Philodemus and Poetry: Poetic Theory and Practice in Lucretius, Philodemus, and Horace

By Dirk Obbink | Go to book overview

5
The Alleged Impossibility of
Philosophical Poetry

Michael Wigodsky

Among the opinions of the Stoic or Stoicizing thinker called "Aristo"1 which Philodemus professes to find astonishing is his approval of "good thought found in poems which present good thoughts and actions, or which aim at education"; the Epicurean writer adds, apparently as his own comment, "although no poet has written or is ever likely to write poems containing such thoughts"2--a remark which prompted Jensen to wonder "whether Lucretius' poem was not yet known to him when he wrote that."3 The recent discovery of a text of Lucretius in Philodemus' library4 does not resolve this chronological question, since it could have been added to the collection after his death; and even if Philodemus saw the poem, we do not know whether his command of Latin was sufficient for him to appreciate its merits. More interesting than such biographical speculations is the question whether he would have felt obliged to condemn Lucretius' poem if he did know it, that is, how broadly his criticism of Aristo is to be interpreted.

It is often claimed that the Epicurean school, apart from Lucretius, was united in condemning the use of poetry as a vehicle for philosophical ideas; 5 but even if that is what Philodemus meant, it cannot simply be taken for granted that his views represent established school orthodoxy. To be sure, he says (On Rhetoric 1 col. vii24-28 p. 21 Longo) that Epicureans who disagreed with views expressed by Epicurus and Metrodorus were guilty of a crime equivalent to parricide; but he makes this often-

____________________
1
So called, that is, by modern scholars, following Jensen's supplement [Ἀρίϲτ]ων in On Poems 5 col. xiii ( xvi) 30 and his identification of this person with Zeno's student Ariston of Chios. I agree with Asmis 1990b, that the arguments for and against the identification are inconclusive, and use "Aristo" only as a conventional designation. I cite On Poems 5 by Jensen's text, and give in parentheses the equivalents for the numeration of columns in the new edition by Mangoni 1993.
2
On Poems 5 col. xiv ( xvii) 14-24[τί | δὲ δι]άνοια[ν ϲπο]υδαίαν | [δη + ̑λ]ον ὅτι [τω + ̑ν ἐμ]ϕα[ι]|ν[ό]ντ[ων] δ[ιανοία]ϲ ἀϲ|τείαϲ καὶ π[ράξ]ειϲ ἢ τω + ̑ν | εἰϲ παιδ[εί]α[ν ἐν]τεινόν|των, οὐ γεγραϕότοϲ τι|νὸϲ τω + ̑ν ποιητω + ̑ν τ[οι]|αύταϲ περιέ[χοντ]α [ποι]|ήματα διανοίαϲ [οὔ]τ᾽ ἂν | γράψοντοϲ.
3
Jensen 1923, 133.
4
Cf. Kleve 1989, 5-27.
5
For an extreme statement, cf. A. Ronconi, "Appunti di Estetica Epicurea", Miscellanea di Studi Alessandrini in memoria di A. Rostagni ( Turin 1963), 7-25; more moderately, P. Boyancé, Lucrèce et l'Épicurisme ( Paris 1963), 57-59.

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