I took a Greek and Roman literature class in college. Among the texts we studied was Lucretius’ On The Nature of Things. Shamefully, about the only thing I remembered from it was that the poem was an early articulation of the concept of atoms (see also Democritus). Impressive, chatting about atoms in 50 BCE. But reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve has reminded me what an impressive and prescient document it is, quite apart from its beauty as a poem. In chapter eight of his book, Greenblatt summarizes the main points of Lucretius’ poem:
Everything is made of invisible particles.
The elementary particles of matter — “the seeds of things” — are eternal.
The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size.
All particles are in motion in an infinite void.
The universe has no creator or designer.
Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve.
[Ok, the swerve deserves a bit of explanation. Here’s Greenblatt:
If all the individual particles, in their infinite numbers, fell through the void in straight lines, pulled down by their own weight like raindrops, nothing would ever exist. But the particles do no move lockstep in a preordained single direction. Instead, “at absolutely unpredictable time and places they deflect slightly from their straight course, to a degree that could be described as no more than a shift of movement.” The position of the elementary particles is thus indeterminate.
I can’t help but think of quantum mechanics here. Anyway, back to the list.]
The swerve is the source of free will.
Nature ceaselessly experiments.
The universe was not created for or about humans.
Humans are not unique.
Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
The soul dies.
There is no afterlife.
Death is nothing to us.
All organized religions are superstitious delusions.
Religions are invariably cruel.
There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.
The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.
Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.
The seeds of atomic theory, quantum mechanics, evolution, agnosticism, atheism…they’re all right there, in a poem written by a man who died more than 2000 years ago.