Belletristic riffs on old Roman

Lucretius and the Modern World
April 12, 2001

Can a Roman poet be relevant? Shadwell could think so in 1676. A character in his comedy The Virtuoso defends himself for reading Lucretius on the ground that he is "almost alone in reconciling poetry and good sense". W. R. Johnson thinks the same today: Lucretius's vision is "morally and physically exactly compatible" with that of modern science.

Nevertheless Lucretius's poem has not had a smooth run. Christians read it, when they do, for its literary qualities and ignore or attack its anti-religious message: scientists disregard it because its physics are out of date. Worst of all, Lucretius has suffered character assassination. St Jerome said that he went mad because of a love potion, wrote in intervals of sanity and committed suicide. St Jerome lived 400 years after Lucretius, there is no evidence for the story and many solid arguments against it. But scandal never dies, and there were reasons to wish this one true. It appealed to Christian prejudice, and it explained Lucretius's impassioned style. Hence much analysis of l'anti-Lucrèce chez Lucrèce , and also Tennyson's picture of the demented poet, which long ruled unquestioned in the minds of English readers.

Johnson's own tour guide to On the Nature of Things is personal rather than comprehensive. He hurries past the atoms and how their metaphysical properties enable free will to exist in a mechanistic universe. Instead, he concentrates on matters of life and death, how society evolved and how we should behave in a world where there is no God dealing out rewards or punishments. Unlike most academic commentators, he not only explains what Lucretius says, but also discusses how right (and occasionally how wrong) he was to say it.

Coming to the poem's afterlife, Johnson is equally engagé and selective. Though Botticelli's Venus, Kant's initiation into philosophy, Karl Marx's conversion to materialism and America's dedication to "the pursuit of happiness" could all be claimed as significant victories for its influence, Johnson mentions none of them. His primary interest is in literature and literary men. He gives France good coverage - Pierre Gassendi, Melchior de Polignac, Diderot, Voltaire and others, though he misses Guyau, who made Lucretius fashionable at the end of the 19th century. In England, he highlights Thomas Creech, Dryden and Tennyson and interestingly reprints excerpts from successive editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica , which show how variable expert opinion can be.

But Johnson is hard to please. Gassendi, who put Lucretius on the map scientifically speaking, gets no gratitude for this, only a rap over the knuckles for neglecting the poetry. Dryden is acknowledged to have "read the entire poem and read it greatly" but is reprimanded for having translated only what would make an "elegant anthology" of purple passages. When John Tyndall, as president of the British Association, devoted his 1874 lecture to a full-hearted eulogy of Lucretius's materialism, moral teaching and defiance of religion, he is blamed for having "lost the war" to the Christians. For the more Lucretius was linked to the science of Tyndall's day, the more science moved, the more irrelevant he would become.

These are odd judgements, especially the last, and the epilogue is odder still. Johnson takes off his bonnet and lets out the bees to buzz freely through space and time, speculating on how the colonisation of other worlds and the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb would rate on the scale of Lucretian values.

Strange, too, is some of the language. Johnson is an emeritus professor, at home with words such as textuality, belletristic, triage and telos, but he allows them to keep company with a very different class of words and phrases such as riff, horny, old fart and the education racket. Catullus (of all poets) is accused of smelling more of the library than of the boudoir. Perhaps Johnson hopes that his style is universal and will appeal to all types. The danger is that it may drive away each in turn. That would be a pity.

The book is idiosyncratic, but this is the price of freedom. The important thing is that Johnson's facts can be relied on and his comment is always interesting. Above all, he shows both scientist and humanist how much Lucretius has contributed and how much he still has to offer.

Maurice Pope is emeritus professor of classics, University of Capetown.

Lucretius and the Modern World

Author - W. R. Johnson
ISBN - 0 7156 2882 8 2
Publisher - Duckworth
Price - £9.99
Pages - 155

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