R. Calvert Rutherford

Chit Chat Club

November 12, 2013


            Some time ago, I was introduced me to a book titled, The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt subtitled, How the World Became Modern. As a member of the clergy, I found it to be both fascinating and challenging, and as an engineer, I found it amazing that although Epicurus preceded Sir Isaac Newton by some twenty centuries, he had a similar understanding of the nature of matter, and perhaps even more advanced ideas than that great Eighteenth Century scientist. The Swerve is the story of a document written in the First Century BC by Titus Lucretius setting forth the precepts of the philosopher, Epicurus, who was born in 342 BC on the Greek island of Samos. Lucretius’ document could have been forever lost to history, had it not been for the unflagging search for ancient classical documents by a single individual, who discovered it in the Fifteenth Century.

            The story of the discovery of this momentous document titled De Rerum Natura, or The Nature of Things, written around 50 BC by Titus Lucretius is as fascinating as any mystery novel. Poggio Bracciolini was 37 years old and unemployed in the year 1417 when he discovered the document which was instrumental in shaping the modern world. Poggio was born in 1380 in the backwater town of Terranova, Italy, and before he was twenty he went to Florence to make his fortune, arriving there, as he later wrote, with five pennies in his pocket. The key to his success was his beautiful handwriting and his mastery of Latin. Today handwriting is a lost art, but it was highly valued in the days leading up to the Renaissance. Poggio and a few other scribes distinguished themselves by transforming Carolingian miniscule, the writing of Charlemagne’s court, into the script we now call “Roman.”

            His skill at writing beautiful script gave him employment in copying manuscripts, and at the age of twenty two he stood the test and became a notary, thereby launching his career. Moving to Rome, from the position of scriptor, a writer of official documents in the papal curia, he rose to the powerful and lucrative position of papal secretary. Although there were as many as a hundred papal secretaries there were only six apostolic secretaries, and of these, only one secretarius secretus, the pope’s private secretary. After some years of maneuvering, Poggio achieved that coveted position. Unfortunately, at the Council of Constance, Poggio’s employer, Baldassare Cossa, who as pope had chosen the name of John XXIII, was stripped of his title in 1417. (The title of John XXIII was vacated when Cossa was dethroned, allowing it to be used again.) And that is how Poggio Braccilioni happened to be unemployed when he made his momentous discovery of Lucretius’ document, On the Nature of Things.

            Poggio was one of a small and ill-defined group who called themselves humanists, who were fascinated with the wisdom of the classical world of Greece and Rome. As such they were obsessive collectors of ancient manuscripts, and were both collaborative and competitive in their search for the documents of the ancient world. Their careful guarding of the sources of their discoveries is why we are not sure where Poggio found Lucretius’ manuscript, although it probably was at the great monastery of Fulda in Germany.

            One of the interesting sidelights of the story of the document in question was a discovery made when the seaside resort of Herculaneum on the Bay of Naples was excavated. Herculaneum had been destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius at the same time Pompeii was in 79 AD. As the site was excavated, the villa of a Roman noble was found to have an extensive library of books on papyrus, among which was a fragment of De Rerum Natura. We can conjure up a picture of a group of Roman aristocrats discussing philosophy as they gathered in their host’s library, much as the group depicted in Plato’s Dialogues did. Both of those distinguished groups might well be early forerunners of our own Chit Chat Club.

            But as the Roman Empire crumbled under the assault of barbarian hordes, the system of  elementary and higher education decayed, with the result that very few lay people were literate, and the monasteries became the repositories of the written word, and monks became the librarians of the world – as well as the principal producers of books. Books had become scarce and valuable, and the monasteries found their libraries to be matters of great prestige, and were therefore jealously guarded. All this meant that monasteries developed elaborate scriptoria, where monks spent long hours copying books. In the larger monasteries as many as thirty monks did nothing but copy books.

            Since papyrus was no longer available, and paper was not invented until the Fourteenth Century, books were written on animal skins, or parchment, the most valuable being calfskin, or vellum, still in use in our colonial period. It is only due to the durability of parchment, that the ancient manuscripts survived. The Benedictine monastery of Fulda had a particularly comprehensive library, in part due to an abbot of the Ninth Century,  Rabanus Maurus, whose diligent efforts at finding and copying ancient classical documents made the library at Fulda the most important in Germany, with over 600 volumes. Upon finding the treasure of Lucretius, Poggio instructed the scribe who traveled with him to make a copy, thereby liberating it from its monastic prison and releasing it into the world. Poggio’s favorite author, Cicero, had praised Lucretius’ work, calling it rich in brilliant genius and highly artistic.

            The work, itself, is a long poem of 74,000 lines, written in hexameters. It is divided into six untitled books, including passages of lyrical beauty, philosophical passages on religion, pleasure, death and theories of the physical world. It presented a number of challenges to the world of Poggio Braccilioni and to the Church that dominated Fifteenth Century culture. It still presents a challenge to some of the basic beliefs of our own culture.

            Some of the ideas espoused in the poem sound extremely modern, and some even post-modern. Here is list of some of the precepts included in Lucretius’ poem:


1.      Everything is made of invisible particles called atoms. Immutable, indivisible, invisible and infinite in number, these particles are constantly in motion, coming together to form new shapes, coming apart, recombining again to form more new shapes.

2.      Time is not limited, but infinite. The invisible particles from which everything in the universe is made are immortal and indestructible, although the things from which they are made are transitory. George Santayana, the Harvard philosopher, called this “the greatest thought mankind has ever hit upon.”

3.      The elementary particles are infinite in number, but limited in shape and size. They are capable of creating an infinite number of forms, as letters of the alphabet are capable of creating an infinite number of sentences.

4.      All particles are constantly in motion in an infinite void. There are no beginnings, middles or ends and no limits. Matter is not packed together in a solid mass. There is void in all apparently solid things, allowing the particles to move, combine, come apart and recombine into new forms.

5.      The universe has no creator or designer. The particles have not been made, and they cannot be destroyed. The patterns of order in the world are not the product of any divine scheme. Providence is a fantasy.

6.      There is no purpose in existence, only ceaseless creation and destruction, governed entirely by chance.

7.      Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve. (Hence the title of Greenblatt’s book.) If the individual particles fell through the void in a straight line, nothing would ever exist. The particles swerve in a random manner, creating endless chains of collisions resulting in an infinite number of forms being created and destroyed.

8.      Nature ceaselessly experiments. There is no single moment of origin, no mythic scene of creation. All living beings have evolved through a long, complex process of trial and error. Creatures whose combination of organs enables them to adapt and to reproduce will succeed until changing circumstances makes it impossible for them to survive.

9.      The universe was not created for or about humans, and there is no reason to expect humans as a species will last forever. There were other forms of life before us and there will be other forms of life after our species has vanished.

10.  Human life began, not in a golden age of tranquility, but in a primitive battle for survival. There was never a paradise of plenty. Early humans lived a brutal existence, a constant struggle to eat rather than be eaten.

11.  Humans are not unique. We are made of the same stuff as all other creatures, as well as inanimate matter. We do not occupy a privileged place in the universe, as we imagine we do.

And here is the heart and soul of the Epicurean philosophy:

12.  The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the   reduction of pain. There is no ethical purpose higher than facilitating this pursuit for oneself and one’s fellow creatures. All other claims – the service of the state, the glorification of the gods, the arduous pursuit of virtue through self-sacrifice – are secondary, misguided or fraudulent. Epicurus pointed out that luxuries, conquest and power do not produce happiness. The ultimate goal is to observe the whole mad enterprise and observe it from a position of safety. Nothing is more blissful, Lucretius tells us, than to be fortified by the teaching of the wise and to observe the futile competition for eminence end wealth.

13.  The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain, but delusion. The principal obstacles to human happiness are inordinate desires – the fantasy of attaining pleasure through power, status and material gain.

14.   Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder. The knowledge that the universe consists of atoms and void and nothing else, that the world was not created for the human race by a providential creator, might seem to cause us to see the universe as cold emptiness. But to Lucretius simply knowing the truth about the universe awakens the deepest wonder.


If Poggio Braccilioni had written any of this he would have been burned at the stake, as was Giordano Bruno, some two hundred years later, for espousing a similar philosophy. But as an ancient document from the classical past it was allowed to exist and was copied by some of Poggio’s fellow humanists. And thus it was unleashed into the philosophical realm of the time, in spite of its obvious subversive nature to the world ruled by the Church.

Silencing the voice of Giordano Bruno was far simpler than eradicating the ideas espoused in Lucretius’ document. During Braccilioni’s lifetime there were probably fifty copies of On the Nature of Things. And by the Elizabethan age it was widely circulated. Shakespeare obviously referred to the document when he has Mercutio describe Mab, the fairy queen, as “the fairies’ midwife, in shape no bigger then an agate stone on the forefinger of an alderman, drawn with a little team of atomi athwart men’s noses as they sleep.”

Shakespeare may have encountered Lucretius through one of his favorite books, Montaigne’s Essays. That volume, published in 1580 and translated into English in 1603, contains as many as a hundred direct quotations from De Rerum Natura. In his essay, Of Repentance, Montaigne writes:

“The world is but a perennial movement. All things in it are in constant motion – the earth, the rocks of the Caucasus, the pyramids of Egypt – both with the common motion and with their own. Stability itself is nothing but a more languid motion.” About humans he says, “We do not go; we are carried away, like floating objects, now gently, now violently.” Even the intellectual life, in which his essays participate, is no different, “Of one subject we make a thousand, and, multiplying and dividing, fall back into Epicurus” infinity of atoms.” On the Nature of Things inspired Montaigne to reject pious fear, to focus on this life, to loathe cruelty and to have a deep sympathy with other species of animals.

The printing press had made it almost impossible to kill a book or its ideas, but not for lack of trying. In the early Seventeenth Century, the Jesuits created a prayer required to be repeated daily by the students at the University of Pisa, ending with “Atoms produce nothing; therefore atoms are nothing.” And in 1632, the Society of Jesus strictly prohibited and condemned the doctrine of atoms.

As all of us in the Twenty-first Century know, all the efforts to suppress the concepts of Lucretius’ exposition of Epicurus’ seminal concepts were futile The very fact that the document, itself, as well as the dramatic story of its loss and recovery, and the name of the discoverer, Poggio Braccilioni, have all faded into oblivion, is evidence that the thoughts of Lucretius have long ago been absorbed into the mainstream of modern thought.

But there is a significant figure for whom the Lucretian poem, The Nature of Things, was a crucial factor. A wealthy planter turned politician, Thomas Jefferson’s inquiring mind and scientific interests were stimulated by Lucretius and the philosophy of Epicurus. He owned five Latin editions of the poem, along with translations into English, Italian and French.

If you have ever thought it strange that the Declaration of Independence enumerated as one of the three inalienable rights of humankind the “pursuit of happiness,” it may well be because, as Jefferson confided in a letter to his friend and neighbor, William Short, he was an Epicurean.