Monday, June 3, 2013
Nunc Lucretius (Nunc=Now)
Some atheists today like to quote the lines of Lucretius in which he praises Epicurus as the first Greek man who overthrew "religio." It seems that for polemicists, whether atheist or highly religious, all is fair in their censures and bromides. Some atheists have twisted the following lines as an attack on religion.
Any good classicist will tell you that the Latin word "religio" is a very hard word to translate from classical Latin. I find persuasive that Lucretius is here not targeting religion per se, but rather superstition. I say that because the fine translator in the Loeb edition uses the term "superstition" for "religio." (A recent Penguin translation by A.E. Stallings also gives "superstition" for "religio"--but is not consistent in its translation.)
I also say that Lucretius does not target religion per se because, like other writers of epic who invoked the divine muses, Lucretius begins his long poem by invoking a goddess (Venus) and imploring her help and praying that she bring peace to the world. So, if we take Lucretius at face value, he does not deny religion itself but actually practices it in the very beginning of his epic poem. (The introduction by R. Jenkyns to the Penguin edition does point out the ideological confusion raised by Lucretius beginning his long epic poem with a prayer to Venus.)
Here is my translation from the first book (lines 62-79) of De Rerum Natura (Concerning the Nature of Things) by Lucretius, a contemporary of Cicero, Caesar, and Catullus:
When human life before our eyes shamefully lay on earth oppressed by harsh superstition, which, oppressing mortals, was raising its head from the regions of heaven with a horrible aspect from above, a Greek man [Epicurus] as the first human being dared to raise his mortal eyes against it and was the first to resist it; whom neither the reputation of the gods nor their thunderbolts nor heaven with its menacing murmur held down, but all the more irritated the vigorous courage of his soul, that he first sought to break the closed bars of the gates of nature. Therefore, the lively force of his mind overthrew and proceeded far beyond the flaming walls of the world; and he journeyed with his mind and spirit throughout the immeasurable universe, from where as victor he reports to us what is able to arise, what is not able, finally now by what law each thing has its power limited and clings deeply to its limits. Therefore, superstition overthrown, in turn, was trampled with his feet; the victory made us equal to heaven.
(Image of Penguin translation included under fair use doctrine)