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By Maya Thulin
(UBC Arts One, Sylvia Berryman seminar)
Sex, love, and relationships are compelling universal topics that have been the subject of countless musings and explorations. In his didactic poem, On the Nature of Things, Lucretius discusses all three, guided by his valuing of the Epicurean principle of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. His views on sex are uncomplicated: he endorses it as both a man’s inherent need and a source of pleasure for both men and, surprisingly, women (IV.1209). It is when he starts to discuss love and relationships that his views take a darker turn, as he remarks angrily on the shift in the power dynamic that relational intimacy engenders between men and women. He examines the complex feelings of love and desire, ultimately coming to the conclusion that the joy of love is not worth the pain of loss. Lucretius argues for the unnecessary nature of true romantic love, advising men that it will only lead to stupidity, blindness, and above all: pain. However, instead of providing a compelling argument for such casual, detached relationships, Lucretius only highlights his own misogyny and bitterness towards women, and ignores the potential losses inherent in the life strategy he is promoting. Through his writing, Lucretius reveals his own bias and anger towards the power dynamic he believes underlies all romantic relationships.
Lucretius finds issue not with sex, but with love and relationships. He believes that we are all made up of atoms, as is everything else in the universe; we are no more or less significant than any other collection of atoms, and one human being is no more or less significant than any other. Therefore, placing so much of yourself in one person is unnecessary and strongly advised against. He sees sex as a biological need and also a pleasure that should not be denied when performed in the “safest” way possible. He even argues that this pleasure is purer for the “healthy-minded,” otherwise known as a man who is not in love (IV.1075–7). Those who are not in love can enjoy this act for what it is, but those who are lovesick are left unsatiated, for they can never possess their lover in the way they truly want. This is one of Lucretius’ main arguments against love: that it is all-consuming, and yet never fully gratifying. He views a man in love as almost animalistic, wanting to exist fully in his lover’s body (IV. 1101–4). Yet that is a longing that is doomed to be unsatisfied, as all people are fundamentally independent in body; therefore, no two people can ever occupy the same body or soul. According to Lucretius, the fact that this ultimate intertwining of two people is impossible is one reason to never fall in love (IV.1110–11), as living in this state of perpetual unfulfilled longing can lead to madness (IV.1118–21).
The feeling Lucretius is describing, a doomed hunger for another, is actually closer to infatuation—or even obsession—than to love. This compelling desire to possess another can certainly lead to madness, but wanting to possess someone is not the same thing as holding love for them. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, offers an example of an infatuated relationship, with Edna’s idealization of Robert leading her to near hysteria and eventual suicide when she realizes her fantasy of the relationship will never be fulfilled. The clear divide between infatuation and love is wanting something from the other, versus wanting something for the other. Edna wants Robert to make her happy and when it dawns on her that her happiness rests in her own hands and is not available to be delivered to her by another, the awareness is more than she can bear. Some would argue that infatuation is an even more powerful force than love, as it can contain obsessive qualities, and should most likely be avoided. But love and infatuation are not the same force or feeling, and should not be mistaken for each other.
In addition to its lack of ultimate satisfaction, a second argument against falling in love is the blindness that accompanies this feeling. Lucretius writes that a man in love is blind to the flaws of his lover (IV. 1152–4). Once caught in the trap of love it is hard to escape, despite a woman’s many undesirable traits. Lucretius describes these flaws as belonging to any woman who is not conventionally beautiful or well-mannered, showing an overall immature understanding of love and attraction, as there is much more to chemistry than physical features and social desirability. This introduces a major criticism of Lucretius, as his limited view of love does not seem to comprehend attachment. Lucretius seems ashamed and confounded that a man would be with a woman who is anything other than perfect, showing his own incomplete understanding of love and relationships. A more complete understanding of attachment and relationships comes from Martin Buber’s conceptualization of the I-Thou versus I-It relationship. Meeting another person as “Thou” acknowledges and appreciates the uniqueness and separateness of another. As a contrast, in an “I-It” relationship another person is “experienced as an object to be influenced and used.” Lucretius’ view of love describes an “I-It” relational view, which leads to increased objectification of others and a transactional conceptualization of relationship. An “I-Thou” relationship requires us to “be someone with” rather than “do something to” another  and, therefore, describes a deep connection that potentially exists independent of social desirability and looks. This is in opposition to Lucretius’ quid pro quo view of relationships.
To the lovesick man in search of a cure, Lucretius says not to worry, as he has devised a solution. It would be irrational for a man to forego his biological need for intimacy, therefore he must do it without penalty (IV.1075). This is a strategy that has been in place for centuries, suggesting the promise of intimacy without vulnerability. It involves engaging in what could be argued as the most vulnerable act possible between two people, without any of the possible hurt that comes with developing feelings. Lucretius advises the cure for this type of lovesick pain is “taking at random some random-roaming Venus” (IV.1071–2). When you allow yourself to fall in love, you give another person the opportunity to hurt you, and the threat of them taking advantage of that opportunity is too much. Lucretius sees no need for such a risk, as the biological desire for intimacy is the only thing that a man would truly need. This need for sexual gratification begins early on for men (IV.1038–41), and engaging with another person to satisfy this need is the only way to overcome it. Pairing feelings of love with this act transforms it into a wound, an ulcer, and misery, something that would weaken a man (IV.1069–70). For a greater summary of Lucretius’ views, we look to Simon May, who writes that Lucretius sees only three remedies to the ‘issue’ of sexual desire: contemplation, marriage, and promiscuity, with contemplation being the most noble of the three. Instead of advising men to abandon these feelings of desire, Lucretius tells men to relieve these feelings in a self-preserving way, without putting themselves at risk for pain.
The desirability of independence and self-sufficiency has been widely promulgated, yet we see the pursuit of such ideals in opposition with human nature. One must be able to function without a partner, but connection and emotional attachments are important, and even necessary, parts of human behaviour and nature. Codependency has always been frowned upon, but interdependency is a feature of human functioning. Lucretius claims that a relationship will always be unsatisfactory, as two people cannot completely merge in the way they would like. However, studies have shown that a healthy attachment between two people leads them to form one physiological unit. Attempting to deny the need for attachment is more of an anxious and fear-based response than one that is grounded in an authentic appreciation of human nature. Modern-day psychology sees many of Lucretius’ views as evidence of an avoidant attachment style, categorized by an over-appreciation for independence, suppression of attachment needs and, above all, often a deep loneliness. The idea is not that anyone needs a romantic relationship to be happy or fulfilled in their life: it is that avoiding attachment out of fear of future pain or loss of independence is a lonely and self-sabotaging strategy. Lucretius also neglects platonic and familial attachments, even further exposing the fact that he is expressing a purposefully and personally biased rather than global perspective. Lucretius’ expressions on the nature of love and relationships are unrealistic and unhelpful, as “Dependency is a fact; it is not a choice or a preference.”
An inference would be that Lucretius sees love as a transference of power (IV.1062–6), and that his promotion of emotional detachment comes from a place of misogyny and bitterness. Men have traditionally been the dominant sex, yet when they fall in love Lucretius thinks that they find themselves at the mercy of a woman. This woman may even have “eyes that are wandering too freely” (IV.1139–40), making devotion to a woman an inherently risky proposition. Lucretius does not explicitly touch on the feelings of love that a woman could have, however, and his view of relationships is remarkably small-minded. A man in love will spend his fortune on the woman he loves, overlook her flaws, and overall act stupidly—none of which fits Lucretius’ idea of a tranquil mind. The reliance on another person is dangerous (IV.1088–9), and Lucretius thinks a man to be better off by himself.
Lucretius’ writings imply that sex and love switch the power dynamics otherwise inherent in male/female relationships, with women now being in control of the lovesick men they acquire, and men being made powerless by their biological needs. This power ascribed to women in Lucretius’ writings is enormous, and possibly unrealistic. However, this power is not acknowledged in an empowering way, but a demeaning one. Lucretius does not even portray women as real people, writing that they provide a façade of beauty and charm, knowing what men want to see from them, but are actually horrid behind the scenes (IV.1185–7). This writing sees women characterized as manipulative, cunning, and aware of their effect on men, and Lucretius seems to resent this. Lucretius writes as if he despises the hold that women have on men, as they are supposed to be the weaker sex. The anger that is drawn from these dramatically written passages goes to show the scorn that Lucretius has for the women who can control men merely by being beautiful. Beauty can give a woman power (especially at the time this was written), but it is not a lasting power. Beauty does not directly lead to the emotional attachment that inspires love. Therefore, any act that is borne out of a purely physical attraction exists in an almost transactional sense, and loses its appeal afterwards.
Lucretius’ views on women can be analyzed in several ways. One could say that he views women as powerful, seeing the effect they have on the men who foolishly love them. However, the sexism in this writing is undeniable, and it could also be argued that Lucretius is just following the trope of the woman as predator. Lucretius touches on one of these stereotypes: that of the woman who uses men for money. Lucretius dramatically proclaims that loving or desiring a woman will cause a man to dissolve his family fortune in order to please his mistress who enjoys material items (IV.1124–40). In this passage, he paints lovesick men as being stupidly victim to women who see them as only means to an end. A more empowering way to view this is that the aforementioned woman is being clever, as men have put her in a state in which her looks are her only valuable commodity, and she has learned to use that (and use men) to her advantage. Lucretius strangely makes no mention of love from a female point of view, likely because he has no experience with it. From a female point of view, sexuality is the only source of power. However, a sexual conquest is not about the actual act, but about the power that comes from inspiring that degree of desire in another. Once the sexual act is over, there is no power left for a woman.
Virginia Woolf muses on the sort of male anger that we see from Lucretius in her essay, “A Room of One’s Own.” Speaking of another sexist intellectual (the stock character “Professor Von X”), Woolf writes: “when I read what he wrote about women I thought, not of what he was saying, but of himself.” The idea here is that when a man remarks so emphatically on women’s inferiority and shortcomings (as Lucretius does), he is concerned not with her inferiority, but with his own superiority. In order to enlarge his own self-worth, and that of his gender, Lucretius is demeaning and angry towards the women who can provoke desire in a man. The evidence of Lucretius’ sexism and the incompatibility of his musings for anyone other than a man comes with a deeper analysis of his advice. An attempt to flip the genders and convey this message to women of the time would have been laughable. The sexual freedom and choices that Lucretius experiences and advocates for were not available to anyone other than men. An ordinary woman of the time would have had to worry greatly about her reputation, health, and safety if she were to place herself in Lucretius’ casual, emotionally detached mindset. When Lucretius writes of and for “a man,” he is writing primarily for one man: himself.
This analysis of Lucretius’ views on women, that he is speaking from bitterness or misogyny, has been deemed “too simplistic.” Citing Lucretius’ “occasional fairness to women,” and justifying the tone of his work as typical of the Romans, Aya Betensky argues that he is consistent in his attitude towards all vices—a category in which he includes his idea of love. However, his section on the nature of love is notably crude and, regardless of his true motives, striking. While On the Nature of Things does have notes of humour and satire throughout, the tone of Book Four stands out as less intellectual and more personal. Lucretius only describes a woman’s capability to share sexual pleasure with a man (IV.1209), and only knows women as objects and stereotypes. What is correct, however, is that love during the time that Lucretius was writing was thought of much differently. While we can appreciate the change in attitude that has occurred over time, a modern-day reader can pick up on his crude and angry tone and draw their own conclusions.
It would not be completely out of line for a reader of Lucretius’ work to infer that he must have been hurt by one or several women in his lifetime, and that this may have coloured his views on love and relationships. He demonstrates a very simplistic and binary view of love and human relationships, as there is much more that goes on in a truly loving relationship than what Lucretius offers. His point of view does not account for the natural human striving for attachment and connection, and allows no room for the idea of a satisfying intimate and loving connection that enhances instead of takes away from someone’s tranquility. While the pain of a broken heart is oftentimes immense, most people would view a life based on Lucretius’ principles as lonely and unfulfilling. In order to feel some of the biggest joys that life can offer, we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable with others.
Lucretius’ last word on love is that it is pointless, for there are endless numbers of beautiful women; the one you love most likely has many flaws, and your life does not depend on her acceptance. While the incredible feeling of love can bring immense pleasure, one can often feel the pain of a relationship ending just as deeply as they did the happiness. Love will leave you “ruled by another” (IV.1123), when a man should have the free will that the Epicureans so value. One can say that Lucretius views the art of love to be “[living] this impulsive and heedless instinct without being harmed by it,” but this is impossible, and Lucretius is not concerned so much with real love but with biological instincts for intimacy. A man can satisfy his need for sex and intimacy in a much simpler way; the pursuit of love is misguided, and Lucretius wants to offer a better way. However, Lucretius is limited in his understanding of attachment and connection, and his writing of Book Four of On the Nature of Things tells us more about his ideas of gender dynamics than insight into love and relationships. Lucretius attempts to leave the reader with an answer to the age-old question of how to mend and avoid a broken heart, yet leaves us empty-handed.
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Chopin,The Awakening, 140.
Martin and Cowan, “Buber and the I-Thou in Counselling.”
Martin and Cowan, “Buber.”
May, “Love as sexual desire,” 71.
Levine and Heller, Attached: Are You Anxious, Avoidant or Secure? How the Science of Adult Attachment Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love, 26.
Levine and Heller, Attached, 109.
Levine and Heller, Attached, 26.
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Betensky, “Lucretius and Love,” 295.
Betensky, “Lucretius and Love,” 295.
May, “Love: A History,” 69.