• Jacques Lezra
  • Liza Blake
Part of the The New Antiquity book series (NANT)


“Lucretius reaches the mainstream”: thus, rather dolefully, Gordon Campbell titles his 2007 review of the Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Lucretius and Cambridge Companion to Lucretius collections.1 It is 2016 now; two millennia after the work was drafted, the long shadow cast by Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (DRN; before 50 CE) falls across the “mainstream” disciplines of philosophy, literary history and criticism, religious studies, classics, political philosophy, the history of science, and others. How do we account for the work’s modernity, if that is indeed what it is? Or perhaps for its arresting resistance to every effort to line it up with a period’s preoccupations—whether we have in mind the time of its composition; its rediscovery; its first, scandalized reception; its persistence as a Gothic, philosophical monster haunting the attics of the Enlightenment; its uncomfortable flirtation with critiques of determinism; its reentry into academic conversation in the late twentieth century? What does DRN mean to us? “Suave, mari magno,” we read at the opening of the second Book (2.1–2), “turbantibus aequora ventis / e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem” [Pleasant it is, when on the great sea the winds trouble the waters, to gaze from shore about another’s great tribulation], but nowhere do we find firm ground, ourselves, from which to contemplate serenely the tossing seas of Lucretius’s reception: we are always also aboard, always carried along in and on the poem.2


Sense Perception Literary History Future Century Epicurean Tradition Cartesian Philosophy 
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  1. 1.
    Gordon L. Campbell, “Lucretius Reaches the Mainstream,” Classical Review 59:1 (2009): 115–17. Campbell’s review covers both Monica R. Gale, ed., Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Lucretius (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) and Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, trans. W. H. D. Rouse, rev. Martin Ferguson Smith (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992). Unless otherwise noted, both Latin quotations and translations are taken from this edition.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    See, for example, Michel Serres, The Birth of Physics, trans. Jack Hawkes, ed. David Webb (Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2000).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Louis Althusser, Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978–1987, ed. François Matheron and Oliver Corpet, trans. G. M. Goshgarian (New York: Verso, 2006).Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011).Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    For a similar argument that the history of philosophy largely neglects philosophy before the seventeenth century, see also Kellie Robertson’s “Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto,” Exemplaria 22:2 (2010): 99–118. Robertson warns in the essay that Greenblatt’s approach to Lucretius threatens to use philosophical materialism as a way of creating new barriers between the medieval and early modern periods, comparable to the kind of periodization that took place around theories about subjectivity current in the 1980s. As Robertson puts it, “The ‘new Lucretianism’ threatens to become the new ‘new subjectivity’” (109).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 9.
    While Greenblatt’s book has recently received a great deal of attention, positive as well as negative, it should be noted that there are a number of recent book-length studies of the reception of Lucretius in early modern Europe that do not claim that Lucretius is a “modern” writer, or that he inaugurates modernity: see, for example, Gerard Passannante’s The Lucretian Renaissance: Philology and the Afterlife of Tradition (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2011), which shows how early modern writers and thinkers used Lucretius’s poem to rethink tradition and influence, and Alison Brown’s The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univesity Press, 2010), which gently teases apart heterodoxy from potentially anachronistic ideas of atheism or secularism. Brown’s book also includes, in her fourth chapter, an important study of Machiavelli’s manuscript of DRN. Jonathan Goldberg’s The Seeds of Things: Theorizing Sexuality and Materiality in Renaissance Representations (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009) reads Renaissance texts that explore the philosophy of Lucretius; its claims are primarily theoretical and philosophical rather than historical. Ada Palmer’s Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014) came out too recently for us to incorporate into this introduction, but promises a detailed study of the humanist reception of Lucretius and Epicurean texts.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 10.
    Tison Pugh et al., eds., “Book Review Forum: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. By Stephen Greenblatt. W. W. Norton, 2011,” Book Review Cluster, Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies 25:4 (2013): 313–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 12.
    This, perhaps, is the guiding structure of the overview offered in Stuart Gillespie and Donald Mackenzie’s “Lucretius and the Moderns,” in The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, ed. Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie, 306–24. See also, in a similar vein, the essays collected in Timothy J. Madigan and David B. Suits, eds., Lucretius: His Continuing Influence and Contemporary Relevance (Rochester, NY: RIT Press, 2011). More specific studies include Jonathan Kramnick’s reading of Lucretius in his Actions and Objects from Hobbes to Richardson (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010), esp. pp. 61–98, in which he argues that Lucretius’s poem was deployed as a monist system that was used in the late seventeenth century to rethink concepts of mind, action, and causation against the Cartesian and Christian dualism that preceded it; Paddy Bullard’s “Edmund Burke among the Poets: Milton, Lucretius and the Philosophical Enquiry,” in The Science of Sensibility: Reading Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry, ed. Koen Vermeir and Michael Funk Deckard (New York: Springer, 2012), 247–63, which argues that Burke’s sublime is Lucretian; Stuart Gillespie’s “The Persistence of Translations: Lucretius in the Nineteenth Century,” English Translation and Classical Reception: Towards a New Literary History (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 150–62.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). In addition to Holmes’s chapter in this book, the discipline of literary studies has recently addressed the untimely and queer temporality of texts in medieval and early modern Europe, as well as the temporality at work—for us and for older texts—both in contemporaneity and in being out of time. See, for example, Jacques Lezra’s Unspeakable Subjects: The Genealogy of the Event in Early Modern Europe (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), Jonathan Gil Harris’s Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), and Carolyn Dinshaw’s How Soon Is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012). See also Karla Mallette’s musings on time and history in her “Ahead of the Swerve: From Anachronism to Complexity,” in Pugh et al., “Book Review Forum,” 359–62.Google Scholar
  11. 18.
    William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, in The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 2.2.293–96.Google Scholar
  12. 20.
    While Richard Minadeo’s claim in his 1969 study The Lyre of Science: Form and Meaning in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (Detroit: Wayne State University Press) that Lucretius is neglected as a poet (“The body of writing on De Rerum Natura which might reasonably be called literary criticism is small. Within it, no nearly thorough study of the work’s positive art has ever been attempted.”; p. 9) is no longer true, it is true that such studies are often compartmentalized. For an exception to the general point about the separation of physics and poetics in readings of the poem, see Stephen Hinds, “Language at the Breaking Point: Lucretius 1.452,” The Classical Quarterly N.S. 37:2 (1987): 450–53. For a slightly more impressionistic study with similar interests, see also Jonathan Pollock’s Déclinaisons: Le naturalisme poétique de Lucrèce à Lacan (Paris: Editions Hermann, 2010).Google Scholar
  13. 21.
    The English translation from Jerome’s Chronica is taken from W. H. D. Rouse, “Introduction,” in De Rerum Natura, by Lucretius, trans. W. H. D. Rouse, rev. Martin Ferguson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992). On Lucretius’s biography, see also Leofranc Holford-Strevens, “Horror vacui in Lucretian biography,” Leeds International Classical Studies 1:1 (2002): 1–23; see also L. P. Wilkinson, “Lucretius and the Love-Philtre,” The Classical Review 63:2 (1949): 47–48.Google Scholar

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© Jacques Lezra and Liza Blake 2016

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  • Jacques Lezra
  • Liza Blake

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