Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane

The Swerve

I was given Greenblatt’s book by a friend who thought I’d be interested in the way Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things influenced Montaigne and, later, the American Revolution. So I was surprised to discover how little Greenblatt discusses Lucretius’s poem. Instead, he marks off an odd piece of the world “by a geometry of his own” and tells the story of what goes on in it in order to explain how the world changed during the Renaissance.

Greenblatt’s story isn’t the familiar one of Renaissance painters, sculptors, architects, poets and playwrights. It’s even less a story of the church or of kings at war. (Even though it touches on all of these.) It is about men in libraries, private and monastic, browsing shelves, inventing a new handwriting, copying texts when they aren’t working distracting political jobs, and collecting oddball artifacts with whatever money they can pull together. Their story isn’t central; they were amateurs. But Greenblatt makes a case that they were foundational insofar as they provided an important piece of material the main players used in their work.

Ultimately though, my friend’s instincts were right: what interested me the most was information about Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. In chapter eight, Greenblatt lists what he takes to be the twenty principal ideas of that text, explaining each as he goes along. His list is:

1 “Everything is made of invisible particles.”
2 “The elementary particles of matter—‘the seeds of the things’– are eternal”
3 “The elementary particles are infinite in number but limited in shape and size.”
4 “All particles are in motion in an infinite void.”
5 “The universe has no creator or designer.”
6 “Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve.” (An infinitesimal change in motion.)
7 “The swerve is the source of free will.”
8 “Nature ceaselessly experiments.”
9 “The universe was not created for or about humans.”
10 “Humans are not unique.”
11 “Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.”
12 “The soul dies.”
13 “There is no afterlife.”
14 “Death is nothing to us.”
15 “All organized religions are superstitious delusions.”
16 “Religions are invariably cruel.”
17 “There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.”
18 “The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.”
19 “The greatest obstacle of pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.”
20 “Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.”

Posted February 22, 2014