Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Nature of Things

Review: THE SWERVE – How the World Became Modern
by Stephen Greenblatt

This is a wonderful book with a compelling narrative of the recovery, in 1417, of Lucretius' On the Nature of Things, by an interesting book collector, Poggio Bracciolini. It is a story of the early Renaissance, with quarreling popes and princes and a corrupt clergy, but also with a tremendous enthusiasm for the late Roman Republic and a zeal for recovering, understanding and using the things that had made Rome great long ago.

Things like grammar, architecture, democracy. That classical stuff. Educated people – and there were a lot of them, because they were needed to run the vast papal bureaucracy as well as international commerce and finance – poured over Cicero and other Roman and Greek authors.

This was a generation before Gutenberg. Books were still incredibly labor-intensive hand copied affairs. Expensive, cherished. Much of the classical library had disappeared, neglected and ravaged by time. Some had been preserved, mostly by monks for whom reading Latin literature was a daily exercise, and copying texts was a monastic craft. In the Renaissance, some of those texts made it out of the monasteries and into the schools and living rooms of the educated elites. Others remained neglected and unused in the libraries of remote monasteries. In one of these, Poggio found Lucretius' masterpiece.

On the Nature of Things was written in 50 BCE, a year before Caesar crossed the Rubicon, in the last days of the Republic (a time somewhat like our own in that big money, with fortunes built on foreign expansion, was undermining republican institutions at home). Although the ideas it promoted were not widely accepted, the book was widely admired for the beauty of its language as well as the intellectually challenging content. It was praised. Poggio would have read ABOUT De rerum natura, but never seen it, because no copy was known to exist until he found one in some remote monastery in Germany. He returned the book to circulation and, Greenblatt argues, changed the world.

In Chapter Eight, in the middle of the book, Greenblatt summarizes some of the main themes in Lucretius:
  • Everything is made of invisible particles.
  • The elementary particles of matter...are eternal.
  • The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size.
  • All particles are in motion in an infinite void.
  • The universe has no creator or designer.
  • Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve.
  • The swerve is the source of free will.
  • Nature ceaselessly experiments.
  • The universe was not created for or about humans.
  • Humans are not unique.
  • Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
  • The soul dies.
  • There is no afterlife.
  • Death is nothing to us.
  • All organized religions are superstitious delusions.
  • Religions are invariably cruel.
  • There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.
  • 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.

That list, which he elaborates in the chapter, is Greenblatt's summary of Lucretius' philosophy, which is in turn and expression of the philosophy of Epicurus, 341-270 BCE. It wasn't widely accepted in Epicurus' day, in Lucretius' day, or in Poggio's. It's been parodied and pilloried. And yet, look at that list. Don't you see Galileo in it? Newton? Darwin? Einstein, Bohr? Jefferson? Jefferson had five copies of the book, and said he was an Epicurean. This is a modern view of the world; in fact, except for a few small points (I don't think elementary particles are infinite in number), it's largely my view of the nature of things. Going back to the time of Alexander the Great. Incredible!

Greenblatt explores these and other imprints of Lucretius' work in the modern world. But there's one he misses: John Lennon's Imagine is a beautiful expression of the Epicurean world view.

Just imagine!