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Lucretius’ Hymn To Venus and The Defense of Pleasure

When I first started reading Lucretius as an introduction to Epicurus, I was consumed with the religious issues, and I found it very difficult to understand how Lucretius could begin his poem with the extended “hymn to Venus” – the goddess of pleasure. After all of the many valuable discussions with stoic-minded people on facebook and elsewhere, I find I have totally lost that concern and believe he made the best possible choice.

It is amazing to see the level of emotional involvement which some people have invested in opposing “pleasure” as that term is commonly understood. Formulations such as “I do not know how I can conceive the good, if I withdraw the pleasures of taste, withdraw the pleasures of love, withdraw the pleasures of hearing, and withdraw the pleasurable emotions caused by the sight of a beautiful form” are written out of history in favor of a narrow construction of several key passages – passages that can be explained as having a meaning that anyone can understand clearly, and that contradicts nothing else in the philosophy.

The debates we engage in about this lead me to believethat the defense of pleasure as commonly understood – as a faculty given to us by nature which enables us to taste that honey is sweet, without any more discusson at all – is more central and more critical to Epicurean philosophy than probably any other issue.

Who can read the hymn to Venus and not realize that the pleasure of which the Epicureans spoke is not “painlessness” – or a zero? “Without you nothing is ever glad…” and it is clear that “gladness” is not the goal of those who oppose Epicurean pleasure.” (I have pasted the rest of the hymn below, in the Humphries translation.)

I think this issue is more important even than the issue of determinism. When Epicurus wrote that it would be better to “to accept the legends of the gods than to bow beneath that yoke of destiny which the natural philosophers have imposed,” I think he was also referring to the fact that if the gods DID bring happiness, it would certainly be preferable to follow them, rather than accept the view that “painlessness” is the goal of life. At least the gods offer some form of happiness that is recognizable to the ordinary person. It is apparent that the anti-Epicurean philosophies – with their “virtue” or word-game paradoxes as a reward in itself – do not.

Given the times Lucretius lived in, he was very likely filled to the gills – and fed up – with the crusading Stoics and Academics and Peripatetics who devoted their most intense emotion to argue against against anyone who would dare say that he wants “to live pleasurably” as that term is commonly understood. In such a world it is not nearly so important to make a technical point about the life of the gods as it is to set out, from the very beginning, that the pleasure for which we should work in life is real, and it is not “painlessness” or “virtue” or any other attempt to replace the guidance that nature gives us.

We live in the same kind of world today, and the examples in the hymn to Venus should be for us what they have been for two thousand years — a clear refutation of the Stoic/Academic/Peripatetic campaign against pleasure as commonly understood.

Creatress, mother of the Roman line,
Dear Venus, joy of earth and joy of heaven,
All things that live below that heraldry
Of star and planet, whose processional
Moves ever slow and solemn over us,
All things conceived, all things that face the light
In their bright visit, the grain-bearing fields,
The marinered oceans, where the wind and cloud
Are quiet in your presence – all proclaim
Your gift, without which they are nothingness.
For you that sweet artificer, the earth,
Submits her flowers, and for you the deep
Of ocean smiles, and the calm heaven shines
With shoreless light.

Ah, goddess, when the spring
Makes clear its daytime, and a warmer wind
Stirs from the west, a procreative air,
High in the sky the happy-hearted birds,
Responsive to your coming, call and cry,
The cattle, tame no longer, swim across
The rush of river-torrents, or skip and bound
In joyous meadows; where your brightness leads,
They follow, gladly taken in the drive,
The urge, of love to come. So, on you move
Over the seas and mountains, over streams
Whose ways are fierce, over the greening leas,
Over the leafy tenements of birds,
So moving that in all the ardor burns
For generation and their kind’s increase,

Since you alone control the way things are.
Since without you no thing has ever come
Into the radiant boundaries of light,
Since without you nothing is ever glad,
And nothing ever lovable, I need,
I need you with me, goddess, in the poem
I try to write here, on The Way Things Are.

 

For more context, the NewEpicurean Lucretius site with the full book is here.