Lucretius - De Rerum Natura - On the Nature of Love

Epicurean philosophy is hedonistic, and as such it exalts the importance of pleasure and makes it the standard of the good. Although the term has of late gained a connotation for decadence, since in modernity we tend to equate pleasure with physical excess, it was originally meant to refer to simple pleasures, particularly those of the mind. Epicurus thought that if we learned to take pleasure in such simple things as enjoying a piece of bread and a glass of water, good conversation, intellectual contemplation and friendship, we would need little else.

The greatest obstacle to pleasure, Epicurus thought, even more so than pain and fear, is delusion, especially fantasies that delude us into thinking that we can attain something that exceeds the limits of our finite nature. It is this fantasy of infinite pleasure that helps explain our tragic proneness to romantic love. As Stephen Greenblatt describes in The Swerve, "in the misguided belief that [our] happiness depends upon the absolute possession of some single object of limitless desire, humans are seized by a feverish, unappeasable hunger and thirst that can only bring anguish instead of happiness."

When Lucretius set himself the task of conveying these ideas in his masterpiece De Rerum Natura, his prodigious verse would be unparalleled, as this short excerpt describing the way these romantic tidal forces pull, toss and break us shows:
When the youthful pair more closely join,
When hands in hands they lock, and thighs in thighs they twine,
Just in the raging foam of full desire,
When both press on, both murmur, both expire,
They grip, they squeeze, their humid tongues they dart,
As each would force their way to t’other’s heart:
In vain; they only cruise about the coast;
For bodies cannot pierce, nor be in bodies lost;
As sure they strive to be, when both engage
In that tumultuous momentary rage;
So ’tangled in the nets of love they lie,
Till man dissolves in that excess of joy.
Then, when the gathered bag has burst its way,
And ebbing tides the slackened nerves betray,
A pause ensues; and nature nods awhile,
Till with recruited rage new spirits boil;
And then the same vain violence returns;
With flames renewed the erected furnace burns.
Again they in each other would be lost,
But still by adamantine bars are crossed.
All ways they try, successless all they prove,
To cure the secret sore of ling’ring love.
Based on the 1685 classic translation by John Dryden, the following audio excerpt, produced and narrated by the inimitable Charlton Griffin as a personal favor for which I'm eternally grateful, captures the essence of Lucretius' poetry as it concerns the question of romantic love and its relationship to human happiness and misery. If you want to read along, you can follow the link above. If not, just sit back, close your eyes and let the beauty of the poetry fill your imagination, the power of the ideas stir your mind, and the cruelty of this human reality fill your belly with laughter and your eyes with tears...



Or, if you prefer the Rolfe Humphries more prosaic translation, we have that too:

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