CHAPTER VIII, from the third volume of the Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325. See the book at Amazon
AMID this turbulent transformation of economy, government, and morals, literature was not forgotten, and did not quite escape the fever and stimulus of the age. Varro and Nepos found safety in antiquarian scholarship or historical research; Sallust retired from his campaigns to defend his party and disguise his morals with brilliant monographs; Caesar stooped from empire to grammar and continued his wars in his Commentaries; Catullus and Calvus sought refuge from politics in the pursuit and poetry of love; timid and sensitive spirits like Lucretius hid themselves in the gardens of philosophy; and Cicero retreated now and then from the heat of the Forum to cool his blood with books. But not one of them found peace. War and revolution touched them with pervasive infection; and even Lucretius must have known the restlessness which he describes:
There is a weight on their minds, and a mountain of misery lies on their hearts…. For each, not knowing what he wants, seeks always to change his place, as if he could drop his burden. Here is one who, bored to death at home, goes forth every now and then from his palace; but feeling no better abroad, suddenly returns. Off he courses, driving his nags to his country house in headlong haste…. He has hardly crossed the threshold when he yawns, or seeks oblivion in a heavy sleep, or even hurries back to the city. So each man flees from himself; but, as one might expect, the self which he cannot escape cleaves to him all the more against his will. He hates himself because, a sick man, he does not know the cause of his complaint. Any man who could see that clearly would cast aside his business, and before all else would seek to understand the nature of things.
His poem is our only biography of Titus Lucretius Carus; it is proudly reticent about its author; and outside of it, barring a few allusions, Roman literature is strangely silent about one of its greatest men. Tradition placed his birth at 99 or 95, his death at 55 or 51, B.C. He lived through half a century of the Roman revolution: through the Social War, Marian massacres, and Sullan proscriptions; through Catiline’s conspiracy and Caesar’s consulate. The aristocracy to which he probably belonged was in obvious decay; the world in which he lived was falling apart into a chaos that left no life or fortune secure. His poem is a longing for physical and mental peace.
Lucretius sought refuge in nature, philosophy, and poetry. Perhaps also he had a round of love; he must have fared badly, for he writes ungallantly of women, denounces the lure of beauty, and advises itching youth to appease the flesh with calm promiscuity. In woods and fields, in plants and animals, in mountain, river, and sea, he found a delight only rivaled by his passion for philosophy. He was as impressionable as Wordsworth, as keen of sense as Keats, as prone as Shelley to find metaphysics in a pebble or a leaf. Nothing of nature’s loveliness or terror was lost upon him; he was stirred by the forms and sounds, odors and savors, of things; felt the silences of secret haunts, the quiet falling of the night, the lazy waking of the day. Everything natural was a marvel to him- the patient flow of water, the sprouting of seeds, the endless changes of the sky, the imperturbable persistence of the stars. He observed animals with curiosity and sympathy, loved their forms of strength or grace, felt their sufferings, and wondered at their wordless philosophy. No poet before him had so expressed the grandeur of the world in its detailed variety and its congregated power. Here at last nature won the citadels of literature, and rewarded her poet with a force of descriptive speech that only Homer and Shakespeare have surpassed. So responsive a spirit must have been deeply moved in youth by the mystery and pageantry of religion. But the ancient faith, which had once served family discipline and social order, had lost its hold on the educated classes of Rome. Caesar smiled indulgently as he played pontifex maximus, and the banquets of the priests were the holydays of Roman epicures. A small minority of the people were open atheists; now and then some Roman Alcibiades nocturnally mutilated the statues of the gods. No longer inspired or consoled by the official ritual, many among the lower classes were flocking to the bloodstained shrines of the Phrygian Great Mother, or the Cappadocian goddess Ma, or some of the Oriental deities that had entered Italy with soldiers or captives from the East. Under the influence of Greek or Asiatic cults the old Roman idea of “Orcus” as a colorless subterranean abode of all the indiscriminate dead had developed into belief in a literal Hell- a “Tartarus” or “Acheron” of endless suffering for all but a “reborn” initiated few. The sun and the moon were conceived as gods, and every eclipse sent terror into lonely villages and teeming tenements. Chaldean fortunetellers and astrologers were overrunning Italy, casting horoscopes for paupers and millionaires, revealing hidden treasures and future events, interpreting omens and dreams with cautious ambiguity and profitable flattery. Every unusual occurrence in nature was examined as the warning of a god. It was this mass of superstition, ritualism, and hypocrisy that Lucretius knew as religion.
No wonder that he rebelled against it, and attacked it with all the ardor of a religious reformer. We may judge from the bitterness of his resentment the depth of his youthful piety and the distress of his disillusionment. Seeking for some alternative faith, he passed through the skepticism of Ennius to the great poem in which Empedocles had expounded evolution and the conflict of opposites. When he discovered the writings of Epicurus it seemed to him that he had found the answers to his questions; that strange mixture of materialism and free will, of joyful gods and a godless world, appealed to him as a free man’s answer to doubt and fear. A breath of liberation from supernatural terrors seemed to come out of Epicurus’ garden, revealing the omnipresence of law, the self-ruled independence of nature, the forgivable naturalness of death. Lucretius resolved to take this philosophy out of the ungainly prose in which Epicurus had expressed it, fuse it into poetic form, and offer it to his generation as the way, the truth, and the life. He felt in himself a rare and double power- the objective perception of the scientist and the subjective emotion of the poet; and he saw in the total order of nature a sublimity, and in nature’s parts a beauty, that encouraged and justified this marriage of philosophy and poetry. His great purpose aroused all his powers, lifted him to a unique intellectual exuberance, and left him, before its completion, exhausted and perhaps insane. But his “long and delightful toil” gave him a consuming happiness, and he poured into it all the devotion of a profoundly religious soul.