December 3, 2005
FROM THE ARCHIVES: AGAINST THE LUCRETIAN PROJECT:
Politics And Piety: A review of Vergil's Empire: Political Thought in the Aeneid, by Eve Adler. (John E. Alvis, Claremont Review of Books)
Eve Adler takes a refreshingly novel approach in her recent study of the Aeneid. She proposes to determine where Vergil stands with respect to the aggressively atheistic teachings of the Epicureans, particularly Lucretius. Vergil knew quite intimately Lucretius' philosophical poem De Rerum Natura ("On the Nature of Things") and frequently echoes the thought, and at times the language, of Lucretius. But scholars have disagreed regarding the extent of Vergil's sympathy with his predecessor: Did Vergil intend to advance or oppose Lucretius' project of discrediting traditional religion? On Adler's reading, Vergil opposes the Lucretian project and subjects it to a disabling critique, while at the same time aligning himself with, or at least leaving unchallenged, the materialistic cosmology from which Lucretius had launched his polemic against religion. According to Adler, there is no necessary connection between Lucretian physics and Lucretian political thought; she can therefore absolve Vergil of inconsistency in accepting the one while rejecting the other.
Lucretius had identified the substratum of everything that is with homogeneous atoms too small to be perceived. These atoms aggregate by chance to produce the visible world, and by chance they will eventually disperse, demolishing the cosmos as we know it. There are no permanent beings beneath, within, or above the heavens. There are no gods, and the universe manifests no final cause. Although Lucretius denies the existence of divinities, he blames religion for a great part of the ills besetting mankind. To the afflictions human beings suffer in common with other animals men add sufferings occasioned by their baseless yet powerful opinions about the gods and the afterlife. Though death is in truth a mere extinction of consciousness and need not prompt us to fear, the religious beliefs of men cause them to dread punitive sufferings inflicted by gods on the shades of men who have departed this earth for the underworld. If only men would free themselves of this self-inflicted dread, they might avail themselves more amply of the bodily pleasures common to all animals as well as the intellectual pleasures believed to be unique to mankind.
Lucretius proposes to push back the frontiers of superstition and extend the frontiers of enlightenment by exposing credulity, on the one hand, and, on the other, propagating his science of natural causes. Both efforts serve to liberate men from the unnecessary fear inspired by religion. And there is a moral benefit, as well. Conventional religion, according to Lucretius, not only intensifies fear but stirs up all the passions. The terrifying anticipation of posthumous sorrows provokes extravagant ambitions for immortal fame, and desperate lusts for any pleasure that may afford distraction from the terror. Although Lucretian teachings may appear to give license to every sort of pleasure, Lucretius claims that they will moderate passions and thus should placate moralists. He recognizes, though, that his materialistic hedonism must fend off a further objection: that it undermines heroism and the poetry of heroic deeds. On this score, he defends himself in De Rerum Natura, by enlisting poetic charm in the service of Epicurean doctrine. The poem celebrates a new kind of hero in Lucretius' teacher, Epicurus, who surpasses the heroism of Homer's Achilles and Odysseus by braving priests to enlighten humanity.
Adler's reading of the Aeneid gives us a Vergil whose hero Aeneas has been so conceived as to surpass Epicurus as well as Achilles and Odysseus. In the process, Adler's Vergil brings to sight what he finds unpersuasive in the teaching of Epicurus-Lucretius and suggests a corrective that is partly political and partly religious. Adler sees the Aeneid as a foundational poem written to provide philosophical justification for the Roman Empire under Augustus. Rome achieves the best of Lucretian ends—peace, proliferation of practical and liberal arts, leisure and freedom for philosophers—by rejecting Lucretian means. The empire assures its universality by imposing its religion upon subject nations. That ecumenic religion, in turn, contributes to the moderation of those unhappy passions which Lucretius had mistakenly thought to be exacerbated by religion.
[originally Posted in BrothersJudd Blog on November 24, 2004]