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Lucretius on Death and Anxiety

Lucretius on Death and Anxiety: Poetry and Philosophy in DE RERUM NATURA

Charles Segal
Copyright Date: 1990
Pages: 292
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zv12q
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  • Book Info
    Lucretius on Death and Anxiety
    Book Description:

    In a fresh interpretation of Lucretius'sOn the Nature of Things, Charles Segal reveals this great poetical account of Epicurean philosophy as an important and profound document for the history of Western attitudes toward death. He shows that this poem, aimed at promoting spiritual tranquillity, confronts two anxieties about death not addressed in Epicurus's abstract treatment--the fear of the process of dying and the fear of nothingness. Lucretius, Segal argues, deals more specifically with the body in dying because he draws on the Roman concern with corporeality as well as on the rich traditions of epic and tragic poetry on mortality.

    Segal explains how Lucretius's sensitivity to the vulnerability of the body's boundaries connects the deaths of individuals with the deaths of worlds, thereby placing human death into the poem's larger context of creative and destructive energies in the universe. The controversial ending of the poem, which describes the plague at Athens, is thus the natural culmination of a theme developed over the course of the work.

    Originally published in 1990.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6129-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. Chapter 1 LUCRETIUS’S ADEQUACY TO THE FEAR OF DEATH: LOGIC, POETRY, AND EMOTION
    (pp. 3-25)

    For lucretius, death both is the greatest anxiety and embodies the greatest mode of anxiety. In one of the highest tributes that one ancient poet offers to another, Virgil seems to recognize this fact. Applying Lucretius’s own encomium on Epicurus to the poet himself, Virgil congratulates his predecessor not only on “knowing the causes of things”—that is, explaining the workings of nature in a rational, scientific way—but also on trampling underfoot “all fears, and the doom against which no prayer avails, and the roar of greedy Acheron” (Georgics2.490–92):

    felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas

    atque metus...

  6. Chapter Two ATOMS, BODIES, AND INDIVIDUALS: DEATH IN EPICURUS AND LUCRETIUS
    (pp. 26-45)

    If we may invoke the terminology of the modern historian of death, Philippe Ariès, Lucretius in books 3 and 6 reaches beyond what Ariès calls “tame death.” This is death as the end of life accepted more or less without anxiety, as “natural,” divinely ordained, and attended by the comfort and solace of family, community, and religious observance.¹ Lucretius’s accounts of death in book 3 and book 6 approximate what Ariès calls “the death of the self.” This is a harsher and more anguished experience of death, marked by the uneasy awareness of the physical processes that destroy our identity....

  7. Chapter Three THE WIND-SCATTERED SOUL
    (pp. 46-73)

    For lucretius, life is inherently fragile because it consists of an airy life-substance, the soul (anima), enclosed in the vessel of the body. Life, then, is no more secure than the vessel that protects it. Epicureans do not hesitate to remind us how fragile this envelope is. Philodemus, for example, observes that trying to preserve the body in death is like expecting glass and ceramic vessels, thrown together with steel, to survive unbroken for many years (De Morte39.1–6). Lucretius himself compares our bodies to leaky or flawed vessels that can never be filled to our satisfaction (3.936ff., 1009–...

  8. Chapter Four NOTHINGNESS AND ETERNITY: THE FEAR OF THE INFINITE
    (pp. 74-93)

    For Plutarch, as we observed in Chapter One, the fear of death is closely associated with the fear of the infinite. Epicurus, he argues, does not really dispel our fear of death as the limitless abyss, a fall into a bottomless “ocean of non-being.” For modern man, as for ancient man, the infinite is potentially a source of terror. Lucretius, however, does not seem to share modern man’s fear of nothingness, the sensation of anxiety in contemplating the void of limitless space.¹ “Je vois ces effroyables espaces de l’univers qui m’enferment,” wrote Pascal in a famous passage. “Le silence eternel...

  9. Chapter Five THE WORLD’S BODY AND THE HUMAN BODY: WALLS, BOUNDARIES, AND MORTALITY
    (pp. 94-114)

    Among most of the peoples of the world, as anthropologists like Mary Douglas and Susan Postal point out, the boundaries of the body receive the greatest symbolic elaboration, in clothing, masks, markings, rituals, and other expressive forms.¹ All societies and all individuals use such “defensive barriers,” both literal and figurative; and the nature of these defenses is an important clue to the conceptual framework within which an individual or society operates in the world.² “The body,” Mary Douglas observes, “is a model which can stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious.”³...

  10. Chapter Six THE VIOLATION OF CORPOREAL BOUNDARIES, 1
    (pp. 115-143)

    One of Lucretius’s most pervasive poetic techniques is his use of figurative language to describe the incessant separation and reunion of atoms in the physical processes underlying the rhythms of life and death. His imagery for the destructive movements in these processes is particularly vivid. Thus in the celebratedmagnum marepassage of 2.551ff. he compares thedisiectus materialof death and dissolution to the effects of a shipwreck.¹ Later in book 2, anticipating the argument of book 3, he describes the force of a blow that nearly “dissolves the vital knots of the soul from the body and sends...

  11. Chapter Seven THE VIOLATION OF CORPOREAL BOUNDARIES, 2
    (pp. 144-170)

    We fear death, Epicurus and other Hellenistic philosophers argue, because we fear what will happen to our body after death, forgetting that this body is no longer “ours” or “us.” Both the authors of Cynic diatribes like Teles and later Epicureans like Philodemus delight in enumerating how little it matters to us whether this body is burned, buried, mangled by beasts, or eaten by worms or fish.¹ In such attacks on the integrity of the self, putrefaction has a role akin to that of dismemberment. In other periods of Western culture too, where there is high anxiety about death, the...

  12. Chapter Eight GENERALS, POETS, AND PHILOSOPHERS: DEATH IN THE PERSPECTIVE OF TIME AND ETERNITY
    (pp. 171-186)

    The closing section of Lucretius’s diatribe against the fear of death in book 3 is carefully organized.Hoc etiamin 3.1024, which introduces the need to accept death as the universal mortal fate, answershoc etiamin 3.912, which introduces the common man’s complaint of the brevity of life’s joys. After Natura’s speech and Lucretius’s comment (931–77), the poet gives his celebrated allegorical interpretation of the punishments in Hades (978–1023). The repetition of “Acheron” at the beginning and end frame this section as a discrete unit (Acherunte profundo, 978, andAcherusia vita, 1023).

    The mythological examples of Tantalus,...

  13. Chapter Nine WAR, DEATH, AND CIVILIZATION: THE END OF BOOK 5
    (pp. 187-227)

    The fear of death not only causes us to make the dangerous and harmful substitutions of wealth, fame, and power for life, as Lucretius argues at the beginning of book 3; it also leads us to destroy life, our own and that of others.¹ In this respect the fear of death is causally related to aggression and destructiveness. Lucretius does not develop this point explicitly, but it is perhaps implicit in his discussion of the causes of civil war and fratricidal bloodshed at the beginning of the book (3.68–73). Because man is ignorant of the balance between destructive and...

  14. Chapter Ten THE PLAGUE RECONSIDERED: PROGRESS, POET, AND PHILOSOPHER
    (pp. 228-237)

    As war shows Lucretius’s society, like our own, perverting its energies and best talents from creation to destruction, so the plague shows us a society that has completely capitulated to death. Here the last offices of tending the dead are corrupted into violence and bloodshed through ignorance of the true nature of death (6.1276–86). This closing vision of death and plague is (among other things) an emotional rendering of what is at stake if we are persuaded by Ennius’s “immortal verses” on the existence of Hades’sAcherusia templa(1.120–21) rather than by the philosopher’s view of infinite atoms...

  15. Chapter Eleven THE FEAR OF DEATH AND THE GOOD LIFE
    (pp. 238-246)

    In studying the interplay between Lucretius’s poetic strategies for the most vivid possible portrayal of the fear of death and his therapeutic attempt as an Epicurean to soothe those fears, I am not reviving the “anti-Lucretius” or the morbid pessimist but rather trying to show thatbothas poet and as philosopher Lucretius appreciates the dread that death inspires in all living creatures. Although the logic of his argument in book 3 is directed at breaking the hold that the fear of death has over our minds, his fidelity to the mortal condition and his understanding of the feelings of...

  16. SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 247-252)
  17. INDEX OF PASSAGES
    (pp. 253-272)
  18. GENERAL INDEX
    (pp. 273-279)