January 15, 2015
During their classical period, the Greeks rarely imposed a death sentence. Unfortunately, one of the victims was Socrates. The reason for passing him the hemlock was that, when asked about the gods, he insisted that Mount Olympus was unoccupied. This, according to the authorities, posed a deleterious threat to young men and women.
Our book club will be meeting tomorrow morning on St. Simons Island to discuss Stephen Greenblatt's Pulitzer prize winner Swerve, whose subtitle is How the World Became Modern. It begins with an account of the discovery in 1417 by an unemployed papal secretary of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura in a remote monastery. It's an epic poem, written approximately 60 BCE, constituting an effort to describe the nature of the universe.
Lucretius maintains that Democritus' theory that everything, including himself, is made from atoms. He also argues that there was no creation act, that everything evolved over time, that there used to be giant animals running around but that they died out. He doesn't quite go as far as Socrates in denying the presence of gods. They might live on Olympus, he admits, but they clearly did not come down off the mountain. There were of course occasional earthquakes and violent storms, but these had natural causes and were not connected with angry deities. He suggested that Earth was not the only world, and that consequently human beings were not at the center of things.
Perhaps most significantly, he denied the idea that we were somehow immortal, that after death we would be brought to judgment and might face divine wrath. It was not good, he maintained, to go through life with that idea hanging over our heads. He was a staunch supporter of Epicurean philosophy: Enjoy your life. Make it count for something. And do no harm.
He recognized freedom as the core of human happiness. That was freedom from both dictatorial authority and from one's own compulsions. Recognize the world for what it is, and live in the moment.
And how was his science? "Many monsters too the earth at that time essayed to produce, things coming up with strange face and limbs, the man-woman, a thing between the two and neither the one sex nor the other, widely differing from both; some things deprived of feet, others again destitute of hands, others too proving dumb without mouth, or blind without eyes…. Every other monster and portent of this kind she would produce, but all in vain, since nature set a ban on their increase and they could not reach the coveted flower of age nor find food nor be united in marriage. For we see that many conditions must meet together in things in order that they may beget and continue their kinds….." (Translated by H.A.J. Munro.)
Not bad for a guy living 2100 years ago.
These were not propositions that would endear him to the culture in which he lived. And I guess it's no surprise that De Rerum Natura disappeared shortly after Lucretius did. It's ironic that it resurfaced in a monastery fourteen centuries later and, according to Greenblatt, went on to play a major role in fueling the Enlightenment.
(Note: This section replaced an earlier segment. I mistakenly used a quote from Epictetus.)