|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Saturday, March 17, 2012
The finder was Poggio Bracciolini, an indefatigable book-hunter, a fervent reader of Greek and Roman literature, and former secretary to several popes. His most recent pontifical employer sat not in the Vatican but in a dungeon: one of three rival pretenders to the See of Peter, the deposed John XXIII had been arrested and charged with simony, sodomy, rape, incest, torture and murder. Sixteen more serious charges against him had been suppressed for fear of public scandal.
In that era the ideas of Epicurus had survived only as a slander: that he advocated the most luxurious sensual indulgence. With the recovery, copying, and eventual printing of Lucretius, this lie could no longer be repeated, though it survives in the language. Epicurus did indeed urge that pleasure was the only good. His point was that to enjoy life we need very little: food, water, shelter, good company. With that we can be satisfied. Only the desire for more than we need is insatiable. The one luxury he allowed himself was cheese.
One idea of his was mocked for much longer: that the fundamental particles of nature every so often and quite unpredictably swerve ever so slightly in their course through the void, and that this is the basis of the free will we all know by experience. The laughter has died since the discovery of quantum mechanics.
Just such an unpredictable swerve, Greenblatt suggests, deflected the course of history as Bracciolini reached for that neglected codex. The ideas expounded by Lucretius - and lucidly and enthusiastically summarised in Greenblatt's central chapter, 'The Way Things Are' - became the basis for the whole modern understanding of the world. The mantra he makes of Epicurus' teaching - 'atoms and the void and nothing else, atoms and the void and nothing else, atoms and the void and nothing else' - has liberated our bodies as well as our souls.
Greenblatt traces the ancient origins and modern influence of this sane and sensible philosophy as it passed through often underground channels, to well up in Montaigne, in Shakespeare, in Jefferson, and in Bruno who was burned in Rome.
Poggio Bracciolini remained a faithful son of the church. He lived to a ripe old age and fathered twenty children, six of them by his wife.