DUCS Talk Summary: Philip Hardie, “Lucretian Flights of the Mind: Epicurus and Newton.”
On Thursday 12th November, the Classics Society played host to our first external speaker of the term, Professor Philip Hardie of Trinity College, Cambridge. Addressing us via a video call, Professor Hardie gave his lecture on the topic of Lucretian reception in the enlightenment period, and in particular the poet’s description of Epicurus’ mental flight through the universe (De Rerum Natura 1.62–79).
Firstly, Professor Hardie examined ancient receptions of Lucretius’ account of Epicurus’ flight of the mind. In his Odes, Horace presents the image of an intellectual flight, but diminishes it through his reflection on the comparative restrictions of death. While Horace includes the ‘wandering mind’ motif in his poem, he does so with a sardonic dismissal. Both Ovid and Manilius, however, apply the idea of an intellectual flight to the heavens in order to express the programme of their poems. In his Fasti, Ovid contrasts the impious attempt to scale the heavens by piling Pelion on Ossa with the mental ascent made by thinkers, a mental exploration of the heavens which fulfils Ovid’s promise to examine the stars (Fasti 1.295–8, 305–8). Manilius too uses the image of a ‘mental flight’ to describe his poetic agenda, writing, “It is my delight to traverse the very air and spend my life touring the boundless skies, learning of the constellations,” (Astronomicon 1.11–15). Another Ovidian passage discussed by Professor Hardie moves even closer to the Lucretian model. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid describes Pythagoras’ philosophical ascent to heavenly regions with a laudatory tone reminiscent of Lucretius’ own praise for Epicurus (Metamorphoses 15.60–8).
Professor Hardie next turned to early modern receptions of the Lucretian passage, examining the poetry of Henry More, Edmond Halley, James Thomson, and William Wordsworth. Looking first at Henry More’s poem, Democritus Platonissans, Or, An Essay upon the Infinity of Worlds out of Platonick Principles (1647), Professor Hardie discussed More’s use of the ‘flight of the mind’ motif to express his own philosophical enquiry. Interesting, while More followed a Platonic philosophy, the quoted passage comes from a work, in which the writer reconciles Platonism with Democritean atomism. This hybridity between the teachings of Plato and Democritus befits More’s position as a Cambridge Platonist, a group which studied Platonic and Neoplatonic doctrine while also engaging with contemporary philosophical developments.
The next three poets discussed by Professor Hardie utilise the Lucretian image of the ‘mental flight’ in order to praise the scientific achievements of Sir Isaac Newton. Halley, in his Ode on Newton’s Principia mathematica, indicates his interaction with the Epicurean poet by presenting the progression from ignorance to enlightenment in Lucretian terms, writing that error no long oppresses doubtful mankind with its darkness. Not only does Halley apply Lucretius’ motifs to express modern scientific achievement, but he also follows the Roman poet’s precedent in praising the culture hero who discovered this knowledge. This can be seen where the poet attributes to Newton the revelation of the celestial laws, and speaks of men being now able to dine at the banquet of the gods. By presenting knowledge in the image of access to a heavenly banquet, Halley recalls Lucretius’ presentation of enlightenment as a journey. This connection between knowledge, a flight of the mind, and a scientific hero is expressed also by Thomson, who writes of Newton taking ‘ardent flight’ and travelling through the ‘blue Infinite’ through his learning, images which recall Epicurus’ mental journey beyond the walls of the world and into the infinite through his mind and soul (“et extra processit longe flammantia moenia mundi atque omne immensum peragravit mente animoque”, De Rerum Natura 1.72–74; Thomson, To the memory of Sir Isaac Newton). Again, Wordsworth uses the vision of the ‘mental flight’ in relation to Newton’s intellectual achievement, writing of the scientist’s statue as follows, ‘The marble index of a mind for ever / Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.’ (The Prelude, 3.62–63). Professor Hardie acknowledged that here the motif used is one of sea rather than space travel, but argued that these two images were used interchangeably during this period, as can be judged from Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, in which the poet conflates images of seafaring with those of celestial travel (9.598–619). Thus, Wordsworth too applies the Lucretian image of mental flight in his own presentation of an enlightened scholar and culture hero.
The poets discussed in this lecture all utilise the Lucretian image of the ‘mental flight’ in portraying contemporary scientific progressions. Of course, these poets are adapting, rather than replicating the Lucretian motif — something which Professor Hardie highlighted when he noted that, although Lucretius’ Epicurus returns to earth, Wordsworth’s Newton continues to journey endlessly, in a manner reflecting Wordsworth’s romantic tendencies. These poets did, however, find in Lucretius’ depiction of enlightenment a suitable precedent for their celebration of contemporary scientific and philosophical discovery. In this passage from De Rerum Natura, these writers found a means of articulating that flight from ignorance and ascent towards understanding which they were witnessing around them in their era.
By Sionna Hurley-O’Kelly, with suggested amendments by Professor Philip Hardie.