Mothering Sunday—The maternalizing of matter and the materializing of the mother”—A poetic, supreme fiction for our age

Venus in the Manse back-yard

From Lucretius 1: An ontology of motion by Thomas Nail (Edinburgh University Press, 2018, p 23)

The genetrix of Aeneas is the mother [māter] of Aeneas, from which the latin words māteriēs [material] and māteria [matter] also come. Māter is also the tree or matrix, the source of the tree’s growth, whose Indo-European root is described by the Greek word hūlē, meaning tree and matter. First philosophy, for Lucretius, begins with the mother, with matter itself, with the creative power of matter itself to produce all things, the aeneadum.

On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, 1.1-60Translated by Walter Englert (Focus Publishing, 2003)

Mother of the descendants of Aeneas, desire of humans and gods,
life-giving Venus, it is you who beneath the gliding signs
of heaven makes the ship-bearing sea and the fruitful earth
teem with life, since through you the whole race of living creatures
is conceived, born, and gazes on the light of the sun.
You, goddess, you the winds flee, you the clouds
of the sky flee at your coming, for you earth the artificer
sends up her sweet flowers, for you the expanse of the sea smile,
and the heavens, now peaceful, shine with diffused light.
For as soon as the sight of a spring day is revealed,
and the life-bringing breeze of the west wind is released and blows,
the birds of the air are the first to announce you and your arrival,
o goddess, overpowered in their hearts by your force.
Next wild beasts and flocks prance about their glad pastures
and swim across rushing streams. So taken by delight
each follows you eagerly wherever you proceed to lead them.
Then through the seas and mountains and fast-clutching rivers,
through the leaf-thronged home of birds and the verdant plains,
you strike, injecting sweet love into the hearts of all,
and make them eagerly create their offspring, each according to
Since you alone guide the nature of things
and without you nothing emerges into the sunlit shores
of light, nothing glad or lovely comes into being,
I am eagerly striving for you to be my ally in writing these verses
that I am trying to set out about the nature of things
for our illustrious son of the Memmii, whom you, goddess, on every
occasion have wished to be preeminent, adorned with every
blessing. All the more endow these words with everlasting charm,
goddess. Meanwhile, make it so that the savage claims of war
are put to sleep and lie quiet throughout every sea and land.
For you alone have the power to bring aid to mortals
with tranquil peace, since Mars, strong in arms, rules
the savage claims of war, and he often lets himself sink
into your lap, completely overcome by the unceasing wound of love.
And so gazing upwards, bending back his smooth neck,
he gapes at you, goddess, and feeds his hungry eyes with love.
And as he lies there, his breath hangs on your lips.
Goddess, with your blessed body flow down around him
as he reclines, and pour forth sweet words from your mouth,
o glorious one, seeking gentle peace for the Romans.
For neither can I perform my task with a tranquil mind
when our country is in trouble, nor can the shining offspring of the
fail to attend to the safety of the state at such times.
For it must be that the entire nature of the gods
spends everlasting time enjoying perfect peace,
far removed and long separated from our our concerns.
For free from all anxiety, free from dangers,
powerful in its own resources, having no need of us,
it is not won over by the good things we do nor touched by anger.
For the rest, turn open ears and a sharp mind
set free from cares to the true system of philosophy,
so that you do not despise and abandon my gifts to you,
set out with constant eagerness, before they are understood.
For I am beginning to set out for you the deepest workings
of the heavens and the gods, and to reveal the first beginnings of
out of which nature creates all things, and increases and maintains
and into which nature dissolves them again once they have
These we are accustomed, in setting forth our account, to call
“matter” and “the generating bodies of things” and to name them
“the seeds of things,” and to use the term “first bodies” for them,
because all things exist from these beginnings.


Mothering Sunday—The maternalizing of matter and the materializing of the mother”—A poetic, supreme fiction for our age
The personification of the godhead, god, the divine, the sacred, and so on is an ancient and venerable, if always somewhat risky, poetic practice. It is risky basically because we human beings seem to find it all too easy to move from poetic personification to thinking (and then acting “as if”) the same personification were, somehow, an accurate description of some immutable and eternal reality. Poetry becomes dogma, dogma becomes religion and, before you know it, there has grown up around us a thorny thicket of religious institutions with their rigid and immovable orthodoxies, leaders and apparatchiks and desire to censure and even destroy on their altars other understandings of the godhead, god, the divine, the sacred and so on.

On the other hand, even though I know all this well, I remain convinced that we cannot live fully without having something that the poet Wallace Stevens called a “supreme fiction”, namely “the creation of an idea that would serve as a fictive replacement for the idea of God, known to be fictive but willfully believed” (Brazeal, Gregory. “The Supreme Fiction: Fiction or Fact?” Journal of Modern Literature 31, no. 1 (2007): 80-100). Stevens’ hope was that such an idea might be able to help us correct and improve our old and no longer persuasive religious ideas about God and which, in their modified form, could then serve once again as a kind of narrative centre around which we may usefully be centripetally gathered and ordered, not eternally of course, but always in a way that was appropriate and stable enough for our own time, place and culture before it unfolds of necessity — as do all things — back into the fluxes and flows of nature to be folded into something new.

Stevens never seems to have found a “supreme fiction” that worked for him but I remain convinced that such a fiction can be found/created and, over the years, I have often offered you some of my own notes towards potential candidates. But today, Mothering Sunday, gives me a perfect opportunity to place before you a few new notes about my own preferred supreme fiction. Since early 2008, whenever I experience the desire/need to meditate before, and give thanks to, a god in a poetic personified form, it has always been to the goddess Venus as I have received her through the poetry of the first-century Roman Epicurean, Lucretius and, in the last year, through the lens of a radical and inspiring re-reading of his poem by the philosopher Thomas Nail.

This re-reading is vitally necessary because since Lucretius’ poem was rediscovered in January 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini, it has been continually misread as promoting a version of atomism — the view that all reality is made up of indivisible atoms moving about and interacting together in a void. Indeed, the Greek adjective “atomos” means, quite literally, “indivisible”.

Lucretius contemplating nature
Not surprisingly this (mis)reading was further embedded in our culture as our own natural scientists began to formulate what became modern atomic theory in the early nineteenth-century. As Thomas Nail points out,

although the Latin word “atomus” (smallest particle) was available to Lucretius to use in his poem, he intentionally did not use it, nor did he use the Latin word “particula” or particle to describe matter. The English translations of “atom”, “particle”, and others have all been added to the text in translation based on a certain historical interpretation of it.  

Nail continues by noting that

Lucretius rejected entirely the notion that things emerged from discrete particles. To believe otherwise is to distort the original meanings of the Latin text as well as the absolutely enormous poetic apparatus he summoned to describe the flowing, swirling, folding, and weaving of the flux of matter. Although Lucretius rejected the term atomus, he remained absolutely true to one aspect of the original Greek meaning of the word atomos, (“indivisible”), from “a-” (“not”) and temnō (“I cut”). Being is not cut up into discrete particles, but is composed of continuous flows, folds, and weaves. Discrete “things” (rerum) are composed of corporeal flows (corpora) that move together (conflux) and fold over themselves (nexus) in a woven knot work (contextum). For Lucretius, things only emerge and have their being within and immanent to the flow and flux of matter in motion. Discreteness is an apparent product of continuous folded matter, uncut, undivided, and in motion and not the other way around.

This is, as I hope you can see, a very different way of looking at the world than that which was employed by both ancient and more early-modern atomists and is one which resonates strongly with what contemporary physics seems to be revealing to us about how our world is structured. This does not make Lucretius some kind of proto quantum field theorist, of course, that would be ridiculous. But, as Nail observes, it’s not that Lucretius’ description in his poem of nature’s way of working matches that of contemporary science, “but simply that it is not inconsistent with it” (Nail, Lucretius 1, p. 273) and that they are “nutually illuminating” and “appreciable in their own terms” (ibid, p. 14)

Anyway, the thing is, once you begin to see clearly that Lucretius is concerned, not with indivisible atoms and void but with the ceaseless flowing, swirling, folding, and weaving of the flux of matter, his evocation of the life-giving goddess Venus as both the mother [māter] of all things and also the very matter [māteria] of all things (including herself as mother), begins to make a rich poetic sense that is not inconsistent with our current scientific knowledge and starts to emerge — for me if not yet, perhaps, for you — as a worthy supreme fiction.

As an initial attempt to tempt you into considering the goddess in this fashion, what follows in this Mothering Sunday address is a re-presentation of some of the ways Nail talks about how Lucretius interprets Venus as the Mother of Matter.
Botticelli's Birth of Venus

It is, perhaps, helpful to start with the ancient myth of Venus’ birth and to have before you as an aide-memoire Botticelli’s glorious painting “The Birth of Venus”. According to Hesiod, while Ouranos (Sky) was having sexual intercourse with his mate Gaia (Earth), he was ambushed and castrated by his son Kronos, who cast his father’s genitals into the sea. Foam issued from them and, within the foam, a maiden grew. The genitals came eventually to land at Cypress, where Aphrodite (i.e. Venus) stepped ashore (William Hansen, Classical Mythology, OUP 2004, p. 105). In Botticelli’s painting (click on the picture here to enlarge it), Venus comes ashore, much less gruesomely, from a giant scallop shell. All the images contained in the painting (and Lucretius’ poem) are evocations of the flowing, swirling, folding, and weaving of the flux of matter. An obvious example in the painting is the depiction of Zephyr, the wind god, blowing Venus ashore. But, perhaps less obviously we see this in the fact that Venus is made of the foam of the ocean:

Bubbles and froth are produced when the continuous flows of the ocean fold back over themselves, trapping air within their pleat. The fold gives the flows of air and water depth, extension and spatiality. The fold produces the appearance of unity, extension and stability, grounded in the continuity of a heterogeneous flux — the ‘Iridescent-throned Aphrodite’ as Sappho writes (Nail, Lucretius 1, p. 27).

Secondly, there is the shell:

the most vulva-like of all seashells . . . the scallop shell is an organism, like other seashells, that gathers in the liquid flows of calcium carbonate from the periphery towards a place of central condensation. The seashell is formed by gathering these pedantic mineral flows and folding them together and over one another again and again. The shell, therefore, introduces a “klin”, a curvature, inclination, or desire, into the chaotic flows of the ocean (ibid, pp. 27-28).

Thirdly there is the idea of “space”:

It is the “klin” or curve of desire in Venus’ shell that introduces space into the chaos of flux (ibid, p. 28).

Space is vital here because if there were only ever the chaos of flux nothing could come to be in the way things clearly do. But, wonder of wonders, the curve of Venus’ shell reminds us that the chaos of flux is also always-already producing local and regional stabilities that gift us with the universe of things in which we live and move and have our being.

But, importantly, in holding Venus up as a goddess in this fashion she is not being seen by Lucretius as some kind of supernatural being standing outside nature making the world but, instead, as a way by/through which one can more easily meditate upon the way the world continually makes and remakes itself. His depiction of Venus in his poem is a poetic supreme fiction which aims both to help us understand and be passionate about the way nature natures and how her mothering hand, which is always-already making and touching us and all things is, simultaneously, also always-already being touched back by what it touches (cf. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Nail: Lucretius 1. p 88).

As you heard in our readings, Nail reminds us that Venus is

the mother [māter] of Aeneas, from which the Latin words māteriēs [material] and māteria [matter] also come. Māter is also the tree or matrix, the source of the tree’s growth, whose Indo-European root is described by the Greek word hūlē, meaning tree and matter. First philosophy, for Lucretius, begins with the mother, with matter itself, with the creative power of matter itself to produce all things, the aeneadum (ibid, p. 23).

Nail points out Venus becomes the material mother-goddess and so the concept of māteriēs “both maternalizes matter and materializes the mother at the same time.”

In other words, the mother of all creation is herself made of the same matter that she creates. Her materiality is the same materiality of the world. The mother of matter is the matter of the mother. Her creation is, therefore, the process of matter’s own process of materialization. Maternalization is materialization (ibid, p. 24).

Venus on my desk in Cambridge alongside a small portrait of Epicurus
Of course, in one important sense, neither for Lucretius nor for me could the goddess Venus be said to exist as an actually existent material god, one whom I could actually meet in the temple, town or countryside and with whom I could pray and to whom I could make offerings. But, because everything about her as a poetic supreme fiction speaks so well, both to and of the way we are coming to think our world works, she can for me usefully and beautifully be set up as a personification of god before which, as a contemporary materialist, religious naturalist and atheist, my philosophical meditations about the world, my devotion to her, and my expression of gratitude for her bounty can flow, fold, and weave. As Diogenes Laërtius says in his chapter about Lucretius’ greatest philosophical influence, Epicurus, “The wise man will set up votive images” and in my study and in the Manse next door I have taken his advice to heart and you will find multiple depictions of Venus set up there (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book X, §131). [The picture at the very beginning of this post is of the statue of Venus which is found in the Manse back-yard, and the picture above is of the statuette of Venus that sits on my desk, next to which is a small portrait of Epicurus, Lucretius’ original philosophical inspiration.]

Now, you may think that there really is no need to personify the way nature natures, let alone actually set up a votive image of the goddess Venus. Well, you are probably right, you don’t NEED to. But I, along with countless other human beings through the hundreds of thousands of years of human existence, do feel such a need and I continue to think that an appropriate poetic supreme fiction, when knowingly understood as fictive but nevertheless willfully believed in, can usefully help us both better understand the world and draw forth out of it great meaning and beauty.

In this age when we are appreciating more and more that we are ourselves fully part of the ceaselessly moving fluxes and flows of matter, is not a Lucretius’ poetic supreme fiction of “god” as a ceaselessly moving Mother Nature more appropriate and needed than our patriarchal supreme fictions of a static and immovable Father god? I cannot but think so.

Anyway this morning of all mornings, I have no hesitations in publicly raising a glass of aqua vitae to toast and give thanks to the Mother of Matter, creatrix, bountiful Venus.



Our opening Reading/Prayer this morning was taken from from ‘Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times’ by Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) (ed. Lawrence Klein, Cambridge University Press, 1999 p. 298-99)

The speaker is standing on a hilltop at sunrise:

O glorious nature! Supremely fair and sovereignly good! All-loving and all-lovely, all-divine! Whose looks are so becoming and of such infinite grace, whose study brings such wisdom and whose contemplation such delight, whose every single work affords an ampler scene and is a nobler spectacle than all which every art presented! — O mighty nature! Wise substitute of Providence! Empowered creatress! Or thou empowering deity, supreme creator! Thee I invoke and thee alone adore. To thee this solitude, this place, these rural meditations are sacred while thus inspired with harmony of thought, though unconfined by words and in loose numbers, I sing of nature’s order in created beings and celebrate the beauties which resolve in thee, the source and principle of all beauty and perfection.

Thy being is boundless, unsearchable, impenetrable. In thy immensity all thought is lost, fancy gives over its flight and wearied imagination spends itself in vain, finding no coast nor limit of this ocean, nor, in the widest tract through which it soars, one point yet nearer the circumference than the first centre whence it parted. — Thus having oft essayed, thus sallied forth into the wide expanse, when I return again within myself, struck with the sense of this so narrow being and of the fullness of that immense one, I dare no more behold the amazing depths nor sound the abyss of deity.—

Yet since by thee, O sovereign mind, I have been formed such as I am, intelligent and rational, since the peculiar dignity of my nature is to know and contemplate thee, permit that with due freedom I exert those faculties with which thou has adorned me. Bear with my venturous and bold approach. And since nor vain curiosity, nor fond conceit, nor love of aught save thee alone inspires me with such thoughts as these, be thou my assistant and guide me in this pursuit, while I venture thus to tread the labyrinth of wide nature and endeavour to trace thee in thy works.


Ed Mooney said…
Andrew, this is brilliant. I can't do justice to it here. I have recently written on the strange neglect by philosophers of the maternal, but here is the counterweight. Perhaps I can write more, later.
Ed Mooney said…
Andrew, this is brilliant !!