1. Explain the difference between Epicureanism as practiced by Epicurus and his followers and our modern concept of Epicureanism. Is the difference significant? How did this come about?
2. How would - as Lucretius claims - the ideas in De Rerum Natura liberate humans from fear of death? How might - as Cicero replied - those ideas be more frightening than any punishment in the afterlife?
3. Lucretius's "On the Nature of Things" appealed to readers in part because it spoke from a lost world. People are still fascinated with the classical past. Why do humans have this nostalgia for the past, and how can this type of preoccupation help us move forward?
4. Greenblatt suggests that book hunting kept Bracciolini from succumbing entirely to the corrosive cynicism of his world. Why should an obsession with uncovering ancient books from a pagan past have meant so much to him?
5. What parallels do you notice between the world that suppressed Lucrotius's poem and the world in which we live today? What are the differences?
6. How does Greenblott's discussion of the loss of books to bookworms and the destruction of libraries (both willful and accidental) spook to current debates over printed versus digital books?
Discussions of Epicurus and his basic philosophies of life are by necessity entirely a matter of interpretation, inasmuch as extremely little of his own writings survived the ages. Most of what is believed to be known about him is dependent upon recitations by followers and scholars. That said, enough exists to allow for an informed discussion of his philosophy and its application today. Epicureanism has been widely distorted by modern societies, who view in that figure from ancient Greece a pursuit of pleasure in a moral vacuum, when everything that is known about Epicurus suggests his views would be closer to those of Gautama Buddha, who lived two hundred years earlier. Epicurus was concerned with living a moral existence absent greed, avarice or any of the other characteristics of the professionally ambitious. He also rejected the notion that the gods were intimately involved in our daily lives, and that fear of the gods deprived humans of the opportunity to live joyful lives. He did believe in the pursuit of happiness, but not in the manner suggested by those who mischaracterize his beliefs for hedonistic purposes. Epicurus believed that life should proceed as simplistically as possible, with personal relationships more important to human fulfillment than material gain. Hence, his suggestion that it is “not what we have, but what we enjoy, [that] constitutes our abundance.” In other words, happiness is not found in material wealth, but in spiritual health, although this is not intended as a reference to religion, as he did not believe that God was a factor in our daily existence and was certainly not preoccupied with or individual pursuits of happiness. “Epicureanism” as understood today, however, too often gets twisted to suggest the pursuit of pleasure irrespective of professional responsibilities. Nothing that is known about Epicurus indicates that he intended mankind to exist in isolation, with individual pursuits taking precedence over the greater good. Tranquility and freedom from pain or from fear of eternal damnation are simply a path to peaceful coexistence.
Lucretius, the Roman philosopher, built upon Epicurus’s philosophy of life and religion by expanding the theme of atheism that was not a part of the latter’s philosophy. Whereas Epicurus did not reject the gods, neither did he believe man’s way of life should be influenced by suggestions of divine intervention. Lucretius went beyond Epicurus’ agnosticism to inject a degree of atheism. When he declared that “Such are the heights of wickedness to which men are driven by religion,” Lucretius was advancing an argument common among atheists and those who believe in a divine presence but reject organized religion as a destructive force in world affairs. His famous poem, “On the Nature of Things” (De rerum natura) was a “modern” adaptation of Epicurus for a Roman audience. Whether, in penning his poem, Lucretius did damage to Epicurus’ legacy is open to interpretation. Lucretius sought to improve mental health by eliminating the notion that divine forces posed a threat in either this life or in a nonexistent one that he denied would come after. If the soul exists, he argued, it died with the physical body. Or, as he put it,
“Death, then, is nothing to us, nor does it concern us one least bit, inasmuch as the nature of the mind is that of yet another mortal possession.”
Cicero’s “Judgement on Lucretius,” as his comments on his fellow citizen of Rome has been titled, is a slight moderation of “On the Nature of Things.” Cicero was in large agreement with Lucretius (as he famously wrote to his brother, “The poetry of Lucretius is, as you say in your letter, rich in brilliant genius, yet highly artistic.”) and certainly ascribed to the Epicurean/Lucretian notion that life is about personal relationships and spiritual fulfillment and not about living in mortal dread (“of all the things which wisdom has contrived which contribute to a blessed life, none is more important, more fruitful, than friendship”), but was less accepting, if only for political reasons, of Lucretius’ rejection of religion.
Many people are nostalgic for what flawed memories often recall as a more innocent or less complicated past, and reference to the philosophies of ancient times, including to those from ancient China, are indicative of the direction some would like to see society advance. Anti-materialism, in particular, reemerges on a regular basis during highly-visible financial scandals in which excessive greed appears as a disease infecting mankind. Native American cultures subscribe to a very different philosophy of life and of man’s relationship to his surroundings, and these perspectives resonate with people exhausted by the moral and physical costs of material pursuits.
With regard to Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Poggio Bracciolini was driven to find lost texts because, increasingly rare among his compatriots, he was concerned about the direction in which society had evolved. As Greenblatt writes,
“Poggio Bracciolini was a book hunter, perhaps the greatest in an age obsessed with ferreting out and recovering the heritage of the ancient world. . . The act of discovery fulfilled the life’s passion of a brilliant book hunter.”
More importantly, Greenblatt argues, Bracciolini was hungry for the institutions of government and elevated level of political discourse that existed in an earlier time:
"What he really hoped to find were words that had nothing to do with the moment in which they were written down on the old parchment, words that were in the best possible case uncontaminated by the mental universe of the lowly scribe who copied them. . . Now at last for Poggio the quarry became exciting, and the hunter’s heart in his breast beat faster. The trail was leading him back to Rome, not the contemporary Rome of the corrupt papal court, intrigues, political debility, and periodic outbreaks of bubonic plague, but the Rome of the Forum and the Senate House and a Latin language whose crystalline beauty filled him with wonder and the longing for a lost world.”
To Greenblatt, Bracciolini’s near-obsession with book hunting was not nostalgia for paganism, but for the intellectual realm that had once existed in ancient times and had produced the philosophies that remained relevant for the present, but might have been lost to the past.
The suppression of Lucretius’ poem was a political act not dissimilar to the Church’s persecution of astronomers who dared to suggest that the Earth orbited the Sun and not the other way around. The power of the Church was such that it could and did move to suppress any and all theories or philosophies that ran counter to Church doctrine. Could that happen today? Of course, it can; it occurs all the time around the world in countries dominated by tyrannical regimes. In the United States, the issue of censorship of literature for political reasons reemerges fairly regularly, whether the subject is Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or the Bible in public schools. The difference between then and now, however, lies in the political diversity and the independence of the judicial systems in modern, western countries, which protect constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms.
The availability of Greenblatt’s The Swerve in digital format almost certainly meets with his approval. Greenblatt appears more concerned about the survival of books and the knowledge they contain than about the format in which the great books of history are read. No doubt, he, as with many other avid readers, prefers the feel of an actual hardcover book; the survival of the content of books, however, is better assured when digitized as well as produced in paper form, and if digital format is all that is available, it is certainly better than nothing.