Month: January 2018

158. On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius, c. 50 BC

158. On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius, c. 50 BC

Plot:   Primitive atomic theory explained in poetry, or as Lucretius himself puts it: “the dulcet strains of poesy, coated with the sweet homey of the Muses .. to engage your mind while you gain insight into the nature of the universe and the pattern of its architecture” (page 54-55)

My edition is the Penguin Black Classic translated by Ronald Latham (ISBN 0140440186)

My thoughts: 

Lucretius’ work largely outlines the tenets of Epicurus – basically that we should seek a happy pleasant life without fearing death, which is the end of both body and soul, everything returning to atoms. His atomic theory is not quite in line with modern thinking; he has them whizzing around in perpetual motion in an unlimited universe. Some of his physics is also slightly awry: we see things because everything constantly emits a series of images in the nature of ‘films’ which enter our eyes and can bounce back from mirrors, pass through glass, etc.

As a physicist, Lucretius is a much better philosopher. Following Epicurean thought, he acknowledges the Gods but refuses to believe they influence our lives, as they were too busy living the good life. Mankind assigns them actions and powers in superstitious awe of what is really natural phenomena and ignorance of the causes of these.

Nor does he believe in Hell, or any sort of continuance of life after death – these too are superstitions which blight Man’s short lifespan with fear and dread. All is reduced to atoms to be recombined elsewhere. “To none is life given in freehold, to all on lease” (page 125).

He would also have been a fervent UFO watcher too, as “it is in the highest degree unlikely that this earth and sky is the only one to have been created and that all those particles of matter outside are accomplishing nothing … our world has been made by nature through the spontaneous and casual collision and the multifarious, accidental, random and purposeless congregation and coalescence of atoms whose suddenly formed combinations could serve on each occasion as the starting-point of substantial fabrics – earth and sea and sky and the races of living creatures. On every ground therefore you must admit that there exist elsewhere other congeries of matter similar to this one which the ether clasps in ardent embrace … other earths and various tribes of men and breeds of beasts.”   (pages 91-92)

Lucretius doesn’t limit himself to philosophy and physics. After asserting that heaven and earth, sun, stars and moon are not products of divine inspiration but a result of natural forces, he also writes of the creation of species (all originally down to spontaneous generation from Mother Earth) and the development of human civilization from caveman to his current time, which he admits is still in development.

Perhaps his only downfall is his dismissal of love, warning his readers to beware of its traps.

Favourite lines/passages:

LOL moment as Lucretius demonstrates that mind and spirit are both composed of matter, for “when the nerve-racking impact of a spear gashes bones and sinews, even if it does not penetrate the seat of life, there ensues faintness and a tempting inclination earthwards …”  (page 101)

But finally we should all just relax and be content, as devotees of Epicurus like Lucretius

“The requirements of our bodily nature are few indeed, no more than is necessary to banish pain. To heap pleasure upon pleasure may heighten men’s enjoyment at times. But what matter if there are no golden images of youths about the house, holding flaming torches in their right hands to illumine banquets prolonged into the night? What matter if the hall does not sparkle with silver and gleam with gold, and no carved and gilded rafters ring to the music of the lute? Nature does not miss these luxuries when men recline in company on the soft grass by a running stream under the branches of a tall tree and refresh their bodies pleasurably at small expense. Better still if the weather smiles upon them and the season of the year stipples the green herbage with flowers.”  (page 60-61)

Personal rating:  As you can see from the size and number of quotes appended above, Lucretius quite tickled my fancy. Epicurean philosophy must suit me. 6.

The reads in between: 

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz. Diner cook Odd can see the dead, but can he save his girl and his hometown? Enjoyable pageturner and first volume in a series.

Death at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes. One of Martin Edward’s 100 classic crime stories – not so entertaining and a bit of a cheat as a whodunnit. First half is a hard slog as Innes’ Inspector Appleby is a very close-lipped, almost disinterested detective, sharing very little with the reader. The suspects are barely discernible from each other and the reveal is complicated and unlikely.

Asterix and the Big Fight by Goscinny and Uderzo. One of the best of Asterix’s adventures, largely due to the druid Getafix’s amnesia, crazy appearance, and childlike happiness as he brews explosive potions, doubled by the arrival of a second druid suffering the same affliction (ie getting flattened under a menhir thrown by Obelix!)

Next : More from Cicero.

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157. Selected letters by Cicero (68 to 43 BC)

157. Selected letters by Cicero (68 to 43 BC)

Plot:  A collection of some of Cicero’s private letters to family and friends, starting from before his exile to a few months before his death.  My version is again the Penguin Classic edition (ISBN 0140444580) translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey.

My thoughts:  The first collection of letters I’ve read in this project –  and I was always told never to read other peoples’ mail, too! 😊

About half of Cicero’s letters are addressed to his good friend Atticus, a school friend who was also related by marriage (Cicero’s brother Quintus married Atticus’ sister Pomponia).

The most interesting letters are those which report or reflect on the tumultuous events happening in Rome during Cicero’s later years. Firstly Cicero is exiled according to a new law introduced by his enemies, for executing Roman citizens without trial (with regard to the Catiline conspirators discussed in an earlier post). He is eventually allowed to return to Rome but shortly after, civil war breaks out between the supporters of Pompey and Caesar. Cicero realises that his beloved Republic is doomed  – Caesar’s forces are stronger and Pompey is failing to plan or act effectively. However, Cicero feels he must honour his obligation to Pompey who helped in his return from exile (although he did little to prevent the exile in the first place)

After the dust settles, Cicero is pardoned by a victorious Caesar; but despite this, and although he was not involved in the conspiracy, Cicero gives his wholehearted praise to Brutus and Cassius (Caesar’s assassins). A year later, the long standing animosity between Cicero and Marc Antony leads to Cicero’s death as he sides with Brutus and Cassius in a further civil war against Marc Antony, the turncoat Lepidus and Caesar’s son, Octavian.

The more intimate family letters are also revealing, particularly as a inconsolable Cicero mourns the death of his  beloved daughter Tullia.

More about Cicero and the events of these years to come in future writings from Caesar himself (The Civil War), Plutarch (Parallel Lives) and Suetonius (Lives of the Twelve Caesars)

Favourite lines/passages:

“Spend time in honest, pleasant and friendly company. Nothing becomes life better, or is more in harmony with its happy living. I am not thinking of physical pleasure, but of community of life and habit and of mental recreation, of which familiar conversation is the most effective agent; and conversation is at its most agreeable at dinner-parties …. because at dinner parties more than anywhere else, life is lived in company.”    Cicero to Papirius Paetus, Jan 43 BC (page 214)

Diversions and digressions:

Without the benefits of a postal service, the Romans relied on travelling friends or slaves to deliver letters to their correspondents. Even some of Cicero’s letters admit he didn’t know where the intended recipient was actually living at the moment the letter was dispatched.

Personal rating:  Taken as a whole, probably a 5.

Next :  On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, one of the books read by Cicero. Very easy to play Six Degrees of Separation in the Ancient World.

 

156. Poems by Catullus (c. 60-55 BC)

156. Poems by Catullus (c. 60-55 BC)

Plot:  An assortment of personal poems – love and hate, sometimes together.

I had two versions available to me for Catullus :  the Penguin classic translated by Peter Whigham (0140441808)  and the Oxford World’s Classics edition by Guy Lee (0192835874)

My thoughts:

I must confess I am not a poetry fan – and the more self-indulgent and ugly the poems, the less I like them. So Catullus does not rate highly with me and I was glad to reach the last page.

Catullus is reminiscent of Sappho, in that he uses his poetry very personally to express his love, lust, anger and hate, to praise his friends and to attack his enemies. His surviving poems are numbered (with some gaps) and organised by length and style, so each poem is different from the next, and the recurrent themes (his love for ‘Lesbia’ and their turbulent affair, his dalliances with other male and female lovers, his insults and his occasional poetic correspondence to friends) are mixed throughout the volume.

Perhaps most memorable are his addresses to “Lesbia” (the Clodia attacked so scathingly by Cicero in court for her promiscuity). Catullus’ feelings for her vary from deep love, to sniping insults at her and her other lovers, to recognising he cannot help but love and hate her, desperately wishing he could rid her from his system.

With two editions to compare, it becomes very apparent that an especially beautiful phrase that captures my heart is as much courtesy of the translator as the author : compare Catullus’ ode (#4) to his favourite yacht now beached and decaying on the bank:

“drawn up here, gathering quiet age”  (Whigham)  versus  “grows old in quiet retirement” (Lee)

Both are beautiful but Whigham manages to capture something special.

As I have said before, without my own knowledge of the ancient languages, I am reliant on the skill, accuracy and fidelity of the translator; and personal taste also comes into play. Especially with Catullus’ ‘colourful’ language such as on display in #6

“attenuated thighs betray your preoccupation” (Whigham) versus the “fucked-out flanks” (Lee)

There is a small number of short epic-like poems but they lost me. The highly considered #64 starts as a marriage celebration but was overshadowed by jarring tales of death and betrayal from Greek legends : Ariadne abandoned by Theseus after she helps him kill the minotaur, the deaths and destruction during the Fall of Troy, and the unhappy tale of Oedipus.

Favourite lines/passages:

I have reproduced Whigham’s translations of poems 32, 33  and 51 below; not as favourites but to give some idea of what is representative of Catullus  

XXXII

Call me to you

at siesta

We’ll make love

my gold & jewels

my treasure trove

my sweet Ipsithila

When you invite

me lock no doors

nor change your mind

& step outside

But stay at home

& in your room

prepare yourself

To come nine times

straight off together

In fact if you

should want it now

I’ll come at once

for lolling on

the sofa here

with jutting cock

and stuffed with food

I’m ripe for stuffing you

My sweet Ipsithila.

LI

Godlike the man who

sits at her side, who

watches and catches

that laughter

which softly tears me

to tatters, nothing is

left of me, each time

I see her.

… tongue numbed; arms, legs

melting, on fire ; drum

drumming in my ears ; head-

lights gone black.

Her ease is your sloth, Catullus

You itch & roll in her ease

Former kings and cities

Lost in the valley of her arm

XXXIII

Vibennius & son, renowned

among bath-hut pilferers

pere

an adept at massage

fils

of voracious if of hirsute buttocks

why not remove yourselves?

Those manual depredations

are common knowledge

the allurements of those bum-cheeks

a drug on the market

why not remove yourselves?

Personal rating:  3/10

The reads in between: 

  • Death comes as the End : Agatha Christie sets this murder whodunnit in Ancient Egypt around 2000 BC. For once I was well on top of the murderer, but since so many got knocked off along the way, there were not many suspects left to choose from. 😊
  • The Martian : Andy Weir’s first novel describes the survival efforts of an astronaut left behind on Mars, and the rescue options NASA comes up with. Saw the movie last year. Looking forward to getting his next book Artemis about a bank heist on the Moon.
  • Mike : Another early Wodehouse about cricket and private schools. Entertaining if you love … well, Wodehouse or cricket.

Next :  Selected letters from Cicero.