I devoured Stephen Greenblatt's essay about the Roman poet Lucretius' (Titus Lucretius Carus) master work, "On the Nature of Things", published in the New Yorker's August 8 issue.
The piece interweaves the transformational effect of the two thousand year old poem, its rediscovery by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417, Greenblatt's fraught family history and the significance of the poem for him.
Lucretius was influenced by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341 BCE-270 BCE); his "celebration of pleasure" alarmed the Church, who fought back with invented rumours of his debauchery. (Down and dirty ain't nothin' new.)
This is the man whom we invoke when we use the adjective epicurean, a synonym for bon vivant. The philosophy went deeper, which is why it alarmed clerics; it rejected mysticism and immortality. Epicureanism differs from hedonism, though, with its emphasis on a simple, nearly ascetic life.
"It is impossible to live pleasurably" wrote one of Epicurus' disciples, "without living prudently and honorably and justly, and also without living courageously and temperately and magnanimously, and without making friends, and without being philanthropic."
Greenblatt says, "This philosophy of pleasure, at once passionate, scientific and visionary, radiated from almost every line of Lucretius' poetry."
Ah, I thought, re-reading those lines several times, that's why a bowl of raspberrries with cream is such a joy after a long winter, why stacks of bags are no more satisfying than the right single satchel, why a donation to a good cause sounds a more resonant note than the tinkle of a trinket.
(Photo by Stephanie Morris/Harvard News Office)
To read Greenblatt's essay online, you'll need a New Yorker subscription, but for free, there's this summary in Harvard Magazine.
You can, however, watch episodes of the award-winning CBC documentary television series, hosted by David Suzuki, "The Nature of Things", which takes its title from the poem, by visiting the program's site, here.
Project Gutenberg have issued a free e-copy of Lucretius' poem here. Lost for centuries, then rediscovered, the work was formative to the art-and-science absorbed Renaissance, and invited an entirely different way of relating to the universe and its material representation.
Once again, the philosophers provide edification and illumination–and even encouragement for an ice cream cone.