Something I was reading recently reminded me of my 2013 review of “The Swerve: How The World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard. I think it bears repeating.
“The Swerve” tells the story of the re-discovery in 1417 of a long poem in Latin by Lucretius called “On The Nature of Things” which, the author claims, led to a flowering of the humanist movement, to a modern scientific view of reality, and to the disintegration of (or at least a serious challenge to) the accepted world view of the Catholic Church. Enormous claims, and the author does a fine job of defending them.
Lucretius’ poem is a discourse on the philosophy promulgated by Epicurus (341-270 BCE), that life should be led without any fear of death, that the pursuit of personal well-being should be the prime motivator of one’s existence, and that all life and all things are composed of “atoms” that collide and coalesce and then disaggregate once again upon death.
The Epicurean belief that there is no creation, the universe is eternal, that death is the final end, that there is no afterlife would prove to be a major challenge for the Church, a challenge they met with both cruelty and disdain. It is from their deliberate twisting of these teachings that most people today consider Epicureanism to be a form of gluttony and greed and little more.
The first half of the book gives an excellent background to the Europe of the late medieval period, discusses the growth of humanism through the re-discovery of Latin and Greek texts, and follows the life of Poggio Bracciolini, a Papal secretary who found, copied and circulated a manuscript of Lucretius’ De rerum natura.
The second half describes the Epicureanism of Lucretius in some detail and it is worth noting the major points:
- Everything is made of invisible particles that are eternal, infinite in number and are in motion in an infinite void
- Nature ceaselessly experiments
- The universe was not created for or about humans
- Humans are not unique
- The soul dies; there is no afterlife; there are no angels, demons or ghosts
- All organized religions are superstitious delusions, and are invariably cruel
- The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain
- The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion
- Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder
The book then travels forward through history to show the extent of the poem’s influence. Early humanists, such as Giordana Bruno, were burnt at the stake for preaching its beliefs. Thomas More wrote Utopia as a direct attack on Lucretian Epicureanism, while Lucretius was the direct inspiration of Botticelli’s Primavera. Montaigne’s Essays are infused with epicureanism, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a materialist masterpiece, even mentioning “little atomi” in its description of Queen Mab. Gallileo was clearly influenced by the poem,and the Puritan Lucy Hutchinson wrote an early English translation.
Perhaps the most famous political influence was in the work of Thomas Jefferson, a self-confessed Epicurean, who added “…the pursuit of happiness” as one of the three inalienable rights of all people.
This was a fascinating read.