Michel Serres’s Non-Modern Lucretius: Manifold Reason and the Temporality of Reception

  • Brooke Holmes
Part of the The New Antiquity book series (NANT)


Michel Serres begins his 1977 study of Lucretius, The Birth of Physics (La naissance de la physique), by stating a consensus: “Everyone knows, everyone concedes that atomic physics is an ancient doctrine but a contemporary discovery.”1 The ancient atomists, according to this consensus, for all their ambitions, pursued an ideology lacking in rigor, not a “science of the world.”2 It is therefore only fitting that Epicurean doctrine finds its most robust extant expression in a work of poetry—namely, the De Rerum Natura (DRN)—and fitting, too, that the poem has been entrusted to historians, philologists, and philosophers, rather than to physicists. And so one concludes that, despite its “intuitions” (to borrow Gaston Bachelard’s term), ancient atomism is an artifact from a bygone era.


Reception Study Chaos Theory Ancient Text Historical Epistemology Singular Idea 
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  1. 1.
    Michel Serres, The Birth of Physics, trans. Jack Hawkes, ed. David Webb (Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2000), 3 (= Michel Serres, La naissance de la physique dans le texte de Lucrèce: Fleuves et turbulences [Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1977], 9). Quotations from Serres are from the Hawkes translation.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    See W. R. Johnson, Lucretius and the Modern World (London: Duckworth, 2000), esp. 127–33 (though Johnson believes Lucretius can help us “in our efforts to reconstruct the idea of science and of the world it has, in recent centuries, for worse or for better, remade” [136]); Stuart Gillespie and Donald Mackenzie, “Lucretius and the Moderns,” in The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, ed. Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 306–24.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    As in, for example, David Sedley, Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Michel Serres with Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, trans. Roxanne Lapidus (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 51 (= Michel Serres, Éclaircissements; cinq entretiens avec Bruno Latour [Paris: Éditions François Bourin, 1992], 80).Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    Ibid., 53 (= Serres, Éclaircissements, 83).Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    On Serres’s notion on nonlinear history, see Maria Assad, “Ulyssean Trajectories: A (New) Look at Michel Serres’ Topology of Time,” in Time and History in Deleuze and Serres, ed. Bernd Herzogenrath (London: Continuum, 2012), 85–102; Jane Bennett and William Connolly, “The Crumpled Handkerchief,” in Herzogenrath, Time and History, 153–71; Kevin Clayton, “Time Folded and Crumpled: Time, History, Self-Organization, and the Methodology of Michel Serres,” in Herzogenrath, Time and History, 31–49; Stephen Clucas, “Liquid History: Serres and Lucretius,” in Mapping Michel Serres, ed. Niran Abbas (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 71–83; Ming-Quian Ma, “The Past Is No Longer Out-of-Date,” Configurations 8 (2000): 235–44.Google Scholar
  7. 16.
    Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 3 vols., Books 1–6, commentary by Cyril Bailey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1947), 2.218–19. All translations are my own.Google Scholar
  8. 20.
    Bruno Latour, “The Enlightenment without the Critique: A Word on Michel Serres’ Philosophy,” in Contemporary French Philosophy, ed. Allen Phillips Griffiths (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 83–97, at 97.Google Scholar
  9. 39.
    See Duncan F. Kennedy, Rethinking Reality: Lucretius and the Textualization of Nature (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 4.Google Scholar
  10. 40.
    See Charles Martindale, Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) and Charles Martindale, “Thinking through Reception,” in Classics and the Uses of Reception, ed. Charles Martindale and Richard Thomas (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), 1–13.Google Scholar
  11. 41.
    Julia H. Gaisser, “The Reception of Classical Texts in the Renaissance,” in The Italian Renaissance in the Twentieth Century, ed. Allen J. Grieco, Michael Rocke, and Fiorella Gioffredi Superbi (Florence: L. S. Olschki, 2002), 187, cited by Martindale, “Thinking through Reception,” 4.Google Scholar
  12. 42.
    Serres, Birth of Physics, 70 (= Serres, Naissance de la physique, 89); Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011).Google Scholar
  13. 43.
    At other points in the reception of Epicureanism, however, the isomorphism of physics and history has been taken up more readily: see esp. Gerard Passannante, “Homer Atomized: Francis Bacon and the Matter of Tradition,” English Literary History 76 (2009): 1015–47, on Bacon’s atomist understanding of the classical tradition.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 45.
    The comments of Christopher Wood, “Reception and the Classics,” in Reception and the Classics: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Classical Tradition, ed. William Brockliss et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), on the papers presented by the classicists at a Yale conference on reception studies target precisely this contextualist approach, closely associated with cultural studies (see esp. 166–67). He, in turn, advocates a notion of the (Greek and Roman) classics as true, but, by contrast with Serres, this truth belongs to an aesthetic order, not a scientific or ethical one.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 46.
    See, for example, Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood, Anachronic Renaissance (New York: Zone Books, 2010).Google Scholar
  16. 47.
    On comparatism and reception studies, see further Brooke Holmes, “Cosmopoiesis in the Field of ‘the Classical,’” in Deep Classics: Rethinking Classical Reception, ed. Shane Butler (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).Google Scholar
  17. 60.
    Michel Serres, The Natural Contract, trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995) (= Michel Serres, Le contrat naturel [Paris: F. Mourin, 1990]).Google Scholar

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© Brooke Holmes 2016

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