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Essay
August 20, 2012
Modern atheists may think they’ve found an ally in ancient Epicureanism. They’re quite mistaken.

According to The Swerve, the award-winning book of intellectual history by Stephen Greenblatt, the event that jolted the western world from its religious somnolence was the discovery, by the book-finder Poggio Bracciolini, of an old manuscript in the monastery of Fulda. That manuscript was of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, or On the Nature of Things, a poetic presentation of atomism and the Epicurean way of life. The “swerve” of Greenblatt’s title refers to Epicurus’ notorious jitter in the otherwise straight travel of the atoms, so as to allow for free will. Greenblatt, however, uses the word to refer to the West’s liberation from religion, to pave the way for scientific dominion over nature, releasing the erotic impulse in us all.

It’s complete historical nonsense, as a few reviewers have noted. Scientific investigation was well underway in the Middle Ages. Aristotle, whom the schoolmen came to call The Philosopher, was the amateur biologist, not Epicurus, as Plato was the amateur mathematician. Epicurus himself was uninterested in the natural sciences, except insofar as he could use a scientific dictum as a weapon against the belief that the gods had anything to do with human affairs. Lucretius was a keen observer of the natural world, and his conjectures regarding the behavior of atoms are quite appealing. But he was not moved to study the world for its own sake. Hence his sometimes embarrassing shrugs:

The wheel of the sun can’t be much bigger than
It seems to our senses, or its light much dimmer.  (5.564-65)

Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, and Eratosthenes could have told him otherwise. 

The great revolution in human thought about the universe that occurred in the 16th century had nothing to do with Lucretius, who was no astronomer. Nicholas of Cusa, a neoplatonist Christian and a cardinal of the Church, had no access to Lucretius, and did not need any to posit that perhaps the earth moved about the sun. Nicole Oresme, who died in 1382, well over a century before Copernicus’ famous treatise, had already maintained that the apparent motion of the stars, the planets, and the sun could be attributed to the earth’s diurnal rotation on a tilted axis and its revolution about the sun. Oresme was an accomplished physicist, astronomer, and mathematician. He was also bishop of Lisieux. Father Copernicus himself refers to ancient heliocentrists such as Aristarchus; not to Lucretius. Johannes Kepler was a neoplatonist in inspiration, a devout Christian by profession, and a regular correspondent with Jesuit and Lutheran mathematicians and astronomers. He had no particular use for Lucretius. Galileo does not refer to Lucretius at all in his Dialogue Concerning the Two World Systems. In short, though Lucretius did restore respectability to the word “atom,” there is no evidence to suggest that the history of science would have been much different without his poem.

That isn’t to say that people didn’t read Lucretius. Thomas Aquinas, long before the printing press, read everything he could lay his hands on, and hired a personal translator, Thomas of Moerbeke, to provide for him an accurate rendering of the works of Aristotle. Chaucer and Dante were omnivorous readers, and Petrarch, a teenager when Dante died in 1321, was himself a digger-up of old manuscripts, and hired his own tutor in Greek. So we should certainly expect that Lucretius would find readers, especially among the poets.

What’s most interesting, though, is their reaction to him. It doesn’t at all fit the Greenblatt narrative template. Demonstrably religious poets, like Du Bartas in France, Tasso in Italy, and Spenser in England, read Lucretius, admired the poetry a good deal (as well they should have), did not take the materialism seriously (they didn’t need Lucretius to introduce them to that), and then, in the cases of Tasso and Spenser, leveled a deeply searching critique at the whole Epicurean ethos. They did for Lucretius what Thomas did for his opponents, and what Greenblatt never attempts to do for the Middle Ages or for religious belief. They gave the man his best shot, and then showed where he was wanting. To be specific, they criticized Epicureanism not for being too erotic, but for not being erotic enough.

We see this criticism in Tasso’s handling of one of his heroines, the partly comical down-on-her-luck Erminia, in Jerusalem Delivered. This poor young lady, a Muslim princess by birth, has fallen in love with Tancred, the leader of the Christian army that has seized her kingdom. Now in refuge in Jerusalem, she sees Tancred in the company of the crusaders led by Godfrey of Bouillon. She stands on the ramparts with the Muslim king of the city, picking out the Christians she can recognize, until she comes to the man she loves—and then she speaks with double meaning:

He is Prince Tancred.  Oh, that I might have
that man my captive, and alive, not dead —
alive I want him for a sweet revenge,
so my desires may yet be comforted! (3.20.1-4)

Erminia is but one of the many passionate souls in Jerusalem Delivered; we are meant to draw comparisons between her love for Tancred and, for example, Godfrey’s love:

[God] viewed all creatures, and in Syria
upon the Christian princes fixed his eye,
and with his sight which spies into the heart
of human loves in deepest secrecy,
saw Godfrey ardent for one aim, to rout
the heathen from the land of the Most High. (1.8.1-6)

Everyone in this poem is moved by love; whether the love is disordered, or has something evil as its object, is another matter.

Tasso introduces Lucretius into the work, though, not when love is allowed to grow heated and physical, but rather when it is allowed to grow cool. He was but taking Lucretius at his word. For the Epicurean, erotic love—what we would consider an all-encompassing passion, a desire for irrevocable union with the beloved—is to be avoided. It’s like political activity, or warfare—a hassle. Better remain cool and detached:

The man who shuns love can enjoy sex still —
More, for the goods come with no penalty.  (4.1064-65)

It’s that detachment that Erminia is tempted by, when after a few misadventures she finds herself in a pastoral hideaway, populated by a family that has nothing to do with the Saracens and nothing to do with the Christians, because they have nothing to do with anything at all beyond themselves. The old shepherd father says that he too was once a desiring soul, and tried to fulfill his ambitions in the court at Memphis, but after many disappointments retreated to this sweet and quiet place. Tasso allows him to describe it with delicacy and simple beauty:

Low and worthless to others, dear to me.
No treasure do I crave, no kingly rod.
And never in my heart’s tranquility
does care for power or money make abode.
I fear no poison squeezed into the cup;
for thirst, my stream is always clear and good.
My little garden and my flocks are able
to give enough food, free, for my poor table.

For our desires are small and our needs few,
enough to preserve life, and keep us well. (7.10-11.2)

Tasso here is reworking the well-known passage in Lucretius that describes the simple life of ataraxia, freedom from the coils of trouble:

Our nature yelps after this alone: that the body
Be free of pain, the mind enjoy the sense
Of pleasure, far removed from care or fear!
And so we see what little our bodies need,
Only such things as soothe the pain away. (2.17-21)

And what would one do, with that little? Enjoy a philosophical picnic with your comrades,

In the shade of a tall tree by the riverside,
[Your] bodies refreshed and gladdened, at no great cost,
Most pleasantly when the weather smiles and the season
Sprinkles the grassy meadow with new flowers. (2.30-34)

Lovely, isn’t it? And Tasso’s adaptation is meant to be lovely too—lovely, and unsatisfying. Erminia agrees to remain in this pastoral idyll, hoping that time will allay her passion. It doesn’t work. It isn’t meant to work. For Tasso loves his heroine too much to allow her to love too little. She writes love poems, and hangs them on the trees. She weeps, and imagines that someday, if she should die with her love unfulfilled, Tancred will happen upon her grave, and grant her sufferings “the late prize / of a few little tears and a few sighs” (7.21.7-8), so that her sorrow in life might be compensated by the shadow of love after death.

Now here is Tasso’s point. This Epicurean spa is not what the heart of man seeks. There is a gray acedia to the place. Erminia does not remain there. In fact, her love for Tancred is going to be fulfilled. Near the end of the poem, she will save his life, using her very hair to bind his freely bleeding wounds, and when he hardly returns to consciousness, asking who she is, she reassures him with these, her final words in the poem:

“As your physician I’m prescribing rest,
so you be still. You’ll know, when the time’s due.
You will be cured—get ready for the fee.”
And she held his head to her bosom tenderly. (19.114.5-8)

That devotion is far from anything that the Epicurean, ancient or modern, can know. Were I to put a scientific gloss on it, I might write “light years away.” Amateur theologian as I am, I’ll say it is a universe away: a universe of love.
 
About the Author
Anthony Esolen 

Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College. His most recent book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press). He also translated Dante's Divine Comedy for Modern Library Classics.
 

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