In the De rerum natura (ca. 55 BC), Lucretius offers a surprising explanation of the belief in gods: “What cause has made belief in the gods universal ...? The truth is that even in remote antiquity the minds of mortals were visited in waking life, and still more in sleep, by visions of divine figures of matchless beauty and stupendous stature” (5.1161-1171, trans. Smith prose). The passage is astonishing because the De rerum natura is concerned in no small part with destroying superstitious beliefs concerning gods. The book advances a comprehensive atomic theory of reality, which accounts for the origins of the cosmos as well as life on earth, without making recourse to divine intervention of any kind. Lucretius envisions the gods as occupying some space wholly outside of our world (5.146-155). It is surprising, then, that Lucretius does not take the seemingly obvious step of denying the existence of gods altogether. In this puzzling mix of materialism and theism, Lucretius was not entirely alone. His master Epicurus (third century BC) as well as the originator of the atomic theory in the fifth century, Demokritos, also subscribed to the same view.
The persistence of gods within ancient materialist theory is a result of a particular theory of human perception. While the sense of sight provided the essential framework for ancient theories of knowledge generally, within the materialist theory of Lucretius and his predecessors, it is the fundamental basis of all knowledge. Demokritos, Epicurus, and Lucretius all subscribe to the theory that perception is the result of the intromission of images. Every object in existence continually sheds films of elementary particles, exact replicas in every way; when those effluences strike the human eye, perception occurs. The theory accords the image material reality; effluences may be very fine, but they are made up of real particles. One consequence of the theory is to accord real existence to anything experienced visually – even images of gods experienced during sleep.
This talk explores the implications of materialist theory for the interpretation of artistic representations of gods and other supernatural beings. As a case study, it examines Lucretius’ anxiety around one particular type of figure, the centaur. Lucretius’ argument against the possibility of the existence of centaurs is recognized as a response to Empedokles’ theory of speciation. Lucretius accepted the basic Empedoklean idea that, early in the history of the planet, earth produced a great variety of species, many of which subsequently went extinct because they were ill-equipped to survive. But Lucretius went out of his way to deny the very possibility of certain types of “monsters,” such as centaurs. Underlying Lucretius’ objection, it is argued, is an anxiety that materialist epistemology implicitly accords authority to representations of demigods in art. This interpretation is based on two considerations: first, when Lucretius offers an explanation of the centaur, he does so in terms of the mechanics of perception (effluences of a horse and man contaminating each other in the air), rather than some innate human capacity for visual invention; second, when Ovid replies to Lucretius’ arguments about centaurs, he does so in language that powerfully evokes pictorial art.
Guy Hedreen is Professor of Art History at Williams College. His books include The Image of the Artist in Archaic Greece (Cambridge UP 2015), Capturing Troy (Univ. of Michigan Press 2001), and Silens in Attic Blackfigure Vase-Painting (Univ. of Michigan Press 1992).
Please note that Professor Hedreen will also be delivering the annual Puget Sound AIA Ridgway Lecture on Friday, March 2, at 7:30 PM: click HERE for details.