How Atomism and Lucretius Made the Renaissance Modern

Our lecture will attempt to present a brief overview of atomism and the idea of the immortal soul.  The topic of our presentation is the Epicurean school of philosophy, its brilliant exposition by the philosopher/poet, Lucretius, in On the Nature of Things, and the return of the naturalistic philosophy to Renaissance Italy.  It is an exciting story, how Lucretius’s 50 B.C.E. poem was almost lost, how copies were made and spread across Italy in the 15th and 16th Centuries, and how its influence proliferated throughout the Western world.  The Epicurean contribution to the Renaissance helped with that world’s advance into the modern spirit.  It benefited and reinforced thinkers’ unbelief in the dogmas and doctrines of the Catholic Church.  Some people embraced an early atheism, as well.  I will begin the lecture with some definitions of essential ideas, go over some of the history and philosophic stances of the Epicureans, and then relate how the humanist scholar, Poggio, brought the classical Lucretius back from oblivion.  The lecture will conclude with the question of atheism in the 15th and 16th Centuries and the significant contribution of the Epicurean philosophy to modern thought.

Atomism is the very ancient idea that the foundations of all matter are small, indivisible units.  The classical Greeks, Leucippus, and particularly his pupil, Democritus, put forth an idea of an atomist universe around 400 B.C.E. There is still an unresolved question of whether ancient India, which had also conceived atomic theory, influenced Democritus, or whether Democritus’ concepts influenced Indian thinking.  However, from the time of Galen, around 166 A.C.E. until its embrace by Pierre Gassendi in the early 17th Century, atomic theory in the West had been pushed aside, and frequently ignored, if remembered at all.  During the 15th and 16th Centuries, the Church endeavored to stop its spread and its teaching, which was a direct contradiction to Catholic doctrine.  The Church was intensely active in trying to obliterate the memory of such philosophies as Epicureanism, with its emphasis on atomism.

The idea of the immortal human soul is a very ancient concept as well.  As those who follow these lectures might recall, I discussed the notion of the soul in Part One of the Illusion of Immortality. Many classical Greek scholars embraced the notion of the immortal soul.  The famous philosopher, Socrates’ (469-399 B.C.E.) beliefs concerning the soul were developed by his pupil and follower, Plato (424 -347 B.C.E.).  It was the brilliant Christian theologian, Thomas Aquinas (1255- 1274 C.E.) who helped finalize the concept that the soul was not material and not dependent on the body in his Summa Theologica, Question 75. By around 1513, belief in an immortal soul was official church doctrine and the consequences of denying the dogma were very severe, sometimes being punished with the auto-da-fe, being burned to death at the stake.

I would like to add that monism was an issue that came into play continuously, from the time of the ancient Greeks, through the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and is still being debated in the present day.  Monism is the belief that all matter is made up of a single substance.  The philosopher, Spinoza, was the most important proponent of monism in the 17th Century.  Dualism rejects such thinking.  An important question for the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and finally, for our own time, is whether the mind, or consciousness, is not separate from, and dependent on the physical brain.  Most modern thinkers believe that the mind is part of the body, at least partially so, if not wholly. 

Theists do not accept such a concept.  Rather, they embrace the notion that the soul is independent of the body and, as we have said, immortal.  Although a simplistic idea of monism is no longer accepted by most modern scientists and philosophers, a more complex materialism remains alive, well and growing.  Most modern atheists and many scientists embrace the theory that mind and consciousness might be nothing more than particular aspects or arrangements of physical matter.

All such ideas, atomism, the concept that the immortal soul was an illusion, and that the mind, or soul,  and body were of the same substance, were anathema to most Christian belief, and such concepts languished during the Middle Ages. A number of ancient manuscripts had been preserved in monasteries and copied out by monks. Some of these ancient writers discussed the ideas that thinkers were forbidden to entertain by the time of the Middle Ages.  The life of the mind in Western Europe was all but extinguished.  In a while, we shall discuss why monks were given the task of copying the classics and how they were expected to carry it out.  The tale of the monasteries keeping culture alive was only partially true. The Dark Ages was no misnomer.  But the strictures against heresy remained into the Renaissance of the humanists, those scholars who turned to the ancient classics to learn and enjoy those works’ beautiful and distinguished Latin, elegant style and interesting, if dangerous, ideas.

Before we go on to our discussion of Epicureanism, I would like to take a few minutes’ time to discuss one more unresolved, but very important issue.  There are scholars, too many, who claim there were no atheists before the 17th or 18th Centuries- that not enough scientific progress or conceptual theories had developed for educated people to be able to mentally arrive at a true atheism. They argue, instead, that there was merely doubt concerning specific church doctrines. An important critic, Lucian Febvre, wrote a significant work on Rabelais, The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century, 1942, in which he claimed that there was no early atheism.  Many scholars of the present day, although not enough as yet, contradict such a notion.  I agree with those dissenting scholars, and I hope to demonstrate during this lecture that there were indeed not just doubters and heretics in the 15th and 16th Centuries, but atheists.  Most of them were silent.  Those who were outspoken were often tortured and/or executed.

The resurrection of the Epicurean philosophy contributed to the human ability to think, evaluate and choose.  The chains were removed from people’s minds during the Renaissance.  There were several currents at work that helped with this loosening of church authority. One of the most important was the emergence of the philosophic poem, On the Nature of Things, written by Lucretius, the Roman poet and an Epicurean, about 50 to 55 B.C.E.

That this great work survived was a lucky chance, and that it was discovered, copied and distributed was another fortuitous event.  In the winter of 1417 C.E., Poggio Bracciolini rode through the stark wooded hills and valleys of southern Germany. He was a young Italian man, who had recently lost a very prestigious job.  He had been a scriptor in the Vatican, a writer of official documents concerning the papal bureaucracy.  Poggio was known for his exquisite handwriting and the quickness of his copying, far above the average.  By tact, efficiency and shrewdness, he had managed to be appointed to the much coveted spot of apostolic secretary.  In this position, he wrote down the Pope’s words, recorded his decisions, and conducted the Pope’s international correspondence, according to historians. Poggio would end his life as a wealthy man and chancellor of Florence.  But at present, he was unemployed.  Pope John the 23rd had been deposed by the General Council of Constance.  The Council had decided that the Pope’s “detestable and unseemly life” had brought scandal to the Church and that he was no longer fit to be the head of the large and powerful Catholic Church.  Most of his court lost their jobs along with him.

Poggio was one of the large group of scholars and men of letters who called themselves humanists. Petrarch had been the leading proponent of this movement in the earlier 14th Century, which emphasized grammar, history, poetry and moral philosophy.  Petrarch, called the Father of Humanism, was a Christian, as were most of the humanists, but he was determined to study the classical literature of ancient Greece and Rome and to recover that world.  The recovery was definitely cultural and secular. There was an increasing interest in the natural world as well. Crucial to the project of recovery was finding and copying the ancient manuscripts, most often scrolls, from the obscurity into which they had fallen, often crumbling to dust, their work cleaned from vellum pages to make room for Christian works, or even burned for heat in  a severe winter in a monastery somewhere.

Poggio was an avid book collector, and he was motivated by the love of the hunt, the desire not to just find a stellar literary creation from antiquity, but to have it copied and to claim the glory. There was competition for such prizes, but Poggio had time on his hands, youth and a winning personality. He had the ability to tell a joke here, listen gravely there, and thus penetrate a monastery library. During this particular winter, he was on his way to a distant German abbey with a reputation for holding a superb collection of manuscripts.  What he would find would contribute to unsettling the foundations of the culture he lived in- its darkness, superstition, ignorance and repression.  That winter, he was able to save a copy of On the Nature of Things.  He ordered it copied by his scribe, and that copy bred many more.  Those copies were responsible for helping disseminate the naturalistic and materialistic Epicurean philosophy throughout the Western nations of the world.

Let us now leave Poggio on his freezing and difficult journey and turn to the sunny and hot climate of 4th Century Greece, the Greece of Epicurus, founder of the unique and daring Epicureanism.  The philosopher was a descendant of an old Athenian family, whose father had immigrated to the island of Samos. For a while, he was a teacher of philosophy in Mytilene and Lampsacus. Around 306 B.C.E., he founded an important philosophic school in Athens, called the “Garden of Epicurus.”

The pupils were his followers and for many centuries, his school and its rivals were the formulators of Greek, and later Roman, philosophical inquiry and speculation. The other major schools were Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Zeno’s Stoics.  It was the custom of the time to denounce each other and the various schools did it thoroughly.  The Epicureans vilified the Stoics, the Lyceum, the Academy and so on, and the rival schools fired back.  It is unfortunate that they spread untrue tales concerning the Epicureans, circulating stories about the sexual licentiousness, ribaldry, gluttony and alcoholism of the Garden.  None of these scandalous tales were true: Epicurus found a good cheese the height of pleasure rather than a rich meal.  He ate and drank modestly and lived very simply, as did his followers.  Being with friends, living self-sufficiently and discussing philosophical issues was the chosen way of life for the group gathered in the Garden. Living for pleasure, a central tenet of the Epicureans, never meant abandonment to vice or overindulgence. 

Epicurus, despite his fierce denunciations of other philosophic schools, was known for his kindness, generosity and acts of charity.  There was remarkable harmony within the group surrounding him, as they were all like-minded philosophers.  Gender, wealth and social status were downplayed among this group of scholars, who tried to live as equals in the Garden. They looked up to Epicurus as something more than a philosopher- savior is too strong a word, and in our contemporary time has a theistic resonance.  But Epicurus did have a mission of salvation that went beyond practicing abstract philosophy: he wanted to rid humans of the fear of death and the fear of what might happen to them after death.  He wanted to bestow peace of mind on the anxiety-ridden people he saw everywhere he went.

It is important to emphasize, however, that he was also a thinker who could and did philosophize with the best schools current in the Hellenistic society they all lived in. He was a prolific writer and his ideas and speculations were not commonplace but sophisticated, subtle and complex.  He was an empiricist, whose scientific inquiries were very advanced.  Of course, many of his scientific theories were incorrect.  But when one considers that the ancients had no telescopes, and no other instruments with which to measure and evaluate the cosmos and the natural world, the conclusions they arrived at, using observation and logic, are breathtaking.

Epicurus was not only a radical empiricist concerning knowledge, he was also a metaphysical materialist.  Although he, in the typical manner of the Hellenistic times, denounced even Democritus and Leucippus, nevertheless he borrowed an important theory from them and expanded it.  He was an atomist. He believed there were an infinite number of infinitesimal, invisible particles that moved in an infinite void that was absolute. The particles were governed by the three natural laws of weight, collision and swerve.  Because of his belief in the atomic swerve, Epicurus fashioned a wholly naturalistic theory or model of human free will.

Scholars still argue the question of whether or not Epicurus was an atheist.  It is difficult to determine because there were penalties for not believing in the gods.  One could even be executed for such unbelief.  It was rare, but the threat was in the background.  Epicurus believed that the height of felicity was pleasure, which included the attempt to avoid pain.  While Epicurus found taking part in civic duties a waste of time, perhaps a dishonorable waste of time, he attended most of the great citywide religious festivals and took care to note the fact down. He told his followers, called The Friends, that they should publicly criticize those who engaged in political life, but not if they should be in a situation where they might receive kicks and other physical violence.  It is important to remember that political and religious rituals were virtually inseparable in the ancient world.  To disparage the gods was to disparage one’s city.

However, Epicurus wrote fairly minutely on the nature of the gods, as he thought they must have some sort of reality based on the widespread belief in them.  He hypothesized that the gods were not real personalities, but rather, as Austin Dacey states, images or shades of a peculiar kind composed of extremely fine atoms.  They were image beings who occupied the spaces between the multiple universes.  Epicurus did not believe our universe was singular.  These gods were more moral ideals than actual entities. They lived lives of perfect contentedness, a sort of absolute and perfect Epicurean existence.  But the important thing for mankind to remember, Epicurus stated, was that the gods did not bother with the affairs of mankind. They neither created nor caused anything to happen, such as the universe, the world, human beings or life in general.  There was no point in praying to them or worshipping them.  People, he maintained, are able to be perfectly happy on their own.

Without being aggressive about the traditional gods, Epicurus rejected belief in them and the notion that they meaningfully interacted with people.  The belief in a divine creator was not credible, according to the philosopher.  I shall repeat his famous pronouncement concerning the theological problem of evil, even though many atheists are familiar with it because it is so elegant and succinct. He said: “Either god wants to abolish evil and cannot, or he can, but does not want to…If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent.  If he can but does not want to, he is wicked…If as they say, god can abolish evil, and god really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?”

Friendship was considered one of the highest priorities of the Epicurean good life, and personal relationships were cherished.  Pleasure was encompassed by simple living, dining and quiet enjoyment.  Discussing philosophy with friends, as we have said, was a joy to them. I would like to repeat once again that the Bacchanalian reputation the Epicureans were accused of was a fiction, partly brought on by the unfortunate habit of the different philosophical schools denouncing each other on a regular basis. Epicurus’ position on pleasure was misunderstood by vulgar minds. The walled off life of the Epicureans in the Garden created suspicion and resentment as well. But Epicureans loved the life of the mind and advocated moderate pleasures of the body.  When Epicurus was dying, in great pain, he remained strong, cheerful and brave; his first thoughts were for the welfare of others.

The question of death, or rather, our fear of it, was of major importance to Epicurus.  He believed religion had increased people’s fear of punishment after dying, or at the least had intensified their fear of the unknown.  He argued that we have nothing to fear from death. Here are his words: “Whatsoever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation.  Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and when death is come, we are not.  It is nothing, then, either to the living or the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.” He went on to say: “The true understanding of the fact that death is nothing to us renders enjoyable the mortality of existence, not by adding indefinite time, but taking away the yearning for immortality.”

A.A. Long and other scholars of Hellenistic philosophy explain how important a philosophy Epicureanism became.  N.W. DeWitt calls it “the only missionary philosophy produced by the Greeks.”  Prior to his arrival at Athens, Epicurus had created a following at Lampsacus and Mytilene.  His disciples helped spread the philosophy throughout the Mediterranean world.  There were branches at Antioch and Alexandria early on.  Later the philosophy spread widely into Italy and Gaul, according to Long.  Cicero, the famous philosopher, politician and author, did not like the Epicureans. We know a great deal about their philosophy from his writing, and in the 1st Century B.C.E., he wrote: “The Roman Epicureans by their writings have seized the whole of Italy.”  He took no pleasure from that fact. 

The Epicureans rivaled the Stoics and later, the Christians, becoming strongest just before the fall of the Roman Empire.  The philosophy did not suffer a sudden decline.  Seneca, the well-known Stoic, quoted Epicurus approvingly. But the most wonderful event of all, with regard to preserving the tenets of Epicureanism, took place in the interior of what is now modern Turkey in 200 C.E.  This is the spot where an elderly man called Diogenes (not to be confused with the Cynic philosopher of the same name) commissioned a large stone wall with a huge inscription containing Epicurus’ philosophical tenets carved into the wall.  Between 1884 and the present, many fragments of the wall were recovered and it has contributed much of what we know about Epicurean moral teaching and its attempts to benefit humanity and forward happiness.  The recovery of the wall’s fragments was centuries after the founding of the Garden.

Christian morality and Christian power crushed much pagan philosophy, and Epicureanism was particularly anathema to the Christian notion of god and immortal life.  There are trustworthy reports that Epicurus wrote over 300 books or scrolls, his most important title being On Nature. There are only fragments left.  There are three letters from Epicurus still extant, one concerning atomism, one on astronomy and only one account, and a simplified one at that, of Epicurean moral philosophy.  There are some preserved doctrines and maxims.  In Herculaneum during the 18th Century, a wealthy Roman’s library, which was in charred remains, was discovered. It contained work by Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher and poet.  Some fragments from this library have been reconstructed.

We have secondary sources in Diogenes, Seneca, Cicero, and Plutarch, as well as Sextus Empiricus’ complementary discussion of Epicurean empiricism.  Diogenes’ wall is one of the best sources of Epicurean philosophy.  But the most important information has come down to us from a young Roman, who wrote the philosophical poem, On the Nature of Things.  This poem, written 200 years after Epicurus’ death, is a sublime work of art, a piece of genius which turned the rather prosaic style of Epicurus into a superb achievement that sang resoundingly of both philosophy and poetry.

Curiously we know very little about Titus Lucretius Carus, the author of On the Nature of Things, and one of the major poets of antiquity. We are uncertain about his dates.  It appears he was born around 99 B.C.E. and died, forty-four years later, in 55 or 50 B.C.E. We are in complete ignorance of his birth place, social status, residence, personal appearance and activities.  Unfortunately we have a few words from that old scandal monger of a church father, Jerome, who had this to say about Lucretius. “Titus Lucretius, the poet, was born in 95 B.C. Later he was driven mad by a love philter, after he had written several books in the intervals of insanity.  Cicero subsequently corrected these books; Lucretius died by his own hand in the forty-fourth year of his life.”  Not only the story of the love philter and the madness are considered untrue, but also the ridiculous addition of Cicero correcting Lucretius’ books. Jerome loved to make up scandalous tales about pagan thinkers and writers, so no one with a background in the classics takes his nonsensical tale seriously.

Cicero never mentions Lucretius in his official letters listing important authors, yet in a private letter to his brother, he maintains that his brother is correct concerning Lucretius’ creative genius and literary art.  Cicero detested Epicureans, as you will remember, so perhaps not mentioning Lucretius publicly was a snub to the philosophy.  Scholars are well aware that Lucretius influenced Virgil’s Aeneid, and Lucretius is often mentioned in classical writing, always with respect and admiration. We must be content with these fragments because they are all that have survived.

We know from reading the great work he left behind that he was a master of Latin.  His last name belonged to a distinguished old Roman family.  Yet there is the fact that former slaves frequently took the last name of the family by whom they had been owned.  Lucretius called Latin his native, ancestral tongue. He was likely a well-educated Roman from a distinguished family.  Whether a highly moral man, like Epicurus, or a libertine, he seems to have led an intensely private life, in accordance with his philosophy.  One thing we can be sure of is his intense devotion to Epicurean philosophy, so intense that he transformed Epicurus’ work day prose into a unique literary creation- a philosophical poem of surpassing beauty that is still in print and read with pleasure by people in the 21st Century.  Here is what the ancient author, Ovid, said concerning On the Nature of Things: “The verses of sublime Lucretius are destined to perish only when a single day will consign the world to destruction.”

And yet, Lucretius’ verses very nearly perished.  By the 1400’s C.E., there was little more than a citation of the poem here, and one there, in lists and chronicles of books from antiquity.  Book hunters stumbled on works from the classical world, often by luck or by chance.  There was one copy of Lucretius that we know of in a monastery library in the early 1400’s, and two in private hands, which would not be released for years and years. Lucretius was nearly forgotten, as was the Epicurean philosophy.  Christian thought reigned supreme, as well as ignorance, superstition and delusion.

Let us now return to Poggio, because he had arrived at the gates of the German monastery he was seeking, and it is to him that we owe the return of Lucretius and secular thought to the Renaissance. He did not know it, but his Christian society would be forever changed as modern concepts spread and caught fire throughout the Western world.  The monastery might have been that of Fulda, in Central Germany, somewhat in decline by Poggio’s time, but reputed to have an extensive library.  Scholars differ but there is a small consensus that it was at Fulda that Poggio found On the Nature of Things. He never revealed the place in his writings.

It was known that Poggio did not like monks.  There were a few of them with great learning and seriousness, but Poggio believed that most of them were superstitious, ignorant and lazy.  In the earliest days of the founding of the monasteries, devout, if odd and sometimes hostile people made their way to the abbeys. But by Poggio’s time, noble families dumped their least promising scions there, merchants sent their physically or mentally disabled children to them and peasants with too many mouths to feed got rid of some of their family members there.  The Abbey at Fulda was self-supporting, however, with money coming from noble families and many important connections.  Poggio, an out of work papal secretary with limited funds, would have been at a distinct disadvantage trying to achieve access to its library.

The old Benedictine rule for monasteries prevailed almost everywhere at that time.  Copying in the ancient world had been done by educated slaves.  The monks were aware of this fact.  It was not an exalted position.  Copying was considered boring and humiliating- perfect for instilling discipline and humbleness in the sight of god.  When the Roman Empire fell apart, the schools and teachers from that era slowly began to vanish.  It was the monasteries who gathered up the books that were being abandoned here and there.

But for the monks, reading was a spiritual, not an intellectual exercise.  An earlier founder of the rules for monastic living insisted that all monks in monasteries would be compelled to learn how to read if they did not know how when they entered the order. By the time of the Benedictine rules, first written in the 6th Century, the monastic company listened to oral readings from scriptures or other holy books when they were all gathered at meals. The monks took turns reading aloud and pride in reading well was a sin to be avoided.  They were also supposed to read silently at prescribed periods during the day.  This rule was to keep them busy and focused on serious topics, helping them avoid gossip, frivolous behavior and trivial conversations.  Reading also was supposed to help stave off what Father John Cassian diagnosed as Acediosus, or what we call depression.  Cassian called it the noon day demon.  If a monk suffering this disease did not get better and settle down to reading, he would be beaten.  Thus physical pain drove out mental unhappiness.  What a change from the reading of the ancient world, when readers read for intellectual communion with great minds and scientific and philosophical enlightenment. The ancients were egotistical and curious, traits which the monasteries abhorred.  But the humanists of the Renaissance were very similar to the ancients in their egoism and thirst for knowledge.

At any rate, books and scrolls tended to fall apart.  Commercial book workshops had folded and there was no longer contact with the Egyptian makers of papyrus.  The monks had to learn paper making and also how to clean old written works from paper and rewrite on the newly bare pages. Monks were not merely the principal book savers and librarians; they were also the principal book producers of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance.  But it was not for love of literature and learning.

Copying, as we have said, was tedious and humiliating.  But monks had to work for their keep and the choices were very limited.  The other work that required a number of people was in the fields- heavy labor that produced the food for each abbey.  So if a monk wrote with a fine hand, he was assigned to a scriptorium where he sat long hours, probably about six a day, making copies of books and scrolls.  Stephen Greenblatt quotes what some monks said when they finished an arduous copying task.  One wrote at the end of a book: “Now I’ve written the whole thing.  For Christ’s sake, give me a drink.”

Luckily the scribes, working as we said, at least six hours a day, were completely subordinated to their texts.  This practice virtually guaranteed accurate copies. The monks’ scrupulous attention to the text of the books they copied eliminated the corruptions introduced in earlier centuries by careless copying or copying with a religious or historical agenda. Curiosity or initiative was to be avoided at all costs.  A cut out sheet with a window covered the manuscript very often, so the monk could concentrate on one line of text at a time.  During the 6th to 8th Centuries, ancient works almost ceased to be copied as Christian texts had grown numerous enough to be copied and used. 

Sadly, the ancient pagan works, once so threatening and alluring that they had to be censored became truly forgotten. Educated people and even church fathers forced themselves to forget them and to break the habit of reading them. The works moldered away in monastic libraries, falling into dust or scraped off or washed off to be used for Christian works.  If not for first, Petrarch, and then a plethora of humanists, the West would have lost many more works than we did. As it is, we have a miniscule amount of the splendid works from the gifted writers of the ancient world.  There was little love of books or of fine writing in the monasteries.  Everything was dedicated to the Christian god and the Catholic Church.  But there were treasures from antiquity in some monastery libraries.

Greenblatt reports that when a monk needed a book to copy, he would have to make gestures, as no speaking was allowed in the scriptorium.  So he would reach out his hands and make a gesture of turning pages over, the standard sign for a book request.  When he needed, say King David’s psalms, he would perform the standard gesture, and then make a crown with his hands. If the monk needed a pagan work, he would give the general sign, and then he would scratch behind his ears, like a dog with fleas.  If he needed a dangerous pagan work, he would often put two fingers in his mouth as if gagging.

It was in such an atmosphere that Poggio had to maneuver, and it was essential for him to find favor with the monastery’s librarian.  The chief librarian was in charge of everything, not only books, but tools, down to the rulers the scribes used.  As we said, Poggio never openly disclosed which monastery he had visited after his long, cold and dangerous journey.  It is likely that it was Fulda.  But with his worldly politeness, shrewdness and gracious personality, he managed to ingratiate himself at the Abbey and was allowed entrance to the library.  Initially he made several small, but significant finds, such as an important Latin grammar and so on.

But how his heart must have skipped a beat when he pulled out a manuscript of a long text by Titus Lucretius Carus, On the Nature of Things.  It was much older than the other works Poggio had found up to that point; it was a work of literature that was dated around 50 B.C.E. Poggio was a true humanist- he would have recognized Lucretius’ title from reading praise of the work from such stern critics as Ovid and Cicero and other classical authors.  He and his humanist friends and competitors had never found more than scraps of Lucretius’ poem and likely never thought they would ever read the complete work.  I was a book hunter for many years myself, so I understand the overwhelming feeling of delight Poggio must have had when he read the opening lines.  He knew both Latin and poetry, and he must have instantly appreciated the beauty and power of Lucretius’ verses. During his stay at the monastery, he ordered his scribe to begin copying the manuscript. Stephen Greenblatt conjectures that it is not clear whether Poggio had any intimation at all that he was releasing a book that would help, in time, to dismantle his entire culture.

Poggio returned to Florence and his reviving career, while his scribe stayed behind at the German monastery, copying Lucretius. The monasteries seldom trusted the avaricious and rather light-fingered humanists to return the volumes or scrolls they borrowed, so most works had to be copied on the spot. Poggio finally received his copy of the manuscript and sent it off to his close friend, Niccolo Niccoli, an independently wealthy and scholarly humanist.  Niccoli made a copy of On the Nature of Things in his own elegant handwriting.  But then he kept the copy in his possession, despite repeated requests from Poggio to have it returned.  Niccoli kept it more than ten years, possibly twelve, but finally Poggio had Lucretius returned to him.  Poggio’s scribe’s copy has been lost.  Possibly, because of Niccoli’s finer handwriting, the scribe’s copy was discarded. 

Scholars state that more than fifty manuscripts of On the Nature of Things from the 15th Century have survived to the present day.  As soon as Guttenberg’s printing press became commercially viable, many more printed editions became available.  The printed editions always carried a warning and a disavowal, so obviously some people were very aware that the work was dangerous. A contagion had been unleashed into Florence, Italy.  But it was not one of disease, but health.  The ringing words, the elegant verse of Lucretius captured the minds of educated, beauty loving Florentines. His dangerous philosophy was also embraced by some of them, and Epicurean ideas began to spread throughout Florence, then Italy, then most of the Western European nations.

I am indebted to Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve for a summary of the most important points in Lucretius’ lengthy poem. Lucretius spoke in a modern style and manner concerning men, society, the gods, physics, atomism and so on.  We shall glance at some of his concepts in order to understand what was so dangerous and so important about his philosophical poem.  The work is composed of 7, 400 lines in hexameters and divided into six books, which are not titled. It opens with a beautiful hymn to Venus, goddess of love.  That initial poem is sublime on its own and must have been responsible for drawing readers in to savor more of the verses. Once a reader continued on with the work, he or she would ultimately reach the core arguments.  The contemporary reader will recognize them because much of modern thought is founded on these principles, despite the raging dispute concerning them, even during the present day.

Lucretius maintained that everything is made of invisible particles.  They are infinite in number and constantly in motion.  Everything, the entire universe, is made from them and they are timeless.  The mutation of forms is ceaseless but the particles are infinite- they are all in motion in an infinite void.  Particle and void are all that exist.  Lucretius argued that the universe has no creator or designer.  There is no divine scheme.  Instead, there is a swerve that brings everything into being, strictly by chance.  The particles do not move in the same pre-determined direction.  Every so often they defect from their course and so their position is indeterminate.  This swerve is only a minimal motion, but with such endless combinations it creates all life as a result. 

Lucretius also maintained that the swerve is the result of human free will.  He used the analogy of the instant the racehorse wills his mass into motion.  But because racehorses must have a driver that spurs them to movement, Lucretius explained that humans are different.  Although outside forces may strike against us, he said, we may quite deliberately hold ourselves back.

There is no single moment of creation, but a ceaseless movement of evolution, of trial and error as nature invents and reinvents.  Lucretius states that “what has been created gives rise to its own function.”  Seeing light did not exist, he argued “before the birth of the eyes, nor speech before the creation of the tongue.”  Such organs, he maintained, had no purposed end- they gradually emerged and helped the creatures they emerged in to survive and reproduce. 

The universe, Lucretius stated, was not specifically created for humans.  Our planet is harsh, replete with diseases, a severe climate, wild beasts and so on.  It was obvious to Lucretius that the earth was not a product of design for humans. He noted how a human baby is almost completely helpless and could not survive without its mother.  We were not divinely created, but evolved weak and vulnerable at first.  He observed that some species of life exist, and then are wiped out, that creation and destruction, by chance, is the true description of the nature of things.  We, too, we humans will eventually die out, to be replaced or followed by other life forms. 

It follows that we humans are not unique.  We are made up of the aforementioned particles and we are of the same stuff as other life forms, indeed, all life forms, even the inorganic ones. Each human is individually unique, Lucretius admits, but so are animals, probably all the more complex creatures. He asks how a cow can tell its calf or a calf recognize its mother, if they, too, are not individual?  Many feelings and experiences of our lives are not sui generis, not exclusive to our species.

Lucretius understood that our human societies began in, not a Golden Age, but a brutal competition for survival.  There was no Golden Age, but a harsh struggle for life.  We humans lacked fire, agriculture and other means to make life more supportable for many years.  Human societies developed slowly; at first there was only rudimentary cooperation between people and random mating, rape, mutual desire, or barter between the sexes. Lucretius mocked the notion that language was given to us as a miraculous invention.  He believed that we made gestures and voiced inarticulate sounds at first.  Gradually people began to share sounds that would designate the same things.  We slowly developed agriculture and communities, the arts of civilization.

But such arts, Lucretius argued, were not an unmixed blessing, despite our monumental accomplishments, due to shared talents and mental powers.  Civilization grew comingled with fear of gods, and with a craving for wealth, social status and power. He believed that these anxious strivings were the result of our early struggles to survive.  Our existence had been extremely precarious and the feeling of vulnerability remained with us despite our greater security in the present.   The weapons we developed to survive, he said, we now turned against ourselves.

Lucretius believed there was a human soul of sorts, made up of tiny particles and perhaps hidden in the body’s most secret recesses.  But he was certain that the soul was made up of matter, the same stuff of the rest of the body.  The soul was not immaterial or transcendent.  In fact, he maintained that when the body dies, the soul also dies.

There was no afterlife in Lucretius’ belief system.  He maintained people had formed delusional false hopes and fears for centuries about an eternal life.  They speculated endlessly and fearfully whether there was a paradisiac place of eternal delight and/or a region of punishment for wrongs committed on earth.  They wondered where they would end up. Lucretius thought that when people understood that the soul died along with the body, they would divine that there was no immortality and no reward or punishment beyond the grave. He believed that people would realize that this life was the only one we possess. Lucretius repeated the classical Epicurean doctrine for human salvation- death is nothing to us.  We will not be there when we are dead.  We will feel nothing, neither pleasure nor pain. 

Lucretius unequivocally maintained that all religions were superstitious delusions, based on fear, longing and ignorance.  He believed humans had projected feelings and wishes on to fantasies, such as gods.  We have feelings of awe, say, when we contemplate the stars, are shaken by a substantial storm or think about the universe. We are affected by a sense of disorientation and fear when we experience a series of misfortunes or natural disasters. We attribute such events to divine beings, even though such happenings are merely physical manifestations with natural explanations.  Lucretius believed we became enslaved by religion and other false beliefs when we began to cling to our own delusions.

Religions, he argued, are inevitably cruel, playing off retribution fantasies and generating extreme anxiety in their followers.  He pointed out that the sacrifice of a child by a parent in the name of religion or the gods demonstrated not only the cruelty, but the perversity at the heart of religion.  There were such pagan tales, such as Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia to the gods to help the Greek fleet. Lucretius would not have known the story of Abraham and Isaac.  In 55 B.C.E., he could not have foreseen the mythical narrative at the heart of the Christian religion- the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus by god, his father.  However, he would not have been surprised. He would have judged it as the ultimate perversity of religion.

Lucretius stated that there were no demons, ghosts or angels.  He also unequivocally maintained that the creatures many pagan people believed in did not exist, such as the Fates, harpies, fairies and so on.  None of these creatures had any substance, he said, and needed to be forgotten.

A true Epicurean, Lucretius believed that the true purpose of life was to enhance pleasure and reduce pain.  All other goals, civil, military and so forth, were secondary to this prime purpose.  Enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures was easy to come by and gave true felicity.  Acquisition of material wealth and power, he argued, were false goals.  He thought that such cravings came from the desire of individuals and communities to achieve some sense of security.  Instead, by trying to keep amassing wealth and material possessions and status, men increased their anxiety and unhappiness.

Lucretius has written what is a beautiful and at the same time, disturbing, passage on contemplating a shipwreck and being relieved that we are not in it, but gazing at it from a distance, despite our compassion for those being ravaged by it. He advised that was the manner in which we should gaze at people’s greedy attempts at grasping power and acquiring wealth and be content within ourselves that we are not taking part in such deluded behavior.  We can contemplate the anger and anxiety such false goals cause from the tranquility of the sanctuaries we have created for ourselves.

Lucretius was very insightful- he grasped that the largest obstacle to pleasure was not pain but delusion.  Our minds magnify our fears and longings, many of which are already mental illusions. Lucretius spoke of the horrible Athenian plague, but he said that the fear and panic it spread was a worse outcome than the death it caused.  Once again he discussed how human imaginations conjure up limitless delights or fears, such as eternal life in heaven or in the toils of hell. He wrote beautifully of sexual and romantic love, but he recognized how the desire for limitless possession leads to disappointment and aggression between lovers.

Finally Lucretius maintained that contemplating the true nature of things creates a deep sense of wonder.  Reason, he said, is accessible to everyone. If we use it to look at life and nature with a steady eye, if we use it to reject the myths of the fantasy makers, the priests and prophets, we can attain happiness.  We can achieve peace of mind by understanding that this life is all we have and the cosmos is not arranged for humanity.

Lucretius was not only a great poet, but a man on a philosophic mission: he wanted to grab the reins of power from the priests and other power mongers and supplant their false vision with the truth.  He wanted to bestow peace of mind and happiness to people.  He wanted us to understand that we are merely one part of the world making, natural processes of life, processes that he saw as essentially erotic.  The strange opening of the poem, the hymn to the goddess of love, Venus, makes perfect sense when we understand the work as a whole. His dedication to her fits beautifully with his description of the natural process, the erotic creation of life.  Lucretius was not mad, as the prevaricating St. Jerome claimed. His great work resonates with the force of reason and sanity that confronted and pushed back against an insane and delusional culture. 

As I mentioned earlier, we have about fifty surviving copies of Lucretius from that era of the Renaissance, the 15th Century.  That is a very large extant number, so we can be sure that On the Nature of Things circulated extensively among the educated class of that era.  I don’t want to overstate here.  There were other trends, then and later in the 16th Century, such as Copernicanism, Anabaptists, the Lutherans, advancements in science, and many more disparate waves of thought rippling through Italian society.  However, Epicureanism was a major factor in helping destabilize the Church’s view of divine creation of the universe, of man and all life, as well as the doctrine of an immortal soul that would have eternal reward or punishment in the afterlife.  Belief in Jesus, his resurrection, his virgin birth and so on, began to wane among some people.

I hold the same view as Nicholas Davidson, who believes that atheism did exist in 15th and 16th Century Italy.  In his brilliant article, “Unbelief and Atheism in Italy, 1500-1700,” he cites numerous instances of serious unbelief. I would like to go over some, as the issue of atomism, so central to Epicureanism, and the concept of the non-existence of an immortal soul, so important to that philosophy, came up in accusations of heresy brought against people again and again.  In 1533, the Venetian Council of Ten warned some friars of Saint Fermo that they did not seem to want to live under the rule of their founder but “as sons of iniquity, as Epicureans and Lutherans.”  Davidson makes the keen point that Lutherans meant something real that existed.  Then why not the word atheist?  Was it really only an insult each time someone was accused of atheism?  Such a notion does not seem credible, no matter how many times it is expressed.  Atheism was most likely a small, but real philosophical stance in Italy prior to the Enlightenment.

In 1586, the Inquisition interrogated the prior of Saint Mary of the Graces in Venice, concluding: “You have not believed in anything of our faith and that you are consequently an atheist- that is, that you do not believe there is any God in this world and that the world was created by chance.”  This would seem to be a very clear charge.  If there were trumped up charges against some innocent people, and I am sure there were many, simply claiming the accused denied the virgin birth of Jesus or the truth of the Bible would be enough to send them to the stake.  Why go to the extreme of charging someone with atheism and explaining what the Inquisition meant by the word?  Why add the charge that the prior believed the world was created by chance?  Was this the fear of the Church concerning atheism?  Then why would the Inquisition explain to the populace, who would hear the charges, what atheism was and that it was possible, if fatal, to hold with that idea? Why would it be presented as an option, even if a terrifying one?  Where there is smoke, there is usually some fire.  Because there was such a fear of atheism, some thinkers believe that atheism was real and existed in the 16th Century and very possibly, the 15th.

Renaissance writers frequently credited Epicurus with atheism.  The firebrand, Giordano Bruno, was accused of denying god was the creator of the world.  He may have denied this charge, but in 1591 he had written that he praised Democritus and Epicurus for arguing “that everything throughout infinity suffereth renewal and restoration…alleging a constant and unchanging number of particles of identical material that perpetually undergo transformation one into another.”  His statement was surely an implicit denial of a creator god and an embrace of atomism, although Bruno was likely a pantheist.   

Davidson states that atomist ideas of this sort had been available in Italy since about 1417, when the manuscript of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things had been discovered by Poggio Bracciolini. Atomistic ideas also seem to lie behind passages in texts such as Bernardino Telesio’s Of the Nature of Things in 1565.  Galileo made use of atomism in his Assayer of 1623.  In fact, in 1982, an Italian scholar found a memorandum from the Papal archives that detailed heresies from the past.  What emerged was that the Inquisitor had found evidence of atomism in Galileo’s Assayer. The charges against Galileo were more complex than had been made public.

Savonarola, the religious fanatic who ruled Florence for a few years gave sermons in which he told the women of Florence to laugh at atomism.  Savonarola was finally deposed and executed in 1498 by the pleasure loving and materialistic Florentines.  He had persuaded them a few years earlier to throw their valuables, jewelry, clothes, furs, books, paintings and so on, on a huge “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Now they regretted their losses and wanted to return to their accustomed materialistic ways.  They came to detest his Puritanism and he was hanged and nearly simultaneously burned by the angry citizens of Florence.

In 1513, Pope Leo X issued a condemnation of any teaching that expounded the mortality of the soul.  Pietro Pompanazzi, of the well known Paduan School of philosophy, was likely an atheist, although he claimed he was a Christian.  Pompanazzi, Cardano and Telesio all discussed the problems of immortality in print and fairly openly.  Even though Pompanazzi was forced to recant some of his opinions, the Paduan philosophers seemed to navigate the treacherous waters of faith and went on with their heretical thinking unharmed, although often in danger, particularly Pompanazzi. In 1516, a work of his on the soul and immortality was burned publicly and he was in serious peril of his life for a short period.

Machiavelli was one of the outspoken writers who argued that a belief in the afterlife was nothing more than a human invention to keep order in society.  Alison Brown states that Lucretius was a great influence on Machiavelli, the author of the infamous The Prince, published in 1532.  That volume directly contradicted Catholic Church doctrine and Scholastic philosophy concerning political philosophy and how government should be conducted. Many think it is the first modern treatise of political philosophy. Machiavelli was far too clever to mention the Epicureans in his writings, but at the very time Savonarola was urging Florentines to mock atomism, the young Florentine, Machiavelli, was quietly copying out the entire On the Nature of Things. His handwriting on the copy that belonged to him was conclusively identified in 1961.  It now resides in the Vatican Library, MS Rossi, 884.

Marsilio Ficino, the well-known Renaissance neo-Platonist, was briefly seduced by Lucretius’ poem in his twenties.  His writings on Lucretius do not survive.  Writers and philosophers who had written on suspicious topics in their youth were advised to get rid of them and many of the writers did.  They often burned them.  During the rest of his life, Ficino attacked the Lucretians.

Poggio, himself, and scholars such as his friend, Niccoli, would unearth classical works, read them and praise their elegant Latin grammar and style, while at the same time distancing themselves from the thinking within those works.  Poggio actually accused his bitter rival, Lorenzo Valla, of a heretical adherence to Lucretius’ mentor, Epicurus.  Valla survived and became an important apostolic secretary to one of the popes, but he was frequently in trouble with the church in his earlier years. In around 1440, he had found, with a very sophisticated textual analysis, that the so-called Donation of Constantine was a forged document. The Donation was supposedly a grant of the entire Western Roman Empire to the Catholic Church from Constantine the First, as a reward for a pope having cured him of leprosy. 

Valla cleverly put his Epicurean ideas within a fictional dialogue, a very common literary device at the time in which several scholars would debate various philosophical stances.  In Valla’s On Pleasure, 1430, a character debated Epicureanism with other thinkers.  The Christian character would always emerge the winner in these dialogues, and he did in Valla’s work, with Christian beliefs validated.  But in the meantime, the writer’s ideas had seen the light of day and gained exposure.  Valla’s Epicurean was very likely the character who espoused Valla’s beliefs.

In 1484, the Florentine poet, Luigi Pulci, was not given Christian burial because he had denied miracles and said that “the soul was no more than a pine nut in hot bread.”  That was a remarkable statement for the time, both in its scorn, humor and denial of immortality.  Here is Davidson again on the question of atheism in Italy before the 18th Century.  “There was then, within the community of believers, a startling willingness to question traditional beliefs about god, the creation, the world of the spirit, immortality, Christ’s divinity, the authority of the Bible and Christian morality.” Davidson allows that it was, of course, possible to disbelieve in one or two doctrines, and still retain belief in god, but and I quote: “…it would have been difficult to reject all of them and still claim to be a believer in any sense recognized by the Western Church.”

When Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600, what are we to make of his turning his face away from the crucifix while he was dying?  He was allegedly a pantheist but embraced atomism.   The authorities had bridled his tongue, so we do not know what he would have said at his execution. The authorities considered that what he was saying on the way to his death was dangerous enough to silence him.

Alvise Capuano was sentenced to death as an atheist by the Inquisition in 1580. The sentence read: “When you were an atheist you did not believe god existed, or indeed, any supernatural being.” Paoli Sarpi, a theologian, but one believed to be an unbeliever, told Christoph von Dohna that there were many atheists in Venice in the early 1600’s.  Giulio Cesare Vanini actually paraded his atheism fairly openly.  In 1616, in one of his two books, the De admirandis, he presented all the alternatives to Church teaching discussed among believers, including some that cast doubt on the “very existence of God,” according to Davidson.  He was burned to death for atheism and blasphemy at Toulouse in 1619.  He was thirty four years old.

In 1563, Pietro Strozzi served with the French military forces.  He became chamberlain to the French King, and ultimately the Commander of the French forces in the War of Sienna.  He also commanded Paul the 4th’s troops against the Spanish in 1557. He was an exile from Florence, a cousin of Catherine de Medici.  He was not only a man of action, he was a mathematician who translated Julius Caesar into Greek and collected books and antiquities. “On his deathbed in 1588, he renounced God and denied immortality.  The evening before, he asserted the scriptures were a fiction,” according to Davidson.

Surely most of the people in Italy were believers, but to assert there was no atheism is a canard.  We have just seen a few public instances; we can assume many more of a private nature. Most people do not want to be tortured and then burned to death at the stake.  But there is no question that there were atheists, not only in the 16th Century, but even in the 15th. People who hold dangerous opinions frequently do not voice them from fear of consequences.  There were likely unbelievers throughout the entire Renaissance, if not earlier.

Although Montaigne, the author of the great work, the Essays, was nominally a Christian, he was also a skeptic who embraced some of Lucretius’ ideas on atoms, sex and death.  The Essays, still cherished by thinkers and readers to the present day, were first published in France in 1580 and contain nearly one hundred direct quotations from On the Nature of Things. But it is not only a few ideas or quotations from Lucretius that are important to Montaigne’s work.  Lucretius resonates through this great skeptical volume. In 1989, a 1563 edition of On the Nature of Things sold at auction.  The endpapers were covered with notes and there were a great number of marginalia in French and Latin.  The copy has definitely been identified as Montaigne’s own.  On the verso of the third flyleaf, he had written: “Since the movements of the atoms are so varied, it is not unbelievable that the atoms once came together in this way, or that in the future, they will come together like this again, giving birth to another Montaigne.”

In 1516, the Florentine Synod banned the teaching of the text, On the Nature of Things, from being taught in schools.  But the influence of Lucretius’ book could not be stopped. It had penetrated too far and too deeply.  Its influence spread from Italy, to Spain, to England and to France.  Schopenhauer, Thomas More, Newton and others made references to it over the years.

Let us return to the 15th Century, just for a minute. Sandro Botticelli’s 1482 Primavera painting shows the influence of On the Nature of Things.  His ravishingly beautiful painting, the Birth of Venus, 1486, depicting the goddess of love arising from the sea, must surely have been inspired by Lucretius’ hymn to Venus in On the Nature of Things. Reproductions of the painting are readily available in art books and on the web.  Many scholars are convinced of the resonance of Lucretius’s tribute to Venus in Botticelli’s important work. I hope I have inspired you in this lecture to read Lucretius if you have not done so already.  I hope you will look at Botticelli with the connection he likely had to Lucretius’ great poem in your mind.

We are now at the end of our narrative of how Lucretius came back to Italy again after many centuries.  We have seen his seductive influence on the minds of poets, painters, scientists and philosophers.  He would be an invaluable and even greater influence on the Enlightenment of the 18th Century.  But before we close this discussion, I would like to take us on Lucretius’ voyage to America, to the library of a wealthy American planter, a man who had a talent for science and who possessed a skeptical intelligence.

Thomas Jefferson owned at least five Latin editions of On the Nature of Things, and he also owned translations of it in English, Italian and French.  Jefferson gave our momentous political document, what Stephen Greenblatt states was a “distinctly Lucretian turn.”  Greenblatt maintains that “the turn was to a government whose end was not only to secure the lives and liberties of its citizens but also to serve “the pursuit of Happiness.” The atoms of Lucretius had left their traces on the Declaration of Independence.

In 1820, the seventy-seven-year-old Jefferson wrote to John Adams, another former President, concerning matter in motion and the void.  He said: “On the basis of sensation, of matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need.” A correspondent wrote to Jefferson once, wanting to know his philosophy of life.  This was the answer.  “I am,” Jefferson wrote, “an Epicurean.”

Video of Lecture: How Atomism and Lucretius Made the Renaissance Modern

Lecture: How Atomism and Lucretius Made the Renaissance Modern

Video of Discussion: How Atomism and Lucretius Made the Renaissance Modern

Discussion: How Atomism and Lucretius Made the Renaissance Modern


Brown, Alison. The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence. Cambridge and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Clay, Diskin.  Lucretius and Epicurus. Ithaca, New York and London: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Dacey, Austin.  “Epicurus.” In Tom Flynn, Ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 280.

Davidson, Nicholas.  “Unbelief and Atheism in Italy, 1500-1700.” In David Berman and Michael Hunter, Eds. Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992. 55-87.

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Sloan, Gary.  Titus Carus Lucretius.  In Tom Flynn, Ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 512-513.

Weiss, Roberto.  The Renaissance Discovery of Classical Antiquity. 2nd Ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Ltd., 1988.