T. Lucre'tius Carus
The information to be derived from ancient writers regarding the personal history of Lucretius is very scanty in amount and somewhat suspicious in character That he was a Roman, or at least an Italian by birth, may be inferred from his own words, for he twice speaks of the Latin language as his native tongue (1.831, 3.261, comp. 1.42). The Eusebian Chronicle fixes B. C. 95 as the date of his birth, adding that he was driven mad by a love potion, that during his lucid intervals he composed several works which were revised by Cicero, and that he perished by his own hand in the forty-fourth year of his age, that is, B. C. 52 or 51. Donatus,on the contrary, affirms that his death happened in B. C. 55, on the very day on which Virgil assumed the toga virilis, an event which, in the Eusebian Chronicle, is placed two years later. From what source the tale about the philtre may have been derived we know not. Pomponius Sabinus, in a note on the third Georgic (50.202), states that the drug employed was hippomanes, while later writers, twisting a passage in the works of St. Jerome (ad Rufin.
100.22) to their own views, have declared that the potion was administered by his own wife Lucilia, in order that she might inspire him with more deep and fervent affection.
It has been ingenliously conjectured that the whole story was an invention of some enemy of the Epicureans, who conceived that such an end would be peculiarly appropriate for one who so boldly professed and so zealously advocated the principles of that philosophy. Not a hint is to be found anywhere which corroborates the assertion with regard to the editorial labours of Cicero.
When we consider that what has been set down above comprises everything that can be gleaned from authentic sources, we may feel somewhat surprised, on turning to the biographies of Lucretius prefixed to various editions and translations of his work, to find that they contain a detailed account of his family and connections, from the days of the chaste wife of Collatinus, a narrative of his journey to Athens for the prosecution of his philosophical studies, an account of the society in which he there lived, of the friendships which he there formed, of the preceptors from whose lips he derived his enthusiasm for those tenets which he subsequently expounded with such fervid faith, of his return to his native country, and of his life and habits while enjoying the charms of literary ease and peaceful seclusion.
But the whole of these particulars are a mere tissue of speculations,--a web of conjectures originally woven by the imagination of Lambinus and afterwards variously embroidered by the idle and perverse ingenuity of a long line of commentators.
The period about which his piece was published can be reduced within narrow limits.
The allusion to the unhappy dissensions by which his native country was distracted, have been supposed to bear special reference to the conspiracy of Catiline, but the expression " patriae tempore iniquo" is so general that it is applicable to any portion of the epoch when he flourished. From the manner, however, in which Cicero, in a letter to his brother Quintus, written B. C. 55, gives his opinion on the merits of the poem, we may fairly conclude that it had been recently published; and, taking into account the slowness with which copies were multiplied, the conjecture of Forbiger becomes highly probable, that it may have been given to the world in the early part of the year B. C. 57, when the machinations of Clodius were producing a degree of disorder and anarchy almost without example even in those stormy times.
The work which has immortalised the name of Lucretius, and which, happily, has been preserved entire, is a philosophical didactic poem, composed in heroic hexameters, divided into six books, extending to upwards of seven thousand four hundred lines, addressed to C. Memmius Gemellus, who was praetor in B. C. 58 [MEMMIUS], and is entitled De Rerum Natura.
It has been sometimes represented as a complete exposition of the religious, moral, and physical doctrines of Epicurus, but this is far from being a correct description.
The plan is not by any means so vast or so discursive, and although embracing numerous topics requiring great minuteness of detail, and admitting of great variety of illustration, is extremely distinct, and possesses almost epical unity. Epicurus maintained that the unhappiness and degradation of mankind arose in a great degree from the slavish dread which they entertained of the power of the Gods, from terror of their wrath, which was supposed to be displayed by the misfortunes inflicted in this life, and by the everlasting tortures which were the lot of the guilty in a future state, or where these feelings were not strongly developed, from a vague dread of gloom and misery after death. To remove these apprehensions, which he declared were founded upon error, and thus to establish tranquillity in the heart, was the great object of his teaching; and the fundamental doctrine upon which his system reposed was, that the Gods, whose existence he did not deny, lived for evermore in the enjoyment of absolute peace, strangers to all the passions, desires, and fears, which agitate the human heart, totally indifferent to the world and its inhabitants, unmoved alike by their virtues and their crimes.
As a step towards proving this position he called to his aid the atomic theory of Leucippus, by which he sought to demonstrate that the material universe is not the result of creative energy on the part of the Supreme Being, but that all the objects in which it abounds, mineral, vegetable, and animal, were formed by the union of elemental particles which had existed from all eternity, governed by certain simple laws; and that all those striking phaenomena which, from their strangeness or mighty effects, had long been regarded by the vulgar as direct manifestations of divine power, were merely the natural results of ordinary processes. To state clearly and develope fully the leading principle of this philosophy, in such a form as might render the study attractive to his countrymen, few of whom were disposed to take any interest in abstract speculations, was the task undertaken by the author of the De Rerum Natura,
his work being simply an attempt to show that there is nothing in the history or actual condition of the world which does not admit of explanation without having recourse to the active interposition of divine beings.
The poem opens with a magnificent apostrophe to Venus, whom lie addresses as an allegorical representation of the reproductive power, after which the business of the piece commences by an enunciation of the great proposition on the nature and being of the gods (57-62), which leads to a grand invective against the gigantic monster superstition, and a thrilling picture of the horrors which attends his tyrannous sway. Then follows a lengthened elucidation of the axiom that nothing can be produced from nothing, and that nothing can be reduced to nothing (Nil fieri ex nihilo, in nihilum nil posse reverti
) ; which is succeeded by a definition of the Ultimate Atoms, infinite in number, which, together with Void Space (Inane
), infinite in extent, constitute the universe.
The shape of these corpuscules, their properties, their movements, the laws under which they enter into combination and assume forms and qualities appreciable by the senses, with other preliminary matters on their nature and affections, together with a refutation of objections and opposing hypotheses, occupy the first two books.
In the third book, the general truths thus established are applied to demonstrate that the vital and intellectual principles, the Anima and Animus, are as much a part of the man as his limbs and members, but like those limbs and members have no distinct and independent existence, and that hence soul and body live and perish together; the argument being wound up by a magnificent exposure of the folly manifested in a dread of death, which will for ever extinguish all feeling.
The fourth book--perhaps the most ingenious of the whole--is devoted to the theory of the senses, sight, hearing, taste, smell, of sleep and of dreams, ending with a disquisition upon love.
The fifth book, generally regarded as the most finished and impressive, treats of the origin of the world and of all things that are therein, of the movements of the heavenly bodies, of the vicissitudes of the seasons, of day and night, of the rise and progress of man, of society, and of political institutions, and of the invention of the various arts and sciences which embellish and ennoble life.
The sixth book comprehends an explanation of some of the most striking natural appearances, especially thunder, lightning, hail, rain, snow, ice, cold, heat, wind, earthquakes, volcanoes, springs and localities noxious to animal life, which leads to a discourse upon diseases.
This in its turn introduces an appalling description of the great pestilence which devastated Athens during the Peloponnesian war, and thus the book closes.
The termination being somewhat abrupt, induces the belief that Lucretius may have intended to continue his task, which might have been greatly extended, but there is no reason to suppose that anything has been lost.
With regard to the general merits of the production, considered merely as a work of art, without reference to the falseness and absurdity of the views which it advocates, but little difference of opinion has prevailed among modern critics. All have admired the marvellous ability and skill with which the most abstruse speculations and the most refractory technicalities have been luminously bodied forth in sonorous verse, and expressed in diction which, although full of animation and dignity, is never extravagant nor pompous. All have acknowledged the matchless power and beauty of those sublime outbursts of noble poetry which diffuse light, vivacity, and grace, upon themes, which in a less gifted writer must have proved obscure, dull, and repulsive.
But even this is not sufficient praise. Had it not been for Lucretius we could never have formed an adequate idea of the power of the Latin language. We might have dwelt with pleasure upon the softness, flexibility, richness, and musical tone of that vehicle of thought, which could represent with full effect the melancholy tenderness of Tibullus, the exquisite ingenuity of Ovid, the inimitable felicity and taste of Horace, the gentleness, high spirit, and splendour of Virgil, and the vehement declamation of Juvenal; but had the verses of Lucretius perished we should never have known that it could give utterance to the grandest conceptions with all that sustained majesty and harmonious swell in which the Grecian Muse rolls forth her loftiest outpourings. Yet, strange to say, the Romans themselves seem never to have done full justice to the surpassing genius of their countryman.
The criticism of Cicero is correct but cold, the tribute paid by Ovid to his memory is vague and affected, the observations of Quintilian prove how little he had entered into his spirit or appreciated his high enthusiasm, while the few remaining writers by whom he is named either insult him with faint approbation, or indulge in direct censure. Statius alone, perhaps, proves himself not insensible of the power which he describes as the " docti furor arduus Lucreti." (Corn. Nep. Att.
12.4; Vitr. 9.3
; Prop. 2.25
; Vell. 2.36
; Senec. de Tranquill. Anim.
xcv. cx; Plin. Ep. 4.18
; Tac. Dial. de Orat.
The editio Princeps of Lucretius was printed at Brescia, in fol., by Thomas Ferandus, about 1473
, and is of such excessive rarity that three copies only are known to exist.
It has been fully described by Dibdin in the Bibl. Spencer.
vol. ii. p. 149-153.
The second edition, much less rare, and taken from an inferior MS., appeared at Verona, fol. 1486, from the press of Paul Friedenberger
. The text was corrected from MSS. by Jo. Baptista Pius, fol. Bonon. 1511
, by Petrus Candidus, Florent. Phil. Giunta. 8vo. 1512
, and by Lambinus, whose two editions 4to. 1563, 1570
, especially the second, are most valuable, and are accompanied by an excellent commentary. Considerable praise is due to Gifanius, 8vo. Antw. 1566, to Pareus, 2 vol. 8vo. Francf. 1631
, to Creech, 8vo. Oxon. 1695
, and especially to the comprehensive labours of Havercamp, whose bulky volumes (2 vols. 4to. Lug. Bat. 1725, forming a portion of the series of Dutch Variorum Classics, in 4to.)
contain everything that is valuable in preceding editions.
The text of Lambinus, however, underwent few changes until it assumed its present form in the hands of the celebrated Gilbert Wakefield, whose recension, founded upon the best English MSS., was published in three volumes, 4to. Lond. 1796, and reprinted at Glasgow, 4 vols. 8vo. 1813
. We must not omit to mention with respect the edition of Albert Forbiger, 12mo. Lips. 1828
, who has shown great taste and judgment in selecting the best readings, and has added short but useful notes. For practical purposes the edition of Lambinus, 1570
, that of Havercamp, 1725
, that of Creech, as reprinted, Oxon. 1818
, exhibiting Wakefield's text, and that of Forbiger, will be found the most serviceable, but any one who can procure the second and fourth of these may dispense with the rest.
We have complete metrical translations into English by Creech, 8vo. Oxford, 1682, very frequently reprinted; by John Mason Goode (blank verse), accompanied by a most elaborate series of annotations, 2 vols. 4to. Lond. 1805
; and by Thomas Busby, 2 vols. 4to. Lond. 1813
. We have translations also of the first book alone by John Evelyn, 8vo. Lond. 1656
; by an anonymous writer, 8vo. Lond. 1799
; and by W. H. Drummond, 8vo. Lond. 1809
: but, excepting some detached passages rendered by Dryden
, with all his wonted fire and inaccuracy, we possess nothing in our language which can be regarded as even a tolerable representation of the original.
The best translation into French is that by J. B. S. de Pongerville, Paris, 1823, 1828
; the best into Italian, that by Alessandro Marchetti, Lond. 1717, frequently reprinted
; the best into German, that by Knebel, Leipzig, 1821, and improved, Leipzig, 1831