The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, March 17, 2012

He was a god, Memmius, a god indeed!

I've just read The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, by Stephen Greenblatt: the new book (referred to below) about the chance discovery in 1417 of the last surviving copy of De Rerum Natura, a long exposition by the Roman poet Lucretius of the philosophy of the ancient Greek materialist, Epicurus.

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.

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Just to say on first sight I thought the picture was a guillotine, & was looking forward with rather mixed feelings to your venture into Iain Hamilton Finlay territory. But no.

The picture is of a good food stall in Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne, Australia.

For those in Canada, and maybe elsewhere: I just downloaded an ebook version of Greenblatt's book for $3.99 onto my Kindle from; it was going for $9.99 a couple of days ago. Don't know if this is a temporary price or happening on Amazon in other countries- might be worth your while if you've got a Kindle to check. Strange, the price dropping once Ken wrote about it...Comrades, this is no accident!

Adam - ah yes, we had a good afternoon in Queen Victoria Market.

Jimmy - it's a fortuitous concourse of electrons.

Epicurus also survives in Yiddish as Apikoros, meaning a heretic, atheist, or free-thinker--depending on what dictionary you use.

There is so much chance in the long-term transmission of culture . . . has anyone tried using chaos theory? It seems something could be made to fit.

Wow - so it is. On second glance I was convinced it was a bar in Edinburgh - as in "a specific bar where I remember drinking in Edinburgh". Where am I thinking of?

After a little counting, a colleague asks whether there should be some commas in there?

16, more serious, charges?

Or 16 more, serious, charges?

Good point. I may correct it. It should be: 16, more serious, charges ...

What the charges were has never been revealed, but the mind boggles.

err. John XXIII died in 1963, with no mention of murder, rape or indeed any other charges ...

Hah, very good, Cormac!

It says something that no Pope for 500 years took the name 'John'.

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