THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS
R. Calvert Rutherford
Chit Chat Club
November 12, 2013
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
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
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
one of a small and ill-defined group who called themselves humanists, who were
fascinated with the wisdom of the classical world of
One of the
interesting sidelights of the story of the document in question was a discovery
made when the seaside resort of
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.
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.
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
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
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