Lucretius is The Man

Lucretius is The Man January 9, 2012

Has anyone else read The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt? According to my iPad, I’m less than 10 percent into the story, but already feel I’ve gotten my money’s worth. It’s so rich with history (which is sort of the point of the thing), mind-expanding and gorgeously written.

The Swerve is a narrative nonfiction account of an Italian book collector who, in 1417, discovered a book written in 50 BCE by a Greek named Lucretius. Lucretius was a philosopher (like all those other high-fallutin’ Greeks!) and, as it turns out, quite brilliant. Lucretius’ book, which amounts to one long-ass poem, was called On the Nature of Things, and, in it, he lays out Epicureanism, as well as his own thoughts on, well, the nature of things.

Lucretius hypothesized that, rather than being watched over by gods, the world was made up of atoms that had randomly adhered to one another in all sorts of different ways to make up everything we see and hear and touch — including ourselves.

Sound familiar?

That’s because now — 2,062 years later — that’s our “contemporary rational understanding of the entire world,” Greenblatt writes. All of us — animals, plants, water, the moon, the stars, the infinite and ever-expanding universe — are comprised of the same building blocks, the same matter.

In other words, Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie were right: We are the world. And the world is us.

Here’s Greenblatt:

“The stuff of the universe, Lucretius proposed, is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space, like dust mites in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction. There is no escape from this process. When you look up at the night sky and, feeling unaccountably moved, marvel at the number of stars, you are not seeing the handiwork of the gods or a crystalline sphere detached from our transient world. You are seeing the same material world of which you are a part and from whose elements you are made. There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design. 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 to 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.”

This is ancient history?! Amazing!

And, then, the kicker:

“What human beings can and should do, [Lucretius] 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.”

Oh, Lucretius. Where have you been all my life?

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