I have been reading a delightful book about a little known, seminal event of the 15th century. And as I read it, I cannot help but reflect on two seeming contradictions:
1) that human behavior really hasn’t changed much in 700 years, despite the enormous technical and scientific progress which has made our lives much easier, longer, and more comfortable (at least for those of us who are not in war zones); and
2) how remote it seems despite all the seeming similarities, or better yet, how easy it is to forget the past and the lessons it should teach us.
The book concerns the discovery in 1417 in a remote monastery somewhere in what is now Germany, of the text of a classic epic poem presumed lost for a thousand years.
The author of this poem was a Roman thinker and philosopher called Lucretius, who lived and died in the Roman Republic. In other words, in a period of intense intellectual inquiry and activity, as well as political turmoil, before Romans overthrew the republic and fell into the straitjacket of an imperial mindset. It was a period of artistic achievement to which classical scholars still refer, of poets and thinkers still quoted today — Cicero, Virgil Horace, and Ovid. Religiously, it was a period of — to use an often misunderstood word — paganism. The Romans, and the Greeks before them, recognized many Gods, a multi-purpose pantheon. Monotheism was practiced mainly in Judea, which the Republic had conquered in 63 BCE. Lucretius called his epic poem, “On the Nature of Things,” and it was (is) a beautifully written poem (so the Latin scholars say) of several thousand lines with a radical, revolutionary explanation of the way the world works.
I see no reason to believe that religion will disappear
Lucretius, who lived until about 53 BCE, would have known of the practices of Judaism, but he had little to say about specific religious practices in his great poem. His quarrel was against religion in general. His poem, which was very long and deeply philosophical, was primarily to promote Epicureanism, a philosophy of life which was at that point hundreds of years old, having first been propounded by a Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Epicureanism was dismissed as a trivial philosophy of pleasure seeking, but there was much more to it than that, and it became viewed in later centuries as a threat to organized religion.
The basic challenge that Lucretius’ poetic encomium to Epicureanism posed to establishment thinking was based on a radical theory of matter — that everything is made of invisible particles. He did not use the Greek term atoms, but defined these particles as not only invisible but constantly in motion unless they come together to form something. They cannot be divided, but will come apart at times. In other words, Epicureanism was based on atomic theory, which was in his time scientifically unprovable, and was not proven by science for almost 2,000 years. His poem provoked positive responses from some, like Cicero, who thought highly of the stylistic writing. Some responses were negative, finding atomic theory unlikely, and the philosophic conclusions he drew from it unpalatable. He was dismissed as an atheist, but suffered no more than disappointment with his fellow Romans, and perhaps a blow to his ego. He died an unperturbed and natural death sometime around 53 BCE.
This changed over the centuries after his death, especially after the Roman Empire made Christianity its official religion in the 4th century CE. The Church understood the challenge of atomistic theory as it was then called because it introduced randomness as the central core principle of life. It attacked atomism by attacking Lucretius (although I don’t think he cared much having been dead for over 400 years). St Jerome, for example, wrote in the 4th century that Lucretius had been intermittently insane and committed suicide – statements that all scholars believe are untrue. Jerome is a very unreliable source, not only because he was writing four centuries after the fact and with no evidence, but because he was a Catholic priest determined to undermine whatever influence Lucretius’ great poem might still have. As it turned out, it had very little influence at that time, because the text had virtually disappeared.
While there were a few scholars and even some priests who knew of the atomistic theory in the centuries that followed, its sudden reappearance in the 15th century certainly marked a large spike of interest in Lucretius’ text, especially after the invention of the printing press in the middle of the 15th century. By the 16th century, the theory had spread widely and had come to influence the thinking of many of the leading intellectuals and scientists — Galileo, Copernicus, Montaigne, Shakespeare and others. Most of these handled it with care, however, not following Lucretius’ use of this radical theory of matter to attack religion at its most basic level.
The reaction of the church to the rediscovery of Lucretius’ epic and radical poem, and its rapid spread, surely accounts for their caution. The charismatic Christian Preacher, Savonarola, denounced atomistic theory in 1496-97, as he led book burning rampages through the streets of Florence. The Florentine Synod banned Lucretius for school reading in 1516, only 99 years after his poem was rediscovered. In 1549, his poem was added to the Catholic list of prohibited books, not abolished until 1966. Thomas More, in a dazzling display of circular logic, embraced Epicureanism and then denounced it as pernicious to faith in his celebrated “Utopia”. The Jesuits condemned the atomistic theory as heresy in 1632. And as a result of this, in 1633, Galileo was sentenced by the inquisition to life imprisonment, under house arrest, for publishing “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems.”
Three hundred and fifty years after Galileo was imprisoned in his house (where he stayed until his death) his theory – and that of Copernicus – of a heliocentric solar system is beyond dispute. And so is the atomic theory. But the fear that if these theories were correct, religion would be diminished was wrong. Religion remains vibrant in a world that, despite the great advances in scientific knowledge, we still can’t entirely comprehend. I see no reason to believe that religion will disappear, even when we get to the core of matter, inside the atom. Religion meets a human need, and will continue to do so. But one size doesn’t fit all and never will.
Attempts to shoehorn into the same mold those whose religious needs differ are bound to cause frustration and violence. So if anything is to weaken religious faith, it will be the tendency to insist that all believers must believe the exact same thing. When I read with dismay of the brutal murders of bloggers in Bangladesh because they are atheists, and that a very responsible Pakistani newspaper has felt obliged to not print a story about those murders because it would offend some of its readers (to the point of violence), it seems to me to be another attack on religion and faith. These are proliferating around the world these days. If Galileo were to return miraculously, the world would look very different materially, but might he not wonder why intellectually and behaviorally the world has not changed very much – still fighting and killing wantonly over religion?
The author is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh, and Chief of Mission in Liberia