Lucretius, The Swerve, and Understanding Reality

imagesStephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve centers on a book-length First Century BC poem by Lucretius, On The Nature Of Things; apparently lost (like so much ancient literature) until book-hunter Poggio Bracciolini unearthed a forgotten copy in a monastery in 1417. Greenblatt casts this as triggering modernity’s emergence (the “swerve” of the title).

I’ve also perused the poem itself, which Greenblatt deems a literary masterpiece. Maybe its poetic virtues didn’t survive W. E. Leonard’s translation from the Latin. It helped greatly to have first read Greenblatt’s lucid bullet-point distillation (further distilled below).

Imaginary portrait of Lucretius. No real one exists

Imaginary portrait of Lucretius. No real one exists

The poem presents a bracingly materialist view of reality and the human condition which, though rooted in the philosophy of Epicurus, even earlier, is indeed very modern, and undermined the reigning Christian thought system. But Greenblatt overstates his case that Lucretius was central to the latter’s retreat. The Renaissance was sparked by a great complex of factors, which actually gathered force gradually over a long interval; intellectual ferment was fizzing all over; Lucretius’s rediscovery fed into this but was hardly, by itself, seminal.Unknown-2 (The scientific revolution did more to change the intellectual climate.)

And if Lucretius still isn’t exactly a household name, nor was he in Roman times. While his book did enjoy some circulation among the cognoscenti, he lived and died in relative obscurity — probably because few contemporaries could have made sense of a work profoundly incompatible with then-conventional ideas.

Someone in my book group mocked things Lucretius got wrong. But I was blown away by how much he got right — considering that he predated any proper science, with human understanding of the world being a mess of clueless superstition. Lucretius could only use his reasoning mind and his observation of reality to intuit its underpinnings:

images-1Invisible particles (what we call atoms), constantly in motion, combine and recombine to make up everything in the universe, from stars to rocks to humans. They are immutable, eternal, and (till the 1940’s!) indivisible. Like the letters of an alphabet, their workings are governed by a code, though not all letters and words can combine with every other. And the code — in principle at least — could be investigated and understood by humans (what we now call chemistry).

The particles don’t move by predetermination in straight lines, but sometimes “swerve,” causing collisions and recombinations; and that indeterminacy is what gives us free will. (I have similarly suggested that at the molecular level brain activity entails quantum mechanical effects, inherently unpredictable, hence true determinism is impossible.)

images-2All living things evolved through a long complex process of trial and error. Nature engenders variations, and those better adapted to live and reproduce proliferate, while failures go extinct. Humans are merely one such resulting animal. (It took nineteen centuries for Darwin to rediscover this idea of evolution by natural selection.)

images-4Human society did not begin in some golden age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive struggle for survival. (The myth of a prelapsarian paradise stubbornly persists; see my review of Steve Taylor’s The Fall.) Only gradually did social cooperation evolve; likewise language, arts, agriculture, religion, law (Lucretius anticipated Hobbes and social contract theory) and other elements of culture.

Space and time are unbounded, with no beginnings or ends — and never a creator or designer. Such beings as gods, if they exist (Lucretius doesn’t say otherwise) couldn’t possibly care about you or the minutiae of human affairs.

All religions are superstitious delusions, built on primal fears and longings. They always embody the cruelty of retribution fantasies (Hell) and human sacrifice, symbolic or otherwise. Unknown-3(Lucretius could not have foreseen the mother of all such sacrifice theologies — belief that Christ had to be tortured to death to save humanity.)

There is no cosmic purpose to existence, and no afterlife. (Lucretius spends pages deconstructing the nonsensicality of belief in a “soul.”) But since you won’t be around to experience nonexistence, it shouldn’t faze you. And this life being all we have, there is no higher ethical imperative than maximizing pleasure* and minimizing pain. All others — serving the state, glorification of God, pursuing virtue through self-sacrifice, etc. — are secondary, misguided, or fraudulent. The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain, but delusion.

None of this is cause for despair. To the contrary, understanding these realities is crucial for the possibility of happiness. To fantasize some higher reality, to aspire toward, only puts people in a destructive relation with the environment they actually inhabit. But by looking calmly at the true nature of things, we can experience a more genuine awe, and achieve a more genuine fulfillment.images-3

Taking a cynically dim view of humankind is common among intellectuals. But I am proud of my species. And learning about this man who, so long ago, could achieve such insight — it often gave me goosebumps — redoubles that pride.

* By “pleasure” Lucretius, following Epicurus, doesn’t mean hedonism. Rather, it really means the enjoyment derived from living a fulfilling life.


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6 Responses to “Lucretius, The Swerve, and Understanding Reality”

  1. Allen Brower Says:

    Someone once said “Education is such a wonderful thing, it’s a shame to waste it on the young.” This is an impressive encapsulation and personal reaction, Frank. If only someone had been able to make it so clear and meaningful to a 17 year old college freshman so many years ago.

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    It’s YOUTH that’s wasted on the young.

  3. Bumba Says:

    A fine piece. It has me thinking of other triggers for the Renaissance.

  4. Andrew Semeiks Says:

    I found the book to be very good in its depiction of the papacy and the educated in the fifteenth century and periods back to the fall of Rome with flashbacks to upper class intelligent thinking in the Roman period. As history it was a good read and enhanced my knowledge including the role of monks in transcribing and ancient manuscripts. As to philosophy, there are better ways to read on the subject. In the book Lucretius was just the focal point to develop the historical aspects.

    I agree with Frank that the book gave too much influence to Lucretius in the Renaissance than he actually had. I liken it to the confusion over causality and randomness as explored by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book “Fooled by Randomness”. If 1000 people think on a subject on which they have minimal knowledge several of them will get it right and in retrospect they will be considered geniuses. While Lucretius may have gotten the idea of small atoms correct his ideas had too many other flaws to give him greater credence. Not knowing the background, I also wonder how isolated and truly radical his thinking was.

    I, too, read Leonard’s translation and found it difficult and not particularly beautiful. I have read that prose translations are better to read.

  5. Gregg Millett Says:

    If I put a point (.) followed by 0000 … how many zeros would it take to indicate the probability that I would be here, now and able to write — “Nice piece Frank!” ?

  6. kurt Says:

    six or seven

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