A Lucretian Lent - letting go of God and taking up the gods

Venus in our backyard in Cambridge
READINGS: Matthew 4:1-11

A précis of Ovid's story of Phaeton

From Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura Book 1.1-28 & Book 3:1-30 (The following texti of the Proem to Book One is translated by William Ellery Leonard. My preferred modern English version is the lovely one made by David R. Slavitt - which we used in the service):

Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands - for all of living things
Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
Through thee are risen to visit the great sun--
Before thee, Goddess, and thy coming on,
Flee stormy wind and massy cloud away,
For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
For thee waters of the unvexed deep
Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky
Glow with diffused radiance for thee!
For soon as comes the springtime face of day,
And procreant gales blow from the West unbarred,
First fowls of air, smit to the heart by thee,
Foretoken thy approach, O thou Divine,
And leap the wild herds round the happy fields
Or swim the bounding torrents. Thus amain,
Seized with the spell, all creatures follow thee
Whithersoever thou walkest forth to lead,
And thence through seas and mountains and swift streams,
Through leafy homes of birds and greening plains,
Kindling the lure of love in every breast,
Thou bringest the eternal generations forth,
Kind after kind. And since 'tis thou alone
Guidest the Cosmos, and without thee naught
Is risen to reach the shining shores of light,
Nor aught of joyful or of lovely born,
Thee do I crave co-partner in that verse
Which I presume on Nature to compose
For Memmius mine, whom thou hast willed to be
Peerless in every grace at every hour -
Wherefore indeed, Divine one, give my words
Immortal charm.

From LucretiusDe Rerum Natura Book V (lines 380-415) trans. Rolfe Humphries

      With the elements
Fighting their fierce and fratricidal wars,
Can’t you imagine there will be some day
An ultimate truce? Either the heat of the sun
Will dry up all the rivers – this indeed
Is what even now that fiery force intends
But has not yet been able to accomplish
With all its trying, for the waters marshal
Their armies of reserves, not for defense
But for deliberate attack, a threat
To overwhelm the universe with flood;
But this is silly, for the sweeping winds
Abate the water, and the sun in heaven,
Their ally, makes it shrink; sun and wind
Are confident they can dry up the world
Before the water drowns it in a deluge.
So the war-breathers seek supremacy
In undecisive conflict; fire was once
Victorious, or so the story goes,
And water, at another time, was lord.
Fire was triumphant over all the world
When the sun’s horses whirled poor Phaethon
All over the sky, and much too close to earth,
Till the Almighty Father, in a rage,
Struck our young hero with his thunderbolt
And blasted him from chariot to earth,
Where, as he fell, the sun-god caught the torch,
Resumed the car of light, repaired the reins,
Patted the steeds from panic into calm,
Yoked them once more, drove the familiar course
With everything in order once again.
Such is the story old Greek poets sang,
A myth, of course, quite senseless and untrue,
For fire can win only when motes of fire
Attain to almost infinite multitude,
Beyond all normal count. But even so
Their force is somehow spent; it has to be,
Or the whole world would die in holocaust.
Water once also had its day, or so
Legend relates, and poured its floods across
The cities of mankind, but that attack
At last was beaten back, we know not how,
And rainfall ceased, and rivers lost their rage.


A couple of weeks ago I talked about how, as a liberal church, I thought we were rather like one of those covered wagons called prairie schooners which carried settlers west across desert and prairie to a new life and land. I pointed out that because we cannot take everything with us on such a journey into the wilderness it is a time when we have to decide what old, inappropriate, burdens can and even must be dropped and what more appropriate, creative and life enhancing "light" burdens should be kept or taken up?

Two weeks ago I didn't say anything about what I thought was the most important of these - instead, I deliberately encouraged you to articulate your own thoughts.

But, today, given that this is the first Sunday of Lent, that the "place" of Lent is the desert and that in the wilderness Jesus made his own comparable decisions about the nature of the God (what aspects of his belief in God were to be kept and what were to be dropped), I find that, via the ancient story we heard earlier about how the desert was made, I can point to something I think is important to articulate about God in our own age which is struggling appropriately to balance the claims of both science and religion.

The story of Phaeton is delightful and very memorable but, as the Roman poet Lucretius makes clear he thinks it's really "all nonsense." He thinks this because, although along with his exemplar Epicurus, he believes the gods exist, thanks to careful observation of the universe he also thought it was possible to see clearly that these same gods neither created the universe nor intervened providentially in its ongoing workings. In the Epicurean schema the gods appear to us more akin to archetypes than they are to everyday, actual physical beings. In consequence Epicurus' portrayal of the gods allowed Lucretius to let them serve real but, nevertheless, only inspirational and poetic purposes.

However, it's important to be clear, Lucretius hoped that his poem would help humankind drop the heavy and crushing burden of belief in, and fear of, any kind of interventionist *supernatural* beings or Being, gods or God.

Venus and me at Anglesey Abbey
This fact has, naturally, appealed to many modern atheistically inclined readers but, to steal a phrase from Paul Veyne in his book "Did the Greeks believe in their myths?", Lucretius’ (and Epicurus') way of *not believing* in these gods is for them profoundly disturbing. Given that Lucretius is concerned to show his readers clear evidence why the gods do not intervene in the world why then does he continue to drop into his poem so many stories about the gods? And why, oh why, along with the figure of Epicurus is his poem's major character the goddess Venus? As Stephen Greenblatt notes, Lucretius' prayer to Venus at the beginning of his poem:

". . . pours forth, full of wonder and gratitude, glowing with light. It is as if the ecstatic poet actually beheld the goddess of love the sky clearing at her radiant presence, the awakening earth showering her with flowers. She is [for him] the embodiment of desire, and her return, on the fresh gusts of the west wind, fills all living things with pleasure and passionate sexual longing" (Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, p. 201).

It's admittedly a puzzle but, hiding within it, is the appropriate and, therefore, "light" burden I'd like to encourage us to consider picking up and taking on board our own prairie schooner as it continues to travel westward.

We need to begin by noting that Lucretius firmly believed human fears and misconceptions about themselves, the gods and the world would be dispelled, 'not by the sun's rays or the bright shafts of day' but only by a consideration of both the 'outward appearance and inner workings of nature' (1.148). The Latin behind the English words 'outward appearance and inner workings of nature' (cf. 2.61, 3.93, 6.41) is 'naturae species ratioque.'

By 'ratio' Lucretius meant something like nature's 'law or inner workings' and he uses the word to refer to how the universe shows up to us (shines) when we consistently apply to it active human reasoning. This is most obviously displayed today in our various scientific endeavours as we attend patiently and carefully to the natural, physical workings of the universe.

By 'species', Lucretius was gesturing towards the 'face' or 'outward appearance' of nature - i.e. how the universe can show up to us (or shines) as human-beings who are always-already in a world of human culture and tradition, where we are not only creatures with a dispassionate and rational faculty, but always-already embodied, emotional, feeling and storytelling creatures.

Lucretius' genius is seamlessly to combine in his own person (and poem) both the rational, detached attitude of the (proto) scientist and the poetic, deeply embodied attitude of the great epic poet. Lucretius' use of the story of the creation of the desert is a good example of this powerful combination at work.

Let's start with "species" - the outward appearance or face of nature. As a poet, the face of nature in the astonishing form of the desert strongly evokes his, and our own, imagination. Standing by our prairie schooner on our travels we can look into this vast desert landscape, turn to each other and say, "My God, it's just like the place where Helios' chariot touched the earth." As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words and this highly pictorial story, this imaginative construct, works extraordinarily well at immediately placing us right into the heart of, not only what a desert really "looks" like (its face) - blasted and burnt, but also what it really "feels" like (hot, hot, hot).

Lucretius is way too much of a great poet to let this kind of power and energy go untapped and unused but he is also always alert to the dangers that exist whenever you tap this. He knew that just as the bright sun blinds us to the mysterious wonder of the night-sky, the shining stories of the gods all too easily blind us to important physical realities concerning our natural universe.

The Fall of Phaeton (1780) by George Stubbs (1724 - 1807)
Lucretius is also completely aware that, when it is kept within appropriate bounds, sun-like fire is necessary for warmth, growth, and a certain kind of illumination but, if and whenever it is allowed to spread out in the kind of uncontrolled fashion exemplified by Phaëton's cocky and ultimately fatal joy-ride, it is highly dangerous and destructive.

So, Lucretius is always careful to say, as he does elsewhere in the poem:

All this, all this is wonderfully told, 
A marvel of tradition, and yet far
From the real truth. Reject it - for the gods
Must, by their nature, take delight in peace,
Forever calm, serene, forever far
From our affairs, beyond all pain, beyond
All danger, in their own resources strong,
Having no need of us at all, above
Wrath or propitiation. 

(Book 2 lines 644-652 - trans. Humphries)

It is clear that Lucretius thinks his tradition’s stories about the gods count and that they may be considered "true" - or at least truely useful - when they are being used as part of the overall method summed up by the phrase "ratioque species naturae." But whenever, and by whomsoever the tradition’s stories are being taken on their own as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (mostly by formal religion) then we must reject them because they, not only do not tell us about nature's inner laws and workings, but they actively blind us to them. Here I should state explicitly that I consider our own wonderfully told marvel of tradition, the Bible, to be in the same category of stories about the gods that were available to Lucretius.

Lucretius is always aware of the need to be  restoring the balance (a veritable yin-yang affair) by immediately turning from the face (species) of nature to ground his readers once again in nature's laws and inner workings (ratio). So, following his retelling of the poetic story of the creation of the desert (the immediate context of which is Lucretius’ desire to help us understand why our world is neither too hot nor too cold, neither too wet nor too dry) he says:

Such is the story the old Greek poets sang,
A myth, of course, quite senseless and untrue,
For fire can win only when motes of fire
Attain to almost infinite multitude,
Beyond all normal count. But even so
Their force is somehow spent; it has to be,
Or the whole world would die in holocaust.

(Book 5 lines 404-411 - trans. Humphries)

To be sure, today, we may be able to find many places where Lucretius’ own proposed naturalistic theories no longer stand up, but that’s not really the point of the poem. He’s simply showing us, not absolutely final conclusions, but in a wonderfully poetic fashion a basic method to follow. He openly admits that his account of the natural world’s workings are likely, at some future date, to be shown to be wrong (see Book V, lines 529-537). All he is really concerned to do is to help us see in the universe a basic (primordial), stable, trustworthy, natural order of things.

Lucretius’ way of proceeding strongly reminds me of something said by the great French physiologist Claude Bernard (1813–1878):

"When you go into the laboratory do not forget to leave your imagination in the ante-room with your overcoat; on the other hand do not forget to take it away with you when you go home" (cited in The Danger of Words by Maurice O’Connor Drury p. 8)

By constantly moving between, on the one hand, the use of poetic, embodied, imaginative language about the face of nature (epitomised in his poem particularly by the goddess Venus) and, on the other hand, the use of rational scientific language about the inner laws and workings of nature (epitomised by the character of the human Epicurus), Lucretius offers his readers a way to keep creatively and healthily engaged with their culture's traditions and stories about the gods but without ever letting those same stories run amok and blind us to a clear general understanding of the true nature of things and our place in both the natural universe and the human world.

In short Lucretius' poem offers us a stunning and beautiful example of how in this season of Lent we might go about dropping (fasting from) the inappropriate and, to my mind unbearably heavy burden of belief in a supernatural creator Being called God (upper case "G"), and to pick up (imbibe) other light, and eminently more bearable "gods" (lower case "g"), whose poetic personifications have a real shining, creative and useful existence for us all as creatures endowed not only with a physical nature, but also with language, imagination and emotions.

I recommend his approach to you and can do no more now than close with the final words of the manuscript copy which reintroduced in the book to Western European culture after its rediscovery in 1417:

Lege feliciter. Amen.
Read happily. So be it.