The Return to Lucretius II

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Lucretius’ method of philosophical poetry is a radical departure from the Greek tradition of philosophy from Thales to Aristotle and Epicurus (with the rare exception of Empedocles, Parmenides, and Xenophanes). Almost without exception, Homeric-style poetry was reduced to irrational and sensuous mythology by Greek philosophers eager to define their new abstraction and idealism against the straw man of the old Homeric tradition. It is therefore completely unsurprising that today Lucretius can still only be invoked as a philosopher reducible to the “real” Greek master: Epicurus. By doing so the Western reception of Lucretius has reproduced the same Greco-centric and idealist tradition that vilified pre-Greek and Homeric poetry, sensation, and true materialism. 

Western philosophy, even in its most materialist moments, has in one way or another been defined by a hatred of matter and the body. Lucretius alone is the first to produce a true and radical materialism of sensation and the body. However, like Homer, Lucretius also paid the ultimate price for his materialist sins and was exiled from philosophy—only to be resurrected as a lovely poet of the Latin tongue or as a slavish imitator of the great master Epicurus. Never has Lucretius been read as an original philosophical poet of a radical materialism that goes far beyond anything achieved by Epicurus. My three volumes of Lucretius are the first books to show precisely this. 

Lucretius refused to use Epicurus’s Greek terminology when many other Roman Epicureans and authors such as Cicero did so often and easily. The Romans are famous for renaming Greek gods, i.e. the Greek Aphrodite becomes the Roman Venus, Zeus becomes Jove, and so on. However, it is also well known that there is no strict equivalence between Greek and Roman deities. The translation was, as translations always are, a transformation that resulted in new stories and a shifting fluidity of roles between gods.

This, I argue, is what happened with Lucretius. De Rerum Natura is not Epicurean dogma. It is an original work of philosophical poetry that by translating Homeric mythology and Epicurean philosophy into the Latin vernacular transformed both of them into an original philosophy based on the primacy of motion. Scholars have noted the tension between Lucretius’s poetic style and Epicurean doctrine before, but none have suggested that it indicated anything original or new as a result. This is the original aspiration of my three-volume work on Lucretius: to unearth a new Lucretius.

In the first volume, I located a systematic ontology of motion and a new materialism beneath the atomist and “Epicurean myth” of Lucretius. In the second volume, I present the reader with a kinetic and materialist theory of ethical practice.  

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