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Lucking Onto Lucretius

So I'm out to dinner with some friends I only see occasionally. These are friends from way back, the kind you spend most of your visit catching up on all the stuff you would already know if you saw each other more often. Toward the end of the evening, the topic turned to books. Conversational style changed from quiet chatting with those seated near you to a more organized, but less organic approach. And like that dreadful team-building activity where you pass the talking stick around the circle, my turn was soon coming.

I flashed back to times in elementary school when I was not only The New Kid but also Teacher's Pet with a side order of Nerd. All too often my attempts at contributing to a group conversation were met with blank looks and sniggers. What did you do this weekend? Kid #1: egged Charlotte Shrenk's brother's car, the pansy. Kid #2: Lifted a pack of gum from Skillern's. Kid #3: Looked through my uncle's stash of Playboy magazines. Me (too honest/naive to come up with a more exciting lie): Stayed up most of Saturday night to finish The Hobbit. Cue embarrassed silence and blank looks.

Then, as now, as the virtual stick approached, I was too slow coming up with an amusing line of BS, so I just went with the truth. I bungled the intro, already knowing this admission would be the turd in the punchbowl, the pin in our balloon of reminiscing revelry. "The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt", I said, hoping against hope this book, unbeknownst to me, had made Oprah's Book Club, and it would be the darling topic of our dessert course. I was close. It did win the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2011. Strangely, this does not equate to Oprah's Book Club-like popularity. Cue blank looks. Strike one.

"It's a really cool book I first heard about on NPR." Cue eye glaze. Strike two.

"It's about the chance rediscovery of a previously lost ancient manuscript written by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who basically ended up influencing all modern liberal thought as we know it." In that moment, I discovered that the killing of a buzz does indeed have a sound, and it is this: the sound of a great iron gate banging closed, ringing the ears as it fades to an ominous silence. Not a called strike, #3, oh no - it was a hundred mile-an-hour fastball luring the batter into a cartoonish 360° whiff, the kind that spins him so hard, the only thing keeping his tuckus from hitting the dirt is his quick hands using the bat as the third leg of his human tripod. Any notion that the Teacher's Pet/Nerd had shaken her grade school persona and become cooler, more worldly, sophisticated, even, in middle age, was immediately quashed by my nerd reading confession. Someone smiled thinly and said, "Sounds great!", and thankfully we lurched back into Conversation Lite.

But since this is, after all, my blog, and I can talk about whatever I want, I feel I owe it to Lucretius to spread the word about him. I have to admit the book was something of a grind. Sorry, Mr. Greenblatt! Having written some non-fiction, I know it is a challenge living up to the Laura Hillenbrand/Mary Roach gold standard of edutainment. The Swerve plodded along for the first half. But I was determined to finish what I had started, and I am so glad I did. When I finally got to the meat of the matter, Lucretius' own words laid out in black and white as they had originally begun thousands of years ago, my liberal heart soared.

  • He outlined the basic structure of the universe, proposing that all things were made up of tiny particles, infinite in number, combining and recombining, eternal in time and space. Pretty advanced, not to mention accurate, for someone who lived a thousand years before Galileo.
  • His thoughts about these small particles and endless combinations led him to theorize Nature is constantly changing and experimenting and yes, evolving. Sound familiar?
  • He had some incendiary thoughts about organized religion as well (thought it was bunk). Some describe him as an atheist, but he was more of a deist. He never said god(s) didn't exist. He just didn't think they gave two hoots about what we puny humans were up to.
  • He talked about sex (it's a really long work), including a passage W. B Yeats called 'the finest description of sexual intercourse ever written'. If that's not enough to encourage you to check out Swerve or The Nature of Things, I give up.
Spiral galaxy via Hubble Telescope


My favorite passages are more philosophical. He may be the founder of today's minimalism movement, for he believed life's goals are simple: seek pleasure, avoid pain. But there are boundaries, and failing to recognize them leads to acquisition and excess, which spoils everything.

He believed in something Greenblatt calls a 'swerve'. Call it serendipity, or happenstance, or the butterfly effect. Lucretius applied this concept at the molecular level and beyond, proposing these minute and random changes often produce the most remarkable results.

It would be silly to generate an over-long blog post about Lucretius without actually quoting the guy. Here's a passage Greenblatt admired. I've experienced this feeling a couple of times. If you've ever volunteered to be the Designated Driver, you've probably experienced it, too:

"It is comforting, when winds are whipping up the waters of the vast sea, to watch from land the severe trials of another person: not that anyone's distress is a cause of agreeable pleasure; but it is comforting to see from what troubles you yourself are exempt. It is comforting also to witness mighty clashes of warriors embattled on the plains, when you have no share in the danger. But nothing is more blissful than to occupy the heights effectively fortified by the teaching of the wise, tranquil sanctuaries from which you can look down upon others and see them wandering everywhere in their random search for the way of life, competing for intellectual eminence, disputing about rank, and striving nigh and day with prodigious effort to scale the summit of wealth and to secure power."

Lucretius wasn't satisfied with defying convention and authority and being right about just about everything. Oh no. He had to write it all in verse. As a poem. In Latin, natch. (drops mike) Why on earth go to all this trouble? It was hard enough noodling around the concepts that drive society (or should) as well as our universe. Lucretius said he considered presenting his ideas as poetry "honey smeared around the lip of a cup containing medicine that a sick child might otherwise refuse to drink" (Greenblatt quote, not Lucretius). So basically, if he were around today, he would frame his work as an indie film or a rap song or a Banksy-style graffiti.

My FFF (favorite founding father)

Lucretius' poem The Nature of Things lay undiscovered for a thousand years until a papal staffer named Poggio chanced upon it in 1417. Once recovered, copies were made, at first by hand, then by press post-Gutenberg. Ripples of its influence spread from Florence outward. With the advantage of hindsight, one can see his impact on intellectual giants more familiar to us, including Galileo, da Vinci,  Newton, Darwin, a couple of Thomases (More and Jefferson), and even Shakespeare. One wonders what things might be like if Poggio had overlooked a crumbling manuscript in a musty library so long ago. It delights me no end that he didn't, and that it came to light again because of a swerve.

This post was originally published in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge. 

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