It’s delightful to see a humanist-oriented book win something, especially something as prestigious as the National Book Foundation’s annual award for nonfiction. Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is a deserving winner, for taking an event little noted when it happened and demonstrating in an entertaining way its impact on the world ever since.
The central story of The Swerve is the discovery by an ex-Papal bureaucrat of a long lost Roman manuscript called De Rerum Natura, or “The Nature of Things.” Greenblatt’s recounting of how and why the book resurfaced in the 15th century is fascinating, but for me what’s far more important is the text of The Nature of Things itself, and the light it sheds on pre-Christian humanism.
The Pope today speaks often of Europe’s “Christian roots,” as though before Christianity arrived Europe was a kind of caveman chaos. In a 2008 message, for example, Benedict XVI proclaimed that:
Contemporary Europe, peering into the third millennium, is the fruit of two millennia of civilization. … Europe appears to us today as a precious fabric, whose weave is made up of the principles and values of the Gospel … though unfortunately many Europeans seem to forget Europe's Christian roots, the latter are alive and should trace the path and nourish the hope of millions of citizens who share the same values.So before the “two millennia of civilization,” there was what? Last September, he told the German Bundestag that “The conviction that there is a Creator God is what gave rise to the idea of human rights, the idea of equality of all before the law, the recognition of the inviolability of human dignity in every single person and the awareness of one’s responsibility for one’s actions.” So before Christianity, human rights, equality before the law, human dignity, and responsibility for one’s actions had not yet been invented.
The Nature of Things puts the lie to this. It was written around 50 years before Christ by a Roman poet named Lucretius, of whose life we know almost nothing. What we do know from reading The Nature of Things is that Lucretius was a devotee of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who had lived over two centuries earlier: “the man in genius who o’er-topped the human race.” Epicurus was a dyed-in-the-wool humanist, who put man and his happiness at the center of his world. He did not deny the possibility of Gods, but didn’t regard them as important; if they existed, they were so far above us that they couldn’t possibly care about what happens here on earth, any more than we care about the affairs of paramecia. So forget about fearing the Gods, he argued, and live your life in a way that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain.
This does not mean leading a life of unrestrained debauchery. On the contrary, Epicurus and his followers spent a lot of time working out what truly produces the most happiness in the long run. They concluded that pleasure maximization not only means planning at least a bit further ahead than the next glass of wine, but even involves matters beyond physical sensation, such as friendship, family, and contentment of the mind. Decent treatment of others also plays a role, because otherwise one could have no expectation of decent treatment for oneself, resulting in a most unpleasant state of uncertainty and fear. Some even demonstrated the conundrum that a certain degree of asceticism could help maximize ultimate pleasure; toning down the level of desires made them easier to satisfy. “To accustom one’s self, therefore, to simple and inexpensive habits is a great ingredient in the perfecting of health, and makes a man free from hesitation with respect to the necessary uses of life.”
Lucretius focused less on the ethics of Epicurus and more on the Epicurean explanation of the natural world – i.e., on “the nature of things.” As Lucretius described it, everything in the world, even the human soul, consists of tiny indivisible particles. Everything that occurs is the result of these particles colliding and interacting with one another, with no supernatural purpose or plan behind their motions. This doesn’t mean a deterministic world where everything is preordained by the physics of particle bounces; according to Lucretius, particles have a slight degree of unpredictableness to their actions, which he called a “swerve,” somewhat akin to free will. (Quantum physics theories today have vaguely similar notions of unpredictability about subatomic particles, but don’t expect me to explain them for you.)
Lucretius builds from the particles concept to a general explanation of everything, from optics to sex to volcanos. Many of his theories we know today to be wrong; volcanos are not really caused by subterranean winds. Others are closer to the mark: “The moon she possibly doth shine because strook by the rays of the sun.” He even hinted at Darwinian natural selection, observing that certain species of “monsters” died out because they didn’t have what it takes to survive and propagate.
For Lucretius, the pursuit of material knowledge was part of pleasure maximization, by removing unpleasant fear of the unknown:
For just as children tremble and fear all in the viewless dark, so even we at times dread in the light so many things that be no whit more fearsome than what children feign, shuddering, will be upon them in the dark. This terror, then, this darkness of the mind, not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light, nor glittering arrows of morning sun disperse, but only nature’s aspect and her law.Ascribing natural causes to natural phenomena led Lucretius to far greater peace of mind than living in fear of the wrath of unpredictable Gods, from whom no form of prayer or sacrifice seemed to produce reliable results. Besides, he argued, if a power greater than us had fashioned the world, it would have made a better job of it: “In no wise the nature of all things for us was fashioned by a power divine – so great the faults it stands encumbered with.”
As Greenblatt points out, scientific knowledge in the era before the Pope tells us civilization began grew at an impressive rate. Euclid gave us geometry, Archimedes discovered pi and laid the foundation for calculus. Galen made immense contributions to the systematic study of medicine, Alexandrian astronomers described a spherical earth that revolved about the sun, engineers advanced practical uses of hydraulics and pneumatics. Lucretius marveled that “Even now some arts are being still refined, still increased: now unto ships is being added many a new device.”
What the Christianity the Pope says started civilization two millennia ago did was to shut that all down. Christian God experts liked the fear of the unknown, and the power of being the intermediaries with the spirit world that they said controlled everything. Augustine of Hippo, the most important early Christian theoretician, despised all forms of what he called “the vain and curious desire of investigation, known as knowledge and science”:
There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of Curiosity. It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.Augustine insisted that there is no need to be “dismayed if Christians are ignorant about the properties and the number of the basic elements of nature, or about the motion, order, and deviations of the stars, the map of the heavens, the kinds and nature of animals, plants, stones, springs, rivers, and mountains. … For the Christian, it is enough to believe that the cause of all created things . . . is . . the goodness of the Creator.”
By the brute force of Roman emperors, Augustine’s worldview prevailed, and that of Lucretius and Epicurus became a thought-crime. That’s why The Nature of Things disappeared for a thousand years, and why only the decadence of Papal court intrigue that Greenblatt so vividly recounts allowed it to resurface. Next time you hear a God expert declaim about western civilization’s “Christian roots,” think about old pre-Christian Lucretius, the fellow who warned us about the priests of his own time:
With civic blood a fortune they amass. They double their riches, greedy heapers-up of corpse on corpse, they have a cruel laugh for the sad burial of a brother-born.