Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Up and Atom

So, anyone who's known me very long (or has read the title of this blog) knows that I have more than a passing interest in Epicureanism - not sensual hedonism, in the modern (and incorrect) usage of the word, but the philosophy, related to Stoicism, named for Epicurus of Samos. In this school of thought, the avoidance of pain and the search for pleasure are related directly to the question of good and evil, and the ultimate goal is ataraxia, that state of clear-headed tranquility that comes from, among other things, releasing all fear of gods and the afterlife.

In addition to developing his ethical philosophy, Epicurus (pronounced eh-PIH-kur-us, btw) was a proponent of the atomist theory of matter - that everything material was comprised of combinations of tiny particles in different arrangements. Not a bad guess for someone in the fourth century BCE, eh?

The most definitive text on Epicureanism is De Rerum Natura - On the Nature of Things - by Titus Lucretius Carus, a Roman writing 200 years after the Greek philosopher's death. This poem by Lucretius, comprehensive in its elucidation and by all accounts beautiful in its language, could be considered the manual for modern, humanistic thinking. Yet it was lost for many years during the Middle Ages, the few extant copies mouldering in monasteries tucked into forsaken corners of Europe.

In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of one Poggio Braccioloni, a Vatican secretary and avid book-hunter who found and circulated Lucretius's classic work and in so doing became (according to Greenblatt) the spark of the renaissance and the catalyst for the modern world.

(airplane photo, complete with superhero bookmark)

Greenblatt weaves a tight story, equal parts history lesson, travelogue, political thriller, and comedy of manners. Throughout it all run two threads. One is the tension that Poggio embodied - a secular staffer in the Hoy See, a man obsessed with classical literature working in a culture that renounced all things pagan,  a person of intellectual curiosity living in a time of Inquisition. The other ever-present thread is the notion of just how close western civilization came to losing some of the pearls of its past - and how many gems were never found again. The swerve of the book's title refers the small deviation in the movement of one atom that causes a collision and begins the building of things, just as one small find by one lowly scholar began a whole new era.

The book is worth a read just for the sweep and scope of the adventure that brought that De Rerum Natura back to us. In addition, after the climax of the historical story, Greenblatt gives an excellent summary of the principles of Epicureanism as explained by Lucretius. I resonated so strongly with them, I reproduce the list here, minus the explanatory notes:
  • Everything is made of invisible particles
  • The elementary particles of matter are eternal
  • The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size
  • All particles are in motion in an infinite void
  • The universe has no creator or designer
  • Everything comes into being as result of a swerve
  • The swerve is the source of free will
  • Nature ceaselessly experiments
  • The universe was not created for or about humans
  • Humans are not unique
  • Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival
  • The soul dies
  • There is no afterlife
  • Death is nothing to us
  • All organized religions are superstitious delusions
  • Religions are invariably cruel
  • There are no angels, demons, or ghosts
  • The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain
  • The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion
  • Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder

I have to say, looking this over, that this is a pretty good summary of how I believe as I move through life. I have been reading and re-reading Epicurus and Lucretius for maybe forty years now; I guess some of it must have sunk in.

Read Lucretius, or at least read Greenblatt. You'll be glad you did either.


robynlee said...

I would like to hear more about how one reconciles bullet #2 with bullets #12/13.

Walaka said...

Sounds like a wonderful agenda for a lunch date.