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‘With Lucretius II, Thomas Nail continues his project of re-reading Lucretius’ De rerum natura in a startlingly new fashion – as a foundational text in the philosophy of movement. The results of Nail’s labour are breathtaking: traditional pieties of scholarship fall by the wayside, replaced by a Lucretius truly of and for the twenty-first century.’ Wilson M. Shearin, University of Miami
‘More than just a study of Lucretius, Nail provides a stunning reading of an already fascinating philosopher. Nail’s originally and beautifully composed account of motion generates an ethics worthy of the twenty-first century, allowing us to think of instability as an opportunity for thinking our world anew.’
Claire Colebrook, Penn State University
An ancient ethics for modern life
Suffering, the fear of death, war, ecological destruction, and social inequality are urgent ethical issues today as they were for Lucretius. Thomas Nail argues that Lucretius was the first to locate the core of all these ethical ills in our obsession with stasis, our fear of movement, and our hatred of matter.
Almost two thousand years ago Lucretius proposed a simple and stunning response to these problems: an ethics of motion. Instead of trying to transcend nature with our minds, escape it with our immortal souls, and dominate it with our technologies, Lucretius was perhaps the first in the Western tradition to forcefully argue for a completely materialist and immanent ethics based on moving with and as nature. If we want to survive and live well on this planet, Lucretius taught us, our best chance is not to struggle against nature but to embrace it and facilitate its movement.
Download the Preface and Introduction here.
A new Lucretius is coming into view today. Every great historical epoch returns to him like bees returning to their flower fields in search of nourishment. Each time, though, our return is different – like the expanding arc of a spiral. We bring new questions, find new answers, and make Lucretius speak to us again as if for the first time. We make Lucretius’ epic poem De Rerum Natura into the mellifluous honey of a liquid antiquity that has always coursed through the veins of modernity like a spring of fresh meaning and inspiration.
We thus return to Lucretius not as though he were an unchanging figure carved in stone but as if he were a rush of new life at the cutting edge of the twenty-first century. We stand in front of Lucretius’ breathtaking and revolutionary poem not as passive students of unchanging relics in a museum but as active participants in a history of our present.
I first returned to Lucretius in 2014, when I taught Book II of De Rerum Natura for a class on the philosophy of movement. I added Lucretius to the syllabus because he was an overlooked figure in the history of philosophy who wrote about motion. I was excited about the text, but I was also sceptical that anyone who believed in ‘eternal unchanging atoms’ could have motion as their philosophical starting point. What I encountered, however, absolutely shocked me.
There were no atoms. I scoured the whole Latin text. Lucretius never used the word ‘atom’ or a Latinised version of this word – not even once. Translators added the word ‘atom’. Just as shockingly, I could not find the great isolated swerve in the rain of atoms, for which he is so well known. In Book II, Lucretius says instead that matter is always ‘in the habit of swerving’ [declinare solerent] (2.221) and if it were not [nisi], ‘all would fall like raindrops’ [caderent] (2.222). The solitary swerve and the rain of matter are counterfactual claims. Lucretius never said there was a rain and then one atom swerved. He says that matter is in the ‘habit’ [solerent] of swerving, meaning that swerving happens regularly. This, he says, is the only way to avoid the problem of assuming that something comes from nothing: matter must have always been swerving.
This small but significant discrepancy made me wonder what else had been left out of translations and interpretations. Could it be possible that there was a whole hidden Lucretius buried beneath the paving stones of Greek atomism? If there are no solid atoms and no solitary swerve in Lucretius, can we still make sense of the rest of the book? In 2016 I decided to find out. I dedicated a whole seminar just to Book I of De Rerum Natura read in Latin. To my delight a whole new view on this foundational text emerged that year. I published the results of this study in 2018 as Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion.
Around this time I also began to notice an increasing number of major differences between Lucretius and Epicurus. One of the reasons I thought I would find atoms and isolated swerves in Lucretius was because of a long history of interpretation that conflated the two thinkers, just as earlier scholars had errantly done with Democritus and Epicurus. There is no doubt that Lucretius studied and followed Epicurus, just as Epicurus had followed Democritus. However, between the three thinkers there are worlds of difference that have not been sufficiently understood. Not all students merely imitate their masters. Sometimes imitation functions as a mask for a student to put forward her or his own ideas – which is what Lucretius did I thus began to unravel the ‘Epicurean myth of Lucretius’.
Lucretius did something very strange. He wrote Epicurean philosophy in the style and method of Homeric poetry and in doing so ended up completely changing the meaning of both. Just like an ancient satyr play, Lucretius’ poem has numerous invocations of bacchanalian intoxication, sexual imagery, desire, and deceptive invocations of gods he
does not believe in (Venus and Mars), all affirmed joyfully alongside the destructive power of nature itself: death. This is in stark contrast with the contemplative, serious, pessimistic, and aloof style of Epicurus and his followers.
Epicurus had many Greek and Roman followers who wrote and promoted Epicurean doctrine, but Lucretius did something no one had ever done before. He espoused a version of Epicurean philosophy in a book of Latin poetry written in Homeric hexameter. Why? For pleasure. He wanted to make something new by mixing the old traditions. Lucretius performed a bewildering hybrid of two completely opposed figures and traditions (Homer and Epicurus) and made something novel: something uniquely Roman.
However, De Rerum Natura has largely been treated as a Homeric poem about Epicurean philosophy, but in this book I argue that there is also a hidden Epicurean philosophy of Homeric myth. In the end this is where the real brilliance and originality of Lucretius lies: not in Homer or Epicurus but in their perverse and twisted entanglement. There is thus a becoming Homer of Epicurus. It is a genuine injustice to reduce such a radical enterprise to mere Epicurean ‘doctrine’.
The idea of philosophical poetry is a satyr’s slap in the face to the entire Greek tradition of philosophy from Thales to Aristotle, including Epicurus. With few exceptions, Greek philosophers systematically reduced Homeric poetry to irrational and sensuous mythology in order to define their new abstractions and idealisms against the straw man of the oral tradition. This was a founding moment of exclusion that has stayed with the Western tradition up to the present – contributing to a perceived inferiority of oral and indigenous knowledge. It is therefore completely unsurprising that today, when Lucretius is invoked as a philosopher, he is treated as completely reducible to the real Greek master: Epicurus. By doing so, the Western reception of Lucretius has reproduced the same Grecocentric and idealist tradition that vilified pre-Greek and Homeric poetry and archaic materialism. This is the same Western tradition that continues to devalorise oral knowledge and non-Western mythologies today.
Most Western philosophy, even in its most materialist moments, has in one way or another hated matter and the body. Lucretius was the first from within this tradition 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 largely exiled from the discipline of philosophy. Either Lucretius was treated as a skilled poet of the Latin tongue or he was treated 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 Epicurus achieved. This book and its companion volumes are the first books to show precisely this.
Even more provocatively, Lucretius refused to use Epicurus’ Greek terminology when many other Epicurean and Roman authors, such as Cicero did so often and easily. The Romans are famous for renaming Greek gods: 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 the two deities. The translation was, as translations always are, a transformation that resulted in new stories and a shifting fluidity of roles among the gods. This, I argue, is what happened with Lucretius. De Rerum Natura was not written as Epicurean dogma.
It was an original work of philosophical poetry that translated Homeric mythology and Epicurean philosophy into the Latin vernacular and thus transformed them into an original philosophy of motion. A few scholars have noted the tension between Lucretius’ poetic style and Epicurean doctrine, but none has suggested that it indicated anything philosophically original as a result.
The unearthing of this ‘hidden Lucretius’ is the subject of the present work and its companion volumes. In the first volume, Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion, I located a systematic ontology of motion and a new materialism beneath the atomist and Epicurean myth of Lucretius. In the present volume, I present the reader with a unique kinetic theory of ethics. This second volume builds on the ontological framework developed in the first and expands it explicitly to questions of life, death, knowledge, aesthetics, sex, ecology, and ethics – as they are discussed in Books III and IV of De Rerum Natura.
Each of the three volumes in this trilogy has been written so that it may be read either on its own or with the others. The themes of each of the volumes of the trilogy overlap with one another just as the content of the books in the poem do. However, each volume also focuses on distinct domains of philosophical inquiry: Volume I covers Lucretius’ ontology and cosmology; Volume II covers his ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics; and Volume III, his theory of history. Together, these three volumes compose an original and nearly line-by-line reading of the entirety of De Rerum Natura.