Luxury and simplicity: Epicureus, Lucretius, Greenblatt

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.

Stephen Greenblatt
(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.


Anonymous said…
Best translation ever of de rerum natura was by Palmer Bovie, one of my classics professors when I was in college in the late 60s..I reread it just last year and will definitely read this new yorker article!
diverchic said…
Spoken like a true epicurean.
Anonymous said…
So beautifully written, I'll look out for this, we pick up our copy of the New Yorker at the weekend.
laurieann said…
Perfect. The true Epicurean philosophy seems so modern. It is truly timeless. Will purchase a copy of the New Yorker post haste. Thinking of you and yours;

Laurie Robinson
Anonymous said…
I just placed an order for both The Nature of Things, and Greenblatt's new book about the lasting influences of Lucretius, The Swerve. I heard Greenblatt interviewed on the subject recently, and was struck by how fresh and appealing the poetry and philosophy of Lucretius sound today. The idea that one can enjoy a sense of wonder and live a life of decency without religiosity feels absolutely right and necessary for our time.

Duchesse said…
Laura: Thanks for this reference.

diverchic: Not so much these days but thanks.

B&P: It is not the current issue, so you might have it already.

laurieann: It is that timeless quality that struck me, too. Thank you for the thoughts.
Susan Tiner said…
Very interesting, I'll see if I can borrow that issue from a friend as we stopped the subscription several months ago -- not enough time to keep up with it!
Duchesse said…
C.: Thank you for mentioning The Swerve, will get it.

Susan Tiner: I keep a subscription because there's still so much worth reading-and can dip into the cartoons and postpone reading till a quiet weekend.
coffeeaddict said…
My knowledge of Greek and Roman philosophy is very basic and I have nothing constructive to add to this debate. So I'm writing because I just wanted to say I thoroughly enjoyed this post. It's so easy to write about fashion and jewellery and generate a lot of response but posts like these are of a more introspective nature. I usually don't respond when I have nothing to add but I feel it's important to encourage more and just wanted to put it on the record.
Duchesse said…
coffeeaddict: Thanks; this is my real interest in writing and conversing.

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