ON THE NATURE OF THE UNIVERSE
Early Greek philosophy had for centuries been asking questions about the universe: its composition and its purpose, if any. The apparent unity of a universe composed of diverse heterogeneous elements had to be explicable in some way, and one solution was to urge that everything was in reality different forms of the same thing: hence many of the Presocratic thinkers of the sixth and early fifth centuries BC tried to find this single substance out of which everything was ultimately made, such as air (Anaximenes), or water (Thales), or fire (Heraclitus), or perhaps a combination of the primary elements earth, air, fire and water (Empedocles). Then in the later fifth century two thinkers emerged with an idea that has dominated our understanding of the world right until this century. Their names were Democritus and Leucippus, and the theory they propounded formed the basis of Epicurean philosophy: Epicurus adopted their broad line of argument and developed it into a more complete scientific and ethical approach to life, known as the Atomic theory.
In essence, the theory is very simple. Everything that exists is made up of matter and empty space. Matter is composed of tiny invisible and indivisible elements called 'atoms' (the Greek word atomos means 'indivisible'), which are the building-blocks of everything we see around us, ourselves included. The enormous variety of phenomena we see and are is caused by the different combinations these atoms enter into. The indivisible nature of atoms is 'proved' by the continued existence of matter - if there were not some level beyond which matter could not be divided any further, then everything would have dissolved into nothing long ago (1.540-50). These atoms are always flying off the surface of objects and forming fresh compounds, and they cannot themselves be destroyed, although the compounds they make can be broken up (e.g., at death). The atoms go on for ever making new 'bodies' of matter. Thus food atoms are ingested into the body in compounds whose component atoms are separated out, some absorbed into the compound which is our physical body, others discarded as waste. Empty space must also exist to give the atoms room to move at all, and also to explain the different weights and densities of matter: a lump of lead has more atoms and less space than a lump of wood, and hence is heavier and denser. This empty space is without limit - for what can limit nothingness? - and hence the universe is infinite. The number of different atomic shapes and sizes is finite - otherwise some would be big enough to be visible - but the number of individual atoms of each size and shape is infinite throughout an infinite universe.
These atoms move all the time. To form material compounds they have to collide and stick together. Now, free-flying atoms fall naturally downwards, which makes the likelihood of collision remote, as all atoms would be flying in the same direction at the same time. It might have been thought that heavier atoms would fall faster and so fall on top of the lighter atoms as they all descended, but Epicurus was quick to point out that all objects of whatever weight descend at the same speed. He therefore invented his theory of the 'swerve' (clinamen) to account for atomic collisions: atoms falling downwards swerve on occasion from the straight vertical path to one side or another, and so collide. This theory is scientifically vulnerable - it cannot be proved because there is no causal explanation for the swerve. It was, however, essential in Lucretius' account to explain the phenomenon of free will.
This last point demonstrates very aptly that Lucretius did not simply admire these ideas as beautiful hypotheses - he used them as a foundation for a whole philosophy of life. Now there seems little point in advocating radical change in the way we think and feel if the scientific theory being propounded precludes the existence of free will. A mechanistic view of human nature as being helplessly and inexorably obedient to the laws of cause and effect would leave us incapable of self-improvement, just as my car cannot mend its own puncture. The dance of the atoms appears random, the effects of their collisions are dictated by their construction and nature, and we are as atomic a compound as the humblest brick. How, then, is it possible to maintain that we have moral choice over our actions, and that we can exercise volition both in thought and deed, when we are undeniably the victims of external atomic forces? The mechanistic determinism of Democritus left no room for moral responsibility or simple human choice, yet our subjective experience of volition is evidence in itself that atoms are not always compelled to a certain course of movement by the laws of nature. 'Both the brave man's and the coward's heart beat faster when the enemy's tanks begin to move forward, but only the coward deserts his post on the gun.' (D. J. Furley, Two Studies in the Greek Atomists (1967) 222) It is sometimes asserted that Epicurus invented the swerve to counter Democritus' unappealing determinism - it would be fairer to say that he observed free will in action and sought to find an explanation for it in his atomic theory. Far from being a tender-minded refusal to accept the grim truth about ourselves, it represents a brave attempt to solve a problem that remains largely unsolved to this day. If he failed, have we done so much better?
There is nothing tender-minded about Epicurus' attitude towards death, where his thorough-going materialism leaves no room for any form of personal survival of death. The body obviously dies and rots. What we call the spirit or soul consists, on Epicurean principles, of superfine atoms that receive and transmit sensory signals and that hold together the unity of bodily self-consciousness and sensation. These atoms are none the less material and will disperse on death along with the rest of us: the spirit is seen as on the one hand a collection of atoms collected in the breast, which is the seat of our thoughts and emotions (animus), and on the other hand a network of sensory receivers and transmitters spread throughout the body (anima). The spirit is never any form of incorporeal soul that might - as in Pythagorean thought - leave the tomb of the body at death and carry on an independent happier existence. The Epicurean soul may have what we call spiritual aspects - self-awareness, volition, pleasure, etc. - but these are inseparable from the body and can both influence and be influenced by bodily events such as drunkenness and sickness. Like the music of the violin, when the bow and the instrument are damaged or destroyed, the music stops. Once again, however, the teachings of Epicurus and Lucretius go beyond a mere statement of brute fact, and the long final section of the third book of this poem is a protracted rhetorical diatribe against the fear of death. Lucretius intends his poetry to remove fear, not to instill new irrational terrors of non-existence that, he believed, are as futile as they are groundless.
One of the principal difficulties with Epicureanism is its theory of perception, which seems to involve Epicurus in self-contradiction. The philosophy of materialism states that everything in the world is made of matter and that nothing can exist which is non-material, except the vacuum of empty space. Now if that is true, then all our perceptions must be some sort of material effect caused by some sort of material cause: all perceptions are therefore in some sense real, even imagined sensations without any obvious external stimulus. Epicurus went further than this, however, to argue that all perceptions are true, which lays him wide open to criticism. Quite apart from obvious illusions like the oar appearing bent under the surface of the water or the square tower looking round from a distance (4.436-42: 353-63), there are visions of the dead that appear to us in sleep, which would seem to contradict the statement that we do not survive death. Can Epicurus have it both ways? Can he both assert that visions of the dead are real atomic constructs from real dead people, but also that these dead people no longer exist as people? Before answering this, let us examine the mechanics of sense as interpreted by Epicureanism.
'For touch and nothing but touch ( by all that men call holy! ) is the essence of all our bodily sensations.' (2-434-5) All perceptions are caused by contact between the object perceived and the sense-organs of the perceiver. Sound-atoms enter your ears, make the eardrum vibrate and thus stimulate the 'spirit', surface atoms can emanate from the surface of objects and enter the nostrils or establish direct contact with the skin in touch or the tongue in taste. So far, so good - but what of sight? Epicurus postulates that atoms are constantly leaving the surface of all objects, and that these leave the surface as complete coherent images or 'films' which preserve both the shape and appearance of the object. When a 'film' of something enters our eyes, it touches our organs of sight, stimulates the 'spirit' and so we see it. These organs of sight are simply receivers of sensory stimuli, with no power to assess and interpret the sense-data they receive: this is left to the 'spirit' - we would call it the mind - whose judgment can be mistaken without thereby impugning the reliability of the sense-organs. This lets the senses off the hook in both the above difficulties: the bent oar is only apparently bent, the mind receiving multiple images ( of water and of oar) which it clearly fails to interpret separately and correctly. The ghosts of the dead, on the other hand, either really are atomic remains of the dead person emitted during life and still flitting about, or they are images of living people whom the brain mistakes for the dead people they resemble.
It can seem that Book Four of the poem was begun solely to counter the apparent objection to the mortality of the soul posed by the appearance of ghosts - but if so Lucretius soon went far beyond this limited exercise. The enemy soon turns out to be the Skeptic rather than the Spiritualist. The Skeptics refused to accept any sense-perception as reliable in the light of the obvious unreliability of such sense-experiences as dreams, hallucinations, optical illusions etc. Knowledge - certainty, that is - is not available to us, and so we cannot be sure of anything, no matter how persuasive the empirical evidence seems at the time. Diogenes Laertius in his Life of Pyrrho (9.62) reports that the great Skeptic Pyrrho 'faced all risks - traffic, precipices, dogs' and was saved from harm only by his less Skeptical friends. The Atomist tradition was steeped in Scepticism - Democritus asserted that 'in reality we know nothing' (KRS fr. 117, pp. 410-11), and Epicurus' own teacher Nausiphanes was given to Scepticism (Diogenes Laertius 9.64, Rist p. 4). The group of teachers and thinkers known to us as the Sophists practiced Scepticism in virtually all aspects of philosophy: epistemological, theological and moral, with even the Academy of Plato being 'converted' to Scepticism when Arcesilaus of Pitane became its head. Scepticism found its greatest statement in the figures first of Aenesidemus - who probably originated the famous 'Ten Modes of Scepticism' - and then of Sextus Empiricus, whose writings are the major statement of the Skeptical position in the ancient world. (See on this Annas and Barnes, The Modes of Scepticism passim.)
One example of the conflict between Epicureanism and scepticism will serve to illustrate the problem. If, as Epicurus argued, all sensation is material and atomically determined, then we ought to be able to expect similar sensations to produce predictably similar results, just as sufficiently high temperatures always boil water or melt ice. Why, then, does the same food taste pleasant to one person and sour to another? Why does the tower look round from here, but square from there? We have no grounds for preferring situation 1 to situation 2, so it becomes impossible to decide whether the food is 'really' sour and the tower is 'really' square. All that Epicurus can do in this case is to repeat that in the latter case the mind is clearly misinterpreting the veracious sense-data received by the eyes; and in the former case there must be atomic differences in the different organs of taste - just as different species show violently different reactions to the same food (4.633-72). As with the swerve, so here it seems that Epicurus was working from the manifest variety of sense-experience and sought to explain it in terms that would accommodate the diversity of phenomena without invalidating the Atomic theory itself. Lucretius the poet, of course, had further reasons for wanting to show the contribution that the mind makes to the understanding of the world. Our senses may be as irrational as the camera, but the mind has the power to interpret, to understand and to wonder at the range of phenomena presented to it - and none can show this so well as the poet.
Apparitions of the gods merit separate discussion. It was common in antiquity to see Epicurus as an atheist (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 2.75-6), and Lucretius is a tireless campaigner against foolish and violent forms of religious worship such as human sacrifice (1.80-101). Epicurus developed a subtle theology in which the gods are disinterested beings (this easily passed for atheism in popular imagination), and he certainly spoke out against the foolish beliefs of 'the masses' (Letter to Menoeceus 123-4). The gods exist, he appears to have claimed, dwelling in 'spaces between the worlds' (intermundia, metakosmia), and their atomic bodies are in some way as deathless as the atoms out of which they are composed: all atoms are eternal, but they are the only example of atomic compounds that can constantly regenerate themselves and thus not disintegrate with age and death. As with most things in Epicureanism, however, the ethical implications are of enormous importance, and it is here that both Epicurus and Lucretius display an unorthodox attitude towards personal and public religious practice. On the one hand, they both opposed the fear of the angry, bullying gods who were thought to throw thunderbolts, punish men with sterility and demand human sacrifice to make the wind blow (6.379-422: 4.1233-41: 1.80-101). The Epicurean gods, on the contrary, are ideals of contentment and serenity who by definition cannot be bothered with human beings and their petty problems. The argument runs as follows:
The gods by definition live a life of serenity. If they bother about our lives they cannot be serene. ... they cannot bother about us.
The anthropomorphic gods who dwell on Olympus, fighting and loving each other and using human conflict as entertainment differ completely from the tranquil beings so memorably conjured up in Lucretius' account:
The majesty of the gods is revealed and those quiet habitations, never shaken by storms nor drenched by rain-clouds, nor defaced by white drifts of snow that a harsh frost congeals. A cloudless ether roofs them, and laughs with radiance lavishly diffused. All their wants are supplied by nature, and nothing at any time cankers their peace of mind. (3.18-24. cf. 2.1093-4)
The gods therefore pass from being the objects of our superstitious fear and groveling self-abasement to becoming the paradigms of a happiness that we ourselves could obtain, the role models of that Epicurean serenity which is the goal of both the philosophical system and the poem that expounds it. True contemplation of the gods and the universe will help us to calm our minds and emulate divine happiness to the point where we can both understand everything - and thus see with the eyes of a god - and also guarantee our happiness by a total contentment with the pleasure available to us within the limitations imposed on us by nature itself (see 5.1161-1240, 6.68-79). Fear is bred of ignorance and is thus dispelled by knowledge of the truth; the gods are a part of the universe but have no more personal malice against us than do raindrops or daisies; when enlightened by knowledge we can become serene and finally dignam dis degere vitam ('lead a life worthy of the gods' 3.322). The perfect example of this life is of course Epicurus himself, who in the fulsome proem to Book Five is praised as a god for precisely this reason: he was as content as the blessed gods although enjoying none of their immortal advantages.
All this is a fascinating chapter in the history of philosophy and science, no doubt, but it does not explain why anybody should get excited about atoms. It is hard to see why people should wish to surrender the lively gods of myth and legend for these faceless, idle bon viveurs, especially since the removal of divine intervention in the world removes one possible means of controlling nature in the form of religious observance and leaves man a helpless victim before the random devastation of atomic collisions. Furthermore, what has been said so far does not account for the popularity of Epicureanism in Rome over two centuries after Epicurus' death. To understand this we need to look in more detail at Epicurus' ethical and political attitudes and set them in the context of late-republican Rome.
Epicurus' moral philosophy is often called Hedonist, in that he asserted that men are driven, in making their choices, by considerations of pleasure rather than any altruistic or disinterested motives. Put starkly in these terms it is easy to see why so many people in the ancient and in the modern world have visualized Epicureans as living a life of gluttony and debauchery, totally given over to the pleasures of the flesh and without any scruples when it came to moral responsibility. It will quickly become clear that this is far from being the case.
Epicurus asserts that the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the driving forces behind our volitional and appetitive behavior: given the 'atomic' nature of our minds and bodies and the non-existence of anything other than matter and void, it is difficult to see how he could have found room in his atomic universe for such abstract entities as justice or freedom. He clearly needed a word to describe physical well-being and the desire for what we instinctively seek, both mentally and physically, and used pleasure to refer to this. However, his definition of the term embraces a far wider range of feelings than simply the unqualified satisfaction of our bodily appetites: the pursuit of pleasure may indeed induce us to deny pleasure, as some pleasures may end up causing us great pain in the long term. Similarly, some pain may be worth pursuing in order to preserve life or to preclude greater pain later - having a tooth extracted when it is going to cause agonies of toothache, or undergoing unpleasant military duty rather than suffering the pain of social ostracism and a court martial, for example. Furthermore, pleasure is essentially the removal of the pain of need and is therefore limited to the satisfaction of the bodily appetite: once the desire has been satisfied - the gaping chasm filled by food, for instance (4.858- 69) - the pleasure cannot then be increased but only varied. This basic instinctive pleasure, produced by action to satisfy need such as the ingestion of food or the ejaculation of sperm, is called 'kinetic' pleasure and is what most people would immediately think of in this sort of discussion. Epicurus however insisted on adding the notion of what he called 'katastematic' pleasure, which is the pleasure of contentment and serenity, the absence of both need and desire, the equilibrium of tranquility. Far from being an afterthought, this sort of pleasure was elevated into the highest goal of our life, a state for which Epicurus devised the term 'ataraxia' (serenity). It is thus far superior to the animal pursuit of food and sex - being a transcendence of these basic needs - and is the mark of the true philosopher. Kinetic pleasure, after all, is temporary and involves pain: the pleasure of eating will soon be followed by the pain of hunger, and the sexual appetite, Lucretius informs us, is totally insatiable (4.1089-96). Katastematic pleasure lasts longer and involves no pain.
In all this it is vital to recognize which pleasures are healthy and susceptible of satisfaction and which are not. Epicurus divided pleasures into three categories:
1. those which are natural and necessary
2. those which are natural but not necessary
3. those which are neither natural nor necessary.
In the first category are the pleasures without which we cannot survive - food, drink, warmth, all of which can be satisfied from the natural world around us, and most of which involve ingestion. Those in the second category are the ones that produce change in the sense-organs themselves -most obviously sexual pleasure, which is natural but only necessary for the survival of the species: nobody ever died of lack of sex - and these are to be satisfied in moderation only and must be watched carefully. The third class of pleasures are luxuries, addictions to pleasures that are totally unnecessary as they satisfy no real need of the body but represent unhealthy mental desires and fixations, as well as involving us in unnecessary pain when the pleasure of their enjoyment becomes the pain of their withdrawal. This is most easily seen in the cases of food and sex: if the appetite is cultivated to the point where it needs special conditions to be satisfied - such that bread will no longer suffice but we must have caviar - then we have not increased our pleasure but rather worsened our pain. Similarly, the romantic attachment to one person, instead of the recommended promiscuity (4. 1065-6), will produce the pain of sexual deprivation when that person is not willing or available. The apparent 'cultivation' of pleasure in this way only serves to diminish it, whereas the wise man will remain content with what is easily available - the 'little that is enough' (as, for instance at 5. 1119) - and will not develop appetites that cannot easily be satisfied. What goes for the body also goes for the mind: greed for money and power is also unnecessary and insatiable and the wise man will eliminate it altogether. Lucretius depicts the ambitious politician as Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill only to see it roll back down again in a mockery of his futile efforts (3.995-1002), and the yearning lover as a thirsty man dreaming that he is drinking when his gaping mouth is of course imbibing nothing at all (4.1097-101).
In general, then, the greater the need we have, the greater the pain: and so we reach the paradox that 'poverty. .. is great wealth and unlimited wealth is great poverty' ( Vatican Sayings 25). Lucretius expresses it well:
if a man would guide his life by true philosophy, he will find ample riches in a modest livelihood enjoyed with a tranquil mind. Of that little he need never be beggared ( 5.1117-19).
The man who can find pleasure in simple things will always be satisfied, and the fastidious bon viveur will have less pleasure and more pain than the humblest of the poor.
This does, however, raise serious questions about the social duty of the wise man and his attitude towards his fellow men. The traditional Epicurean advice seems to advocate a thoroughly selfish policy whereby the wise man will remove himself from the public arena and pursue his own serenity without caring about other people except in so far as they can make him even more serene. Everything will serve as a means to the end of his personal pleasure - or else be discarded. The austere Epicurean concept of self-sufficiency ('autarkeia') enjoins the avoidance of all attachments and so can easily be taken for a recipe for quietist refusal to get involved in the sufferings and needs of others; the traditional Epicurean advice to 'live in secret' (__) would appear to reject all forms of political and social involvement as damaging to the precious peace of the wise man, and the famous opening lines of the second book of this poem can easily be read as smug Schadenfreude as the poet looks down on the sufferings of less enlightened people. There are clearly problems here, but - while I hold no brief for Epicureanism - there is another side to the moral case.
Then neighbors began to form mutual alliances, wishing neither to do nor to suffer violence among themselves. They appealed on behalf of their children and womenfolk, pointing out with gestures and inarticulate cries that it is right for everyone to pity the weak ... (5.1019-23)
This evolutionary theory of social values was not the first or the only answer to the question of their origin. Lucretius' contemporary Cicero believed that social values were innate and natural in man, a vital part of his make-up without which the race would never have survived, and thus more than simply a means to the end of pleasure. The Epicurean theory of the 'social contract' contrasts strongly also with the traditional legends of a Golden Age of blissful social harmony degenerating to silver, then to bronze and then to iron, as the earth becomes less fruitful and men less virtuous. (See Hesiod, Works and Days 109-201, Aratus, Phaenomena 96-136, Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.89-150.) One could set up the two sides of the argument in stark terms, progress versus degeneration, things getting better versus things getting worse, Utopia in the present or the future versus Utopia in the past. Lucretius, however, does not fit so easily into either category.
For on the one hand, he shows us that early man had a life of pain and hardship: it was cold, the diet was not appealing, ignorance was widespread. The comforts of life - fire, clothes, laws, the arts, etc. - being man-made, came only with a long process of trial and error, the odd flash of inspiration in the dark ages of primitivism. And yet, on the other hand, the poet has more than a touch of sentimental romanticizing of the past: man lived in accordance with nature in those days, luxuries which would enervate and corrupt simply did not exist, and men were bigger and stronger then ( 5. 925 ff. ) than the puny people of today. Nobody ploughed the land, but everybody was content with what nature provided free of charge. People must have been killed now and then by wild beasts - but they did not send thousands into battle to kill each other as they do now. People may have drunk poisonous substances by accident - but now they give them to others deliberately. Scratch the fifth book of this poem and the noble savage is not far below the surface, a man living a life in many ways closer to the ideals of Epicurus than the 'civilized' counterpart of today racked with worry and disease. So how, then, does Epicureanism add to the 'progress' of humanity?
In the first place, there is the Epicurean stress on friendship. This is not innate in man - early man was a lone wolf who only came together with others when it dawned on him that there was greater safety in numbers - but became the overriding ethical good for the wise man:
Of all the things that wisdom acquires for the blessedness of life, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship. (Epicurus, Key Doctrines 27)
Such friendship marked the advance of man from his earlier bestial state:
(Epicurus) says that you should be more concerned at inspecting with whom you are eating and drinking, than what you eat and drink. For feeding without a friend is the life of a lion and a wolf. (Seneca, Letters 19.10)
and was not simply the means to the end of more selfish pleasure - note the paradox that:
Epicureans say that it is more pleasurable to confer a benefit than to receive one. (Plutarch, Against Epicurean Happiness 1097A)
We can thus see how the negative, defensive-alliance understanding of friendship developed into a more positive set of aspirations as the moral benefits of society were appreciated. It does, however, remain fairly clear that the friends in question are fellow-Epicureans, and that the famous idyllic Garden of Epicurus was open only to sympathizers and not to the unenlightened rabble. Contact with the rest of humanity will benefit the wise if it converts more people to Epicureanism and thus provides for more serenity (cf. Cicero, Letters to his Friends 15.19.2), and there are Epicurean texts from the ancient world that imagine the perfect state of a world totally converted to Epicureanism (Diogenes of Oenoanda NF 21). Such apocalyptic dreaming may have been comforting, but the reality was of course different. The world has never been the contented trouble-free paradise of enlightenment that Epicurus would have liked, and certainly not the Roman world.
Writing when Julius Caesar was dictator, Cicero tells us that Epicureanism has 'taken over the whole of Italy' (Tusculan Disputations 4.7). By then the Greek Epicurean Siro had already established his 'little garden' of followers (including perhaps the young Virgil) and in Herculaneum disciples of Epicureanism were flocking to the school of a man of undoubted literary refinement, whom Cicero praises for his elegant and beautiful poetry, Philodemus. The prose treatises of Amafinius were extremely popular, and Lucretius composed his epic - though we do not know what success (if any) greeted his magnum opus. In order to understand the appeal of Epicureanism in the last century before Christ it is only necessary to glance at the political and social turmoil in Rome.
In the 8os BC the dictator Sulla had taken over the city and massacred hundreds of its citizens, and after his death the political life of the capital became increasingly dominated by corruption and violence as army commanders struggled for power and popular politicians such as Clodius moved their gangs onto the streets. Civil war in 49 BC between Pompey and Caesar ended with the suspension of republican rights in the dictatorship of Caesar, a tyranny from which the tyrant's assassination on the Ides of March 44 only offered a brief respite before plunging Rome back into civil disarray with the rival claims for power of Republicans such as Cassius, Caesar's consul Mark Antony, Caesar's heir Octavian and the pirate Sextus Pompeius. Throughout the hundred or so years from 133 to 27 BC the 'little man' in Rome came to have less and less say in the running of the state, and by the time of Lucretius even the old nobles who had formerly held massive power in the Senate were increasingly helpless in the face of the tyranny of the armed forces and their ruthless commanders. If ever there was a society susceptible to the attractions of Epicurus' serene garden, it was this one; the pastoral idyll was irresistibly alluring to the urban citizens who had seen their lives ruined and their streets flow with blood, and the anti-political stance of 'live secretly' was corroborated by the corruption and futility of government in Rome. The old ideal of service to the state and duty to society - embodied in that generation perfectly in the figure of Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis, who committed suicide rather than see his free republic become the slave of Caesar (see Oxford Classical Dictionary s. v. Cato 5) - was hard to justify when men of integrity fell like flies before the unscrupulous power plays of the generals. It is in this context that the cynical caricatures of politics and society in Lucretius are to be seen (3.59ff., 995-1002). The sentiments expressed there deriding the folly and corruption of political ambition become something of a literary cliche in that and the succeeding generations -- Sallust (Cat 10), Horace, Virgil, Tibullus, Propertius and Tacitus all in their different ways express distaste for the ways of contemporary politics and politicians - and most of them were not card-carrying Epicureans, either. We should not, however, underestimate the extent to which Lucretius was challenging the world in which he lived and the ethos in which he had grown up. The whole history of the Roman people was one of ambition, expansion and power, and the Roman ideal of success was to enjoy the gloria that came with a distinguished Senatorial career, the acclamation of the people and the respect of one's peers. No Roman could fail to be shocked by Lucretius' assertion (5.1129-3o): 'far better to lead a quiet life in subjection than to long for sovereign authority and lordship over kingdoms'. The very idea was monstrous to a people whose whole political ethic, at home and abroad, was later articulated by Virgil as: 'Roman, remember that ruling the nations by force is your role. ..' (Aeneid 6.851). There had always been people who regarded philosophy as childish or politically useless - cf. e.g. Plato Gorgias 484c4-485e2, Theaetetus 173cd - but the Roman patriarchal republic was here being presented with a philosophy that regarded women as equals and monarchy as the best - as that involving the least political activity - system for the wise man to live under. Such people were a threat to Roman values in fundamental ways: in religious observance, in refusal to join the race for power and curry favor, in denying the god-given destiny of the Roman people and so on. There is a nice parallelism between Lucretius' physics and his politics: just as his atoms are passively moved by other atoms, so also wise people are prepared to accept passively whatever happens to them, the wise man even being capable of happiness when being tortured to death. Virgil's echo of Lucretius' lines (Aeneid 6.851) is surely not accidental, and Cicero's assessment of Epicureanism 'taking over' Italy (Tusculan Disputations 4.6- 7) is perhaps a cry from the heart of a man seeing Roman values under serious threat. Once again, this innocent-seeming philosophical poet expounding the nature of atoms was to the Romans of his day ethical dynamite.