A wry view of life for the world-weary

Book Corner – July 2015 (1)


The Swerve – Stephen Greenblatt

I have always had an admiration for the Greek philosopher, Democritus. Living in the 5th century BCE he developed the astonishing theory that everything was composed of atoms which were physically indivisible and indestructible. This atomic theory was then further developed and refined by Epicurus.

According to Epicurus, the logical consequences of the atomic theory were that all atoms move perpetually and randomly through a void and as they do so they may swerve, just enough to strike and attach themselves to others and, consequently, there was no divine genius organising affairs. Moreover, at some point the atoms break free and move on their eternal course. As the soul just as much as the body is made of atoms the soul cannot be immortal and so there is no after-life. And if there is no after-life there is no eternal reward for good behaviour or eternal damnation for poor behaviour. While we live we may as well live for pleasure and whilst there may be gods – Epicurus was not an atheist – they have no concern or influence over human affairs. Man is no more or less important than any other entity composed of atoms. Death should not be feared.

Pretty radical stuff. Epicureanism found its proselytising muse in the form of the Lucretius’ first century BCE poem, de Rerum Natura. This astonishing poem written in hexameters and with its complex syntax and challenging vocabulary was a fertile ground for examiners intent upon torturing and testing Classics undergraduates in their ability to translate Latin unseen. It has taken decades to regain my love for the poem!

There are three themes running through Greenblatt’s book – the rediscovery of classical manuscripts, often entombed in the bowels of monastic libraries by Italian humanists of whom Poggio Bracciolini, the discoverer of a manuscript of Lucretius’ magnum opus in, probably, a monastery in Fulda was pre-eminent, the attempt by the Christian church to suppress Epicureanism and the influence of Lucretius on post mediaeval thought and the humanist driven Renaissance as a whole.

For me the most fascinating section was Greenblatt’s discussion on the reaction of the Church to Epicureanism. If you consider my inadequate précis of the main tenets of Epicureanism you will immediately realise it drives a coach and horses through many of the key strands of Christian belief – a God head who cares and directs affairs, the immortality of souls, a system of eternal rewards and punishments etc.

Once Christianity had assumed pole position in the Roman empire and afterwards there was a systematic campaign to suppress Epicureanism by destroying its literature, including Lucretius’ poem, and ridiculing its followers. The popular misconception of an epicurean as avaricious, gluttonous and libidinous was a deliberate attempt by the Christians to diss them. And it nearly worked and put back the advancement of scientific thought by a millennium and a half.

The copying of manuscripts by monks was a form of discipline and not much mind was paid to what was being copied. It seems that if a work survived until the 9th century CE it was likely to survive until the manuscript hunters toured Europe in the 15th century. But many classical works fell by the wayside and the survival of this work is a result of happenstance as much as anything.

I found the description of Poggio’s career fairly pedestrian and whilst I like a detective story the description of the discovery of the manuscript was a bit lame and I lost interest in the legacy of the poem. But the central section about Epicureanism is worth reading the book for and I was left thinking that the idea that the atoms had some sort of coding system to determine shapes and which other atoms to form with sounded a bit like DNA. The suppression of these ideas is another charge to lay at the door of the Church, methinks.


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