Thursday, December 29, 2011

Standing alone


Ah, yes. The swerve. How the world became modern.

It was inevitable that I would like this book. It is, after all, pretty much the story of how I became modern.

That is to say, Stephen Greenblatt's account of how the 15th-century recovery of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura accelerated Europe's progress from a world obsessed with supernaturalism and the afterlife into Enlightenment naturalism and empirical science recapitulates my own journey as a young man along the same road -- a journey in which the reading of Lucretius' poem played a part.

The Swerve is not only a fine work of history. It is also a powerful argument for the transformation it traces -- from fear and intolerance to liberalism and wonder.

Wonder? Oh, yes. Greenblatt writes: "More surprising, perhaps, is the sense, driven home on every page of On the Nature of Things, that the scientific vision of the world -- a vision of atoms randomly moving in an infinite universe -- was in its origins imbued with a poet's sense of wonder. Wonder did not depend on gods and demons and the dream of an afterlife; in Lucretius it welled up out of a recognition that we are made of the same matter as the stars and the oceans and all things else." The world of Lucretius is in motion and constant change, forever bringing forth new forms. It is not rendered insignificant by its transience -- by its erotic energy -- but made more beautiful.

"A glorious affirmation of vitality," says Greenblatt.

Lucretius' naturalistic vision of the world -- a world without gods and demons, without immortal souls -- has implications for how we live our lives. Finding ourselves alone in a majestic universe, we must learn to stand on our own two feet and accept our brief existence for what it is, says Lucretius. We must cultivate virtues of self-reliance, curiosity, skepticism, peacefulness, and tolerance. Seek pleasure and avoid pain, as best we can, tempering our appetites with moderation. Enjoy in our own lives the erotic energy that flows through the universe, the kind of eroticism one sees flowing, for example, through Sandro Bottecelli's beautifully temperate Primavera.

These ideas, which Lucretius took from Epicurus, stand in stark contrast -- as Greenblatt amply demonstrates -- to the 15th-century Christian world in which the Latin writer's great poem was recovered. They also stand in contrast to the religion of my youth, as I shall delineate over the next few days.