Lucretius On Disease: The Poetics of Morbidity

George Kazantzidis, Lucretius On Disease: The Poetics of Morbidity in De Rerum Natura (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021).

Reviewed by Anastasiia Starovoitova, University of Southern California,

In Lucretius on Disease: The Poetics of Morbidity in De Rerum Natura, George Kazantzidis takes an innovative approach to the topic of morbidity by focusing on disease as playing a more complex and constructive role than it is usually granted. As Kazantzidis argues, scholarship has traditionally viewed disease in De Rerum Natura (DRN) as “simply a problem to be solved and then dispensed with” (p. 6). Disease in DRN is therefore often considered solely in the context of the therapeutic potential of the poem, which limits the scope of the function of disease in the text. Kazantzidis calls for a more nuanced understanding of Lucretius’s handling of disease, which includes not only an appreciation of its philosophical complexity but also of its literary significance. The book’s main argument is that disease as a theme plays the central role both in the narrative and within the structure of the poem as a whole.

The book is divided into four chapters, bookended by an Introduction and an Afterword. Conceptually, the book could be divided into two parts: The first two chapters clearly delineate the peculiar functions of morbidity in the poem as a whole, and chapters three and four offer an in-depth discussion of epilepsy and the plague, respectively, and make an argument for a reconsideration of the effect of a particular disease based on an intertextual reading.

In chapter one, “Disease and the (Un)Making of the World,” Kazantzidis argues for the creative potential of disease. Drawing our attention to Lucretius’s phrase morbus leti fabricator (“disease, the architect of death,” 3.472), Kazantzidis suggests that disease cannot be seen as purely a force of destruction; instead, the word fabricator presupposes craftsmanship and design. “Design” is, however, used in a qualified sense, since the world of DRN is a world of randomly clashing atoms as opposed to the one ordered with any intentionality. Kazantzidis further argues that morbus becomes a substitute for gods to the extent that it imposes “its own peculiar kind of order and design” (p. 13). Disease “orders” the world by initiating atomic dissolution which creates space for new atomic arrangements and, consequently, for new life. Kazantzidis supports his interpretation by discussing Cicero’s use of the word fabricator to signify the Demiurge in his translation of Plato’s Timaeus. Although Lucretius could not have been aware of Cicero’s translation of Plato’s dialogue, the author argues that it is not impossible that Lucretius himself is using fabricator in a polemic with Plato.

While the reader might be uncomfortable imagining morbus in terms of a force for order and design, Kazantzidis compares the function of disease to that of clinamen, the swerve. In Epicurean philosophy, clinamen is a force responsible for all creativity and deliberation, conceived to operate by striking the atoms off their course. Since morbus also causes a rearrangement of the atoms, Kazantzidis suggests that the role of morbus is conceptually similar to that of clinamen. One could object that clinamen operates in unexpected, spontaneous ways whereas disease follows the predictable laws of nature (even if it may not appear so to the ignorant observer). Nevertheless, the chapter persuasively argues for a reconsideration of the role of disease, which encompasses design and creativity in a limited metaphorical sense.

Chapter two, “Disease, Closure and the Sense of an Ending,” takes an intratextual approach to the analysis of disease, focusing on what morbus does for the structural arrangement of the poem and arguing for its unifying function. Kazantzidis suggests that the endings of books 3, 4 and 6 prepare the reader for the large-scale destruction brought about by the plague at the end of the poem. In particular, Kazantzidis makes a case for an increasing emphasis on bodily suffering in the later books of the poem. This added attention to the body is identified as a transition from a metaphorical sense of disease to a more literal one. The difficulty of this argument lies in the tension present in the poem itself between the figurative and the literal senses, just as between the so-called “spiritual” and bodily diseases.

Kazantzidis is at risk of appearing to suggest that disturbances of the mind have less of a material nature, which contradicts Epicurean physics, wherein the mind is an equal part of the body (3.95–99). However, the author is careful to clarify his position in footnotes (pp. 39–40, nn. 12–13), insisting that Lucretius maintains a subtle distinction between afflictions of the mind and those of the body. In addition, Kazantzidis takes a nuanced approach to the complexity of the distinction between figurative and literal suffering in the poem. For instance, the author suggests that owing to Lucretius’s use of medical vocabulary and the focus on physicality in book 4 of DRN, it is harder to make a case for a figurative interpretation of desire. While the author is inclined to accept a more literal reading of this affliction, one could suggest that because of the underlying materialism of all disorders in Lucretius as well as Lucretius’s choice of poetry as his medium, the line between figurative and literal becomes almost too porous to be drawn so distinctly.

Chapter three, “Disease and the Marvellous: Epilepsy in Book 3 and 6,” considers Lucretius’s rhetoric about epilepsy from several perspectives. The chapter essentially focuses on the complexity of Lucretius’s language and the destabilizing effect of his similes as they manipulate a sense of wonder in the reader while continuing with the didactic project. Kazantzidis suggests that, on the one hand, the poet acts as a physician who applies medical vocabulary to demystify the disease. On the other hand, as the author convincingly demonstrates, Lucretius guides the reader to associate epilepsy with large-scale material dissolution, or with the “unstable” female body, thus maintaining its wondrous quality. Paying close attention to the figurative potential of Lucretius’s language, Kazantzidis also argues for the uniqueness of epilepsy in that it appears to originate from the inside, turning the sufferer’s body into a hostile environment and, as a result, alienating the sufferer from her own body. Later in the chapter, Kazantzidis traces the literary link between an epileptic seizure and the convulsions of Earth during earthquakes. In this case, the association supposedly makes the reader identify with material dissolution on a cosmic scale. The discussion of this chapter borders on phenomenology in its focus on the sensations invoked by the world of DRN. The chapter is also rich in its references to Greek medical and paradoxical literature, allowing for a fuller appreciation of the subtleties of Lucretius’s project.

Lastly, chapter four, “From Callimachean Aesthetics to the Sublime: The Plague in Book 6,” 

addresses the problem of the role of the plague at the end of DRN. In response to the scholarly tendency to discuss what plague means philosophically, Kazantzidis instead focuses on the plague’s aesthetic significance. In the author’s view, approaching morbus in terms of poetics makes Lucretius’s choice to end the poem with the depiction of a devastating disease less perplexing. The chapter also somewhat surprisingly discusses Lucretius’s relationship to Callimachus. Analyzing the relevant passages across the poem, Kazantzidis masterfully shows that Lucretius’s engagement with Callimachus is subversive. As an example, in his description of the plague, Lucretius borrows details from Erysichton’s disease, which in itself violates Callimachean aesthetics. The author also suggests that Lucretius’s complicated engagement with Callimachus feeds into the sublime quality of the plague.

The chapter considers the plague as a spectacle due to the sense of distance that the description of the plague induces. Kazantzidis points to the way Lucretius lays out the imagery of suffering and annihilation caused by the morbus and connects it to the experience of celestial, terrestrial, and other awe-inspiring phenomena. As a result, Kazantzidis persuasively argues for disease to be felt as a sublime experience invoking both horror and awe. Even though the plague is technically a different morbus from epilepsy, which was discussed in the previous chapter, the approaches of the two chapters converge and the discussions of the wondrous and the sublime are similar. Kazantzidis successfully argues that a reconsideration of the plague in light of its aesthetic significance is a useful approach in understanding the ending of DRN.

Lucretius on Disease belongs to the new generation of scholarship on Lucretius, which does not need to argue for the reconciliation of philosophy and poetry. Kazantzidis skillfully strikes a balance between a subtle textual analysis and an understanding of the nuances of Epicurean philosophy in a continuation of the scholarly trend established, among others, by Monica Gale and Charles Segal.1 The book’s strength lies in its keen eye for significant instances of intertextuality, especially with regards to Greek and Latin medical literature, and is particularly sensitive to allusions to Greek literature: Sappho, Sophocles, Plato, Thucydides, and Callimachus, to name a few. The book will be of use not only to students of Lucretius but also to anyone interested in the history of medical literature in the ancient Mediterranean, although it is less accessible to a wider audience because some passages and terms in Greek are left untranslated and the argument is therefore harder to follow for those whose language skills are restricted to English and Latin. Overall, the book is well researched and abounds in footnotes offering convincing evidence for Kazantzidis’s original interpretation of the text.

Table of Contents

Introduction (1–10)
1. Disease and the (Un)Making of the World (11–36)
2. Disease, Closure and the Sense of Ending (37–75)
3. Disease and the Marvelous: Epilepsy in Book 3 and 6 (76–121)
4. From Callimachean Aesthetics to the Sublime: The Plague in Book 6 (122–72)
5. Afterword (173–74)


 1. Monica Gale, Myth and Poetry in Lucretius (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Charles Segal, Lucretius on Death and Anxiety: Poetry and Philosophy in De Rerum Natura (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).

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