Letters on Literature, by Andrew Lang

Lucretius

To the Rev. Geoffrey Martin, Oxford.

Dear Martin — “How individuals found religious consolation from the creeds of ancient Greece and Rome” is, as you quote C. O. Muller, “a very curious question.” It is odd that while we have countless books on the philosophy and the mythology and the ritual of the classic peoples, we hear about their religion in the modern sense scarcely anything from anybody. We know very well what gods they worshipped, and what sacrifices they offered to the Olympians, and what stories they told about their deities, and about the beginnings of things. We know, too, in a general way, that the gods were interested in morality. They would all punish offences in their own department, at least when it was a case of numine laeso, when the god who protected the hearth was offended by breach of hospitality, or when the gods invoked to witness an oath were offended by perjury.

But how did a religiously minded man regard the gods? What hope or what fears did he entertain with regard to the future life? Had he any sense of sin, as more than a thing that could be expiated by purification with the blood of slaughtered swine, or by purchasing the prayers and “masses,” so to speak, of the mendicant clergy or charlatans, mentioned by Plato in the “Republic”? About these great questions of the religious life — the Future and man’s fortunes in the future, the punishment or reward of justice or iniquity — we really know next to nothing.

That is one reason why the great poem of Lucretius seems so valuable to me. The De Rerum Natura was written for no other purpose than to destroy Religion, as Lucretius understood it, to free men’s minds from all dread as to future punishment, all hope of Heaven, all dread or desire for the interference of the gods in this mortal life of ours on earth. For no other reason did Lucretius desire to “know the causes of things,” except that the knowledge would bring “emancipation,” as people call it, from the gods, to whom men had hitherto stood in the relation of the Roman son to the Roman sire, under the patria potestas or in manu patris.

As Lucretius wrought all his arduous work to this end, it follows that his fellow-countrymen must have gone in a constant terror about spiritual penalties, which we seldom associate in thought with the “blithe” and careless existence of the ancient peoples. In every line of Lucretius you read the joy and the indignation of the slave just escaped from an intolerable thraldom to fear. Nobody could well have believed on any other evidence that the classical people had a gloomy Calvinism of their own time. True, as early as Homer, we hear of the shadowy existence of the souls, and of the torments endured by the notably wicked; by impious ghosts, or tyrannical, like Sisyphus and Tantalus. But when we read the opening books of the “Republic,” we find the educated friends of Socrates treating these terrors as old-wives’ fables. They have heard, they say, that such notions circulate among the people, but they seem never for a moment to have themselves believed in a future of rewards and punishments.

The remains of ancient funereal art, in Etruria or Attica, usually show us the semblances of the dead lying at endless feasts, or receiving sacrifices of food and wine (as in Egypt) from their descendants, or, perhaps, welcoming the later dead, their friends who have just rejoined them. But it is only in the descriptions by Pausanias and others of certain old wall-paintings that we hear of the torments of the wicked, of the demons that torture them and, above all, of the great chief fiend, coloured like a carrion fly. To judge from Lucretius, although so little remains to us of this creed, yet it had a very strong hold of the minds of people, in the century before Christ. Perhaps the belief was reinforced by the teaching of Socrates, who, in the vision of Er, in the “Republic,” brings back, in a myth, the old popular faith in a Purgatorio, if not in an Inferno.

In the “Phaedo,” for certain, we come to the very definite account of a Hell, a place of eternal punishment, as well as of a Purgatory, whence souls are freed when their sins are expiated. “The spirits beyond redemption, for the multitude of their murders or sacrileges, Fate hurls into Tartarus, whence they never any more come forth.” But souls of lighter guilt abide a year in Tartarus, and then drift out down the streams Cocytus and Pyriphlegethon. Thence they reach the marsh of Acheron, but are not released until they have received the pardon of the souls whom in life they had injured.

All this, and much more to the same purpose in other dialogues of Plato’s, appears to have been derived by Socrates from the popular unphilosophic traditions, from Folk-lore in short, and to have been raised by him to the rank of “pious opinion,” if not of dogma. Now, Lucretius represents nothing but the reaction against all this dread of future doom, whether that dread was inculcated by Platonic philosophy or by popular belief. The latter must have been much the more powerful and widely diffused. It follows that the Romans, at least, must have been haunted by a constant dread of judgment to come, from which, but for the testimony of Lucretius and his manifest sincerity, we might have believed them free.

Perhaps we may regret the existence of this Roman religion, for it did its best to ruin a great poet. The sublimity of the language of Lucretius, when he can leave his attempts at scientific proof, the closeness of his observation, his enjoyment of life, of Nature, and his power of painting them, a certain largeness of touch, and noble amplitude of manner — these, with a burning sincerity, mark him above all others that smote the Latin lyre. Yet these great qualities are half-crushed by his task, by his attempt to turn the atomic theory into verse, by his unsympathetic effort to destroy all faith and hope, because these were united, in his mind, with dread of Styx and Acheron.

It is an almost intolerable philosophy, the philosophy of eternal sleep, without dreams and without awakening. This belief is wholly divorced from joy, which inspires all the best art. This negation of hope has “close-lipped Patience for its only friend.”

In vain does Lucretius paint pictures of life and Nature so large, so glowing, so majestic that they remind us of nothing but the “Fete Champetre” of Giorgione, in the Louvre. All that life is a thing we must leave soon, and forever, and must be hopelessly lapped in an eternity of blind silence. “I shall let men see the certain end of all,” he cries; “then will they resist religion, and the threats of priests and prophets.” But this “certain end” is exactly what mortals do not desire to see. To this sleep they prefer even tenebras Orci, vastasque lacunas.

They will not be deprived of gods, “the friends of man, merciful gods, compassionate.” They will not turn from even a faint hope in those to the Lucretian deities in their endless and indifferent repose and divine “delight in immortal and peaceful life, far, far away from us and ours — life painless and fearless, needing nothing we can give, replete with its own wealth, unmoved by prayer and promise, untouched by anger.”

Do you remember that hymn, as one may call it, of Lucretius to Death, to Death which does not harm us. “For as we knew no hurt of old, in ages when the Carthaginian thronged against us in war, and the world was shaken with the shock of fight, and dubious hung the empire over all things mortal by sea and land, even so careless, so unmoved, shall we remain, in days when we shall no more exist, when the bond of body and soul that makes our life is broken. Then naught shall move us, nor wake a single sense, not though earth with sea be mingled, and sea with sky.” There is no hell, he cries, or, like Omar, he says, “Hell is the vision of a soul on fire.”

Your true Tityus, gnawed by the vulture, is only the slave of passion and of love; your true Sisyphus (like Lord Salisbury in Punch) is only the politician, striving always, never attaining; the stone rolls down again from the hill-crest, and thunders far along the plain.

Thus his philosophy, which gives him such a delightful sense of freedom, is rejected after all these years of trial by men. They feel that since those remotest days

Quum Venus in silvis jungebat corpora amantum,”

they have travelled the long, the weary way Lucretius describes to little avail, if they may not keep their hopes and fears. Robbed of these we are robbed of all; it serves us nothing to have conquered the soil and fought the winds and waves, to have built cities, and tamed fire, if the world is to be “dispeopled of its dreams.” Better were the old life we started from, and dreams therewith, better the free days —

    “Novitas tum florida mundi

Pabula dia tulit, miseris mortablibus ampla;”

than wealth or power, and neither hope nor fear, but one certain end of all before the eyes of all.

Thus the heart of man has answered, and will answer Lucretius, the noblest Roman poet, and the least beloved, who sought, at last, by his own hand, they say, the doom that Virgil waited for in the season appointed.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lang/andrew/letters/chapter8.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03