Turning Point: Is Lucretius the Gateway to the Modern World?

"Turning Point: Is Lucretius the Gateway to the Modern World?" review of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt, Weekly Standard, 13 February 2012.


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-philosopher (ca. 99-55 b.c.) starts from the discovery in 1417 of a manuscript of Lucretius’ poem On the Nature of Thingsafter 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.

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