Stephen Greenblatt Contemplates the Enduring Power of Lucretius and his Dangerous Ideas

April 2, 2013
Stephen Greenblatt
Full House at Villa Aurelia
Christopher Celenza and Stephen Greenblatt
Stephen Greenblatt signing books
Stephen Greenblatt and Ambasssador Salleo
Ramie Targoff and Kim Bowes
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A lecture by Stephen Greenblatt, RAAR’10, took place Wednesday evening under an auspicious full moon at the Villa Aurelia.  The lecture was made possible with generous support from the United States Embassy.  Quite literally, not a seat was left in the house, as nimbler members of the standing audience were invited to take front row seats on the marble floors. Several of the approximately 250 attendees took advantage of available simultaneous Italian translation, and the speaker did not disappoint. The John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard and best-selling author was introduced by AAR Director Christopher Celenza, FAAR’94, as a “scholar’s scholar,” and indeed Greenblatt’s record of scholarly accomplishments is remarkable. Yet this lecture also demonstrated Greenblatt’s affable manner and astonishing ability to weave human narrative and careful research into compelling oratory.
Professor Greenblatt’s lecture “Lucretius and the Survival of Dangerous Ideas” was inspired by material from his recent publication The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011), which won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize and a 2011 National Book Award. Copies of the book, an account of how Renaissance humanist and bibliophile Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered a 500-year-old copy of the poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by Roman philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus in a German monastery in 1417, were sold out well before his closing remarks. A book-signing followed, and the crowded reception was animated by intense conversations between audience members both from inside and outside the AAR community.

In his lecture, Professor Greenblatt outlined a series of “dangerous ideas” encapsulated in the seductive eloquence of De Rerum Natura that necessarily resulted in a kind of problematic engagement for Christian thinkers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Lucretius, after all, explored the principle of atomism, and he situated chance, rather than divine intervention, at the heart of the physical universe. The universe, he maintained, has no creator; nature is random, humanity is not the pinnacle of creation, religion is cruel, and the highest goal of life (in line with Epicurean philosophy) should be the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. How was it possible that such a heretical document could be translated, circulated, and even discussed during the Renaissance, when fears of the Catholic Inquisition posed a very real threat to scholarship?

Professor Greenblatt explained how, in his view, the intolerable was made more tolerable in part by means of strategies of avoidance. Many scholars further neutralized the poem by operating on the principle that Lucretius’ 1st-century BC worldview was long dead and therefore entirely innocuous. Lucretius was taken to task in extensive marginal notations that corrected the author’s grievous misunderstandings of the universe for God-fearing Renaissance readers. Others praised the artistic merits of the poem while holding to a policy of silence about its ideological foundations. Ultimately, Professor Greenblatt presented a powerful argument in favor of the importance of De Rerum Natura in reviving and sustaining secular discourse in modern Europe.

Professor Greenblatt’s book sparked some heated debates in academic circles, upon its publication, particularly between Medieval and Renaissance specialists, but there were no hot topics raised during the question-and-answer session at the AAR. This was perhaps because, as if to defuse some criticism, Professor Greenblatt began by asking the audience, “What death is worse for the soul than the freedom to err?” (Augustine, Epistola cv), making clear the extremity of the ideological strictures against which Lucretius’ ideas managed to survive. In fact, his lecture went on to remind us that figures like Lucretius, Augustine, Marsilio Ficino, John Locke, Thomas More, and Lucy Hutchinson, one of the poem’s most unlikely translators, are complex protagonists in a human history that is inherently marked by contradictions and cognitive dissonances that become the very engines of scholarship itself. One of the most amusing contradictions that Professor Greenblatt chose to highlight was that despite Epicurus’ famous rejection of poetry, Lucretius chose to explain Epicurean philosophy in 7,400 eloquent Latin dactylic hexameters.

Professor Greenblatt’s lecture drew a diverse crowd to the Academy on Wednesday and his arguments were intriguing and entertaining. As he has done in his many books, he revealed himself to be a master at wrestling with difficult ideas in ways that are both compelling and accessible to a broad audience.