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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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.