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This article is taken from PN Review 184, Volume 35 Number 2, November - December 2008.

Lucretius in English John Lucas

My introduction to Lucretius came about when, as an undergraduate, I read Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy. 'All right, as long as you don't take it seriously,' one of my philosophy tutors sniffed. A Leibniz expert, he disapproved of Russell's less than reverential handling of that particular philosopher, and he refused to be mollified by the fact that Russell called Leibniz 'one of the supreme intellectuals of all time'. Russell had no business referring to Leibniz's meanness with money. 'When any young lady at the court of Hanover married, [Leibniz] used to give her what he called a "wedding present", consisting of useful maxims, ending up with the advice not to give up washing now she had secured a husband.' What had such tittle-tattle to do with the monadology? After that, I didn't dare ask him what he thought of Russell's pages on Lucretius.

Not that there were many of them. Lucretius after all is someone about whom precious little is known. He may have been born in 99 BC, he probably died forty-four years later, and he was admired by Virgil. But Russell's account, short as it was, nevertheless guaranteed my attention. For Lucretius was a philosopher who was also a poet. Not only that. Although his great work De Rerum Natura was at first favourably received, it soon fell into disfavour. The emperor Augustus, keen to revive 'ancient virtue and ancient religion', apparently took a dim view of ...


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