In Book Five of De Rerum Natura Lucretius * not only harshly criticizes war for its absurdity and cruelty but also the use of animals in warfare.
In the passage of the ‘improbable wars’ (V: 1308-1349) Lucretius explores both the origins and consequences of war. He says war follows from Man’s fear of death and in turn it provokes the violation of those pacts which are at the heart of civil society.
Lucretius examines the source of this terror: he says it follows on from the failure to comprehend the source of true pleasure which stems from having a knowledge of Nature. In addition Lucretius personifies Venus as a unifying force of Nature with the only aim being of guaranteeing peace and the continuity of species.
Following atomistic philosophy Lucretius teaches that in the same way in which the Earth needs an agreement between atoms in order to develop itself, so living beings have to come to an agreement in order to reach stability. That means that at the roots of evolution there is the relationship which Man has with his fellow man and animals.
The pact is in fact lets Man evolve from the primitive isolated state to a civilized one; with the pacts Man can also regulate their relationship with other men and animals. Indeed, with these pacts every Man became a ‘citizen’ – wife, child, or neighbour – and animals are subdivided into domesticated or undomesticated ones, depending on their own virtues.
To the first belongs usefulness, the ability to answer Man’s needs and without whom they cannot escape wild beast attachment; to the latter belongs a virtue which allows them to survive without Man’s help and for this reason they do not need to stoop to compromise with him.
But if civilized Man breaches the pacts it follows that there is a regress to chaos and to primeval brutishness, and this is what happens when the mind of Man is overwhelmed by the fear of death and consequently wars spread like wild-fire.
War, in fact, subverts every order: indeed, Man during war tries to kill other men with whom he made non-aggression and collaboration pacts; similarly, during wars Man tries to involve in the fight both tamed animals – to whom he has promised security and protection – and untamed animals from whom he has had to keep away.
It has been said that it is clear that in De rerum natura the foolish element of war is shown both in its origins and in its consequences; it is worth noting that Lucretius stresses the point that war springs from the fear of death: thinking about the end of life causes an irrational distress in the human mind and induces Man to try to exorcize fear by killing other people, as if putting an end to others lives could make Man less defenceless.
In this way Lucretius in the ‘improbable wars’ passage which is a sort of vision, imagines that Man, because of his fears and ambitions, violates the primeval pacts: following more the willingness to cause damage to enemies than the willingness to win, Man tries to involve in the battle not just horses, but also bulls, wild boars and lions. The outcome of the experiment is obvious but shattering: untameable animals revolt against their masters who they do not recognize as their masters because they had never drawn up pacts with them.
As Lucretius points out the subversion of the natural order lies not in the wild beasts’ assault upon Mankind but in the fact that Man unnaturally directs these natural foes against his own kind. To pervert the animal’s own character and nature represents the highest of Man’s misunderstanding of the law of nature.
Even if pathos and emotions did concern the horse, who has to suffer the injury of the wild beast, Lucretius depicts the devastating consequences of these violations both for the animal who loses its life, and for Man who is the victim of his own violence and abuses.
It is really important to acknowledge the topicality of Lucretius’ reflection: even now during war, Man can adopt brutal behaviour, alien and adverse to civil habits. In fact, he does not respect any pacts and every rule is subverted, and it just remains a blind and unjustified violence which makes Man an enemy of civil rules.
To this day war is the only event in which Man can lose his dignity while at the same time cannot rely upon his own country’s rules: it is no accident that, often, soldiers suffer from psychological-behavioural disorder once they are back to civilian status. For some of them it is difficult to forget the violence they had witnessed or, worse still, committed.
Therefore, as the poet points out, war is a subversion of the order which is rooted in the ignorance of Nature’s laws; even if it is a human event, it is not just antisocial, but also inhuman and when Man follows his fear and willingness of war, he moves away from the only force of nature, the true pleasure, which is the only rule that living beings have to follow.
It is worth noting that this philosophy, which seeks pleasure from the highest good, wants Man to learn Epicurean philosophy in order to achieve the good that animals already have. And this is because animals’ minds are harmonized with nature and its order and, for this reason, have already reached happiness. Alma Massaro, Genoa University
(* Titus Lucretius Carus, ca. 99BC – 55 BC, Roman philosopher and poet)