Stephen Greenblatt has accomplished something altogether marvelous–authored a readable book about an obscure Latin poem by an obscure Latin poet and demonstrated how it not only influenced but helped transform the world. The Swerveuses the life of a 14th-15th C scholar-papal secretary-book collector named Poggio Bracciolini to tell the story of how Lucretius’s On The Nature Of Things made modern scientific, cultural, and philosophical thought possible. Using this biographical narrative structure, he makes what could be a dry scholastic treatise into a fascinating journey through time and 600+ years of western civilization.
When Poggio pulled the book containing Lucretius’ poem off a dusty monastery shelf, it had been lost for a thousand years, suppressed by a combination of, ignorance, neglect and church censorship of pagan literature. The poem is a beautiful artistic expression (I’m taking his word for it, knowing little Latin and less Greek) of the philosophy of Epicurus, whose doctrine that the proper conduct of life is the pursuit of pleasure threatened church dogma glorifying suffering to the point that Epicurus’ ideas were distorted and demonized into a mere invitation to wallow in excess of bestial appetite.
Not so, declares Greenblatt. In fact, Epicurus (and Lucretius) counsel moderation, and their universe reaches far beyond the sensual and jeopardizes the very basis of conventional spiritual institutions. Way before science proved it, they postulated a universe made up of atoms, invisible particles in constant motion, combining and recombining at random, forming and reforming all the objects in the universe. Thus, suns and planets and dogs and cats and ourselves are all constructed of the same matter. Furthermore, the constructions are not done by design, but by happenstance. There is no intelligence directing the process. While you live, you live. When you die, you die. The notion of trying to divine a Divine will to which you should submit yourself in preparation for a nonexistent afterlife is a foolish waste.
To avoid pain is our nature. To pursue pleasure is our nature. Excess produces pain, so moderation is prudent, but denial? Self-flagellation? Hair shirts? Why?
All of this was (and is) heresy, of course. Heresy of the kind that got you excommunicated and imprisoned and burned at the stake. But the ideas eventually worked their way into general thought. Greenblatt points to the word “atomies” in Romeo’s Queen Mab speech as evidence that a popular audience would be expected to know its meaning by the late 16th century.
In a mere 264 pages Greenblatt covers territory far beyond the scope of this commentary, and presents potent arguments for his thesis. Still, for most of the book, I thought he was overdoing his claim for the magnitude of The Nature of Things’ influence on our thought and culture. Important? Yes? Pivotal? I didn’t think so. Until the last few pages, when he demonstrates convincingly that the U.S.A. would have been impossible without its rediscovery and promulgation. I won’t tell you that story here. You’ll have to read the whole book to discover it for yourself. But it’s well worth the effort, and–true to the Epicurean spirit–intensely pleasurable besides.