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The first thing a modern reader of Lucretius' On the Nature of Things would notice is the odd combination of poetry and philosophy. In our modern, science-based society, this synthesis seems strange and foreign. We are accustomed to a "just the facts, ma'am" exchange of information. However, the ancients viewed this mixture differently than we do. To Lucretius, poetry was the honey on the brim of the medicine cup that is philosophy: a device that allowed him expound his ideas in a way that is more palatable to the reader. Throughout his poem he uses poetry and poetical devices to appeal to the imaginations and emotions of the reader in an effort to convey his philosophy. One of the places where I feel he best accomplishes this is in the last section of the excerpt from The Portable Roman Reader, which Lucretius titled Folly of the Fear of Death.
In this part of the poem, Lucretius mixes poetry
and philosophy to achieve maximum results. One of the ways he
does this is to appeal to the imagination of the reader by presenting
various images with the hope that the emotions these images evoke
will help him make his arguments. On page 204, he says:
For if it an evil is Dead to be jerked about by jaw and fang
Of the wild brutes, I see not why 'twere not
Bitter to lie on fires and roast in flames,
Or suffocate in honey, and, reclined
On the smooth oblong of an icy slab,
Grow stiff in cold, or sink with load of earth
Down-crushing from above.
In this passage, Lucretius describes various scenes of death, some violently graphic and others relatively peaceful. He wants the reader to visualize these images of death, causing him to feel different levels of revulsion towards each. At the same time, he is telling the reader that such emotions are pointless since the result in all cases is the same, i.e. death, and, according to his philosophy, the dead person will not remember the circumstances of death. Because he makes the reader feel horrified while telling him that such feelings are stupid, he makes the reader feel foolish. He does this several times throughout this section, using phrases such as "when dead he rots with body laid away" or "perishes in flames or jaws of beasts" (p204). In all of these cases, the reader is saying to himself "what a horrible fate" while Lucretius tells him that such thoughts and feelings are asinine, that the reader is trying to superimpose his senses and feelings onto the dead person and that this is absurd for the very fact that the person is dead. He is trying to evoke emotion from the reader so that he can ridicule it. I think that this is an attempt by Lucretius to make the reader doubt if the way he thinks about certain things is correct and thus make him more open to or less likely to question the ideas Lucretius is presenting.
Another way he uses poetry as a vehicle for his subject
is by recalling the history of Rome to elicit feelings associated
with it. A good example of this is on pages 209 and 210. Here,
Lucretius goes through a list of history's greatest men. He describes
the reasons for their glory and then points out that all are dead.
An example of this is when he speaks of Epicurus:
Even Epicurus went, his light of life
Run out, the man in genius who o'er-topped
The human race, extinguishing all others, As sun, in ether arisen, all the stars.
Lucretius is telling the reader that the greatest
men of all time met their ends so there is no reason for others
to complain about approaching death. He praises these men, most
of whom are Roman war heroes, reminiscing in their glory and calling
forth the awe the reader feels for each. Then, he reminds the
reader that all are dead. For all their achievements, for all
the fame and glory that each accumulated during his lifetime,
each still "poured his soul from dying body, as his light
was ta'en" (210). Lucretius must want the reader to feel
that he is nothing compared with these men and, since even they
could not avoid death, to realize the hopelessness of his situation
and go quietly to the grave. Lucretius uses the mythology of Rome
to put to rest fears of punishment in the next life for sins committed
in this one. He does this by equating the tortures of Tartarus
with problems we all have in everyday life, saying that there
is no difference between the two, that "hell" cannot
be any worse than what we already live with. For example, he
tells the reader
No Tantalus, benumbed
With baseless terror, as the fables tell,
Fears the huge boulder hanging in the air;
But, rather, in life an empty dread of Gods
Urges mortality, and each one fears
Such fall of fortune as may chance to him.
Lucretius is describing the situation of Tantalus and trying to convey to the reader the sheer terror that Tantalus must feel. He then goes on to say that Tantalus' boulder is the same as our fear of Gods and the chances of fortune. If Tantalus' problem is no worse than what we constantly experience, then, even if the afterworld exists, we will already be hardened and ready to accept whatever is given us. Lucretius goes even further and suggests that, living, we experience the tortures of Tartarus. There is nothing to wait for and fear in the underworld since we live with it all right now. Actually, death will be a release from all of these tortures. We live in Hades right now. Death, the end of our existence, will free us from hell. By describing the torturing of Tantalus, Tityus, and Sisyphus in such detail and then relating these tortures to everyday problems and experiences, Lucretius causes the reader to first think of how horrible those tortures are and then realize that he is being tortured in the same way everyday. The reader comes to the conclusion that maybe death is not such a bad thing. Maybe it is even good. Lucretius often uses his combination of poetry and philosophy to introduce, as he does on pages 210 and 211, metaphors for ideas he is trying to describe that may be difficult for the reader to comprehend. On pages 210 and 211, he is describing how people are never satisfied, how they never know what it is that will make them happy. People feel a burden in their minds and they are constantly trying to free themselves of that burden. He likens this to a man that is continually running about, never knowing where he is going or where he wants to go. This man goes to one place and maybe rests or maybe runs off to the next town. Lucretius says our minds do the same thing because they carry that burden, which we all feel but do not recognize. He tells the reader that if the reader will just stop and study nature, study that which is eternal, and not be caught up in this instantaneous moment in which we live, he can free his mind from this burden and go peacefully and satisfactorily to the grave. The metaphor of the wandering man clarifies this point for the reader and keeps him from getting confused, thus allowing him to continue following Lucretius' argument.
Using poetry as his writing style allows Lucretius to personify Nature and give her a voice to reinforce his points, something that would seem very foreign in prose but which comes across naturally in verse. This occurs on pages 206 and 207. He gives Nature about two pages during which she scolds mankind for his attitudes toward life and death. What this does for his argument is, in my opinion, allow him to speak in another voice, a voice that has, in a way, more authority than he may have himself. The Romans were accustomed to stories about gods and such in which abstractions such as the sky, the earth, and even Nature were personified. As a result, hearing Nature speak to them is nothing new and she probably had what may be called more weight with the average reader than someone like Lucretius would have. At the very least, she was an accepted medium through which an author could speak. Lucretius uses this authority by having Nature speak to the reader in the same way an authoritative figure would speak to someone, such as a father to a son. She basically scolds the reader. She really does not say anything new from the point of view of Lucretius' past discourse, but her tone gives new strength to his arguments. Phrases such as "Off with thy tears, and choke thy whines, buffoon!" and "why not...take now, thou fool, thy unafflicted rest?" create a tone in which Nature makes the reader feel as though he had done something wrong and causes him to feel guilty for his behavior. Using Nature in this way allows Lucretius to attack the reader, his actions, and attitudes, something that would not seem proper or correct in prose or in his own voice. The, to modern readers, strange synthesis of poetry and philosophy gives Lucretius an advantage over what prose would give. This synthesis allows him to do many things which strengthen his arguments. He is able to call upon imagery to clarify a point, draw on both Roman history and religion, use metaphors to illustrate difficult concepts, and bring in the authority of other voices. The most important effect all of these have is to bring the emotions of the reader into the argument, allowing Lucretius to argue to or against those emotions and thus driving his points home more clearly. This aspect of On the Nature of Things is something that seems very foreign to us, since we are used to objective science and philosophy. For modern people, emotion has no place in the search for truth in our universe. However, as Lucretius shows, calling upon and playing with the emotions of the reader can serve to strengthen an argument or make it easier to present a point. I think that his presentation of Epicurean philosophy would suffer greatly without his synthesis of poetry and philosophy, even though it would be possible to explain in prose. If Lucretius had written in prose, his arguments would not make quite an impact on the reader nor would the reader find it appealing. Not only that, but I think that there would be a greater chance of the reader not agreeing with Lucretius if he had not used poetry. As he said, the poetry makes the philosophy sweeter and, thus, more easily accepted. It would be interesting to see if a modern scientist could use a similar tactic to make his science more appealing to the masses. Maybe if we did the same as Lucretius, there would be more people studying science today.