean traditions implies that he views both the portraits and the festivals as indicative of excessive devotion to Epicurus.
As for the Epicurean cups, none has survived. But perhaps Lucretius refers obliquely to such paraphernalia when he describes the maudlin drinkers’ laments for the brevity of the lives of “puny humans” (3.914–915; mentioned above). In these verses, Lucretius moves from his critique of commonplace complaints about death to prefacing his imitation of the drinkers: “People also do this when they recline and hold out their cups and wreath their brows” (hoc etiam faciunt ubi discubuere tenentque / pocula saepe homines et inumbrant ora coronis, 3.912–913). At first sight the poor saps who bemoan their future deaths seem to represent any inebriated, cup-holding, late-night philosophizers. The “eat, drink, and be merry” conceit pre-dates Epicurus, but in the context of On the Nature of Things, are these fools wayward Epicureans?Footnote 42 Kenney takes these lines as evidence for the prevalence of a trivialized Epicureanism in Republican Rome. In his view, Lucretius is describing how drunken inhibition brings out irrational beliefs hidden beneath an Epicurean veneer. Commenting on Lucretius’ harsh response, Kenney concludes: “The situation is piquant: The real Epicurean arraigns the false.”Footnote 43 Admittedly, even if Kenney is right about the drinkers’ pretentions to Epicureanism, their cups are not necessarily emblazoned with portraits of Epicurus. Frischer points out, however, that a cup from Boscoreale that depicts Zeno (the Stoic) mocking Epicurus supports the assumption that cups decorated with Epicurus’ image did exist, “since parody pre-supposes a serious model.”Footnote 44 Like a coffee mug purchased in a museum shop, an Epicurus cup might be either cheesy or tasteful, depending upon the owner’s sensibilities. But Cicero’s account of the conversation as the friends pass the Garden suggests that Atticus detects cheesiness.
It would be interesting to explore whether certain formulaic refrains displayed on Roman funeral monuments were commonly perceived as Epicurean sentiments and whether Lucretius would mock them. Examples include jingles such as non fui, fui, non sum (“I was not, I was, I am not”) and balnea vina venus (“baths, wine, sex”).Footnote 45 But for now, I turn to Horace, who discerned the potential for kitsch in what I would cautiously characterize as the spoken equivalent of an Epicurean ring or cup: quasi- or pseudo-Epicurean slogans, prime among them the well-worn exhortation carpe diem. Although some readers take seriously the philosophical discourse of the carpe diem ode (Odes 1.11), I would describe Horace’s proffering of the philosophical mottoes in Odes 1.11 as the devious maneuvers of an unreliable narrator. W. S. Anderson has described in detail how this works: The male speaker (perhaps to be understood as Horace’s persona) engages discourse presented with gravity in other odes: the harsh weather outside, the advice to cut short hopes for the future, the injunction not to ask about troubling matters and the invitation to enjoy the wine instead.Footnote 46 Anderson demonstrates how these motifs are presented mechanically along with other clichés in Odes 1.11 by a half-avuncular and half-predatory speaker who is impatient to have sex with the justifiably wary Leuconoe. As Anderson points out, even the meter of the ode is suspect: “The speaker emerges as a person of clipped and perfunctory argument, who gets trapped, particularly by the choriambs, and exposed as a man of ready phrases and trite slogans.” Six of the thirteen relentlessly repetitive metrical units (all choriambs) sound particularly glib: scire nefas; ut melius; quidquid erit; vina liques; dum loquimur; carpe diem (“it is wrong to know”; “so much the better”; “whatever will be”; “strain the wine”; “while we are [merely] talking”; “harvest the day”; Odes 1.11.1–8). Here the rhetoric of other odes sometimes identified specifically as “carpe diem odes” is “reduced and essentially parodied, to work for the patent purposes of seduction.”Footnote 47 While Anderson does not mention Epicureanism in his insightful essay, carpe diem is not merely philosophical language, but is specifically Epicurean. The agricultural metaphor carpe (“harvest or pluck”) must be a direct echo of Epicurus’ similar-sounding καρπίζεται (“harvest”; “enjoy the fruits of”), which may have appeared more aphoristically in other sources but has survived in Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus, where we read that the wise person chooses and “enjoys the fruits not of the longest time, but of the sweetest time” (χρόνον οὐ τὸν μήκιστον ἀλλὰ τὸν ἥδιστον καρπίζεται, Men. 126). Nonetheless, in Odes 1.11, Epicurus’ reference to the harvesting of time has turned into trite “Epicurean” moralizing. But although Horace was likely not a card-carrying (or ring-wearing) Epicurean, his sardonic conjuring of Epicurean kitsch does not preclude an appreciation for authentic Epicurean wisdom. His send-up may be as much a self-parody as a lampoon of hackneyed Epicureanism.
Why was Epicureanism so easy to reduce to a slogan or to an object that can be worn on a finger or held in the hand? Any philosophical school could attract ill-informed practitioners or be subject to parody, but Epicureanism presents a special case. Although he was an Epicurean-friendly reader, Don Fowler found Epicureanism “austerely and challengingly simple.” In Epicureanism as a scientific philosophy he saw “a strong aspiration” toward “the one true story.” Epicureanism’s urge to explain all of reality as a result of the movements of atoms, its “constant aspiration to reduction,” led to a “thinness and clarity of the message.” But for Fowler, Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things represents a fundamental departure from early Epicureanism. Whereas Epicurus was a reductionist, Lucretius’ rich language suggests “multiple approaches to the world.”Footnote 48 Fowler sensed a tension between Epicurus and Lucretius that renders the latter’s epic “as deeply un-Epicurean as it is deeply Epicurean.”Footnote 49 I agree with Fowler about the richness and complexity of Lucretius’ presentation of Epicureanism, but the question of whether Epicurus’ approach is in fact reductive lies outside the scope of this essay. Nonetheless, one result of the potential “thinness and clarity of the message” is that Epicureanism could be condensed to simple slogans and clichés, or even to one word. Cicero and Seneca routinely reduce the entire philosophy to “Pleasure” (Voluptas), and Marcus Aurelius chose as his label for Epicureanism the single word “Atoms.”Footnote 50 Others gave Epicureanism a two-word title: One of Lucilius’ characters calls it “Effluences and Atoms,” and Cassius (a friend to the Garden) counters Cicero’s hostile summation affirmatively with the Greek pair “Pleasure and Tranquility.”Footnote 51
With the formulation of the Principal Doctrines, Epicurus may have begun this process himself. His followers sometimes expanded the Principal Doctrines, so that the text preserved by Diogenes Laertius (usually considered canonical) differs from the Vatican Sayings and the version displayed by Diogenes of Oenoanda. But sometimes faithful followers reduced the doctrines to the tetrapharmakos, the four-fold remedy for human suffering found in a text by Philodemus: “The gods do not concern us; death is nothing to us; what is good can be easily obtained; what is bad can be avoided” (PHerc. 1005, col. 4.9–14). Could this be kitsch? The potential is there, but my sense is that these statements possess a clarity that prevents them from sinking to the realm of irredeemable kitsch.
Conclusion: Anti-Kitsch as Frank Criticism
When we read the diatribe against the fear of death as a polemic against kitsch, we can see more clearly that Lucretius is not presenting a full course in Epicurean thanatology, but is instead leading the reader through the first steps by stripping away the conventional clichés that occlude reality. The process involves the potential pain Lucretius refers to when he writes that Epicureanism may first seem “rather bitter” (tristior, 1.944), causing most people to “recoil” (abhorret, 1.945). Though ultimately liberating, both the message and its delivery can be harsh, and Lucretius’ metaphorical honey softens the bitterness of the medicine, but does not coat the whole. Lucretius’ reference to the initially bitter taste of Epicurean teaching resonates with a particular mode of therapeutic Epicurean instruction described in On Frank Criticism (PHerc. 1471), Philodemus’ fragmentary epitome of lectures delivered by his teacher Zeno of Sidon. We know from this work that Epicurean advice and correction could be “mild” (μέτριον) or “harsh” (σκληρόν) and “bitter” (πικρόν), depending on circumstances such as the error being addressed, the status of the speaker and the fortitude of the hearer.
I take some aspects of Lucretius’ diatribe against kitsch as a manifestation of the more bitter type of Epicurean frank criticism. Lucretius’ treatment of death had begun by candidly appealing to the readers’ reason, carefully laying out the proofs of the mortality of the soul and the Epicurean assertion that “death is nothing to us.” Then, progressing from the appeal to reason to language that stirs the emotions, Lucretius’ tone ranges from quiet persuasion to harsher frankness, with his descriptions of putrefaction and the vignette of the father and his orphans being the most bitter. Philodemus was careful to specify that even the bitter mode of frank criticism must not include sarcasm and derision (On Frank Criticism fr. 23.1–4; cf. 37; 38), and perhaps he would not praise Lucretius’ diatribe. But Lucretius seems to employ varying degrees of mildness and bitterness depending on whether his target is Memmius or an unspecified, implied reader. When he addresses Memmius directly, he is as deferential as Philodemus advises a teacher to be when instructing someone of higher social status. When Lucretius gives Nature the opportunity to speak, he tempers the rebuke by remarking that she might justly censure “someone of us” (3.932). Lucretius also softens the blow by rhetorically presenting Memmius with the opportunity to rebuke himself (3.1024–1026):Footnote 52
But the most hypothetical of Lucretius’ implied readers do not require deference or the gentler types of frank criticism such as the approaches Philodemus recommends for the instruction of the most vulnerable. Like the theoretical mourners and other fools within Lucretius’ epic, the implied readers will not crumble under the teacher’s harsh reprimands. Meanwhile, the actual readers of On the Nature of Things are out of the direct path and are thus insulated from the sting of harsh criticism. Nonetheless, Lucretius’ diatribe against the fear of death does not allow any of its actual or implied addressees to take refuge in platitudes and false assurances. To deny that our metaphorical city has penetrable walls – to pretend that human lives are not dispensable in the great scheme of things – and to bemoan the eventuality of one’s own death … this is kitsch.
Manuscripts containing the works of Quintus Ennius (239–169 BC) appear not to have survived much beyond the fourth century AD,Footnote 1 so scholars interested in the disiecti membra poetae (“limbs of a scattered poet,” Hor. Sat. 1.4.62) have long been focusing on later authors who engaged with his oeuvre. That group includes the late-Republican writer Lucretius, whose Epicurean poem On the Nature of Things is steeped in archaic language and metrical constructions reminiscent of Ennian poetry. It also contains a prominent reference to the earlier poet’s views on the afterlife (1.112–135). In revisiting the intertextual connection between the two authors in this paper, I do not seek to contest the typical conclusion that Ennius ranked next to Homer and Empedocles among those literary predecessors whom Lucretius revered but with whose worldview he often disagreed.Footnote 2 Rather, I will reassess a number of familiar points of contact between the two writers in Book 1 of On the Nature of Things – which is where Lucretius first sets up his poem’s sustained allusive conversation with Ennius – in pursuit of a twofold thesis.
First, I posit that in those passages where Lucretius is known to engage with Ennius – not just in the discussion of life after death, but also in the encomium of Epicurus (1.62–79), the sacrifice of Iphigenia (1.82–101) and the brief narration of the Trojan War (1.464–482) – the Epicurean poet repeats more key terminology from his Ennian source passages than has previously been recognized. The depth and number of these references to Ennius suggest that throughout Book 1, Lucretius tends to contest not just common worldviews in a general sense, but common worldviews as expressed – more specifically – by Ennius. This thorough engagement with Rome’s first “national” poet shows that Ennius’ compositions provided more than engaging accounts of classical mythology and vivid narrations of historical events on which to hinge Roman identity. Rather, the cosmology of his poetry could count as religion or even philosophy.
Second, I posit that Lucretius’ need to refute Ennius is so urgent because the earlier poet’s works continued to be included at the Roman ludi and hence contributed to the spectators’ mass-indoctrination in what, to an Epicurean, would constitute a harmful ideology. In an attempt to counter this potentially detrimental effect, Lucretius alludes specifically to those parts of Ennius’ epic and dramatic output that, as writers from Cicero to Aulus Gellius consistently report, remained popular in recitations and revival performances. What is more, where Lucretius describes mythological events in particularly Ennian language and imagery, his versions correspond closely to the same stories’ portrayal in the visual arts. This phenomenon hints at a rich cross-pollination between stagings of Ennius’ works and depictions of classical myth in Roman painting. In engaging with both at the same time, Lucretius provides his readers with a guidebook on how to deconstruct commonly held misconceptions wherever they encounter them, be it in their studies of classical literature, while attending Ennian performances in the theater or while glancing at pictorial representations of mythological scenes on the walls of Roman houses.
Lucretius’ engagement with Ennius begins well before he actually mentions the older poet in Book 1 (at line 117). After the opening hymn to Venus (1.1–43) and an initial explication of the vocabulary he will be applying to atoms (1.49–61), Lucretius introduces the reader to his idol, Epicurus (1.62–79). The philosopher remains unnamed, but it is commonly understood that he is the Greek man who, back “when life lay foully on the earth, oppressed by heavy superstition” (foede cum vita iaceret | in terris oppressa gravi sub religione, 1.62–63), first dared to look up at the sky (primum Graius homo mortalis tollere contra | est oculos ausus, 1.66–67) and challenged the reign of religio. His intellect “proceeded far beyond the burning walls of the world” (extra | processit longe flammantia moenia mundi, 1.72–73) and brought back actual knowledge of what can and cannot happen, and thereby dispelled irrational fears of the gods and brought us closer to ἀταραξία.
In this context, the phrase Graius homo – used to describe Epicurus at 1.66 – connects back to, and establishes a firm intertextual connection with, Ennius’ Annals.Footnote 3 The sixth book of this epic narrated Pyrrhus’ campaign against Rome, and it seems to have made its author’s admiration for the Hellenistic king readily apparent.Footnote 4 Ennius describes the Epirote invader as “from the highest stock” (a stirpe supremo, fr. 166 Sk) and as “a vigorous man …, a Greek man with a Greek father, a king” (navos repertus homo, Graio patre, Graius homo, rex, fr. 165 Sk). Throughout the rest of the book, which foregrounded its martial interests from its very first lines,Footnote 5 Ennius explored what such terms as virtus (“manly valor”), vis (“force”) and vincere (“to be victorious”) come to mean when they are applied to a general who famously won every battle but at such a cost that he might as well have lost. It is this key vocabulary that, I posit, was of particular interest to Lucretius. In Ennius, Pyrrhus is said, for example, to have dedicated an inscription in the temple of Jupiter in Tarentum, which noted that “men who previously were undefeated, best father of Olympus, I have defeated with force in battle and I have, in turn, been defeated by the same men” (qui antehac | invicti fuere viri, pater optume Olympi, | hos ego vi pugna vici victusque sum ab isdem, fr. 180–182 Sk).Footnote 6 Words derived from vincere (in-victi … vici victusque) here alternate and alliterate with forms of vir (“man,” hence virtus) and vis in an evaluation of the paradox that is a Pyrrhic victory. The source that contains the fragment (Oros. Hist. 4.1.14) goes on to say that, when asked “why he called himself defeated although he had won” (cur se victum diceret qui vicisset), Pyrrhus responded “truly, if I win another time in this same manner, I will return without a single soldier to Epirus” (ne ego si iterum eodem modo vicero sine ullo milite Epirum revertar). Presuming this wording echoes the king’s presentation in the Annals, it seems that vocabulary derived from vincere (victum … vicisset … vicero) predominated not just in the fragment itself, but also in its immediate surroundings.Footnote 7
As far as Ennius’ use of the term virtus is concerned, it also stands at the center of Pyrrhus’ assertion that he has no interest in riches but wants to challenge the Romans in the area of “manly valor” (virtute experiamur, fr. 187 Sk.). Those who retain their virtus will be spared, even if they end up captured (quorum virtuti belli fortuna pepercit | eorundem me libertati parcere certum est, fr. 188–189 Sk.). The sentiment serves not only to praise the king’s own manliness, but also to declare his martial virtus more important than the decisive kind of victory that so famously eluded him.Footnote 8
In repeating the epithet Graius homo, then, from Ennius’ depiction of Pyrrhus, Lucretius evokes memories of the earlier poem but proceeds to paint an altogether different picture of what constitutes a Greek hero. In particular, he employs the same key vocabulary that Ennius had used in the Annals but re-purposes it for a celebration of the human mind.Footnote 9 The world’s depressing state awakens Epicurus’ virtus, but, in notable contrast to Ennius’ Pyrrhus, his is a virtus of the intellect (acrem | irritat animi virtutem, 1.69–70). Similarly, the phrase “the vigorous force of [Epicurus’] mind prevails” (vivida vis animi pervicit, 1.72) is as alliterative as the Ennian source passage it recalls, and it relies on the same terminology (vis … per-vicit). Yet the philosopher’s victory, unlike Pyrrhus’, is never in doubt. Indeed, his victoria raises all of us up to the sky (nos exaequat victoria caelo, 1.79).Footnote 10
Lucretius thus issues a challenge to traditional conceptions of heroism as propagated, in particular, in the sixth book of Ennius’ Annals. Since Cicero refers to the Ennian Pyrrhus’ aforementioned speech on the subject of virtus as “those famous [words]” (illa praeclara, Off. 1.38),Footnote 11 it seems that access to the text would have been readily available to Lucretius’ readers.Footnote 12 Yet that is not to say that they would have necessarily studied the poem in a scroll. After all, Latin epics were also recited at the Roman ludi in the first century BC,Footnote 13 and Aulus Gellius still witnessed a public reading from Book 6 of the Annals as late as the second century AD.Footnote 14 The event occurred when “there was rest on a certain day at Rome in the forum from business” (otium erat quodam die Romae in foro a negotiis) amid a “certain happy celebration of a festival” (laeta quaedam celebritas feriarum, Gell. 16.10.1). It seems likely, therefore, that Lucretius’ readers would have encountered Ennius’ views on virtus, vis and vincere at official celebrations of city-wide holidays. On these occasions, anyone steeped in On the Nature of Things would have been ready to critique the Annals’ use of the relevant terms, and to advance the counter-model provided by Epicurean philosophy. This multi-mediality of Ennian reception – occurring, as I contend it would have, both through reading and through performance – is particularly relevant to the next section, where I discuss an intertextual connection that relies even more directly on non-written media.
Having completed the encomium of Epicurus, Lucretius segues into his famous description of the sacrifice of Iphianassa/Iphigenia. The account of Agamemnon’s ritual murder of his daughter on what she thought was to be her wedding day – meant to ensure the Greek fleet’s passage out of the Bay of Aulis – constitutes a prime example of Lucretius’ thesis that superstition in the guise of reverence will sway people toward terrible deeds (tantum religio potuit suadere malorum, 1.82–101 at 101). The passage has also long been recognized as richly intertextual.Footnote 15 Depending on their respective backgrounds and interests, different modern critics have foregrounded certain allusions at the expense of others, as would no doubt have been the case among the varied readership(s) of the Roman Republic. There are, for example, clear echoes of the parodos of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon in Lucretius’ focus on the pollution incurred through human sacrifice, the theme of a wedding perverted into a funeral and in the fact that, as in the Oresteia, Iphigenia has to be carried to the altar and actually dies (rather than being replaced with a deer and spirited away by Diana at the very last second). In particular, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon notes the horror of “soiling a father’s hands with streams of a young woman’s blood right by the altar” (μιαίνων παρθενοσφάγοισιν | ῥείθροις πατρώιους χέρας | πέλας βωμοῦ, Aesch. Ag. 209–211). Similar language recurs in Lucretius’ lament that “at Aulis, the leaders of the Greeks, the first among the men, foully soiled the altar of Diana with the blood of a young woman, Iphigenia” (Aulide … Triviai virginis aram | Iphianassai turparunt sanguine foede | ductores Danaum delecti, prima virorum, 1.84–86).Footnote 16
To these Aeschylean resonances has been added the observation that in Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, the young woman “was first to call [Agamemnon] father” and to “attach [her] body to [his] knees” (πρώτη σ᾽ ἐκάλεσα πατέρα … | πρώτη δὲ γόνασι σοῖσι σῶμα δοῦσ᾽ ἐμὸν, Eur. IA 1220–1221). In Lucretius, Iphigenia is “silent with fear” and, “having fallen to her knees, she sought the ground. And it did not help the miserable woman at such a time that she had been first to bestow the name of father on the king” (muta metu terram genibus summissa petebat. | nec miserae prodesse in tali tempore quibat | quod patrio princeps donarat nomine regem, 1.92–94).Footnote 17 Based on the similarities between these passages, Barnaby Taylor (Reference Taylor2016, 145–150) has argued that Lucretius alludes to competing dramatic versions of the myth, including some where Iphigenia is saved (as, apparently, she was in Euripides’ IA) and others where she is not (e.g., Aeschylus’ Agamemnon). In doing so, Lucretius endorses the latter in an attempt to “correct” or rationalize the former and underlines the true horror of the event.
This argument is convincing, but it is nevertheless necessary to account more fully than Taylor does for Stephen Harrison’s (2002, 4–6) observation that the passage’s entire style is markedly Ennian, even and especially at the start (the episode’s first lines, 1.84–86, are quoted above). This suggests that the main – though certainly not the only – author whose work Lucretius employs to exemplify the noxious beliefs on display in many tragedies is Ennius. Harrison himself points to the use of indugredi at 1.82 as reminiscent of Ennius’ favored term induperator; to the archaic genitives Triviai (1.84; the noun also occurs in Ennius’ fr. 171 M.) and Iphianassai (1.85); to Ennius’ phrases duxit delectos (fr. 331 Sk.) and delecti viri (fr. 89.5 M.), which fuse into Lucretius’ ductores … delecti (1.86); and to the fact that the construction prima virorum (1.86) in its combination of a neuter plural with a genitive is recognizably Ennian as well.Footnote 18 To these linguistic echoes, I would add that Iphigenia wears an infula at 1.87–88. This noun describes the headband of a priestess, particularly a Vestal Virgin,Footnote 19 which reinforces the passage’s specifically Roman ring. In turn, the phrase muta metu at 1.92 is not attested in Ennius, but its alliteration does contribute to the passage’s archaizing tone and recalls the earlier author’s penchant for this stylistic feature. Most importantly, the phrase used to describe Iphigenia’s murder (aram … turparunt sanguine, 1.84–85) is lifted directly out of Ennius’ Andromacha, where – looking back to the night she was captured – the titular character uses the same words to describe the slaughter of Priam at the altar of Jupiter (aram sanguine turpari, fr. 23.17 M).Footnote 20 Occurring as it does at the outset of the Lucretian episode, and providing a summary of it, the quote sets an emphatically Ennian tone for Lucretius’ entire narration of the sacrifice. Other intertexts are certainly active as well, but the reader has to pass through Ennian Latin, as it were, in order to reach them.
A further example of this latter phenomenon is provided by an additional echo of Ennius’ tragedies that has, to my knowledge, not previously been discussed. As the sacrifice begins, Lucretius’ Agamemnon stands motionless at the altar and is despondent (maestum … ante aras adstare parentem, 1.89), but he does not cry. By contrast, “the citizens shed tears at the sight of [Iphigenia]” (aspectu … suo lacrimas effundere civis, 1.91). Ennius points to this difference between rulers and their subjects in fr. 194 M., likely from his Iphigenia: “The plebs in this regard is preferable to the king: The plebs is allowed to cry, the king is not allowed to do so honorably” (plebes in hoc regi antestat loco: licet | lacrimare plebi, regi honeste non licet). Lucretius echoes this Ennian passage in both sentiment and wording (note the correspondence between lacrimas effundere and lacrimare, adstare and antestat). At one step’s further remove, one also notices similar lines in Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, where Agamemnon complains that those of low birth “are allowed to cry readily” (δακρῦσαι ῥαιδίως αὐτοῖς ἔχει, 447) while “to a high-born man these things are wretched” (τῶι δὲ γενναίωι φύσιν | ἄνολβα ταῦτα, 448–449). This similarity between Euripides’ and Ennius’ lines has given rise to the suspicion that the Roman tragedian’s Iphigenia may have been based at least in part on the Greek Iphigenia at Aulis. Yet while the additional, Euripidean intertext would have been readily detectable to the learned, the road there leads through Ennius’ Iphigenia.Footnote 21
In alluding to this particular Latin play, and to Ennius more broadly, Lucretius notably does not attack the earlier poet outright. It is apparent from the fragments of the plays as much as from the Ennian language preserved in On the Nature of Things that the relevant tragedies would have been critical of Iphigenia’s murder as well.Footnote 22 Lucretius may – I submit – even be appropriating a voice from within Ennius’ own oeuvre. In one fragment from the Iphigenia, Achilles complains that “nobody looks at what is in front of their feet, instead they study the expanses of the sky” (quod est ante pedes nemo spectat, caeli scrutantur plagas, fr. 82.3 M.). This condemnation of astrological superstition is compatible with Lucretius’ depiction of Iphigenia’s sacrifice, where excessive contemplation of the supernatural leads to a horrible atrocity. Perhaps, then, the play contained a scene where Achilles rejected his bride-to-be’s murder in almost proto-Lucretian terms. Either way, Lucretius uses some of tragedy’s own insights against itself. He activates vivid reminiscences of Ennius’ plays and uses them to undermine the religious beliefs that motivate many of the genre’s most memorable characters.
This observation brings us back to the question of how Lucretius’ readership would have become familiar with the relevant intertexts. The Iphigenia passage’s most overt allusion to Ennian drama occurs in the aforementioned quotation from the Andromacha (aram … turparunt sanguine, Lucr. 1.84–85 ~ aram sanguine turpari, Ennius fr. 23.17 M.). Like Ennius’ other works, this play would have been available for perusal in written form, but the tragedies of the Middle Republic also continued to be re-performed with great frequency.Footnote 23 In the repertoire of dramatic classics, the Andromacha featured prominently. At Acad. 2.20, Cicero observes that many are able to recognize this tragedy as soon as the accompanying piper plays his first notes. At Att. 4.15.6, he mentions a specific revival of the play at the ludi Apollinares of 54 BC.Footnote 24 Cicero thus delivers firm evidence that the Andromacha was staged in the very decade of the original publication of On the Nature of Things,Footnote 25 perhaps routinely so. This provides further support for the thesis that, as I posited was the case with Lucretius’ earlier reliance on Book 6 of the Annals, the Epicurean poet preferred to employ those parts of Ennius’ oeuvre that were most readily recognizable from performances at Roman festivals. Elsewhere in On the Nature of Things, Lucretius imagines his fellow Romans assembled in a theater and bathed in the varied colors cast off by the awnings that protect the spectators against the sun (4.72–83). He notes that after attending such ludi, spectators for days “seem to perceive … the glitter of the varied marvels of the stage” (videantur | cernere … | scaenai … varios splendere decores, 4.979–983).Footnote 26 In picking his Ennian quotations, Lucretius relies on these lasting memories of dramatic festivals, but he deconstructs the value systems that underlie the shows and provides his readers with a toolkit for confronting the plots the next time they encounter them at the ludi scaenici.Footnote 27
To a reader, then, whose first language was Latin, who was well-versed in the Roman classics and/or who attended the ludi, Lucretius’ condemnation of the sacrifice of Iphigenia would have conjured especially strong reminiscences of Ennius’ Trojan plays (including the Iphigenia and Andromacha), familiar as they continued to be from the stage. Yet I submit that there would have been a further, non-textual component to a late-republican reader’s understanding of Lucretius’ Iphigenia passage that likewise relates to the reception of Ennius. It has long been noted that the relevant lines of On the Nature of Things correspond closely to the sacrifice’s depiction in a fresco from the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii (Figure 9.1).Footnote 28 In Lucretius, Iphigenia “perceived that her father was standing despondent by the altars and that the servants were hiding the iron on his account” (et maestum … ante aras adstare parentem | sensit et hunc propter ferrum celare ministros, 1.89–90). In the image, Agamemnon likewise sorrowfully veils his head on the left while his daughter looks at him, and a priest conceals a dagger on the right. Furthermore, the young woman’s lips are closed in the fresco, which suggests that she is “silent with fear” (muta metu, 1.92), and in both painting and poem, “she was lifted up by the hands of men and, shivering, she was brought to the altars” (nam sublata virum manibus tremibundaque ad aras | deductast, 1.95–96).
The Pompeian fresco likely stems from the Neronian era,Footnote 29 and it therefore postdates Lucretius’ poem by about a century. Yet the motif itself harks back to a painting by the fourth-century BC artist Timanthes,Footnote 30 variations of which were popular already in the Roman Republic.Footnote 31 It strikes me as significant that Lucretius’ description of the sacrifice of Iphigenia is simultaneously so rich in Ennian language and so similar to the story’s typical depiction in the visual arts. The resemblances suggest that tragic actors could have taken cues from images portraying the sacrifice of Iphigenia. In turn, the myth’s visualizations on the walls of Roman houses could themselves be partially informed by dramatic (re-)performances of classic plays, including those of Ennius. We may imagine, for example, that his Iphigenia contained a scene where the young woman is carried off stage to be sacrificed while Agamemnon veils his head, or that a different play, like the Andromacha, narrated the event (as we know it did the sacrifice of Priam). Witnessing such a moment in the theater could have influenced a painter, even if he was also imitating Timanthes. Cicero, for one, hints at such mutual cross-pollinations at Orat. 74, where he notes that in portraying the sacrifice of Iphigenia (immolanda Iphigenia), a painter (pictor ille) will portray varied characters in different gradations of sadness, culminating in Agamemnon with his head veiled (obvolvendum caput Agamemnonis esse) as in the Pompeian fresco, and that similar observations apply to an “actor” (histrio).
On this reading, Lucretius would be using specifically Ennian language to activate memories of the tale’s portrayal on the Roman stage and in the visual arts, that is, in different media that exerted a noticeable influence on each other. For a full appreciation of this triangular relationship, it is significant that the fresco includes Diana on the top right and Iphigenia with a deer on the upper left. The painter has emphasized that the young woman escaped her painful death through the goddess’ intervention, as she likely did in Ennius’ plays as well, considering his Iphigenia was based in part on Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis. In alluding only to the painting’s lower register and ignoring the top, Lucretius urges his readers to assume the same kind of “selective ambivalence” (Taylor: 2016, 143–144 and 150) toward the visual arts that they are to bring to bear on tragedy. They are to accept certain parts of the story (i.e., condemnations of the violence inherent in Iphigenia’s sacrifice) but reject any supernatural components, because the gods do not in fact meddle in human affairs.
For a further example of Lucretius’ multi-medial intertextuality, we now jump ahead a few hundred lines in Book 1 of On the Nature of Things. Moving beyond the prologue and into a more thorough discussion of Epicurean physics, Lucretius first establishes the duality between atoms and void. The next step is to distinguish between coniuncta and eventa. According to 1.451–454, coniuncta are concrete, palpable properties that are inseparably tied to the objects that display them. Stones have weight, fire has heat and water is a liquid because of these elements’ specific atomic structures. Everything else is an eventum, a mere accident, including “slavery … poverty and riches, freedom, war, concord, everything else by whose arrival and departure Nature herself remains unimpaired” (servitium … paupertas divitiaeque, | libertas bellum concordia, cetera quorum | adventu manet incolumis natura abituque, 1.455–457). Even time does not exist independently (1.459) but only in the observation of physical objects. This juxtaposition between coniuncta and eventa contains an overt value judgment. As Monica Gale (1994, 109–110) has argued, Lucretius declares his own subject matter, natura, more lasting and significant than the transitory topics that concern other writers, especially those who focus on epic, tragedy or history.Footnote 32 It makes sense, therefore, that he would employ the language of earlier authors in providing an example of one such “insignificant” eventum, namely, the Trojan War (1.464–477):
Lucretius here flags the presence of various intertexts in the background of his own composition. After all, the verb dicunt (1.465) provides a prime example of an Alexandrian footnoteFootnote 33; that is, it constitutes a self-reflexive marker of allusivity that encourages the reader to contemplate which earlier writers may have spoken about Troy. One obvious answer is Homer, and the adjective durateus (“wooden,” 1.476, transliterated from the Greek δουράτεος) indeed underlines Lucretius’ debts to this earlier poet, who had likewise applied the word to the Trojan Horse in his account of the city’s sack (Od. 8.493 and 8.512).Footnote 34 As far as the metaphor of the horse’s pregnancy is concerned, it also features in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (ἵππου νεοσσός, “the offspring of the horse,” 825) and Euripides’ Trojan Women (ἐγκύμον᾽ ἵππον τευχέων, “the horse pregnant with weapons,” 11). These varied Greek intertexts would all have been readily detectable to the more learned members of Lucretius’ readership.
Nevertheless, as was the case in Lucretius’ description of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the passage is again especially rich in the language of Ennian drama. Prior studies have noted the presence of the archaizing noun Tyndaris (1.464 and 1.473) to describe Helen, of Troiugenae (1.465) to refer to the Trojans and of Graiugenae (1.477) to describe the Greeks.Footnote 35 Even more notable, because demonstrably based in Roman tragedy, is Lucretius’ observation that the Trojan horse “set Pergamon (Pergama) on fire with its nocturnal birthing (partu) of Greeks” (1.476–477). The words Pergama and partu are lifted directly out of Ennius’ Alexander,Footnote 36 a play dealing with young Paris’ expulsion from Troy and his eventual rediscovery. According to this tragedy “the horse pregnant with armed men has jumped over (the walls) with a huge leap to destroy harsh Pergamon with its birthing” (nam maximo saltu superavit gravidus armatis equus | qui suo partu ardua perdat Pergama, fr. 22 M.). This Latin expression of the pregnant-horse motif would likely have been most easily detectable to Roman readers, while its Aeschylean and Euripidean versions would have required a bit of extra intellectual effort. I would add that the above quotation from Ennius’ Alexander has to be part of a prophecy, since the play was set before the destruction of Priam’s kingdom. Accordingly, the relevant lines must belong to Cassandra, who in this same play prophesies the fall of Troy and exclaims with reference to her brother that “the torch is here, is here, covered in blood and fire” (adest, adest fax obvoluta sanguine atque incendio, fr. 151a M.).Footnote 37 Ennius’ Hecuba is similarly said to have envisioned “that she was birthing a firebrand, and then she produced Paris, who was the cause of the conflagration” (haec se facem parere vidit et Parin creavit, qui causa fuit incendii, fr. 200 M.). In a context already rich in allusions to Ennius, Lucretius is picking up on this fire imagery as well, and his reference to the fire “blazing up in the Phrygian chest of Alexander” (1.474) echoes the Alexander’s depiction of Paris as a torch that will destroy the city.Footnote 38
It turns out, then, that we are dealing with a passage that is remarkably similar to the two we have already examined. Lucretius’ Iliupersis engages with a variety of different intertexts, but Ennian language is especially conspicuous. As before, the lines even contain one clear instance of direct citation (Pergama partu, 1.476; compare Graius homo at 1.66 and aram … turparunt sanguine at 1.84–85). It also seems, yet again, that Lucretius has picked a motif that was popular with theatrical audiences. We admittedly do not have any direct attestations for performances of the Alexander in the 50s BC, but we do know from a letter of Cicero’s (Fam. 7.7) that a luxurious revival of an Equus Troianus tragedy was put on at the spectacular inauguration of the Theater of Pompey in 55 BC. The show was a great success with the people (Fam. 7.7.2), though the orator himself disapproved, and it occurred only briefly before the aforementioned staging of the Andromacha in 54 BC. In alluding to the Alexander’s narration of the fall of Troy and the Trojan Horse, Lucretius is thus gesturing toward a moment that his readers would have experienced in one form or another at the late Republic’s increasingly sensational ludi scaenici, perhaps even on multiple occasions.
The visual record likewise provides parallels to my prior discussion, in that rediscovered Roman houses on the Bay of Naples have yielded multiple depictions of the Trojan Horse. Like Ennius’ plays, these images foreground the prophecies of Cassandra, who stands apart on the bottom left (Figure 9.2) and top left (Figure 9.3) of two early-Imperial Pompeian frescos, predicting the city’s downfall as it is about to occur.Footnote 39 In a third, now badly damaged, from the Villa Arianna in Stabiae, the artist emphasized the horse’s “birthing” of enemy combatants through the prominent inclusion of a ladder.Footnote 40 Given the aforementioned consistency in the visual record from the Republic to the Empire, the frescos – though later than the works of Ennius and Lucretius – could provide further support for a triangular connection of reciprocal inspiration between On the Nature of Things on the one hand and memorable portrayals of mythological events in paintings and in tragedy on the other. In alluding to multiple media at the same time – which would, in turn, have influenced each other – Lucretius is instructing his readers on how to respond if they are wowed by impressive displays related to the Trojan War, be it at the opening of the city’s first permanent theater or in their studies or while glancing at frescos on a dining-room wall. In the end, the plots portrayed are only eventa. They are long gone, and they could never have happened in the first place if it were not for the rerum natura. What counts, therefore, is the philosophical instruction provided by a poem like Lucretius’, which will teach the reader about the far more significant coniuncta of Epicurean physics.
There is one final way in which Lucretius’ Trojan-War episode highlights its engagement with Ennius, and that is in its use of the archaic verb cluere (“to be said to be,” “to be reckoned as existing”; cf. OLD s.v. clueo). Two occurrences of the word bookend the relevant lines in On the Nature of Things. At the start, Lucretius uses it in his definition of eventa and coniuncta (nam quaecumque cluent, aut his coniuncta duabus | rebus ea invenies aut horum eventa videbis, “for all things that are reckoned to exist, you will either find them to be properties of these two [i.e., of atoms and void] or you will see that they are accidents that result from them,” 1.449–450). At the end, cluere recurs in Lucretius’ assertion that eventa do not exist in the same manner as atoms and void (nec ratione cluere eadem qua constet inane, 1.480). I would suggest that in repeatedly employing cluere to deny that mere “accidents” such as the Trojan War maintain an independent presence in the universe, Lucretius inverts Ennius’ own use of the same verb in expressing the hope that his “subject matter and poems will be reckoned famous broadly among the peoples” (latos <per> populos res atque poemata nostra | <… clara> cluebunt, fr. 12–13 Sk.). Lucretius paraphrases these same lines of the Annals in his rejection of Ennius’ views on metempsychosis, which I mentioned briefly at the outset of this chapter. Here, he refers to Ennius noster as “the one who first brought a crown of perennial foliage down from delightful Mt. Helicon for it to be reckoned famous throughout the Italic tribes of men” (Ennius ut noster cecinit qui primus amoeno | detulit ex Helicone perenni fronde coronam, | per gentis Italas hominum quae clara clueret, 1.117–119). The fact that Lucretius’ clara clueret echoes the Annals’ cluebunt is often adduced in tentative reconstructions of the Ennian source passage but has not been factored into interpretations of On the Nature of Things.Footnote 41 I submit that Lucretius intended the verb to have an Ennian ring, both here and in its recurrence in the Trojan-War episode, thereby undermining the earlier poet through the use of his own vocabulary.
Since I have now mentioned Lucretius’ explicit naming of Ennius at 1.117, the surrounding lines can lend themselves to some concluding reflections on the role the earlier poet plays in On the Nature of Things. At 1.102–135, Lucretius targets Ennius’ eschatological views and, as in the other passages I have examined, uses Ennius’ own words against him. For example, Ennius had dismissively referred to a preceding generation of poets (and especially to Naevius) as “fauns and soothsayers” (fauni vatesque, fr. 207 Sk.). Lucretius now lumps Ennius himself in with the vates, whose “fearmongering words” (vatum | terriloquis … dictis, 1.102–103), “superstitions and threats” (religionibus atque minis … vatum, 1.109) will cause people to stray from their commitment to Epicurean philosophy and hence to lose their peace of mind.Footnote 42 In particular, Ennius propagates misleading but long-lived (Ennius aeternis exponit versibus edens, 1.121) views about the nature of the soul.Footnote 43 As a result, there is widespread “ignorance” (ignoratur enim, 1.112) as to whether the “soul” (anima) is born with the body or, on the contrary, inserted into the body at the moment of birth, whether it perishes together with us at death or “sees the darkness of Orcus and the vast emptinesses” or, finally, whether it “inserts itself in a divine manner into other animals,Footnote 44 as our Ennius sang” (an tenebras Orci visat vastasque lacunas, | an pecudes alias divinitus insinuet se, | Ennius ut noster cecinit, 1.115–117). The latter claim about the transmigration of souls is puzzling even to Lucretius, especially in light of Ennius’ own view that “there do in fact exist Acherusian expanses … where neither our souls abide nor our bodies, but certain images pale in wondrous ways” (etsi praeterea tamen esse Acherusia templa | … | quo neque permaneant animae neque corpora nostra | sed quaedam simulacra modis pallentia miris, 1.120–123). Lucretius dismisses this tripartite division – soul, body and a pallid ghost-like image – as distracting from Epicurus’ calming insight that our existence ceases with death.
I have been making a case throughout that Lucretius’ need to deconstruct Ennius’ harmful perceptions arose specifically from the continued inclusion of the latter’s works at the Roman ludi (shows that, in turn, had an impact on contemporary painting, and vice versa). This argument is also borne out by the passage quoted immediately above. It has not, to my knowledge, been previously emphasized that Lucretius’ description of misconstrued ideas about the underworld once again reflects key lines of the popular Andromacha.Footnote 45 In fr. 24 M., one of this play’s characters, perhaps Andromache herself, greets “the Acherusian expanses and the vast depths of Orcus” (Acherusia templa alta Orci salvete infera). The fragment is preserved in Varro’s On the Latin Language (7.6), but Cicero quotes what may be a longer version of the same passage (omitting salvete) at Tusc. 1.48: Acheru[n]sia templa alta Orci, pallida leti, nubila tenebris loca (“the deep Acherusian fields of Orcus, pale places of death clouded in darkness”).Footnote 46 At 1.115–123, Lucretius is thus reusing at least three (Acherusia templa … Orci) and possibly five words (tenebris/tenebras … pallida/pallentia) from the Andromacha’s address to the Acherusian realm of Orcus. It seems, therefore, that the responsibility Lucretius ascribes to Ennius’ works for perpetuating harmful ideas about the afterlife connects directly, here as elsewhere, to plays we know to have been frequently performed at Roman festivals. In other words, Lucretius addresses a threat that emanates from the ludi, where a dangerous ideology undermines the ἀταραξία of Roman audiences. Lucretius is warning his readers against these perilous beliefs and tells them how to respond the next time they encounter them in their reading or in the theater.
Similar observations apply to Lucretius’ paraphrase of Ennius’ views on the transmigration of souls. When he ascribes to his predecessor the statement that the soul “inserts itself in a divine manner into other animals” ([anima] pecudes alias divinitus insinuet se, 1.116, see above), he is basing this claim on the first book of the Annals, where Ennius maintained that “the race adorned with feathers is in the habit of producing eggs, not a soul … the soul itself comes afterwards from there (i.e., the sky) in a divine manner to the chicks” (ova parire solet genus pennis condecoratum, | non animam … post inde venit divinitus pullis | ipsa anima, fr. 8–10 Sk). We can note here both the overlap in content and the recurrence of anima and divinitus, a parallel that has not been previously observed. Furthermore, Lucretius’ dismissal of Ennius’ claim that the soul of Homer came to live in him after a chain of Pythagorean transmigrations, and that the Greek poet’s ghost-like simulacrum visited him in a dream to explain this development (1.124–126), is well known likewise to be based on Book 1 of the Annals (e.g., visus Homerus adesse poeta, “the poet Homer appeared to be present,” fr. 3 Sk.). The same is true of Lucretius’ reference, at 1.117–119, to Ennius’ hope that his “subject matter and poems will be reckoned famous broadly among the peoples” (fr. 12–13 Sk.), with which I started this section. All of these paraphrases and quotations engage with the same part of Ennius’ epic. Of course, we do not in this case have any evidence testifying to later recitations of the book in question. Yet the plethora of fragments that survive from Book 1 of the Annals show beyond a doubt that it too was among the best-known parts of Ennius’ works,Footnote 47 even though we can no longer tell if it was familiar through public recitations or private reading (or both).
Lucretius thus engages yet again with a part of Ennius’ oeuvre that would have been of central importance to the literary, dramatic and artistic scene of late-Republican Rome. The Trojan tragedies (certainly the Andromacha, and possibly the Iphigenia and the Alexander as well) were a staple at the ludi’s increasingly impressive shows, which evidenced some cross-contamination with the visual arts. In turn, the Annals’ book on Pyrrhus would have been comparably well known from public recitations at the same events. Whatever the preferred medium may have been for the distribution of Book 1, it too exerted a formative influence on many Romans’ (faulty) understanding of the workings of the cosmos. Lucretius engages with these Ennian compositions in greater detail than has been previously shown and confronts them specifically in their capacity as works that communicate ideas of a philosophical, religious and even scientific nature to large audiences.Footnote 48 He makes the latter element clear by noting that in Ennius’ dream, Homer’s ghost proceeded “to expound upon the nature of things” (rerum naturam expandere dictis, 1.126). Ennius continued to pass this information on to Lucretius’ contemporaries even and especially in the first century BC. This made Ennius an adversary to be reckoned with and a direct competitor in asserting a hold on the understanding of the rerum natura. Accordingly, Lucretius equips his readers with the necessary gear to confront Ennius’ supposedly harmful ideas wherever they next encounter them, be it in a well-stocked library, at a literary recitation, on the walls of a domus or at the late-Republican ludi’s exceptionally lavish revivals of classic tragedies.
Scientists do not currently know how big the sun is. In fact, in a certain sense, the size of the sun cannot even be known. Rebecca Boyle: “[T]he task of determining the sun’s size is trickier than it might seem because the sun is a roiling ball of plasma with no surface. It’s also constantly spewing gas and radiation and magnetism, so the diameter of its ‘disk’ is constantly fluctuating. But it’s easier to measure during an eclipse.”Footnote 1 That last sentence adverts to the unprecedented, elaborate, high-effort undertaking to measure the sun’s diameter during the August 2017 total solar eclipse (see further International Occultation Timing Association 2017). Granted, the uncertainty about the sun’s size in twenty-first-century astronomy concerns a scale and precision well beyond the everyday considerations of nonspecialists. The mainstream community of solar-system scholars would agree unanimously and with a high degree of certainty that the sun is larger – much, much larger – than, say, a soccer ball or a human foot.
No such consensus is to be found in the astronomical-astrological thinking of the Hellenistic philosophers and their immediate Greek and Roman successors.Footnote 2 As with many concepts fundamental to a modern scientific understanding of the universe, the size of the sun was already a matter of speculation in some ancient philosophy. By the first century BC, however, one school was generally perceived to be an outlier on the question: the Epicureans. It was their contention that the sun is the size that it appears to be, a tenet that provoked the derision of their rivals in philosophy and astronomy, and one that on first view may seem baldly preposterous. The sun is indeed, after all, much larger than a soccer ball or a human foot; and as Jonathan Barnes shows, ancient astronomers’ calculations of the sun’s magnitude, even if inaccurate “by at least a factor of 15,” were nevertheless “of roughly the right order of magnitude.”Footnote 3 Yet despite many disagreements on orthodoxy and heterodoxy in virtually every field of inquiry, the Epicureans and their critics were in agreement that Epicureans believe the sun to be more or less the size it appears.
This chapter advances a threefold argument.  Despite the acrimonious mockery of Epicurus’ opponents, his and his followers’ claims about the size of the sun mean, as a few modern scholars have suggested, that estimation of the sun’s magnitude requires careful evaluation and judgment based on data offered by the senses, including but not limited to sight.  The presentation of this issue in Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (5.564–613), which scholars have treated as an afterthought although it in fact innovates on Epicurus in the explicit discussion of the sun’s heat, uses complicated subordination to underscore stylistically that claims about the sun’s size are critically dependent on sensus and judgments based thereupon, thus issuing a didactic challenge to the Lucretian speaker’s addressee.  The assertion that the sun is the size it appears became an Epicurean shibboleth, so to speak – a statement prompting reactions that distinguish Epicureans from non-Epicureans, the cognoscenti from the ignoramuses. I begin by surveying the relevant sources and then considering ancient and modern responses to the Epicurean position. I next proceed to stylistic analysis of the passage in Lucretius and finally connect it to the broader didactic program of On the Nature of Things.Footnote 4
τὸ δὲ μέγεθος ἡλίου τε καὶ τῶν λοιπῶν ἄστρων κατὰ μὲν τὸ πρὸς ἡμᾶς τηλικοῦτόν ἐστιν ἡλίκον φαίνεται. κατὰ δὲ τὸ καθ᾽ αὑτὸ ἤτοι μεῖζον τοῦ ὁρωμένου ἢ μικρῷ ἔλαττον ἢ τηλικοῦτον τυγχάνει. οὕτω γὰρ καὶ τὰ παρ᾽ ἡμῖν πυρὰ ἐξ ἀποστήματος θεωρούμενα κατὰ τὴν αἴσθησιν θεωρεῖται.
And the size of the sun and the other stars, in respect to our position, is as big as it appears. But in respect to its own position indeed it happens to be bigger than what is seen or a little smaller or the same size. For so also fires near us, when seen at a distance, are seen in accordance with perception.Footnote 5
On a preliminary, prima facie reading of these lines, Epicurus evidently makes a distinction between the size of the sun “relative to us” (κατὰ τὸ πρὸς ἡμᾶς) and its absolute size or its size “relative to itself” (κατὰ τὸ καθ’ αὑτό). David Furley explicates this distinction as “presumably mean[ing] no more than that we have to infer its size from its apparent size.”Footnote 6 In the former frame of reference, the sun’s magnitude is firmly correlated to the function of our senses (τηλικοῦτόν ἐστιν ἡλίκον φαίνεται). In the latter, the sun’s absolute size is not stated absolutely, but rather characterized in comparison to its size as we adjudge it based on our sense-perception (μεῖζον τοῦ ὁρωμένου ἢ μικρῷ ἔλαττον ἢ τηλικοῦτον).
The text of Diogenes Laertius includes, between the first and second sentence of this passage, an interpolation with a quotation from elsewhere in Epicurus’ corpus: “So also in the eleventh [book of his] On Nature: ‘For if,’ he says, ‘it had lost from its size on account of the distance, it would much more have lost from its bright appearance.Footnote 7 For there is no other distance for it more suitable for measurement’” (τοῦτο καὶ ἐν τῇ ια᾽ Περὶ φύσεως: εἰ γάρ, φησί, τὸ μέγεθος διὰ τὸ διάστημα ἀπεβεβλήκει, πολλῷ μᾶλλον ἂν τὴν χρόαν. ἄλλο γὰρ τούτῳ συμμετρότερον διάστημα οὐθέν ἐστι). David Sedley explains the final sentence of this quotation as expressing the unique difficulties of measuring the magnitude of the sun: Epicurus “must mean that you cannot get a better vantage point for viewing the sun’s size by moving towards it or away from it. For the size of any terrestrial object … one distance is more σύμμετρον than another, because you cannot judge its size if you are too close to it or too far away.”Footnote 8 The sun is too remote – and roughly equally remote from all parts of the world – for us to be able to change our perspective on it. We cannot, therefore, do the necessary perspective-based reasoning about its size with any more certainty anywhere on earth (an issue to which I return below).
In Lucretius’ DRN, the same basic doctrine is expanded to a space of about fifty lines (5.564–613), with more extended treatment of the moon (574–584), stars (585–591) and the immense light and heat transmitted by the sun (592–613). The opening of the passage is focused most directly on the matter of the sun’s magnitude (564–573):
Epicurus’ basic claim is echoed in the first two lines of this passage of Lucretius. The distinction that Epicurus makes explicitly between τὸ πρὸς ἡμᾶς and τὸ καθ’ αὑτό is implicit in the Lucretian perveniunt nostros ad sensus (571) and hinc … debet … videri (572). And the Lucretius-egoFootnote 10 amplifies the analogy to include earthly fires (a point reprised at lines 586–589, cited and translated below).
A key addition to the Lucretian treatment of this question is the emphasis on the sun’s heat. Epicurus’ appeals in his Letter to Pythocles, not simply to sight (θεωρούμενα, θεωρεῖται) but to perception generally, (φαίνεται, κατὰ τὴν αἴσθησιν) implicitly include the non-visual perception of heat produced by the sun. In DRN, the point is made explicit and important to the process of determining the sun’s size. The visual presentation of the sun, its “wheel” (rota), is correlated with its “heat” (ardor) in the passage’s opening line (564). Similarly, the light and heat of terrestrial fires are closely linked (ignes lumina possunt | adicere et calidum membris adflare vaporem, 566–567). A few lines later the heat and light of the sun again form a naturally conjoined pair (calor … solis lumenque, 570).
The Lucretian speaker next asserts that the moon is no bigger than it appears (5.575–578) because objects viewed at a distance (on which see my discussion below) become blurred in appearance before they seem to become smaller (579–581); to the extent that the moon has a “clear appearance” (clara species, 582), it must be the size it appears (581–584). Furley assumes that this means that the moon has a “razor sharp” outline and therefore is about a foot in diameter.Footnote 11 In line with my interpretation below of the Lucretian position on the size of the sun, I am less confident than Furley. The full moon’s outline to viewers on earth – although it seems like a perfect circle – is not in fact razor sharp, since during a total solar eclipse the perceptible “diamond ring” effect is produced by the filtering of the last vestiges of sunlight through the mountains and valleys on the moon’s surface.Footnote 12
After covering the moon and stars, the Lucretian speaker returns to the topic of the sun and reassures us that we need not wonder how “this sun of such small size could be able to send out so much light … and infuse all things with warm air” (tantulus ille queat tantum sol mittere lumen, | … | … et calido perfundat cuncta vapore, 591, 593). The standard of comparison for tantulus is not expressed in the text, and I follow Kiempe Algra’s interpretation, namely, that the sun is small when compared to the size of the cosmos.Footnote 13 Throughout the explanation that follows (DRN 5.594–613), the Lucretius-ego uses a variety of terms to denote the sun’s heat: vapor, ardor, fervor and aestus (in the compound aestifer). This lexical richness runs parallel to the multiplicity of Lucretian terms for atoms (primordia, principia, semina etc.). In the case of the atoms, James Warren argues that the “range of terms … express[es] the importance of atoms by noting the various roles they play.”Footnote 14 Similarly here, I suggest, the range of terms for solar warmth underscores the importance of heat regarding the puzzle of the size of the sun.
Finally, a papyrus of Demetrius Lacon addresses the role of distance in perceived brightness of luminescent objects: “Things falling earthwards always look clearer, while further away things [look] less clear” (αἰεὶ τὰ μὲν ἔνγειον προπείπτοντα [τ]ρανότερα βλέπεται, τὰ δὲ πορρώτερα ἀτ[ρα]νώ̣τερα̣, PHerc. 1013, col. 12.4–8). In other words, lights dim with distance. This point is introduced within the context of a discussion about the size of the sun, and indeed the title of this work by Demetrius may have been Περὶ ἡλίου μεγέθους. The papyrus is, of course, fragmentary, and the immediate context of the comment is patchy, but the text’s basic observation points to the fact that, for the sun, magnitude and intensity are crucial unknowns. Without information about how big and bright the sun is near its very surface, one cannot say with certainty, based on its brightness for earthlings, how far away it is; and, conversely, without knowing how far away it is, one cannot with certainty discern its size from its brightness alone.
Ancient and Modern Doxographies
In Cicero’s On Ends (1.6.20) we can see a reprise of Epicurus’ assertion in his Letter to Pythocles: “He [Epicurus] adjudges it [the sun] to be as big as it appears, or a little bigger or smaller” (tantum enim esse censet, quantus videtur, uel paulo aut maiorem aut minorem). This accurate if incomplete doxographical statement is immediately preceded by a claim, unsupported by any actual Epicurean writings (so Barnes: 1989, 32), that Epicurus thinks the sun is the size of a human foot: “To Democritus the sun appears to be large, and he is definitely an educated guy, completely learned in geometry, but to him [Epicurus] perhaps a foot’s length” (sol Democrito magnus videtur, quippe homini erudito in geometriaque perfecto, huic pedalis fortasse). Cicero’s (mis)representation of Epicurus’ view here is one of the milder takes on the Epicurean position that rival philosophers voiced in antiquity. Bailey adduces additional mockery by Cicero at Academica 2.26.82 and notes that “[T]he belief of Epicurus … that the sun, moon, and stars are in fact the same or nearly the same size as we see them was ridiculed in antiquity as much as by modern critics.”Footnote 15
In fact, it was not Epicurus but Heraclitus (generally well-respected by later ancient philosophers) who, according to Aetius 2.21.4, asserted that the sun was “a human foot’s width” (εὖρος ποδὸς ἀνθρωπείου). Yet this did not stop the opponents of Epicurean philosophy from regarding as absurd Epicurus’ claim that the sun is the size it appears. Despite the fact that the Epicureans “were not committed to any particular figure” for the sun’s size, the ongoing disputes among Hellenistic philosophical schools were not conducive to honest intellectual debate.Footnote 16 Epicurean heterodoxy concerning the size of the sun even came to serve as ammunition for Stoic charges of unmanliness, as Pamela Gordon shows.Footnote 17 In the end, the philosophical dissension about the magnitudes of celestial bodies could readily be portrayed as a silly and pointless endeavor altogether, as attested most directly by Lucian’s comic dialogue Icaromenippus.
Scholars of the modern era have puzzled over the Epicurean position on the size of the sun, with some following the literalist reading that characterizes ancient anti-Epicurean reactions; the preponderance of scholars, however, subscribes to one of a number of alternative accounts of Epicurus’ meaning.Footnote 18 The older, literal-minded view is represented in lapidary form by Jan Woltjer: novimus Epicurum et Lucretium eiusmodi absurdas doctrinas probare, ad sensuum auctoritatem provocantes (“we are aware that Epicurus and Lucretius, arguing from the authority of the senses, proffer absurd teachings of this sort”).Footnote 19 More nuanced and much more recent is the argument of Elizabeth Asmis on the Lucretian version that “the heavenly bodies, since they appear distinctly, are seen by means of very fine eidola that have suffered very little disturbance in traveling over a vast distance, and that therefore present the size of the heavenly bodies approximately as it is ‘in itself.’”Footnote 20 Furley, meanwhile, holds that Epicurus indeed believes the sun is small and that his insistence on its size is attributable to his adherence to flat-earth theory, the particulars of which would require a diminutive sun.Footnote 21
Yet the matter is more complex than such face-value readings admit. As Barnes points out, “the texts show that, for the Epicureans, the sun was a special case … and that the theory of its magnitude was grounded in special considerations.”Footnote 22 One may also recall the problem of being unable to find a more suitable place for “measurement” (συμμετρότερον) of the sun’s size based on perspective and distance, a crucial unknown for the resolution of the question. Epicurus’ position can as a result be taken to be one of aporia, an assertion that the sun’s size simply cannot be determined to any meaningful degree of accuracy or precision. Hence, Sedley notes that claims about celestial bodies depend entirely on “appearances” (φάσματα), which are themselves derived from “accidents” (συμπτώματα), and so “we cannot assume their perceptible qualities, such as their colours, their relative sizes and their apparent orbits, to be intrinsic to their true natures rather than mere accidental properties.”Footnote 23 For Epicurus, the size of objects in the sky cannot be resolved by “visual sense-perception alone” (αὐτὴ ἡ ὄψις), but instead must depend on the Epicurean argumentative methods of ἀντιμαρτύρησις and οὐκ ἀντιμαρτύρησις.Footnote 24
The Epicureans’ aporetic stance on celestial dimensions underlies another aspect of their claims about the size of the sun: their opposition to the confident, positivist calculations of astronomers. In part, this Epicurean anti-astronomical sentiment was ideological. Theologically motivated astronomy, such as that espoused by Platonists, ran counter to Epicurus’ goal of eliminating superstition.Footnote 25 Mathematical astronomy as practiced in Cyzicus by Eudoxus and his school, meanwhile, was in Epicurus’ opinion “engendered by faulty observations” and “founded on false principles.”Footnote 26 This was, in essence, a methodological dispute, with Epicurus objecting that the mathematical astronomers “based their calculations on arbitrary starting points” and that “contrary to what the astronomers want us to believe, we have no means to determine the size of the sun apart from perception, however unclear its data may be.”Footnote 27 Marco Beretta further suggests that Epicurus was skeptical both of the astronomers’ technical capabilities and of their theoretical sophistication when it came to measurements on an atomic scale.Footnote 28
Algra, in my view correctly, brings in considerations of perspective and field of view to shed light on how the sun can be the size it appears without having to be the size of a human foot: “[E]en berg aan de horizon ‘lijkt’ minuscuul in de zin dat hij maar een klein deel van mijn gezichtsveld inneemt. Maar ik kan ook zeggen: ‘dat lijkt mij een grote berg,’ als ik hem vergelijk met andere referentieobjecten” (“a mountain on the horizon ‘looks’ minuscule in the sense that it occupies only a small part of my visual field. But I can also say: ‘That looks like a big mountain to me,’ when I compare it with other reference objects”).Footnote 29 The difficulty with applying this mountain example to the sun is the lack of such “other reference objects” suitable for putting the sun’s size into perspective. There is, as we have noted, nowhere on earth more σύμμετρον than anywhere else for establishing how big the sun is. Again, an amount of aporia on the question is necessitated.
Francesco Verde endorses Algra’s view, and further adduces the phrase τὸ φάντασμα τὸ ἡλιακόν found in PHerc. 1013 (col. 21.5–6, “the sun’s apparition,” Demetrius Lacon again).Footnote 30 According to Daniela Taormina, Demetrius “argues that it is the image of the sun that has the size it appears to have,”Footnote 31 not the sun itself. Frederik Bakker adds that “the portion of our field of view that is occupied by the sun … is proportional to the ratio of the sun’s size and distance … [Thus the Epicureans] refrained from assigning a specific size” to the sun.Footnote 32 But Bakker comments elsewhere (2016, 258) that the Lucretian speaker’s account of lunar eclipses (DRN 5.762–770; cf. Epicurus Letter to Pythocles in DL 10.96–97) implies that the sun is larger than the earth. So regardless of the sun’s true size, the Epicureans seem not to have contended seriously that it was so small as twelve inches in diameter.
I argue that the one consistent message the Epicurean sources themselves communicate is that this question, perhaps indeed irresolvable, at the least creates a tug of war between the fundamental basis for knowledge, namely sense-perception, and the chief means of preventing misconceptions, false beliefs and anxiety – i.e., reasoned judgment based on sense-perception. When it comes to the sun, our observational data is sorely limited. And yet it is the only evidence we can access. At the same time, we can no more accept our first impressions of this sense-data as true than we can take Epicurus’ statements in his Letter to Pythocles prima facie to mean that he thinks the sun is about as big as his own left foot. Rather, he seems to imply that one must be tentative and judicious in evaluating and hedging our limited information so that we do not reason incorrectly and end up like the fearful, the superstitious and the erotically infatuated.
Complications in Lucretian Language
I further argue that the Lucretian version of the doctrine on solar magnitude uses language and style to underscore the aporetic Epicurean appeal to the senses. Lucretius’ passage brings the crucial concept of heat into the discussion, and it expands Epicurus’ analogy to terrestrial fires in a way that both complicates and conditions its applicability to the question of the sun’s size. This presentation of the fire analogy, in turn, recalls the Lucretian speaker’s examinations of perspective, distance and vision in the opening of Book 4 of On the Nature of Things (239–268 and 353–363).
The passage in Lucretius that deals with the size of the sun involves a lot of hedging, since every single sentence is hypotactic. The twelve sentences contained in 5.564–613 average 2.5 subordinate clauses each, with as many as six in one sentence (5.585–591), for an average of three subordinations per five lines of poetry. Categories of subordination include causal, conditional, comparative, temporal, relative, noun clause, result and indirect question. Such pervasive hypotaxis confers an acute mark of contingency upon the message of these lines. The subordination and the contingency are particularly intense in the analogy between celestial and terrestrial fires (5.585–591):
The sentence begins with a subordinate (relative) clause introduced by quoscumque, followed on the next line by a second (circumstantial) and then a third (relative) subordinate clause. The next line brings two further (temporal) subordinate clauses in parataxis with one another. Two lines later there is another relative clause. The main verb does not appear until the penultimate line, only after three verbs and an adjective appealing to our sense-perceptions as observers (cernimus, cernitur, videntur, clarus), and that main verb governs a complementary infinitive (scire) that itself governs an indirect statement. The overall effect is too contorted and qualified to be taken as a simple declaration of doctrine.
I noted above that the abundance and variety of words for heat in this portion of the poem point to the importance of heat regarding the question of the sun’s size, and that by including heat in its presentation of the matter, Lucretius’ text appears to innovate on that of Epicurus. Sense-perception is not limited to sight alone, and our sensation of the radiant warmth of the sun (calor … | nostros ad sensus, 5.570–571) furnishes another kind of data for the reckoning of its size. Its immense heat, despite its profound distance from earth – the extent of this distance is less important than the fact that we can get no significant degree closer to it regardless of how high we climb – attests to the considerable magnitude of the sun. Another Roman-era Epicurean, Diogenes of Oenoanda, similarly appeals to the sun’s heat in his refutation of a different misconception about the day star: “[Some people] suspect indeed that the sun is just as low in the sky as it appears, even though it is not just as low in the sky. For if it were just as low, then the earth and all things upon it would have to be burned up” (τὸν γοῦν ἥλιον ὑπολαμβάνουσιν οὕτως εἶναι ταπεινὸν ὥσπερ φαίνεται, μὴ ὄντα οὕτως ταπεινόν. εἰ γὰρ ἦν οὕτως, ἐνπυρίζεσθαι τὴν γῆν ἔδει καὶ τὰ ἐπ’ αὐτῆς πάντα πράγματα, fr. 8 Ch). If, as the texts suggest, the sun’s heat operates analogously to that of terrestrial fires, then Diogenes’ argument here, which is couched as a counterfactual, suggests that the sun has considerable magnitude and heat.
It is furthermore remarkable that the Lucretian section on how the sun is able to fill the earth with warmth (5.590–613) is drenched in water imagery (rigando, 594; perfundat, 595; largifluum fontem, 598; confluit and profluat, 601) and is analogized to a spring irrigating a field (nonne vides etiam quam late parvus aquai | prata riget fons interdum campisque redundet?, “also, don’t you see how widely a little source of water sometimes irrigates the meadows and streams over the fields?,” 602–603). This paradoxical parallelism draws the reader’s attention to the thermal properties of the sun and reminds us once more that appearance and actuality are not one and the same. Furthermore, it emphasizes, by opposition, the immediately preceding analogy of stars in the sky to fires on earth.
That previous analogy (5.585–591), which the Lucretian speaker uses to illustrate the principle that cosmic bodies are more or less the size they appear, likewise (as we have just seen) participates in the passage’s stylistic and semantic complications. To begin with, the speaker’s claim about fires is false if one takes it to mean that fires do not diminish in size with distance. Fires do, in fact, appear to get smaller as one gets farther away from them. Accordingly, it has been attractive to interpret the claim to mean that fires do not appear to get smaller when viewed at a great distance, up until the point that they disappear entirely. This is the argument of both Bailey and Sedley with reference to lights on land as viewed from across a body of water: That they do not appear to get smaller the farther away one gets from them.Footnote 35
This line of reasoning is, in my judgment, flawed for two reasons. First, inasmuch as their evidence is anecdotal and experiential in nature, my own sensus does not match the sensus of Bailey or Sedley. When I carefully studied city lights growing distant while flying home from a conference, I found a sense-experience analogous not to Sedley’s description of distant fires but rather to Sedley’s description of distant structures: “[H]ouses seen from an aeroplane ‘appear’ smaller than they are in the sense that they fill a smaller area of our visual field than usual. It is quite another thing for a house to appear smaller than it is in the sense that we are deceived into believing it to be smaller than it is.”Footnote 36 Perhaps lights viewed at a distance are simply more difficult to size up with the imprecision of the naked eye. At any rate, the conflict between individual perceptions in this type of situation suggests either an error in judgment based on sense-data, or else that the sensory experiences may not be generalizable, and thus that this interpretation of the Lucretian analogy is incomplete.
The second, more pressing problem is that Bailey’s and Sedley’s explanations omit the inclusion by the Lucretius-ego of the continued perception of the heat as well as the light of fires as a principal condition for the analogy’s validity (dum cernitur ardor eorum, 5.587; Algra: 2001, 15 and 17, uniquely includes the warmth criterion). The text requires it to be a both/and condition with regard to perceptible light and heat together, and in such a situation the distant-lights hypotheses of Bailey and Sedley are inadequate to account for the syntactical nuances. Matters are complicated further still by the readily observable phenomenon that heat and light dissipate at vastly different distances, and the intensity of the fire affects the transmission of its heat and the character of its light. Even when both light and heat are sensible, the point is still, as Algra notes, that “de grootte in principe nog goed kunnen schatten” (“in principle, the size can still be estimated well”).Footnote 37
In the end, readers of DRN 5.564–613 are left with a question: Given what we know about fires on earth, how big indeed would the sun have to be in order to seem big enough to have such phosphorescent and thermal action at such a distance? For a caution on the limits of the analogy to earthly fires, we need only look to Asmis’ point that the Lucretius-ego “seems to have held that in most cases there is a difference in presentation between an object and another that resembles it.”Footnote 38 In principle, the lingering question can be answered only if we can accurately assert the distance between us and the sun – a measurement that was, for Epicurus and his school, unfathomable, given the limits of their empirical science. Once again, the Epicurean/Lucretian position ultimately seems to be one of reasoned aporia.
Size of the Sun as Didactic Challenge
Getting to this state of reasoned aporia is no simple task, as my ruminations above indicate. The text of DRN presents what can be taken on a simple surface reading to mean that the sun is the size of a soccer ball, a claim that may strike ancient and modern readers alike as patently ridiculous. I suggest that the complication and the seemingly questionable wording are part of the point of the passage, a call for us to apply our Epicurean philosophical and critical thinking to a knotty problem. In this respect, the Lucretian presentation of the size of the sun can be compared to the role of hunting imagery throughout the poem (Whitlatch: 2014) or the final-exam interpretation of the plague scene at the poem’s end (e.g., Clay: 1983, 257–266). Each of the three constitutes a didactic challenge to the reader, whose successful progression through the Lucretian narrator’s didactic plot entails solving the riddle it presents.
A principal element of the response to the solar challenge is to think about optics and perspective when it comes to figuring out the size of the sun. Contrary to Barnes’ claim that “there is virtually no evidence on how the Epicureans understood the perception of size,”Footnote 39 recent scholarship on perspective in the atomic theory of Democritus gives ample clues for Epicurus’ own thinking, which can in turn be confirmed as Epicurean by examination of relevant passages elsewhere in Lucretius’ DRN. Kelli Rudolph’s study of Democritus clarifies the theoretical function of εἴδωλα in the perception of size in relation to distance.Footnote 40 Rudolph also explores the importance of Democritus’ metaphor of wax impressions for his atomic theory of vision: Because “a wax impression is an isomorphic copy of the original, but never an exact replica” (2011, 79), the eidolic-vision theory of Democritus allows for “epistemic uncertainty in the images we see” (80). Since, according to Democritus, sight consists in the physical reception of physical emissions from viewed bodies, the objects so viewed and visions of them should not be considered identical, because the εἴδωλον of the thing is never the thing itself. For Epicurus and his followers who have adopted Democritean atomism and optics, therefore, visual sensation – though it may (inasmuch as it is a sense-perception) be infallible – requires active cognition in order for sensations to be properly related to and with their sources.Footnote 41
We can verify that some such theory of vision at a distance is in force in DRN by considering passages that deal with perspective in the treatment of simulacra in Book 4. The main description of how we are able to judge distance by sight appears at 4.244–255. In essence, the image emitted by the perceived object to the viewer pushes the intervening “air” (aer, 247, 251) past the viewer’s eyes, and the quantity of the air is directly proportional to the distance between viewer and viewed.Footnote 42 That the sun falls into the category of distant objects requiring intentional perspective-taking along these lines is arguably obvious, but is also suggested by the Lucretian speaker’s explanation, shortly thereafter in the same book, of the sun’s blinding power (4.325–328). According to the Lucretius-ego, the sun is endowed with great power even though it is shining from on high (vis magnast ipsius … alte, 326); the sun’s simulacra, therefore, as they travel through air (aera per purum, 327, a phrase that looks back to the importance of air in 4.244–255), can strike the eyes heavily enough to harm their atomic compounding.Footnote 43 From these lines the reader can determine that the sun is not entirely a special case, but is subject to the same air-based perspectival adjustments as are other observable objects.
The image most often cited by scholars examining the Lucretian treatment of perspective is that of the tower seen from far away (4.353–363), which is square but appears at a distance to be round. According to the speaker’s explanation for the apparent roundness of the tower’s “angle” (angulus, 355), “while the simulacra are moving through a lot of air, the air with constant collisions forces it [the angle] to become dull” (aera per multum quia dum simulacra feruntur, | cogit hebescere eum crebris offensibus aer, 358–359). As a result, “every angle all at once has escaped our perception” (suffugit sensum simul angulus omnis, 360). That the tower appears round does not make it round; that the tower is in reality square does not invalidate our perceiving it as having a round appearance from a distance.Footnote 44 The fact that the Lucretian discussion of the size of the sun invokes readers’ sense-perception (with videtur at 5.565, inter alia) prompts them to think back to the Lucretian discussion of perception at a distance, and to recall from the tower example that data derived from visual perception degrades over distance along with the simulacra themselves. We know intuitively that the sun is farther away than such a tower, and thus we know that we need care in assessing the size of the sun, just as we would in assessing the size (and shape) of a far-off tower.
Finally, there must be perspective-taking on our tactile sensation of warmth as well as on our sight. The heat emitted by a candle, by a bonfire and by a burning building fades away at profoundly different distances – an important piece of evidence in figuring out just how big the sun appears to be. Similarly, the Lucretian speaker’s explicit introduction of heat into the Epicurean doctrine on the size of the sun may suggest to readers that they ponder as well the difference in perceived heat transmitted by the sun and the moon, despite the roughly equivalent percentage of the sky they fill – attested by, among other things, the moon’s ability to eclipse the sun for terrestrial viewers. Vision alone, it appears, is insufficient for solving the puzzle.
So the implied prompts to remember the role of heat in addition to light, and to apply our understanding of perspective to the question of the size of the sun, amount to another current in the didactic airstream of DRN. The Lucretian speaker, rather than merely parroting a ruthlessly ridiculed doctrine, instead pulls his student-readers into the process of inquiry. It becomes the didactic audience’s task to receive data from sense-perception, and to use lessons learned earlier in the poem (as about perspective and distance, cf. 4.239–268, 353–363) in making correct rational judgments based upon that sense data. Asmis reminds us that for the Lucretius-ego “there is no clash between the judgment of the senses and objective reality, because the type of fact that seems to be in conflict with sense perception does not fall within the province of sense perception at all, but belongs to an entirely distinct domain of reality … judged by reason.”Footnote 45 As Demetrius Lacon writes of a related solar question, “the sun does not appear stationary, but rather it is thought to appear stationary” (ο[ὐ] φαίνεται μ̣[ὲ]ν ὁ ἥλιο[ς ἑσ[τ]ηκώς, δοκεῖ δὲ φαίν[εσ]θ̣αι, PHerc. 1013 col. 20.7–9; cited by Barnes: 1989, 35–36 n. 36). Tricky cases such as the size of the sun, where sense data is incomplete, may require suspension of such reasoned judgment, until enough evidence becomes available to evaluate our hypotheses through the process of ἐπιμαρτύρησις, until which point the opinion must remain a προσμένον.Footnote 46
In the Epicurean and Lucretian account of reality, the senses themselves are infallible. The Lucretian speaker’s assertion that the sun is just as big as it is perceived to be by our senses must therefore also be infallible – just as the perception that the sun is bigger when it is close to the horizon at sunrise and sunset must be infallible, without our having to believe that the sun actually changes sizes dramatically during the day. But our interpretation of what exactly that assertion entails about the sun’s actual size is a matter of judgment, and as such is fallible and uncertain indeed. As with the argumentation presented by the Lucretius-ego throughout the poem, and as with the gripping, awful plague scene at the end of Book 6, we must be keen-scented, relentless and detached from mundane concerns and fears in order to reckon and judge accurately in cosmic matters.
Size of the Sun as Epicurean Shibboleth
The Epicureans did not believe that the sun was the size of a human foot. They distinguished between the sun’s actual size and the size of its appearance, the latter of which was the only magnitude measurable from earth with the technology available. In this matter as almost everywhere else, the Epicureans appealed to the truth of sense-perception – with the important caution that discerning reality from appearance requires perception-based judgment, which itself is not guaranteed to be true. In Lucretius’ poem, the discussion of solar magnitude adds more detail to Epicurus’ original conception, especially with the introduction of the sun’s heat into the passage. Complicated style emphasizes how full of hedges and conditioned claims the Lucretius-ego is, and his thorny exposition of the doctrine amounts to a didactic challenge that sends readers elsewhere in his work, to ponder perspective and to hunt down a proper understanding of this aspect of the natural world.
By staking out a stance of aporia conditioned by sense-perception and reasoning thereupon, the Epicureans did in fact prove to be less wrong than everyone else. Algra emphasizes that “all ancient estimates of the size of the sun, including those put forward by the mathematical astronomers, were false.”Footnote 47 The failing of ancient mathematical science in estimate-making was pervasive since, Geoffrey Lloyd notes, “an important recurrent phenomenon in Greek speculations about nature is a premature or insecurely grounded quantification or mathematicisation.”Footnote 48 Epicurus and his school, in avoiding a concrete statement of the sun’s size, avoided being concretely wrong, in contrast to Eudoxus and all the rest. The sun passage in DRN pushes the reader towards non-commitment rather than risking such a misjudgment.
In closing I argue that the size of the sun is an Epicurean shibboleth. In Epicurus, in Lucretius and in Demetrius, we see the same nostrum repeated, with progressive elaborations that do not fully clarify the basic precept. The persistence of Epicureans in this formulation is not so much the result of reflexive dogma or pseudo-intellectual obscurantism as it is a passphrase, a litmus test. Think like an Epicurean, and you will figure out that the sun’s appearance and the sun itself are two related but distinct things with two different sizes; that you must keep the infallible data of the senses, tactile as well as visual, in proper perspective when making judgments about your perception; and that the available data is insufficient to estimate the sun’s magnitude to an acceptable degree of confidence (compare Barnes: 1989, 36). Think that Epicureans believe the sun’s diameter is a foot, that they are absurd, and you have exposed yourself as un-Epicurean. The first/second-century AD Stoic doxographer Cleomedes, who as Algra points out “nowhere takes account of the Epicurean principle of multiple explanations,”Footnote 49 likewise fails this test when he mocks Epicurus’ position on the size of the sun.
Thinking like an Epicurean – rather than figuring out the actual size of the sun – is, I suggest, the point of the Lucretian passage on the size of the sun, as it is indeed the fundamental point of Epicurean natural philosophy generally. Constantina Romeo suggests that Epicurus’ moral program of liberating humankind from the fear of death motivates his followers’ ardent defense of his claims on the sun’s size. Since Epicurus presented understanding of the natural and celestial world as essential for a life of ataraxia, “nel momento in cui lo Stoico ritiene di avere dimostrato l’errore di Epicuro nella scienza della natura, sostiene pure che Epicuro non ha dato nessun conforto di fronte alla morte” (“in the moment in which the Stoic [Posidonius] thinks he has shown Epicurus’ mistakes in natural science, he also claims that Epicurus has provided no comfort in the face of death”).Footnote 50 Yet Posidonius has actually failed the test, has misunderstood the stakes of the debate. Precise measurement of the sun’s size is not what is at issue for the Epicureans, and so proof of scientific error does not vitiate Epicurus’ moral philosophy. The Epicureans pushed back so fiercely against their opponents’ (mis)characterizations of Epicurus’ position because of the underlying epistemological and phenomenological principles. It does not matter to Epicurean ethics or to ataraxia whether the size of the sun is known. After all, the Epicureans did not even need to affix a certain size to the sun to accomplish their core epistemological objective: to remove anxiety about divine control over cosmological phenomena.Footnote 51 What matters, and the underlying reason for this Epicurean shibboleth, is a readiness to use careful reasoning and good judgment to embrace uncertainty about the nature of things without succumbing to the anxiety-inducing fear of death.