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International Phenomenological Society Mortal Immortals: Lucretius on Death and the Voice of Nature Author(s): Martha C. Nussbaum Source: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Dec., 1989), pp. 303-351 Published by: International Phenomenological Society Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2107963 . Accessed: 13/10/2014 15:44 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/polici
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   nternational Phenomenological Society Mortal Immortals: Lucretius on Death and the Voice of NatureAuthor(s): Martha C. NussbaumSource: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Dec., 1989), pp. 303-351Published by: International Phenomenological Society Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2107963 . Accessed: 13/10/2014 15:44 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at  . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp  . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.  .  International Phenomenological Society  is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. http://www.jstor.org This content downloaded from 140.209.2.26 on Mon, 13 Oct 2014 15:44:45 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  Philosophy and Phenomenological esearch Vol. L, No. z, December i989 Mortal Immortals Lucretius o eath nd th Voice o Nature MARTHA C. NUSSBAUM Brown University Mortals (are) immortal, immortals mortal, alive with respect to mortals' death, dead with respect to their life. - Heraclitus Divinity must live within herself: Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow; Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued Elations when the forest blooms; gusty Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights; All pleasures and all pains, remembering The bough of summer and the winter branch. These are the measures destined for her soul. Wallace Stevens, Sunday Morning (II) I Epicurus writes: The correct recognition that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding on an infinite time, but by removing the longing for immortality (LM I3z). But Nikidion might think incorrectly. For she might, as often happens, take a walk at dawn in the early spring. She might feel the knifelike beauty of the morning. Watch the light rise behind white blossoms, until they flash like brief stars. See leaves half unrolled, translucent, their sharp green still untouched by life; the sun striking sparkles on the moving sur- face of a stream. And she would listen, then, in the silence to the sweet and deadly music of time. Images summoned by the smell of new spring air might very well spin before her then, crowding and overlapping: images of faces loved and SYMPOSIUM ON DEATH 303 This content downloaded from 140.209.2.26 on Mon, 13 Oct 2014 15:44:45 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  mourned, of childhood and home, of play and hope and new desire. She would see that morning through the images then, until each tree looked not only like itself but like many things that are gone, and each of her steps was taken in company with the dead. The beauty of things would appear to her under the aspect of mourning, and become, for this reason, the more beautiful and lordly, the more human, the more terrible. She walks, in time, exile from a thousand times, transient on the way to no time at all. No animal could see so beautiful a morning. If Nikidion saw and felt all this, she might also wish to immobilize the present moment, to fix or devour it. Indeed, to hold and seize each thing and activity and beauty that she loves. For it occurs to her that no human being is ever really in possession of any joy at all, not even during a moment. A moment is itself the gathering place for a thousand other moments, not one of which can be inhabited again; it is also composed of projects that point beyond it to moments not known. Even as itself, each time is vanishing as one tries to grasp it. And any one of the projects that inhabit these moments can at any point be cut short, made vain and point- less, by the world, closing itself against her totally as it has closed already on so much that she has loved and will not do again. Death appears to her as the limiting constraint, the culmination of temporal losses. She sees that she will do the things she loves only a small and finite number of times more. Some she will not finish doing, even once. It is beauty itself, and the sense of joy, that make these thoughts so terrible to her; and the thought of the end flows terribly back upon the experience of beauty, making it keener and more astonishing. This condition does not seem to her acceptable. It is an illness that must, she thinks, have a cure. Perhaps some deeper grasp, some more pro- found reflection, would somehow or other protect her. Perhaps indeed there is some way to freeze all of life within life; to immobilize the most important things, and to rise above this condition of abject helplessness before time; to create, within mortal life, some analogue of a god's non-finite completeness. Above all, not to be at the mercy of the thought of death. It seems to her that philosophy ought to contain the answer to this problem. The first humans, as Lucretius describes them, found life sweet. They left the sweet shores of life with sadness and looked to that departure with fear (V.988-93). The love of life, Lucretius claims, is natural in all sentient creatures, and so all creatures go to death with reluctance. But these first men do not stop, as she has stopped, to reflect on their finitude. They do not wonder about their own fragility, or find agony in 304 MARTHA C. NUSSBAUM This content downloaded from 140.209.2.26 on Mon, 13 Oct 2014 15:44:45 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  the mere knowledge of the mortality of life. The Epicurean gods, on the other side, have (as the poem describes them) reflection without vulner- ability, thought about the universe without anxious fear and concern. In between are actual human beings, the only beings both vulnerable and reflective, who go through life in the grip of a fear of the natural condition of their own existence, straining to understand and also to improve their condition through the reflective capacity that is also the source of much of their agony. Lucretius' ambition is to show Nikidion a way in which reflection on death can remove fear and the sense of fragility, rather than increasing them: to take her, by therapeutic argument, from that spring morning to a position like that of the gods, untroubled by change, under- standing and accepting the ways of nature. Lucretius (or rather the poet-speaker in his poem) is no stranger to Nikidion's experience. In fact, this speaker refers to similar moments twice, in terms that suggest an acquaintance with their power. And yet the tone of both references is scathing and critical. Once he speaks of a man who gets drunk and then begins to weep, saying, We poor little humans (homullis) have only a brief enjoyment here. Soon it has already been, and one cannot call it back (111.9 4-I 5). This man says what most of us seri- ously believe - yet he speaks in a silly, sloppy, drunken way, like some- one out of control of himself and his thought. Lucretius suggests that this thought of life's brevity is self-indulgent, sloppy, self-pitying thought; he urges the reader to view it with detachment and distaste. Later, again, the poet speaks of the way in which people feed, always, he hankless ature f the soul and ill t with good hings, ut never atisfy t - as the easons f the year do, when hey ome ound gain, ringing heir aried elights; nor are we ever illed up with he fruits f life. 1003-7) This is Nikidion's experience: and the poet lets the reader know that he has known it. And yet he stands aside from it now, detached, critical of the sense of life from which it sprung. We must try to discover how the poet- speaker can know these moments so well and yet mock them, how philos- ophy has taken him beyond them, to a place in which he claims to find both a divine life and a life according to nature. We shall focus here on this dual aim of Lucretius' Epicurean therapy: the aim to make the reader equal to the gods and, at the same time, to make him heed nature's voice. We shall see that these two aims are actu- ally in a profound tension with one another; and we shall make a proposal for the resolution of that tension. In the process, we shall need to investi- gate the suggestion planted in our description of Nikidion's experience: that much of the human value of human experience is inseparable from the awareness of vulnerability, transience, and mortality. SYMPOSIUM ON DEATH 305 This content downloaded from 140.209.2.26 on Mon, 13 Oct 2014 15:44:45 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
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