By:Thomas Fleming | September 19, 2011
Kudos to the Morning Edition staff! I have been an NPR listener almost from the beginning, and while I am constantly impressed by the errors and distortions that pepper your reporting on literature and history, I must confess that even I was bowled over by Robert Krulwich's conversation with Stephen Greenblatt on the subject of the Roman poet Lucretius. In only a few minutes Prof. Greenblatt managed to get just about everything wrong except for the fact that Lucretius lived 2000 years ago.
In Greenblatt's fairy tale, Lucretius was a bold original thinker who jettisoned the traditional view that the world and its people were created by a loving god. In depicting a universe made up of randomly associated atoms within a void, the atheist/secularist poet liberated his readers from both creatio ex nihilo and from the terrors of superstition. Naturally, Lucretius' poem had a huge impact—"once a widespread text"—but his work, because it conflicted with Christian cosmology, eventually disappeared until it was rediscovered and copied by Poggio Bracciolini, a very poor young man whose good handwriting got him a job as Papal secretary. Poggio was so unhappy in Rome that he went out looking for manuscripts and found Lucretius. Passing from hand to hand, De rerum natura goes on to influence Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Jefferson.
With all this dramatic excitement, it is small wonder that Robert Krulwich could not keep from giggling in his glee. A few facts might sober him up.
1) The creation of the universe by a loving god is not the teaching of pagan philosophers who, for the most part, believed the universe had always existed and then was shaped by one or another forces or processes.
2) Lucretius was not a bold original thinker but a poet who versified the teachings of Epicurus, the founder of a major school of philosophy. There is some academic discussion about other influences on the poet, particularly from the poet-philosopher Empedocles, but Lucretius was not an original philosopher. It is worth noting that the Epicureans were more doctrinaire than other schools and did not permit the members to depart much from the teachings of the founder. Lucretius' contemporary Philodemus was more original, not only in writing verse, as Lucretius did, but in taking up subjects like literary theory despite the master's injunction to avoid culture like the plague.
3) Epicurus was not primarily a natural but a moral philosopher. He borrowed his materialist physics from the atomists (Democritus and Leucippus). For him great the moral objective was to lead a life without worry and anxiety, devoting one's self to pleasure and avoiding pain. The terrors of religion and superstition, since they were a source of anxiety, had to be eliminated, which could only be done if one accepted a universe in which the gods played no part in human life and where all was determined by the motions of atoms. Although he probably was some kind of atheist, Epicurus and his students did not preach atheism, probably out of a desire to avoid public blame. Interestingly, Epicurus (and Lucretius) were not especially interested in science for its own sake: Any explanation was acceptable so long as it eliminated the gods. This is bad-faith atheism on a grand scale, and Greenblatt, who is obviously infatuated with falsehood, is right to embrace it.
4) Lucretius was an important but not dominant figure in Latin literature. He clearly influenced Vergil and St. Jerome refers to him as having been driven mad by a love potion. Though the story is probably nonsense, it would reflect unease with Lucretius' glaring misogyny. I wonder how Greenblatt will explain that to his feminist colleagues. There is no need to explain his disappearance. His contemporary Catullus., too, survived in a small number of mss., and Catullus' equally important contemporaries are gone. Consider what we know of Greek tragedy. There were at least five major tragic writers and at least three great writers of Attic Old Comedy. We have about 10% of the corpus of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and none of Ion and other notable writers. In Old Comedy we have only one out of three, Aristophanes, and only a selection of his plays. For Aristotle, we have only the lectures he delivered to his students and none of his public work, for Plato we have the opposite problem. The writings that did survive tend to be those that were used in school, and there is no need for a special explanation for the disappearance of Lucretius or for large sections of Livy.
4) Poggio liked to claim poverty—it made his success all the brighter—but his father did manage to procure him an excellent classical education in Florence, and it was his beautiful Latin stye and knowledge of Greek (certainly as much as his hand) that endeared him to the papacy. He needed no special impetus to go out searching for mss. It was the great obsession of Petrarch and all his disciples.
5) While Montaigne was certainly fortified by Lucretius' secularist contempt for religion, his significance lay more in the realm of literature: The rediscovery of a lost masterpiece was an event that brought joy to lovers of classical antiquity—every educated person down to WW II.
In short, Greenblatt's secularist morality play is exactly what one expects from an English major who decides to dabble in fields that require actual knowledge rather than the verbal agility expected of literary interpreters who make it up as they go along. If one brief interview can be as hilarious as this, then his book The Swerve (Norton Publishing) promises to be a laugh-riot.
Shame on Norton for publishing such a book, shame on Harvard for hiring Greenblatt, and shame on NPR for not employing a single person with the knowledge once expected of an ordinary schoolboy.