Lucretius and the Renaissance


WikipediaIt’s fairly clear, even after reading only a few verses, why Lucretius’s didactic poem, On the Nature of Things – De Rerum Natura –  made such an impact on thought, philosophy, religion and science in the Renaissance. It must have been like a lighthouse in the dark night; a “Eureka” moment for many of the age’s thinkers.

For others, especially the church leaders, it must have arrived like a mortar shell among their intellectual certainties and complacencies; shattering walls and window. An act of war that threatened to tear down whole schools of thought and belief.

While today his descriptions of atoms, void, and immortal substance may seem obvious and even a little quaint, they were revelations then, in the Renaissance. They shook the comfortable world picture of the Renaissance and challenged both faith and science.

Yet Lucretius wrote his poem in the time of Julius Caesar, before the Christian church even began. Then it was lost for more than 1,400 years, to be rediscovered by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417. Poggio was hunting lost manuscripts through European monasteries, trying to copy them so he could restore the lost words of the Romans for everyone to read. His discovery of On the Nature of Things was serendipitous in the extreme,* but it opened a Pandora’s box of effects.

Stephen Greenblatt, in his excellent book, The Swerve, about the fortuitous discovery and its impact, opens Chapter Eight with this:

On the Nature of Things is not an easy read. Totaling 7,400 lines, it is written in hexameters, the standard unrhymed six-beat lines in which Latin poets like Virgil and Ovid, imitating Homer’s Greek, cast their epic poetry. Divided into six untitled books, the poem yokes together moments of intense lyrical beauty, philosophical meditations on religion, pleasure and death, and complex theories of the physical world, the evolution of human societies, the perils and joys of sex, and the nature of disease. The language is often knotty and difficult, the syntax complex, and the overall intellectual ambition astoundingly high.

So it’s a tough, challenging read, as much so today as it ever was. I’m reading it, but have to admit it’s a bit of a slog, even in the modern Penguin edition.

Omnis cum in tenebris praesertim vita laboret.
Life is one long struggle in the dark.
Book II, line 54.

It’s astounding how anyone in Caesar’s day could by reason, logical, analysis and inference alone – no highly technical equipment, no advanced mathematics, no electron microscopes, no particle colliders, no Hubble telescope – deduce the structure of the universe was based on atoms. And then to infer that those atoms were constantly in motion, indestructible and timeless.

That’s what the Epicurean philosophers did. Lucretius, perhaps the last of them (or certainly at least the last outstanding Epicurean) put their theories and ideas together into one long, rhetorical poem to teach his fellow Romans what Epicureans stood for.

In doing so, Lucretius deconstructs and dismisses the theories of his contemporaries about the nature of the universe, using the same tools of thought and reason. Those theories – now long dismissed –  fossilized into accepted dogma for many centuries before his book was rediscovered. On the Nature of Things had no less an impact on Renaissance thought than On the Origin of Species had on modern thought.

Greenblatt subtitles his book, “How the World Became Modern” to reflect how deeply the rediscovery of Lucretius affected the Renaissance world.

To be fair, the Renaissance was a revolution in many areas; art, culture, religion, science, philosophy, politics, medicine – no one work sparked it. But Lucretius certainly fanned the flames i many areas, and provided a springboard for a new generation of thinkers to leap from. It was the “swerve” Greeblatt describes.

In 2011, Greenblatt wrote in a piece in the New Yorker magazine:

The poem’s rediscovery prompted such a swerve. The cultural shift of the Renaissance is notoriously difficult to define, but it was characterized, in part, by a decidedly Lucretian pursuit of beauty and pleasure. The pursuit shaped the dress and the etiquette of courtiers, the language of the liturgy, the design and decoration of everyday objects. It suffused Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific and technological explorations, Galileo’s vivid dialogues on astronomy, Francis Bacon’s ambitious research projects, and Richard Hooker’s theology. Even works that were seemingly unrelated to any aesthetic ambition—Machiavelli’s analysis of political strategy, Walter Raleigh’s description of Guiana, Robert Burton’s encyclopedic account of mental illness—were crafted in such a way as to produce pleasure. And this pursuit, with its denial of Christian asceticism, enabled people to turn away from a preoccupation with angels and demons and to focus instead on things in this world: to conduct experiments without worrying about infringing on God’s jealously guarded secrets, to question authorities and challenge received doctrines, to contemplate without terror the death of the soul.

Science is not all Lucretius wrote about, of course. The poem was meant to teach his fellow Romans about the wide-ranging tenets of Epicureanism, a materialist, almost Buddhist philosophy that encompassed religion, sex, superstition, death, science, morality, pleasure, politics, disease, the gods… and a universe that had no designer, no beginning, no end and more starkly, no purpose.

George Santayana wrote in 1910:

The materialist is primarily an observer; and he will probably be such in ethics also; that is, he will have no ethics, except the emotion produced upon him by the march of the world. If he is an esprit fort and really disinterested, he will love life; as we all love perfect vitality, or what strikes us as such, in gulls and porpoises. This, I think, is the ethical sentiment psychologically consonant with a vigorous materialism: sympathy with the movement of things, interest in the rising wave, delight at the foam it bursts into, before it sinks again. Nature does not distinguish the better from the worse, but the lover of nature does. He calls better what, being analogous to his own life, enhances his vitality and probably possesses some vitality of its own. This is the ethical feeling of Spinoza, the greatest of modern naturalists in philosophy; and we shall see how Lucretius, in spite of his fidelity to the ascetic Epicurus, is carried by his poetic ecstasy in the same direction.

Epicurus wasn’t an atheist, at least not openly, but he believed that the gods simply existed without care or concern for – much less personal intervention in – human lives. They existed solely for themselves. Our religious rituals, our prayers to them are pointless, he said.

He postulated a rhetorical paradox that challenged all religious thought, from his day forward:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

As Wikipdeia notes:

Epicurus himself did not leave any written form of this argument. It can be found in Christian theologian Lactantius’s Treatise on the Anger of God where Lactantius critiques the argument. Epicurus’s argument as presented by Lactantius actually argues that a god that is all-powerful and all-good does not exist and that the gods are distant and uninvolved with man’s concerns. The gods are neither our friends nor enemies.

Much of what we know today about Epicurus comes from secondary or even tertiary sources – many antagonistic to his beliefs. Diogenes Laertius, an early and sympathetic biographer, wrote a book about eminent philosophers in 230 BCE, a generation after Epicurus had died. Dedicating Book X to Epicurus, Diogenes wrote:

But first: some few preliminary remarks about his division of his philosophy. It is divided into three subjects: Canonics, Physics, and Ethics. Canonics forms the introduction to the system and is found in a single work entitled The Canon. Physics consists of a comprehensive theory of nature; it is found in the thirty-seven books On Nature and is also summarized among his Letters. Ethics, finally, deals with choice and avoidance, which may be found in the books On Lifecourses, among his Letters, and in the book On the End-Goal. Canonics and Physics are usually treated jointly. The former defines the criterion of truth and discusses first principles (the elementary part of philosophy), while the latter deals with the creation and destruction of things in nature. Ethics counsels upon things chosen versus those avoided, the art of living, and the end-goal. Dialectics they dismiss as superfluous – they say that ordinary terms for things is sufficient for physicists to advance their understanding of nature.

While materialism of this sort challenged many long-held tenets about the nature of the universe, it was in the religious sphere that the Epicureans really shook the tree (and created enemies). Lucretius challenged the existence of an immortal soul in many lines, for example:

…mind does more
to maintain bands of life and govern life
than does the power of soul.
For without mind and understanding, no part of soul
can stay, even for the briefest moment,
inside the body—it quickly follows them,
as their comrade, and scatters in the air,
leaving cold limbs to icy death. And yet
anyone whose mind and understanding
remain behind continues on with life,
although his body has been maimed, with limbs
cut off all round.
Book I, Lines 552-

He believed that any soul we contained was integral to the flesh, not divine, and it died with the body. That alone would have brought upon his works the wrath of the church which had a hardened, vested belief in the soul, without which much of its other beliefs (and control over the masses) would have crumbled. The church feared Lucretius and the followers of Epicurus because they argued – convincingly for some – against many church beliefs.

Nam cupide conculcatur nimis ante metutum.
Men are eager to tread underfoot what they have once too much feared.
Book V, line 1140.

Today, we hardly hear about Epicureanism – a school of thought based on the ideas of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE) – and what we do is usually through the filter of later opponents (such as the early church). The philosophy was derided, dismissed, expunged and most of its works destroyed. Today only fragments – aside from  On the Nature of Things – exist.

Over the centuries, the Epicureans faded out of history. The church – its enemy from the start – invented derogatory stories about Epicurus, about his followers, and twisted the philosophy into a mere caricature about over-indulgent pleasure seekers. Even today, the dictionary definition of Epicurean is, “fond of or adapted to luxury or indulgence in sensual pleasures; having luxurious tastes or habits, especially in eating and drinking.”

In the early 16th century, the church banned – and burned – all books that even suggested Epicurean ideas. They branded anyone caught with them as heretics. Clergy were forbidden to teach Lucretius in schools.

Yet Lucretius was not to be silenced. He was read far and wide by people as diverse as Machiavelli, Montaigne, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare. His work inspired Isaac Newton, Molière, Erasmus Darwin, Karl Marx and Thomas Jefferson. Machiavelli slyly made a copy of De Rerum Natura, but while many of his ideas come from Lucretius, he never openly acknowledged the source.

Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana commenting on Lucretius’s ideas about endless creation and variation, in 1910 wrote,

This double experience of mutation and recurrence, an experience at once sentimental and scientific, soon brought with it a very great thought, perhaps the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon, and which was the chief inspiration of Lucretius. It is that all we observe about us, and ourselves also, may be so many passing forms of a permanent substance. This substance, while remaining the same in quantity and in inward quality, is constantly redistributed; in its redistribution it forms those aggregates which we call things, and which we find constantly disappearing and reappearing. All things are dust, and to dust they return; a dust, however, eternally fertile, and destined to fall perpetually into new, and doubtless beautiful, forms. This notion of substance lends a much greater unity to the outspread world; it persuades us that all things pass into one another, and have a common ground from which they spring successively, and to which they return.

Poggio rediscovered the manuscript before Gutenberg’s revolution in printing allowed books to be mass-produced. It was copied laboriously by hand for decades. The first printed version appeared in 1473, in Lombardy. The original manuscript Poggio found has long since vanished. But thanks to his copying, Lucretius’ poem was given new life and, 600 years later, we still have.

Today, of course, you can read it in many printed editions, or online in classical and modern translations. Lucretian quotes have appeared on Facebook (usually mis-attributed as are most Facebook quotes).

Nam veluti pueri trepidant atque omnia caecis
in tenebris metuunt, sic nos in luce timemus
interdum, nilo quae sunt metuenda magis quam
quae pueri in tenebris pavitant finguntque futura.
hunc igitur terrorem animi tenebrasque necessest
non radii solis neque lucida tela diei
discutiant sed naturae species ratioque.
For as children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so we in the light sometimes fear what is no more to be feared than the things children in the dark hold in terror and imagine will come true. This terror therefore and darkness of mind must be dispelled not by the rays of the sun and glittering shafts of day, but by the aspect and law of nature.
Book II, line 56-62

Epicureanism has been rescued from the intellectual exile it has suffered for the past two millennia: websites are dedicated to explaining it, reproducing its few key works, elucidating its principles as an ethical, moral philosophy. We know much more about them than in the past, despite the strenuous millennia-long efforts of the church to suppress their teachings.

And we are richer for it. We are even seeing Lucretius slip into popular culture (as, for example, this site)

Quod siquis vera vitam ratione gubernet,
divitiae grandes homini sunt vivere parvo
aequo animo; neque enim est umquam penuria parvi.
But if one should guide his life by true principles, man’s greatest wealth is to live on a little with contented mind; for a little is never lacking.
Book V, line 1117


* Consider that it survived for centuries in an increasingly illiterate world, in an intellectually hostile environment, against the ravages of floods, time, mold, weather, barbarians, and even the monks themselves who often scraped old vellum clean to re-use for more politically and theologically correct works. Remarkable.

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