Lucretius on Walking Pornography

If you have been around the ‘Nacle for a spell you can’t have missed the oft discussed issue of men, women, and sexual response (one strap messenger bags, walking pornography, and thus and so).  Sometimes it seems that this anxiety is peculiar to modern day Mormons, but, as Qoheleth would point out, it is not new under the sun.  In the first century BCE Lucretius composed his De Rerum Natura setting forth versified Epicurean doctrine in an attempt to seduce Romans of the elite ruling class to eschew the agonistic life of war, politics, and the forum and embrace the contemplative and quiet existence of the Epicurean sage.  In the fourth book Lucretius takes on the question of love and sex and the snares which they pose to a man (this and the following translation are taken from the Loeb addition).

As soon as the seed comes forth, driven from its retreats, it is withdrawn from the whole body through all the limbs and members, gathering in fixed parts in the loins, and arouses at once the body’s genital parts themselves (4.1041-44).

So far the discussion is conventional enough, if a bit quaint to our sex educated ears.  Lucretius asserts that semen is generated in the body and coalesces in the genitals.  But what he says next is startling.

Those parts thus exited swell with the seed, and there arises a desire to emit it towards that whither the dire craving tends; and the body seeks that which has wounded the mind with love.  For all generally fall towards a wound, and the blood jets out in the direction of the blow that has struck us, and if he is close by, the ruddy flood drenches the enemy.  So therefore, if one is wounded by the shafts of Venus, whether it be a boy with girlish limbs who launches the shafts at him, or a woman radiating love from her whole body, he tends to the source of the blow, and desires to unite and to cast the fluid from body to body (4.1045-56).

This is a devastating view of a man’s sexual attraction.  His mind is wounded by visual missiles launched from the body or body part of the viewed person, his mind and body then lurch forward, ejaculating metaphorical blood/actual semen directly at the person or body part counterattacking the visual assault with a tangible humor.  Both parties suffer; the assailant, the woman or boy, wounds the man, but the assailant is stained in return by the man’s emissions.  Aggressive, violent, messy.  Nobody wins, everybody is hurt.

Does this overblown rhetoric sound at all familiar?

Interestingly Lucretius does not tack in the direction to which which we Mormons are accustomed.  The women and attractive boys are not told to cover up.  Rather, Lucretius more or less says: ” Men, don’t look at women and attractive boys, think of other things.  And if you can’t think of other things, remember that women are petty things, gussied up but not really appealing, not really worth a man’s time or energy, and pretty disgusting once you get to know them–oh, and they fart too, and their farts stink (et miseram taetris se suffit odoribus ipsa).”

So a good way for a man to overcome the desires caused within him by an attractive woman is to belittle her in his mind to the point that she is no longer appealing and to think of her doing gross things.

Or sing a hymn.

12 Replies to “Lucretius on Walking Pornography”

  1. I took a Latin readings class at BYU where we read book 1 of De rerum natura. I really enjoyed it. I had no idea this was lurking a little ways back in book 4!

  2. Cynthia,

    I have been away from BYU for a few years and I must have lost my Provo sensitivies–is this post too much? Well, I will make it up to the BYU folks and do a post later about something tamer and more proximate to the concerns of BYU students, like how Romans viewed male dancers.


    Yes, I suppose that this amazing section would get passed over in classes on Lucretius at BYU (see previous comment to Cynthia). Kevin, take a look at 4.1263-77, it might be of interest to you.

  3. It sounds to me like women are still being the victims. Why do men always have to tear us down to make themselves feel in control? How about acknowledging an attractive person, understanding and accepting our physical responses, and then tempering them with our spiritual and mental capacities? Reminding ourself that we are all children of God and sacred.

  4. Olive, are you TICing my TIC post or are you serious? Just in case you are serious, Lucretius is long dead (about 2050 years ago) and what he is saying here I in no way agree with, I posted it for its amazing awfulness. Sorry to have caused inadvertant confusion or consternation.

  5. oudenos, Olive is one of the most consistent commenters in the bloggernacle. You may never know exactly how she’ll phrase it, but you always know precisely how close to the bull’s-eye she will be with her analysis, and how upbeat her tone will be. She never disappoints.

  6. We shouldn’t give Lucretius too bad of a thrashing since we was, after all, an Epicurean and the Epicureans were the only Hellenistic philosophical school to welcome women into their communities as (near) equals. And as a Roman of the Late Republic, his view of women was light years beyond his Greek counterparts in earlier generations who would not permit a respectable woman to be seen outside the home. So he has got that going for him.

    The best/worst part about the selections I discuss above are that they are wonderfully composed in elegant, archaic dactylic hexameters. The sheer poetic beauty of Lucretius’ treatment of sexual attraction stands in stark opposition to how we moderns cringe at his argument. Offensive art.

  7. an epicurean and the ‘p’ word together in a single title–if this does not get fpr featured here:

    nothing will. let’s cross our fingers.

    keep the quips coming, oudenos.

    “or sing a hymn … like how romans viewed male dancers.”

    i haven’t laughed that hard in a while.

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