Lucretius, and the man who saved his work from oblivion, sparked our modern world

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern – Stephen Greenblatt (2011)

            The intellectual progress of humanity is never smooth, and quite often fraught with violence, pride in ignorance, and just plain old bad luck.  Sometimes an artifact from long ago is rediscovered, or translated, and then becomes a touchstone for a whole world of new thoughts and ideas.  This book is about one such re-discovery.  There are few writings from antiquity that have shaped and informed the modern world we all live in quite like the work On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura in its OG Latin form) by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius.  Stephen Greenblatt does an amazing job of uncovering not only the history of Lucretius himself and his seminal work, but also the history and life of the sometime Papal Secretary, and lifelong lover of literature and antiquities, Poggio Bracciolini who through his diligent exploration unearthed a 400 year old handmade copy of Lucretius’ masterpiece and shared it with the world.

            Lucretius did not create the ideas espoused in his poem.  He was a Roman citizen at a time when the Empire was in decline, and many thinkers were looking back to the golden age of Greek thought and ideas to try and gain some sort of insight that would bring back the glory of Rome.  Lucretius was interested in the work of a specific Greek philosopher, Epicurus, who lived and created a school of philosophy nearly 300 years earlier.  This philosophy, known as Epicurianism, is central to the ideas of Lucretius, and forms a base for him to explore the nature of reality, life, and the universe at large.  Democritus’ idea, atomism, is that all matter in the universe is reducible to tiny non-reducible parts called atoms, and that because of this all matter is similar across the Universe.  Epicurus started his explorations at the age of 12 when his teachers could not explain to him the meaning of chaos.  He took the atomist idea and ran with it, positing that everything, planets, stars, the Sun, us, etc., were all a part of the natural order of things, and that the same principles that govern life and change on Earth do so in the heavens.  Because of this, he stated that pleasure, derived without hurting anyone or anything else, is the highest goal of life.  Epicurus denied the immortality of the soul, seeing it as just another part of the living organism, which dissipates at the time of death.  There is no afterlife, and yet one should not fear death.  “Death is nothing to us, for that which is dissolved I without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.”

            Consider this, using pure thought and reason, and before any scientific method of empirical experimentation was even conceived of, Lucretius had taken the starting point of Epicurus’ philosophy, and intuited some deep truths that, to modern, post-Enlightenment minds, come off like predictions of the advancements of science in the past 2,000 years.  As listed in this book by Mr. Greenblatt, here are some of the elements of the Lucretian challenge put forth in On the Order of Things, as stated by the author, Peter Greenblatt:

·         Everything is made of invisible particles (There are no non-natural forces or deities creating existence)
·         The elementary particles of matter – “the seeds of things” – are eternal (Neither destruction nor creation have the upper hand.  Everything is in a constant state of change and mutation of form.  The philosopher George Santayana called this idea, “the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon.”)
·         The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size (Lucretius intuited that there is a hidden code of matter, and a specific set of rules by which they combine into the substances of our existence.  He could not have known about molecular chemistry, or genetics, or any other such thing, but his reasoning told him it had to be true.  Amazing!)
·         All particles are in motion in an infinite void (Every high school science student learns this as part of physics.  Einstein understood this as well and it was the basis for his Special Relativity.)
·         The universe has no creator or designer (There is no purpose or end-goal for the existence of the universe, only ceaseless creation and destruction.  This is a very similar concept to that of the endless cycles of time in many Eastern religions)
·         Everything comes into being as a result of a “Swerve” (If particles all moved in one straight line there would be no interactions between them.  Lucretius stated that “at absolutely unpredictable times and places they deflect slightly from their straight course.”  He was thinking of a minimally slight adjustment, enough to cause an infinite variety of combinations.)
·         The “Swerve”: is the source of human free will (if all motion were one pre-determined chain of events, there would be no room for free will, with cause following cause for eternity.)
·         Nature ceaselessly experiments (There is no single moment of creation nor an end to creation)
·         The universe was not created for or about humans (There were forms of life before humans, which no longer exist, and there will be forms of life after humans cease to exist.)
·         Humans are not unique (We are made of the same stuff as all other life and non-life.  We can find many life-forms that share traits we consider human, such as compassion, altruism, regret, and love.  As Lucretius states, a calf recognizes its mother cow just like a baby human recognizes her mother.)
·         Human society began not in a Gold Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival (Lucretius understood that life is harsh, and was especially so to early humans who had no tools, no medicines, no social organization, and no language.)
·         The soul dies (The human soul, or any other living thing’s soul, is as much a part of the body as the eyes, and also dissipates upon death.)
·         There is no afterlife (the afterlife has been a consolation and a torment to many humans.  However, once it is grasped that the soul dies alongside the body, one can grasp that there are no posthumous punishments to worry about, nor any rewards to be expected.  Life on this Earth is all we humans have.)
·         Death is nothing to us (Once the body and soul die, there will be neither pleasure nor pain, longing nor fear.  “You will not care, because you will not exist.”)
·         All organized religions are superstitious delusions (Humans become enslaved to their own dreams.  They experience sequences of misfortune and feel that they are being punished by some deity.  They feel awe and wonder while gazing at the sky above and assign that beauty to some magical being that must have created it, regardless of the natural explanations for such phenomena.
·         Religions are invariably cruel (They promise hope and love but their deep underlying structure is cruelty.  “The quintessential element of religion – and the clearest manifestation of the perversity that lies at its core – is the sacrifice of a child by a parent.”  Lucretius was writing this nearly 60 years before the currently prominent sacrifice myth began.  He was aware of Hebraic myths such as Abraham almost gutting Issac cuz some voice in his head told him to, and would have understood the prominent display of images and statues of a bloody, murdered son.)
·         There are no Angels, Demons, or ghosts (All are entirely unreal and best forgotten.)
·         The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain (Lucretius believed that there is no higher purpose than the facilitation of the pursuit of happiness for oneself and one’s fellow creatures, and this includes all living things.  “All other claims, such as service to the state, glorification of gods or a ruler, and the arduous pursuit of virtue through self-sacrifice, are secondary, misguided, or fraudulent.” as paraphrased by Mr. Greenblatt.)
·         The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion (Lucretius believed the principal enemies of human happiness are inordinate desire and gnawing fear.  Our ability to imagine the infinite, whether infinite pain, infinite sorrow, or infinite joy, keeps us from accepting or enjoying the finite pleasures, rising up from finite sorrows, and controlling the desire for infinite joy.)
·         Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder (For Lucretius, humans engage in many poisonous beliefs that prevent us from enjoying the wonder of the world around us, including the idea of an eternal soul that will be punished or rewarded indefinitely.  This keeps humans from living in the now, and lets them accept the wrongs and horrors of life as just a way-station into the next world.  This is deep poison, and keeps us from doing our best to increase happiness worldwide, and reduce pain worldwide.  It is the source of much of the evil in the world)

          For hundreds of years, Lucretius works were forgotten, until the world changed and people started exploring the old Greek masters again.  Due to the inherent bias in christian researchers, they praised any philosopher whose ideas seemed to correlate to the tenets of christianity while excoriating or outright destroying the works of any philosopher who held what they believed to be “pagan” or non–christian ideas.  Because of this, Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius were consigned to the “pagan” pile, and their ideas and works ridiculed outright as part of Catholic dogma.  Ironically, it took a bibliophile like Poggio Bracciolini to travel to remote monasteries to rediscover these old works.  The masses in the intervening centuries had become dumb as rocks and highly illiterate.  The monk copyists in these secluded monasteries would copy old works, many times purely by eye, as they could not actually read old Greek or Latin.  Poggio’s discovery of On the Nature of Things, and his subsequent dissemination of the work, occurred before the invention of the printing press.  Once that was invented, copies of Lucretius spread far and wide, influencing many of the thinkers, artists, and writers that led what is now called the Renaissance.  These same writers went on to influence the Enlightenment, and through that, the modern world we all share. 

          This book is a great treasure, and should be read by anyone who wishes to understand the underpinnings of our world, and the many ways in which the enemies of free thought and free ideas fight and kill to keep their lies alive in the minds and hearts of the masses.  We currently live in a world where too many factions are seeking to distract humanity back into religious factions of “US” versus “THEM.”  If it is not one religion against another, it is upper classes against the poor ones, citizens against immigrants, or civilized people against uncivilized “animals.”  Every one of these con-artists, and they are ALL con-artists, seeks to force us to see the world in the manner they prescribe, for their own ends.  It is such a joy to find heroes in the past that help me fight the near-endless waves of stupidity and evil that seek to keep humanity under control.  Those who fight ideas do so because they KNOW these ideas shatter their bullshit lies.  Long live the life of the mind.  Lucretius was one bad mo-fo.

(To read On The Nature of Things - Lucretius (translated by William Ellery Leonard) click here: http://classics.mit.edu/Carus/nature_things.html

(To purchase The Swerve - Peter Greenblatt, click here: THE SWERVE )

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