January 30, 2023
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Harvard professor to discuss ancient poem

The survival of an ancient Roman philosophy that claimed there is no afterlife seemed like an impossibility in the 15th Century. But as Stephen Greenblatt, professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, explores in his most recent book, “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” Christian scholars kept the ideas alive.

Greenblatt will visit Ithaca College at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13 for a presentation in Emerson Suites. He will discuss the survival and distribution of ideas deemed unacceptable by societies around the world.

In his lecture, Greenblatt will discuss a Roman philosophical poem about the universe, called “On the Nature of Things” and written by Titus Lucretius Carus in 50 B.C. Lucretius’ ideas about the world being filled with atoms and there being no afterlife and no creator of the universe were unpopular and unnerving among intellectuals when first published. They were also resented when they resurfaced in 1417. Despite the criticism, Lucretius’ poem came to influence many modern theories and philosophies.

Staff Writer Michael Tkaczevski spoke with Greenblatt about the ancient poem, his book and the research process for the book.

Michael Tkaczevski: Tell me about the ancient poem, “On the Nature of Things.”

Stephen Greenblatt: Around the time of Julius Caesar, a Latin poet, Titus Lucretius Carus, wrote a poem called “On the Nature of Things,” which was in circulation and, at least in a certain segment of Roman society, admired for several hundred years — and then disappeared. It didn’t disappear entirely, because in the year 1417, the poem was recovered. The poem’s ideas were very radical thoughts for the time. What I want to talk about is when totally intolerable, unbearable ideas returned to view, why weren’t they stamped out, how did they circulate, how did they survive?

MT: What were these ideas that Lucretius wrote about?

SG: [Lucretius] was a very distinguished follower of a more ancient Roman philosophical system known as Epicureanism after its principal spokesperson and philosopher Epicurus. Lucretius was simply transmitting the ideas of Epicureanism that taught that the world consists of atoms and infiniteness, and nothing else. That there was no designer, no creator, no afterlife, no providence and so forth. It was effectively a materialist view of the universe. What the ancient Greeks had come up with — actually, the people that Epicurus himself was following — was an idea that there were innumerable, invisible particles that everything’s made up of.

MT: How was this received by Christian scholars in the 15th Century?

SG: As you can imagine, these ideas were not immediately embraced as plausible and wonderful. But they weren’t embraced by the Pagans either, or by Jews or Muslims. The question is, “How do very uncomfortable ideas circulate?”

MT: Why was this poem not destroyed, like how Mayan records were destroyed by Conquistadores?

SG: It’s true that [Bishop] Diego de Landa burned those Mayan texts, so there certainly were instances of … antipathy to unacceptable ideas. But Diego de Landa was recalled to Spain to explain himself, because the Spanish authorities, who were good Catholics, didn’t actually think well of that strategy. It’s an account of what can and can’t be tolerated, but that’s true of all societies.

MT: How does this relate to modern society?

SG: All societies have things they can stand and have boundaries which we use to stabilize our lives. I’m interested in how societies draw lines on what can be tolerated and what is not to be tolerated.

MT: What was the research process like?

SG: I worked for … six years, on this stuff. For me, this was a lot of heavy lifting, but fun heavy lifting all the same. The heavy lifting that scholars do is … trying to do it so it’s not simply stuff that people will be assigned to do, but they will find it interesting, engaging, exciting. But no, if you mean did I descend into a maze and find a lost manuscript? No, alas.

MT: What will people take away from this lecture?

SG: I think people will come out thrilled, gratified and convinced that a life without the humanities is a diminished life.

MT: How did you work with other scholars on your book, “The Swerve?”

SG: I wrote the book myself, but of course these things are never one-man or one-woman shows. They involve communities of people and, in this case, a community that stretches back several thousand years.