Rereading Lucretius: The Plague of Athens and Epicurean Attachment in De Rerum Natura
This dissertation addresses the problem of the concluding passage of Lucretius’ didactic poem De Rerum Natura, which famously consists of a vivid and evocative account of the Plague of Athens of 430 BCE that ends abruptly and without explanation, with no indication what lessons in Epicurean philosophy the reader is meant to learn from it. While many scholars have suggested a variety of explanations for this ending, this dissertation approaches the text from a narratological angle to examine Lucretius on the basis of first and second readings. This perspective, I conclude, offers two important insights. Foremost, it reveals that the poem’s abrupt ending recontextualizes the rest of the poem, where the content of its narrative reframes the reader’s understanding of earlier passages upon a second reading, confronting them with evidence of their past misconceptions. Further, a second reading of the poem with the context of the Plague offers the reader new insight into the nature of Epicurean communities and addresses the problems of proper attachment and detachment regarding the suffering of others in a hedonist system of philosophy. In short, while the first reader may conclude that Epicureanism is predicated on isolation and ignoring the suffering of others, the Plague reveals to the second reader that the opposite is true, and that Epicureanism is instead founded upon concern and care for the other members of one’s community. Over the course of this dissertation, I apply a close reading of the Plague to earlier sections of the poem, revealing how its content and context reshapes the lessons offered by Lucretius’ poem into something new. I ultimately conclude that the final lesson contained within the poem is in essence an evangelical call to action, where the newly converted reader concludes that he has an obligation to spread the gospel of Epicurus to his friends and family, becoming a teacher to others just as Lucretius has been a teacher to him.
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