ON DANGEROUS BOOKS AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

     TIMES ARE BAD.  CHILDREN DON’T OBEY THEIR PARENTS.  AND EVERYONE IS WRITING A BOOK. 

     Sound familiar–with people in tents protesting Wall Street, and print and e-books coming out each year in the thousands? But the lament wasn’t made in 2011. It was a plaint by Cicero, the Roman author of some fourteen books before he was proscribed by Mark Antony as an enemy of the state–and murdered in 43 BCE.

     Oh, yes, writing a book can be dangerous. Think of sixteenth-century Giordano Bruno, who agreed with Copernicus that our earth was not the center of the universe but simply revolved about the sun; he was burned at the stake with an iron mask on his face so he couldn’t utter a dying word and thereby promulgate his “heresy.”  Think, too, of British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie, condemned to death in a 1989 fatwa which, as far as I know, has not yet been lifted. 

     Was Cicero jealous of other writers? Is that why he noted the outpouring of books, along with bad times and mischievous kids? Perhaps. But he did recognize a good book when he saw one. In 54 BCE he wrote to his brother Quintus about a new work by one Titus Lucretius Carus (99-55 BCE) which he allowed was “highly artistic.” A generation later the poet Virgil lauded the same Lucretius for trampling underfoot “all fears of death and inexorable fate, and the (superstitious) roar of the devouring Underworld.”  

     But with the rise of Christianity and a parade of fierce inquisitors, Lucretius’s work dropped into a black hole along with other banned, burned, or forgotten books. It wasn’t until 1417, more than a thousand years later, that an indefatigable Italian bookfinder called Poggio Bracciolini, came upon a single, hand-copied scroll in a remote monastic library entitled T.LUCRETI CARI: DE RERUM NATURA (ON THE NATURE OF THINGS). The work turned out to be a virtual Renaissance of  ‘dangerous’  ideas that ultimately, according to Sephen Greenblatt in his brilliant new book, The Swerve,  changed the course of history and the thought of great thinkers like Galileo, Darwin, Freud, and Einstein.

     Lucretius wrote only one known work: a long, lyrical, philosophical-scientific poem based, in part, on the beliefs of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE). With the latter, Lucretius felt that one’s ideal purpose in life should be to live pleasurably and in peace among friends, without pain, fear of death or the preternatural.  A gentle teacher whose world view is similar to that of many modern thinkers, he taught that the universe, of which our earth is a miniscule part, is eternal and infinite, having spun–not from the gods who were indifferent to mankind–but from the interactions and random swerves of atoms, whirling about in empty space. His book invites us to live intensely in the present–for this is all we have. To enjoy food, drink, loving and sex (all in moderation), and to quit yearning after the unattainable. “Let others wear themselves out for nothing,” he says, “battling themselves along ambition’s narrow road!”

     Sadly, the poet never got to complete his book, for death surprised him at the age of forty-four. According to an unreliable source he went mad after taking a love potion. Yet this sounds unlikely, for he himself warned against obsessive love. Was it murder: a jealous compatriot, or religious zealot, angry at something he’d read in the book…”men poisoning others,” as Lucretius observes, “being expert in that skill?” Or perhaps it was a sudden heart attack,  on his farm, as he watched the “lambs go frolicking across young grass on wobbly legs.”  

     As I read On the Nature of Things this season of darkness and artificial light, I imagine Lucretius among his freshening fruit trees, wine goblet in hand, “content in the mind” as he contemplates “the pure blue of the heavens…the roving stars, the moon…brilliant and sublime. Nothing,” he muses, could be so remarkable as this. Charles Darwin saw “grandeur in this view of life.” And Thomas Jefferson, who owned several Latin editions of the poet’s work, felt compelled to incorporate the words “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” into our Declaration of Independence.  

     Like Lucretius then, can we try for a time to block out worries about money, mortgages, deadlines, and dying bookstores? To take it easy, as mystery writer Elmore Leonard signs every one of his books? To turn off the computer for the week between Christmas and January 1 and stretch out on the couch with a good book? (Perseverance Press can suggest a few.) Or read Lucretius as a writer would, and marvel at the exquisite sense of detail in his work–something we might bring to our own writing.  How “the ring on a finger thins from inside out with wear,” or how “the right hands of statues made of brass / are worn away by touches of the greeting hands that pass.”

     And then, after placing welcoming lights in our windows, seeding the bird feeders, and giving what we can to those without–enter the coming months of darkness with friends and family, song and dance, wine and sweets (in moderation, of course), and savor the beauties and the natural pleasures of the world.    

     With Lucretius, I wish you a Happy, happy New Year!

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14 Responses

  1. Interesting, Nancy. Just before I opened your blog, I read an Op-Ed piece in the LA Times, “Anonymous was a writer”, written by Robert Folkenflik, emeritus professor of English at UC Irvine about the traditon of authors, until fairly recently, signing all publications with either Anonymous or a pseudonym. This was done to protect themselves from inquisitors and other censors, but also out of genteel modesty. If Giodano Bruno had followed the lead of Copernicus and kept his identity off his work, he might, like Copernicus, have died in his bed (before being consigned to hell for all eternity). Just a thought.

    Happy almost New Year to you.
    Wendy

    • An interesting thought, Wendy–but too late, alas, for Bruno. He was apparently too brash or too smug in his righteousness to keep his mouth shut! And then was horribly punished. According to Greenblatt in The Swerve, he was “brilliant, reckless, charmingly charismatic and insufferably argumentative.” That, coupled with his flood of oddball written works did him in. So you’re absolutely right. He should’ve remained anonymous. Only that iron mask kept him quiet in the end. Should that be a lesson to us writers today? (I think not…)

  2. At least Galileo learned from Bruno and accepted the terms of exile. My favorite quote from him: “And still it moves . . . ”

    I’ve also always loved Lucretius, an early proponent of the atom, and have used his work in my philosophy of science classes. How nice to see them both here!

    • Philosophy of science: what an intriguing title…I’d love to take the class! Of course, yes, this is what Lucretius ‘teaches’ in his On the Nature of Things. A philosophy of science! Amazing. Apparently it was Epicurus who taught Lucretius, although a few centuries earlier.
      There is a wonderful, poignant poem by poet Heather McHugh about the death of Bruno should you come across it. I can’t read it without falling apart.

      • At the time, of course, philosophy and science were synonymous. Understanding the nature of things — what else is there? If the Greeks had done experiments, instead of “only” theorizing, we might be in a different place today.

  3. Yes, it is indeed time to leave the current world and its crimes and its mad politics and look to an older time–or to people who saw the the failings in the older times and mused on them. Wrote about them. Thanks, Nancy. The Stephen Greenblat book strikes me as a fine way to begin the new year.
    Janet LaPierre

    • Thanks, Janet! Yes, I read The Swerve, utterly fascinated, and then read a translation of Lucretius, equally absorbing, So like any convert, I can’t stop blabbing on about it! I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I have. Greenblatt also wrote the prizewinning Will in the World, about Shakespeare and his times.
      Will someone ever invent a time machine? (Though it might be scary, depending on what era one is dropped into…)

  4. Intensely interesting,Camille, to think that philosophy and science were synonymous back then. They should be today, shouldn’t they? Yes, the nature of things–all encompassing! Did the Greeks do no experiments at all? Just philosophizing? The Roman Lucretius surely did, don’t you think, through his careful, empirical studies?

  5. The early Greeks (and later Lucretius) did the heavy work of THOUGHT experiments, in good company with Einstein who wasn’t a lab guy either. Another good example is Aristotle on gravity — never tested, measured, but had a lot to say. It took Galileo to do the experiments that proved A lacking, and therein lies THAT tale!

    The Pre-Socratics’ contribution was to cover all bases. For example: Is the world is really permanent but merely looks transient OR is it really transient but merely looks permanent? Is reality the ideal or the practical? And so on. Every “Ism” had a Greek behind it.

    Plato and Aristotle were of course on opposite sides of the spectrum on all questions. I subscribe to Whitehead’s idea that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato.

    Am I going far afield from mystery writing — maybe I’ll do another series!

    • Much to contemplate! Thank you! I do like the idea that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato. Such a brilliant thinker. Re: mystery, the nature of the universe remains wholly mysterious to me. I’d love to read a series that pertains to the philosophy of science. If any of your current mysteries involve some of this, let me know. I want to learn more, and a (laid back) mystery adds spice to the subject. Or maybe your new sleuth should be a philosophy professor? That would be fun to read!

  6. My newest sleuth is a college math prof but I JUST REALIZED she has a good friend in the philosophy department, who will come forward in the next book. Thanks, Nancy!

  7. A delightful and thought-provoking blog. I shall certainly read Greenblatt–The Swerve and Will in the World. I’m particularly grateful for the connection between Jefferson and Lucretius. If it hadn’t been for L. we probably would have been stuck with Life, Liberty, and Property! Imagine that.

    Sheila

    • I can’t imagine “Property!” Horrors! Yes, we must thank Lucretius–and Jefferson, who English translations of Lucretius, along with copies in Latin in his study. I’m sure, Sheila, you’ll enjoy Greenblatt. He has a sense of humor, too. One can really enter into the two worlds he describes.

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