lucretius, epicurus, poggio bracciolini, & the nature of things

I woke up this morning with this view of golden aspens outside my tent door, high in the Colorado Rockies. And here's the first thought I had: Lucretius got smeared.

His brilliant evocation of Epicurean philosophy serves as a counterpoint to the Christian doctrine that developed in the centuries after his death, and so it was necessary for early Christian theologians like Jerome to wreck his reputation. Thus he was depicted well after his death, by those who had never met him, as a man driven mad when he drank a love potion—driven ultimately to take his own life.

It's as wrong as it is absurd—a case of character assassination.

Titus Lucretius Carus wrote his great poem, De rerum natura (On the Nature of The Universe), in the mid first century BCE. It is as grand a work as its title claims, an epic poem in six books that evocatively explores themes set out by the great Greek philosopher Epicurus several centuries earlier. His younger contemporary and admirer, the Latin poet Virgil, wrote of Lucretius: "Happy he who was able to know the causes of things (felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas), and who trampled beneath his feet all fears, inexorable fate, and the roar of devouring hell."

Thus Virgil succinctly suggests the key themes of De rerum natura: universal causal explanation, leading to elimination of the threats the world seems to pose; a vindication of free will, and; disproof of the soul's survival after death.

Lucretius, Virgil asserts, was to be envied for having divined the real sources of happiness. This authentic account by one who knew him contradicts Lucretius' later reputation as a suicidal madman, a false biography concocted by those who sought to discredit his ideas by discrediting him.

But how can I be so sure about any of this ancient history and deep philosophy? The only way is to read On the Nature of Things myself. I've just ordered a print copy of this book—print so I can read it actively and mark the pages. Alongside it I'll be reading a newly ordered volume of The Principle Doctrines of Epicurus, as well as a book released just last week, The Swerve: How The World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt.

It's this last text that got me started. I was reading the first two chapters last night as I lay in my tent on the northwestern flanks of Pike's Peak, listening to a light rain patter on the rainfly above me. I was reading it in ebook form, a free download of the early part of the text, and realizing within moments of starting that I'd need a print copy so I could mark it up.

I don't just want to read this book—and the others. I want to study them, absorb them, talk back and forth with them. There's no other way for me to do it than to have the print copy in my hands. In this way, I'm old school. I can read ebooks in many cases and feel fine about it but when reading nonfiction, especially that which really engages my mind, I need to interact with print. 

I've plenty else to read these days; sadly, I'll spend hours and hours reading some pretty wretched student work, hoping for glimmers of good writing and only occasionally finding it. But that's the work and I'm there to teach these students to improve their writing. Still, I can't describe the pleasure of finishing that work and then diving into ancient texts, whose writers were among the greatest thinkers of all time. It scrubs my brain clean of the gunk left on it by all that bad writing I have to work through.

So what was it that so captivated me there last night in the tent? Greenblatt narrates, in colorful and engaging prose, the story of one Poggio Bracciolini, a bookhunter who in 1417 found what may have been the only extant copy of Lucretius great poem on a dusty shelf in an Italian monastery. When he realized what he'd found—a text rumored among the great works of Roman literature, a text assumed to be lost—he immediately ordered it to be copied in the monastery's scriptorium, and he set about reintroducing it to the world.

This act, Greenblatt proposes, ignited the Renaissance. To be sure, the conditions were anyway ripe for that great revolution. But reintroducing Lucretius' book was, he posits, the catalyst to rediscovering Epicureanism, which feeds so seamlessly into the concepts of the Renaissance, and later, the Enlightenment.

I'm a modern-day Epicurean, and when I woke up this morning I realized that if would call myself by such a label, I have a little homework to do. And few things make me happier than when I find a rich vein of intellectual ore like this. This autumn journey will be a great pleasure.