Lucretius: Examining the philosophical poem
A little over than a century ago, the Spanish American philosopher George Santayana published a book entitled Three Philosophical Poets. The three poets are Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe, and their poems: De Rerum Natura, The Divine Comedy, and Faust. The poems represent three points of view: Naturalism, Christian Platonism or Supernaturalism, and Romantic Naturalism, which, when considered in sequence, are moments in the development of Western thought, from Antiquity to the early 19th Century.
If you have an interest in understanding the progress of Western thought from ancient to modern, and how we, its cultural heirs, have come to think the way we do about most things, I can think of no better guide than Santayana, who seems not only to have read everything of note in many languages, but wrote about it with grace, clarity and insight. Reading this book and mastering its contents and all that it implies would amount to a complete education. It offers, as they say, a “core curriculum.”
Now I come to the question: What is a philosophical poem? To which, a second question might be added: Why does it matter?
Santayana answers both together, and I will follow him. For Lucretius these are especially important questions, for the themes he writes about seem not in the least poetic. They are matters that we would normally expect to find explained in standard textbooks on physics, the social sciences and history, and these are or seem to be quintessentially prosaic. They are all about the fundamental facts of nature and society. Knowing them enables us to live without illusions and to discover practical ways to live peacefully together; and like everyday tools, they work better when unadorned and commonplace.
Lucretius’ poem presents “one complete system of philosophy—materialism in natural science, humanism in ethics.” It perfectly expresses the Greek spirit, “which produced Greek manners, Greek government and Greek art—a movement towards simplicity, autonomy, and reasonableness in everything, from dress to religion.” It is a system of naturalism that has been refined, clarified, but never replaced.
What does poetry have to add?
Santayana answers in one word: Light.
Poetry is the medium through which we see things most vividly and full bodied, and with light there is joy, its chief purpose is celebration. In a previous essay, I remarked about the prologue that opens the poem, a hymn to Venus as the gladdening face of nature in springtime.
Even though we are mortal animals—whose span of life, is infinitesimally small compared to the lifetime of the universe and who are fated to oblivion—we are still capable of joy and celebration, which are essential condiments of life. We are like aquatic birds “who throng the joyous regions of water” crowding riverbank, streams and lakes, filling the air with song and frolicking and flitting about through pathless woods, making the forest alive and gladsome, and never worrying that they are mortal.
Moreover, without poetry, Lucretius could not have revealed a deeper truth about nature and its bittersweet, the real flavor of life. He maintained that although every natural thing belongs to a certain species and comes into existence in an orderly way—geese from goose eggs, and crocodiles from crocodile eggs— yet each individual animal, particularly humans, is different from all the rest. If this were not so, he contends, mothers would not recognize their offspring, geese their own goslings, crocodiles their hatchlings, and cows their calves.
It is with respect to the latter that he composed one of the most memorable episodes in his poem: It begins at line 355 of the second book. A young calf has been taken from its mother and is slaughtered as a sacrifice to the Roman Gods. The bereaved mother wanders through the woods, vainly in search of her calve, through all the familiar places, coming to a halt “she fills the leafy woods with her moaning.” She revisits the stall, hoping to find him there, and is disappointed. Nothing can distract her from her loss and her grief. “Neither tender willow growths, nor herbage growing rich in dew, nor rivers flowing level with their banks, can give her joy,” nor the sight of “other calves in happy pastures.”
The tragic image he draws embraces mother love and animal grief. But these are the sources of essential value in nature, not confined to human nature, but extending to all sentient beings that generate their offspring. And to complete the picture, he observes that “tender kids with trembling voices know their horned mothers, and mischievous lambs the flocks of bleating sheep: so, as nature requires, they regularly run each to its own udder of milk.”
No doubt, if Lucretius were our contemporary, he would be a strong advocate for parent-child centers, and Planned Parenthood, and the care of animals. There can be no civilization without this basic care and nurturing, nor any strong motive to sustain it.
But my subject is philosophical poetry. Without the art of poetry no light would be cast on the deeps of animal sentiment from which arise all the values of society, and which give them gravity. The melody of words and the startling images they evoke enlighten the mind and deepen its grasp of truth.
The English philosopher, John Locke, who was an empiricist and, in his best moments, a naturalist, once observed, over 300 years ago, that there is superadded to all of our thoughts and perceptions a sentiment of pleasure or pain, and that all value, of good and bad, derive from these elemental feelings.
This is not to say that all pleasure is good, or all pain bad. There must be refinements and judgments and rearrangements, for when it is all done, good must produce real and lasting happiness and bad must evoke anguish and unendurable remorse.
The task of civilization is to bring thoughts, perceptions and feelings in harmony. Without poetry, this cannot be achieved; hence all wisdom must be poetized. To which, it must be added, that this is not for the select few, but for everyone. Every animal, after all, has a mother and needs to be loved.
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