The Magazine

Turning Point

Is Lucretius the gateway to the modern world?

Feb 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 21 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Stephen Greenblatt’s book on the influence of Lucretius is clever and curious—and notable for the ambition expressed in its title. Written as a scholar’s lecture but with a writer’s finesse in its many useful asides and pleasing digressions, his account of the Roman poet-

Image of Title page of 1650 edition

Title page of 1650 edition

philosopher (ca. 99-55 b.c.) starts from the discovery in 1417 of a manuscript of Lucretius’ poem On the Nature of Things after centuries of neglect in the library of a German monastery. The poem is a beautiful and very powerful tribute by a Roman to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, an atomist and atheist, and the finder of the manuscript was a humanist scholar, philosopher, Vatican secretary, and chancellor and historian of Florence, Poggio Bracciolini—the accidental hero of Greenblatt’s tale.

The manuscript could easily have been lost as so many ancient writings were, but Poggio came upon it, copied it, and saved it so that it could spread, as it did, throughout the humanist circles of Europe in the 15th century. To be sure, Poggio was looking for the poem, but it was chance that he found it, that somehow it “managed to survive .  .  . for reasons that seem largely accidental.” Now it happens further that Lucretius’ poem was about chance, particularly in a crucial passage about the motion of atoms that swerve by chance to create the forms of things against the necessities that otherwise determine motion. That poem “helped” to bring about the modern world (in Greenblatt’s formulation, more modest than his book’s title). And what is the modern world?

The modern world in Greenblatt’s view has adopted and to some extent realized Lucretius’ desire to free mankind from religious superstition and from the heavy oppression that belief in an afterlife places upon the peace and pleasures of this life. Relying on the opening of Lucretius’ poem, a thrilling invocation of “life-giving” Venus, he states that “Lucretius saw the universe as a constant, intensely erotic hymn to Venus.” Lucretius teaches us, he says, to set aside our religious fears and “embrace the world in wonder and gratitude and awe.” Two questions arise: Is this what Lucretius says? And is the modern world fit to be embraced—is it “my sweet embraceable you,” as the song says?

It can hardly escape notice that “life-giving” Venus is a goddess who could not be exempt from the denial by Epicurus and Lucretius that gods take an interest in human beings, nor that she is matched with Mars, who “rules the savage claims of war.” Even if we overlook war, we cannot forget (since Lucretius reminds us) that “embracing the world” in the form of easygoing sex leads to disease and makes women pregnant and men parents. And if we are impressed with the luscious beginning of the poem, we must be all the more struck with the fearful ending that describes the death-giving plague in civilized Athens. Here is manifest contradiction in Lucretius of which Greenblatt seems unaware.

He is aware that the humanist philosophers in Poggio’s time had reason not to risk gaining a reputation for atheism, and he recounts at some length the later (1600) trial and burning of Giordano Bruno for his open heresy. But this motive would be the same in the time of Lucretius, or in any time. Almost every society punishes atheism, even to some extent our tolerant society today: Try running for president as an atheist. Every society rests on belief, almost always on a religious belief that God supports and protects it. At the same time, a philosopher is one who questions the authority of belief, especially the highest. Philosophy always tends toward skepticism, and even if it finds in favor of religion, it does so on philosophical grounds. Skepticism is normal for philosophers, and so too is dissimulation to conceal skepticism and confuse the authorities. A recent book on Lucretius and the Renaissance by the historian Alison Brown shows greater understanding of the once-common practice of evasion by philosophers, and remarks on Lucretius’ “discreet (and often unnamed) influence” in that time. The appreciation and the discretion had the same cause: Both were offensive to prevailing belief.

Greenblatt has the goodness to call Poggio and others “pious,” apparently because they said they were. Yet he includes a chapter relating that Poggio speaks of his Vatican office as a job in a “lie factory,” the lies being blasphemous jokes against the Church told by its servants, especially Poggio himself. Later on the church was more perceptive and less forgiving. Greenblatt notes that in 1516 a Florentine synod of clerics banned the reading of Lucretius in schools. Violators were comprehensively threatened with “eternal damnation and a fine of 10 ducats.” Bruno’s fate, at which Greenblatt cannot help but shudder, was in earthly terms much more severe.

But danger is not the only reason for a philosopher to say less or other than what he knows, as did Lucretius when he beautified and personified—and falsified—human love in a goddess. One may also use “rhetoric,” i.e., dissimulation, in order to persuade. Lucretius addresses his poem to a Roman noble, Memmius, whom he wishes to benefit. To do so he attracts him with what Greenblatt calls a “hymn to Venus.” After that Lucretius needs to introduce his student to the possibility that an effete Greek philosopher, Epicurus, could teach something to a manly Roman. And beyond that he tells him of harder facts than the hard facts such a person believes he knows. Greenblatt mistakes the first step for the entire message, which is not to embrace the world in its delights but to retire as much as possible from its dangers, rigors, and horrors to the pleasure of the philosopher.

Greenblatt refers to Poggio as an “intellectual” and to his society as a “culture.” These are anachronistic terms not used by Lucretius or the humanists or indeed by any of the many writers so engagingly discussed in this book. An intellectual is a person who expresses his thoughts publicly, i.e., cannot keep his mouth shut; a culture is a unique historical whole that dominates all thought within it. Greenblatt is an intellectual who thinks that every culture, so far from being unique, is like ours in being a “culture.” But every society is at least potentially divided into those who agree with the dominant authority and those who pretend to agree with it—the thinkers. Lucretius is a hedonist; he thinks that the natural life for man is the life of pleasure. But there are different kinds of pleasure. Since the different kinds may be ranked according to a standard that is not pleasure (“nature”), one may wonder whether pleasure is the highest thing there is. Greenblatt nourishes this thought by referring to pleasure as “the highest good” for the Epicureans, implying that concern for the good is more fundamental than concern for pleasure, and hence that pleasure cannot be the ultimate good.

Greenblatt quotes the famous passage at the beginning of Book Two of the poem in which Lucretius says how sweet it is to observe others in struggles from which oneself is free: a man on land who watches others in a stormy sea; a man sitting safely above battling armies; and most delightful, a man “fortified by the teaching of the wise” who looks down on those who strive for mastery. A man fortified in this way is not an intellectual and is not defined by his culture, but Greenblatt does not remark the difference. He believes that Lucretius’ ascetic philosophy of pleasure can be extended to everyone, that today we can take him as a guide to life among our comforts.

Lucretius does appear to have had an agenda that would permit each human being to escape the illness of a frightened soul. But this can be done only through knowledge of “the nature of things,” and only by disarming the passions that cause men to fear death. The philosopher Epicurus provides the reasoning for the few philosophers, but the poet Lucretius with his beautiful images provides a partial benefit for the rest of mankind, bringing relief from torments of the soul and even guiding nonphilosophers toward philosophy. The creators of the modern world—Machiavelli, Bacon, and the rest of their kind—had no such program of withdrawal. They had an active, progressive vision not to be found in Lucretius. One later modern philosopher, Karl Marx, spoke for them all when he said that heretofore philosophy had as its aim interpreting the world; the point now was to change it. This was to be deliberate, planned change—pace Greenblatt—progress that would bring the benefits of philosophy (which became science) to the many, rather than bring many to the benefits of philosophy, as with Lucretius.

Among many changes necessary to create the modern world, the hedonism of modern philosophy was obliged to abandon any hierarchy of pleasures culminating in the highest pleasure, the only true pleasure, of philosophy—as Lucretius had it. Only so, when pleasure is democratized by destroying the distinction between the wise and the unwise, is it possible to count pleasures indiscriminately, and for modern economics to arrive. Modern economics makes it possible to delight in material pleasures but also to despise them; both are “preferences.” Take your choice: Either conquer and control chance, with Machiavelli and Bacon, or embrace the chancy world and look down on those who conquer, like Rousseau.

Or do both, like Stephen Greenblatt.

Harvey Mansfield is professor of government at Harvard and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.