Lucretius, Epicureanism, and a sinking ship: My thoughts on the Inauguration

Battle of Actium. Castro, 1672.

Battle of Actium. Castro, 1672.

The beginning of Book II of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura has always been one of my favorite parts of this Roman poet’s epic.  As Inauguration Day approaches in my country, I keep mulling over these lines for various reasons which I will explain.  First, I offer my translation of De Rerum Natura 2.1-19:

Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis
e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem;
non quia vexari quemquamst iucunda voluptas,
sed quibus ipse malis careas quia cernere suavest.
suave etiam belli certamina magna tueri
per campos instructa tua sine parte pericli;
sed nihil dulcius est, bene quam munita tenere
edita doctrina sapientum templa serena,
despicere unde queas alios passimque videre
errare atque viam palantis quaerere vitae,
certare ingenio, contendere nobilitate,
noctes atque dies niti praestante labore
ad summas emergere opes rerumque potiri.
o miseras hominum mentes, o pectora caeca!
qualibus in tenebris vitae quantisque periclis
degitur hoc aevi quodcumquest! nonne videre
nihil aliud sibi naturam latrare, nisi ut qui
corpore seiunctus dolor absit, mensque fruatur
iucundo sensu cura semota metuque?

It is pleasant, when on the vast sea the winds are stirring up
the water, to look at the great misfortune of another person
from the land; not because it is pleasant to rejoice in
another man’s troubles, but because it is a relief to
comprehend what types of evils from which you yourself
have been spared. It is pleasant indeed to look upon great
battles in war being carried out on the battlefield,
the dangers of which you have no part in. There is
nothing sweeter than to possess the fortified, lofty doctrines of
the wise, as serene temples, from which place you might look
down upon others and see that they wander everywhere
seeking a path for their aimless lives, as they struggle with
their intelligence and fight for nobility, as night and day
they wrestle with great toil to climb to the highest
mountain of riches and to acquire things.
O miserable minds of men, o blind souls!
In what shadows of life, in what perils is this age of
yours have you passed! You see, don’t you, that nature barks
for nothing other than this, that pain be severed from the body
and that the mind, freed from worry and fear, enjoy
a pleasant feeling.

As I have spoken to various friends from around the world, especially in the blogging community, I can’t help but feel that other countries are standing on the shores and watching in horror the shipwreck that is occurring in American politics with the inauguration of our 45th President. I have a sense that Canadians in particular, with their universal healthcare, and progressive Prime Minister, are grateful, in the sense Lucretius describes, that they are not part of these turbulent waters in which we Americans have found ourselves drowning.

As the Inauguration approaches, I have tried very hard not to read about any of the preparations for it and I have also vowed not to watch the news coverage on the day of the event. I don’t want to experience this shipwreck of an historical event, but then I realized that perhaps my inability to watch the shipwreck signifies that I have created an illusion for myself. It’s not that I don’t want to watch it, but instead it’s impossible for me to see it because I am on that very ship, being drowned in those waters which the wind has stirred up. Sometimes it’s very difficult not to have such a feeling of despair.

In order to mitigate our despair what are those “lofty doctrines of the wise” Lucretius suggests to which we can cling? How do we counteract a war being played out in horror in front of our eyes—a war against healthcare, basic human rights, freedoms and liberties? We cannot exist in some Epicurean garden or paradise and simply watch these things happen without being affected and without protest or action.

I can’t help but think of our incoming president as I translate Lucretius’ description of men who crave riches and devote their lives to the acquisition of things. It is evident from any thirty-second sound bite we hear that our new leader struggles with intelligence (ingenio) and has quite a lofty view of his own nobility (nobilitate). I site as an example of this exaggerated sense of nobilitas the opulent signs displaying his name on every building he owns or partially owns.

Finally, I particularly admire Lucretius’ word choice in the last few lines when talking about pain (dolor)—our nature barks or howls out (latrare) for us to get rid of any type of pain that invades our bodies and to embrace those things that bring us pleasure. How can we apply Lucretius’ advice to our current political situation? Lucretius’ suggestion of avoidance, as I noted above, seems impossible in this instance. Avoidance, in fact, is downright irresponsible. We are left with the other piece of his philosophy—to embrace those things that give us pleasure. For me this would take the form of reading, writing, connecting with friends, holding my family especially close and setting an example of kindness, tolerance and understanding for my daughter and my students. Will this be enough to mitigate the pain? Who knows. Perhaps it might be better to look to the Stoics or the Cynics for more philosophical advice in this instance.

16 Comments

Filed under Classics, Opinion Posts

16 responses to “Lucretius, Epicureanism, and a sinking ship: My thoughts on the Inauguration

  1. And it is not just the President elect. I find the actions and goals of many of the other new appointees and members of Congress incomprehensible.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That lack of intelligence is typical of those leading and participating in this uncovering (once again) of the very worst aspects of humanity. This is being played out in the U.K. with another group of intellectually impoverished politicians, and about to become clear, I suspect, in France. I guess from time to time, stupid, scared, bigoted people find a voice to represent their bile. I suppose there are two possible responses, to resist, on one hand, and to reduce, on the other, to the bare essentials of love and friendship. For those capable, both responses would seem equally appropriate.

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  3. You have my sympathy, Melissa, or perhaps that should be empathy as one of those who voted to remain in the EU. We’re suffering our own shipwreck here. I think your final paragraph is a very wise one.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. All I can do is wish you and your countryfolk good luck. As Susan says, we are still suffering here from the idiotic Brexit vote and trying hard to avoid the feeling that we’re all going to hell in a handcart….

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  5. You have mirrored my own thoughts very eloquently. I especially like the idea that all of this is so difficult to watch because we are on the ship…I find myself shrinking from the news more and more each day.

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  6. i agree with your last paragraph… maybe marc aurel would be a place to look for more advice, and in any event while one is engaged in studying and talking to people one is at least (or so i hope) not doing anything horrible and contributes to all those political/social ailments….

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  7. We are grateful, but I have to say that I think we’re also terrified. Our ships are so closely anchored that we’re afraid we might go down with you. It’s also very hard to watch your ship go down, and not know what we can do to help…

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    • buriedinprint

      Similiarly, I do feel it’s fortunate whenever there is another kind of influence at work on the continent as the corner is turned; I was heartened to know that there was a more compassionate leader south of the border when our last PM (before Trudeau) was in office, and now things have swung the other way. It does seem to make sense to look for guidance/inspiration in writings and teachings of the past. Even when we feel there is nothing else we can do, there is that!

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  8. We have had – and still have – our own political burdens to bear in Australia, but nothing on the scale of Brexit and Trump, disasters which will affect us here too. All we can hope for is that good people in Britain and the US will make their voices heard and perhaps temper the worst of it.

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  9. PS: And yes, Marcus Aurelius. Very comforting in times of great stress.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Speaking of Lucretius, have you read poet A.E. Stalling’s translation of The Nature of Things? Penguin books….very good.

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  11. I watched yesterday. I felt I needed to, as it was an American event. I am not able today however, to lift the gloom. I wish I were still teaching, for my students would be a garden I could tend to. I wish my children were still living with me as well. I know this will pass and I know there are other storms coming, but for today, this tragedy has got me down.

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  12. De Rerum Natura…This reminds me of my school days. 🙂

    We are looking at America’s shipwreck in horror and the ship is sinking quicker than I thought it possible. The last few days just show that our democracies are more fragile than we think.

    As Anthony mentioned it earlier, we have our own threats in France. I hope the extreme right won’t win the presidential election in May. I’m worried but I still have faith in our unruly nature and ability to defy predictions.

    Meanwhile, as Voltaire concluded in Candide, “One must cultivate their own garden”.

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