Thursday, September 29, 2011

Of things as they are

What was it I said here the other day? If history teaches us anything, it is that history is messy.

I tend to avoid books that purport to offer bullet explanations of broad historical trends. How the Irish Saved Civilization, for example. Or any of the dozens of books in recent years with the subtitle "How X Changed the World."

Now comes Harvard Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt's new book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.. According to early reviews, Greenblatt argues that the 1417 rediscovery of Lucretius' 1st-century BCE philosophical poem On the Nature of Things ignited a brushfire of innovation that became modernity. I enjoyed Greenblatt's previous surprise best-seller, Will In the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. And, as readers of Valentine will know, Lucretius, and his inspiring predecessor, Epicurus, are close to my heart. So do I overlook the hubristic subtitle and read Greenblatt's book? Or do I trust my instincts that the Renaissance was a conflagration of cultural change that would have happened with or without Lucretius?

But this much is almost certainly true: Modernity grew out of the historical tradition of which Epicurus and Lucretius were a part.

What did they espouse? That the only guides to reliable truth are reason and observation. That mind and spirit are inseparable from the material body, and are extinguished when the body dies. That the gods, if they exist, do not interfere in the affairs of humans, nor do they reward or punish. That the goal of life is to seek happiness and avoid pain. True religion, said Epicurus, is the contemplation of things as they are in a spirit of repose.

The Valentine of my novel is an Epicurean. He has read Lucretius. I wrote the novel, set in the 3rd century of the Christian era, to explore the contrast between an empirical tradition that was already well established in antiquity and the otherworldly Christian tradition that would soon come to dominate Western culture. The two traditions are still in conflict, each presumably appealing to some aspect of the human psyche. Valentine quotes Lucretius to his Christian friend Antonius:
…men are afraid because they see things
On earth and in the heavens that they cannot explain,
And so suppose them to be caused
By the will of gods…
In a sense, then, nothing has changed. Yet everything has changed. Reason and empiricism have transformed the world. Even the most ardent believers in miracles, revelation, and immortality enjoy the benefits of technology, scientific medicine, and Enlightenment politics, all of which have sprung from the tradition of which Epicurus and Lucretius were part -- in this much Greenblatt is surely right. However, no one book or person is responsible for modernity. We owe our present health and material well-being to a long tradition of men and women -- Lucretius and my fictional Valentine among them -- who advanced the claims of reason and empiricism against the arbitrary dominion of the gods.