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Lucretius & Some Questionable Behavior on the Part of Epicurus

September 30, 2011

humana ante oculos foede cum vita iaceret
in terris oppressa gravi sub Religioni,
quae caput a caeli regionibus ostendebat,
horribili super aspectu mortalibus instans,
primum Graius homo mortalis tendere contra
est oculos ausus primusque obsistere contra
quem neque fama deum nec fulmina nec minitanti
murmure compressit caelum, sed eo magis acrem
inritat animi virtutem, ecfringere ut arta
naturae primus portarum claustra cupiret.

When before our eyes human life was lying in shambles in the lands, crushed under heavy Religion, which was displaying its head from the regions of the sky, lowering with a horrible face over mortals, for the first time a Greek man dared to direct his eyes against it, and he was the first to stand against it.  Neither the fame of the gods nor thunderbolds nor the sky with its threatening murmur controlled him, but it provoked the sharp virtue of his mind so much more that he wanted to be the first to break open the close-barred barriers of nature’s gates.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 1.62-71

Some notes from my commentary:

ecfringere.  Image seems to be derived from breaking into a closely barred house and carrying off a reluctant mistress. See Terence, Adelphoe, 88, 103.  In place of a girl, Lucretius ironically substitutes the knowledge of nature as the object of Epicurus’ search.

portarum claustra. The “barriers” and the “gates” are man’s ignorance of natural philosophy, which gives rise to superstitious fears.

Discuss.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. linebrick permalink*
    October 1, 2011 6:45 pm

    This is really nice. You did that weird double “contra” well, and the lines directly before and after (4 & 7), which are my favorite lines in the passage, are also really good in your English. One question: what does “it” mean, in your last clause (presumably the “eo” of Latin line 8)? Is it the sky? Also, I think that individually the translations “crushed” for “oppressa” and “controlled” for “compressit” are excellent, but that press-press is nice in the Latin and alas, gone in the English. Thoughts?

    • October 2, 2011 3:47 am

      The eo is actually what I translated “by so much” — ablative of degree of difference with magis. “So much” is a slight overtranslation; but I felt that the result clause needed a bit more motivation, and the OLD did list some “so much”-ish meanings for eo. Th “it” in my translation is the unexpressed subject of the (syncopated perfect) inritāt — but also the fame of the gods and the thunderbolts. compressit only agrees with the nearest subject, and inritāt follows suit. Generally speaking, those phenomena which inspired other men to quake in fear of Religion only increased Epicurus’ desire to develop a fuller understanding of the nature which produces such marvels. (Interestingly, the fama of the gods was just such a phenomenon which needed explaining.)

      The -press- business is distressing; I’m not sure what I can do about it at the moment. I suppose I could translate “oppress” and “repress”…

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