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 believe that 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 discussion 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.
MOTHER of the Aeneadae, darling of men and gods, increase-giving Venus, who beneath the gliding signs of heaven fillest with thy presence the ship-carrying sea, the corn-bearing lands, since through thee every kind of living things is conceived, rises up and beholds the light of the sun. Before thee, goddess, flee the winds, the clouds of heaven, before thee and thy advent; for thee earth, manifold in works, puts forth sweet-smelling flowers; for thee the levels of the sea do laugh and heaven propitiated shines with outspread light. For soon as the vernal aspect of day is disclosed, and the birth-favoring breeze of Favonius unbarred is blowing fresh, first the fowls of the air, O lady, show signs of thee and thy entering in, thoroughly smitten in heart by thy power. Next the wild herds bound over the glad pastures and swim the rapid rivers: in such wise each made prisoner by thy charms follows thee with desire, whither thou goest to lead it on. Yes, throughout seas and mountains and sweeping rivers and leafy homes of birds and grassy plains, striking fond love into the breasts of all thou constrainest them each after its kind to continue their races with desire. Since thou then art sole mistress of the nature of things and without thee nothing rises up into the divine borders of light, nothing grows to be glad or lovely, fain would I have thee for a helpmate in writing the verses which I essay to pen on the nature of things for our own son of the Memmii, whom thou, goddess, hast willed to have no peer, rich as he ever is in every grace. Wherefore all the more, O lady, lend my lays an everliving charm. Cause meanwhile the savage works of war to be lulled to rest throughout all seas and lands; for thou alone canst bless mankind with calm peace, seeing that Mavors lord of battle controls the savage works of war, Mavors who often flings himself into thy lap quite vanquished by the never-healing wound of love; and then with upturned face and shapely neck thrown back feeds with love his greedy sight gazing, goddess, open-mouthed on thee; and as backward he reclines, his breath stays hanging on thy lips While then, lady, he is reposing on thy holy body, shed thyself about him and above, and pour from thy lips sweet discourse, asking, glorious dame, gentle peace for the Romans.  For neither can we in our country’s day of trouble with untroubled mind think only of our work, nor can the illustrious offset of Memmius in times like these be wanting to the general weal. For what remains to tell, apply to true reason un-busied ears and a keen mind withdrawn from cares, lest my gifts set out for you with steadfast zeal you abandon with disdain, before they are understood. For I will essay to discourse to you of the most high system of heaven and the gods and will open up the first beginnings of things, out of which nature gives birth to all things and increase and nourishment, and into which nature likewise dissolves them back after their destruction. These we are accustomed in explaining their ‘reason to call matter and begetting bodies of things and to name seeds of things and also to tern first bodies, because from them as first elements all things are.
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.
NOTE: The second translation by Humphries has led to questions about use of the term “Creatress” as the opening word. That is poetic license, rather than an indication that Venus created the universe or is in any way supernatural, so I have inserted the much more literal Munro version in the post above.
For more context, the NewEpicurean Lucretius site with the full book is here.