In yesterday's post I wrote briefly about Stephen Greenblatt's Swerve and mentioned that it dealt in part with the role that (the rediscovery of a manuscript by) Lucretius had to play in the evolution of the modern world view, or at least that particular view modern world view referred to both by its adherents and its detractors as secular humanism. In his introduction, Greenblatt talks about his own personal first encounter with Lucretius, when, as a college student on a limited book budget, he pulled a copy of De Rerum Natura, marked down to ten cents, out of a used-book bin, more or less on a whim, and took it home to read. Somewhat to his own surprise, he found that the text was exercising an unexpected power over him, and that one of the sources of that power was that the text conveyed "an astonishingly convincing account of the way things actually are."
The stuff of the universe, Lucretius proposed, is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space, like dust motes in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaselss process of creation and destruction. There is not escape from this process. When you look up at the night sky and, feeling unaccountably moved, marvel at the numberless stars, you are not seeing the handiwork of the gods or a crystalling sphere detach from our transient world. You are seeing the same material world of which you are a part and from whose elements you are made. All things, including the species to which you belong, have evolved over vast stretches of time. The evolution is random, though in the case of living organisms it involves a principle of natural selection. That is, species that are suited to survive and reproduce successfully endure, at least for a time; those that are not so well suited die off quickly. But nothing—from our own species to the planet on which we live to the sun that lights our days—lasts forever. Only the atoms are immortal.
In a universe so constituted, Lucretius argued, there is no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place, no reason to set humans apart from all other animals, no hope of bribing or appeasing the gods, no place for religious fanaticism, no call for ascetic self-denial, no justification for dreams of limitless power or perfect security, no rationale for wars of conquest or self-aggrandizement, no possibility of triumphing over nature, no escape from the constant making and unmaking and remaking of forms. On the other side of anger at those who either peddled false visions of security or incited irrational fears of death, Lucretius offered a feeling of liberation and the power to stare down what had once seemed so menacing. What human beings can and should do, he wrote, is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world. (6)
Greenblatt marvels, as I do, "that these perceptions were fully articulated in a work written more than two thousand years ago. Later in the preface, he talks about the impact of the rediscovery of the work in the 1400's and its impact on Renaissance thought, in which "something… surged up against the constraints that centuries had constructed around curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the material world, the claims of the body."
The transformation was not sudden or once-for-all, but it became increasingly possible to turn away from a preoccupation with angels and demons and immaterial causes and to focus instead on things in this world; to understand that humans are made of the same stuff as everything else and are part of the natural order; to conduct experiments without fearing that one is infringing on God's jealously guarded secrets; to question authorities and challenge received doctrines; to legitimate the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain; to imagine that there are other worlds beside the one that we inhabit; to entertain the thought that the sun is only one star in an infinite universe; to live an ethical life without reference to postmortem rewards and punishments; to contemplate without trembling the death of the soul. In short, it became possible—never easy, but possible—in the poet Auden's phrase to find the mortal world enough. (10)
Perhaps it is less surprising that these realizations, once articulated, found their way into public discourse and began to re-shape the human experience, than that after so many centuries, many if not most of the firmly held if implausible beliefs that "the centuries," and perhaps more centrally the dogmas of various religious organizations, are still so firmly and self-righteously proclaimed in the face of all evidence to the contrary. The current state of political paralysis in this country owes a great deal to elected representatives who seem to be incapable of imagining that there might be any point of view worth considering other than their own.
In the New Yorker which arrived in the mail today (March 19 – lucky you live Hawaii), Louis Menand reviews and reflects upon Michael Kranish and Scott Helman's biography The Real Romney. In the middle of that article Menand writes:
Still, despite the multiple incongruencies surrounding his candidacy, Romney's campaign pitch will, in the end, almost certainly be the Republican pitch no matter who the nominee turns out to be. The pitch is that Obama and the democrats believe we've entered a "post-American" world, a world in which the United States is no longer the preeminent power on the planet but just one nation among many; and the Administration's policies are designed to manage this decline in our status, not reverse it. Democrats have abandoned "greatness" talk; Republicans want to bring it back. "I believe in American exceptionalism," as Romney says. This is the belief for which he offers "no apology."
There are a lot of notions out there today, being fiercely promulgated as truth by self-appointed know-it-alls, that might be less dangerous if there were room for at least some tiny quotient of apology in the equation: the notion that America is a special case and therefore should get to play by its own rules; the notion that by virtue of the country of our birth we are somehow more worthy or more virtuous or more deserving of the material and cultural benefits we have inherited; the notion that women should not have the choice to determine what happens inside their own bodies; the notion that those who see things differently than we do, or worship differently than we do, or have a different skin color than we do, or speak a different language than we do, or think differently than we do, are somehow morally and culturally inferior to us. These are the notions that, arising as they do from cast-iron, unapologetic certainty accompanied, in too many circumstances, by a willingness to go all the way to extermination to enforce, have caused untold misery and conflict throughout human history and into the present moment. If only in our current national and international political climate there were more reason to believe that the openminded and openhearted vision of Lucretius and his latter-day disciples might ultimately prevail.