I still can't quite understand why I loved this book so much. In 1417 Poggio, a Florentine, having lost his job as Apostolic Secretary when his boss, Pope John XXIII was deposed and imprisoned, finds an old manuscript in an anonymous monastery. The manuscript is the lost poem De Rerum Natura by Roman poet Lucretius and it outlines the atomic theories of Democritus embedded in the atheistic philosophy of Epicure. These powerful ideas spell the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the modern world.
It sounds like a cheap thriller by Dan Brown or a dry as dust history. It is fact and I loved it. It is a wonderful book, beautifully written, and full of some mind-bending ideas of which the Epicurean philosophy is just a gourmet taster.
"Humans, Aristotle wrote, are social animals: to realize one's nature as a human then was to participate in a group activity." On page 69 Greenblatt debunks the Enlightenment idea of the lone genius in favour of a distinctly modern 'team work' approach to collaborative learning.
On page 71 Greenblatt quotes Flaubert: "Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone." Perhaps that moment has returned to us today.
"Epicurus thought it mad to think that divine beings would be interested in human activities. Why should God take human form rather than that of an ant or an elephant? "Christian are like a council of frogs in a pond, croaking at the top of their lungs, 'For our sakes the world was created'." (p98)
"As every pious reader of Luke's Gospel knew, Jesus wept, but there were no verses that described him laughing or smiling, let alone pursuing pleasure." (p105)
"The pattern of dreaming and deferral and compromise is an altogether familiar one: it is the epitome of a failed life." (p151)
"The quintessential emblem of religion .... is the sacrifice of a child by a parent." (p194): Agamemnon and Iphigenia, Abraham and Isaac, God and Jesus.
Amerigo Vespucci described the life of the natives of Brazil as Epicurean. Vespucci was a Florentine and part of the humanist circle who read De Rerum Natura. Thomas More used Vespucci's book as a source for Utopia.
Thomas Harriot observed sun spots and the lunar surface and the sine law of refraction etc etc before others but did not publish for fear of being accused of atheism.
And there is so much more in this wonderful, wonderful book.
May 2012; 263 pages
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57