Reductio Ad Absurdum in the De Rerum Natura

Daniel C. Walin

Baylor University

In the De Rerum Natura Lucretius makes abundant use of the rhetorical technique commonly known as reductio ad absurdum, through which he betters his own arguments by rendering ridiculous those of others.  Our study begins with an analysis of pertinent examples of this technique drawn primarily from book one (e.g., 1.159-66; 1.186-7; 1.217-24), leading to the conclusion that Lucretius' particular facility with imagery enables him to bias his reader by associating ridiculous images (e.g., birds erupting from the sky, 1.162) with the ideas he wishes to refute.  The ridiculous images may also be intended to add an element of humor to the work; the laughter engendered in the reader both serves as both a mnemonic aid and renders the work more pleasant to read, in accordance with Lucretius' sentiment that poetry ought to be made easier for the reader to bear (cf. 1.936-42; 4.11-17).  The paper then proceeds to analyze Lucretius' use of reductiones in his refutation of other natural philosophers (1.635-920), particularly Anaxagoras (1.881-92; 1.916-20).  An attempt is made to explain Lucretius' selective employment of the strategy; for example, he does not use it against Empedocles because his reverence for that philosopher-poet precludes subjecting him to such "below the belt" tactics.  Finally, the paper discusses how Lucretius adapts the idea inherent in reductio ad absurdum to a new context in his discussion of love (4.1030-1287).  Parody of the conventions of Hellenistic epigram is perhaps evident in 4.1049-56 (cf. Kenney Mnemosyne 23 [1970] 381-85), but on a broader scale Lucretius is venomously attacking love itself.  For this occasion he exchanges ridiculous for grotesque imagery, attempting to dissuade the reader from love with what can only be termed a reductio ad nauseam.


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