Lucretius Today Podcast Episode 057 – Taste, Smell, and The Subjectivity of the Senses

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Welcome to Episode Fifty-Seven of Lucretius Today. I am your host Cassius, and together with my panelists from the forum, we’ll walk you through the six books of Lucretius’ poem, and discuss how Epicurean philosophy can apply to you today. We encourage you to study Epicurus for yourself, and we suggest the best place to start is the book, “Epicurus and His Philosophy” by Canadian professor Norman DeWitt. For anyone who is not familiar with our podcast, please check back to Episode One for a discussion of our goals and our ground rules. If you have any question about that, please be sure to contact us at for more information.

Podcast 57 – Food, Smell, and Taste

Latin Lines 632 – 721

Browne 1743

I shall now account why, as we find, different sorts of food are agreeable to different palates; or why, what is sour and bitter to some seems to others exceeding sweet. In these cases the variety and difference are so great that what is food to one will prove sharp poison to another; and it happens that a serpent touched with the spittle of a man expires and bites himself to death. Besides, to us Hellebore is strong poison, but goats it fattens, and is nourishment to quails; and to understand by what means this comes to pass, you must recollect what we observed before, that seeds of different kinds are mingled in the composition of all bodies. And then all animals supported by food, as they differ in outward shape, and after their several kinds have a different form of body and limbs, so they consist of seeds of different figures, and since their seeds differ, the pores and passages which (as we said) were in all the parts, and in the mouth and palate itself, must differ likewise; some must be less, some greater, some with three, some with four squares; many round, and some with many corners in various manners: For as the frame of the seeds and their motions require, the pores must differ in their figure. The difference of the pores depends upon the texture of the seeds, and therefore what is sweet to one is bitter to another: It is sweet because the smoothest seeds gently enter into the pores of the palate; but the same food is bitter to another because the sharp and hooked particles pierce the jaws and wound the sense. Now by observing this things will appear plain, for when a man has a fever, either by the overflowing of the gall, or whether the violence of the disease be raised by any other means, in such a case the body is disturbed, and all the order and disposition of the seeds are changed. And hence it is that the juices that were before agreeable to the sense are no longer pleasing, and those are more fit to enter the pores that fret and produce a bitter taste; for even in honey there is a mixture of rough and smooth seeds, as we had frequent occasion to mention to you before.

And now shall I pass on and show in what manner the approach of smells affect the nose. And first, a various stream of odors is continuously flowing from all bodies; for you must suppose that smells are perpetually thrown off, are emitted and dispersed abroad; but some are more peculiar to some animals than others, because they consist of seeds of different figures; and therefore the bee is attracted by the smell of honey in the air afar off, and vultures by the stink of carcases; and so the natural quality of the hound drives him on where the hoof of the stag has led the way, and the white goose (the savior of the capitol) can perceive the smell of a man at a great distance. So it is the difference of smell, peculiar to different creatures, that directs every species to its proper food, and makes it start at the approach of poison; and by that means the race of beasts is constantly preserved.

But this smell or odor that affects the nose, some kinds of it are emitted much further than others, but no one of them is carried so far as sound or voice (not to speak of those images that strike the eye and provoke the sight) for they wander about and move lazily, and being scattered through the air, die away by degrees before they have gone far, and for this reason because they flow with difficulty from the most inward parts of bodies; and that odors are emitted from the lowest profundity of the subject is proved from this, that the more they are broken or scattered by fire, the stronger they smell. And then we may observe that smells are formed of larger seeds than those of voice; for they cannot pierce through walls of stone, where voice and sound can freely pass; and therefore we cannot so easily distinguish on which side of us the body is placed that diffuses the smell, for the stroke grows cold as it moves through the air, nor does the hot scent briskly touch the organ, and therefore hounds are often at fault and hunt about for the trail.

And this happens not only in cases of smell and taste, but the images of things, and all colors, do not affect the eyes of men all alike, but to some they are more sharp and painful to the sense than they are to others. For the cock that claps his wings and drives away the darkness and by his clear notes calls forth the morning light, the fiercest lion dares not stand against this creature, nor look him in the face, but instantly prepares for flight; and for this reason, because there are certain seeds in the body of the cock that when emitted into the eyes of the lion fret and tear the balls, and cause a very acute pain, which the beast in all his courage is not able to bear; and yet these particles are in no way hurtful to our eyes; either they do not pierce them, or if they do, they find a free passage and return easily from the eyes again, so that they do not the least prejudice to the sight.

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