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.