Monday, June 15, 2015

On "The Swerve" and being nothing...

Good news: you're nothing.
Photo by Salvatore Gerace via Flickr

Some time ago I wrote a post called What if We are Nothing. It's basically an essay on the idea that humans are nothing more than a material part of this world and this universe, no greater or lesser than any other life form..or any other form for that matter.

The essay was an attempt at helping me live better with the objective world I am presented with daily--murder, defeat, death, horror. I didn't expect the idea was new, of course, but it was something that I don't think I have contemplated with any seriousness in the past.

Recently, my husband and I were on a road trip and the radio stations in the car kept going in and out so we did quite a bit of surfing. At one point, we caught part of an interview on NPR with Stephen Greenblatt on his book, The Swerve. What I got in the little bit that I heard was that the book was about an ancient poem by Lucretius, written in about 50 BCE. It was lost to us for centuries, then found by a scribe on the hunt for just such literary treasures. The finding and dissemination of this poem, Greenblatt said, helped to usher in The Enlightenment.

As soon as I got home from our trip, I ordered The Swerve.

More than about Lucretius' On the Nature of Things, The Swerve serves as an early history of books, literature, and writing or rather, copying. Various parts fascinated me, while others angered me. The discussion of the manner in which Christians murdered Hypatia and went on to effectively destroy much of our world's literature, as well as our pagan and freethought culture, was difficult to accept. Suffice it to say, we're lucky we have what we do of the time period in question.

But what surprised me most--so far, as I haven't finished reading yet--was the synopsis of points found in Lucretius' poem. If I'm understanding correctly, the poem was not merely Lucretius' philosophy of life, but also an homage to Epicurus--a much maligned and denigrated individual (along with his philosophy) by...you guessed it...Christians.

In general education, we are taught in these modern times that the idea of evolutionary theory is relatively new, sparked by Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Not so. Evolutionary theory--early, rudimentary--is there in Epicureanism and outlined beautifully in Lucretius' On the Nature of Things.

But what spurred this blog post was this passage, in which Greenblatt explains Lucretius' thoughts on being and nothingness:

Understanding the nature of things generates wonder.
The realization that the universe consists of atoms and void and nothing else, that the world was not made for us by a providential creator, that we are not the center of the universe, that our emotional lives are no more distinct than our physical lives from those of all other creatures, that our souls are as material and as mortal as our bodies--all these things are not the cause for despair. On the contrary, grasping the way things really are is the crucial step toward the possibility of happiness. Human insignificance--the fact that it is not all about us and our fate--is, Lucretius insisted, the good news.
It is possible for human beings to live happy lives, but not because they think that they are the center of the universe or because they fear the gods or because they nobly sacrifice themselves for values that purport to transcend their mortal existence. Unappeasable desire and the fear of death are the principal obstacles to human happiness, but the obstacles can be surmounted through the exercise of reason.
The exercise of reason is not available only to specialists; it is accessible to everyone. What is needed is to refuse the lies proffered by priests and other fantasymongers and to look squarely and calmly at the true nature of things. All speculation--all science, all morality, all attempts to fashion a life worth living--must start and end with a comprehension of the invisible seeds of things: atoms and the void and nothing else.
It might seem at first that this comprehension would inevitably bring with it a sense of cold emptiness, as if the universe had been robbed of its magic. But being liberated from harmful illusions is not the same as disillusionment. The origin of philosophy, it was often said in the ancient world, was wonder: surprise and bafflement led to a desire to know, and knowledge in turn laid the wonder to rest. But in Lucretius' account the process is something like the reverse: it is knowing the way things are that awakens the deepest wonder.

I struggle trying to understand and come to terms with the behaviors of humans and I still cannot understand the ability of most of them to turn away from what is all around them every day.

My first thought on reading this passage was a revulsion of the human condition--one that suffers and scratches and tears at existence with no awareness of what we really are. We are temporary; what we are is eternal. I wonder if there aren't some of us who imagine a future in which humans have evolved into a deep and satisfying understanding of their existence--I bet there are.

I'm not one of them.




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