Recovering a Lost Treasure

by | November 9, 2019

By James Haught

James Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He is 87-years-old and would like to help secular causes more. This series is a way of giving back.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt, W.W. Norton & Co., hardback, 356 pages, $26.95.

By James A. Haught

Ancient Greece, birthplace of Western civilization, was contradictory. It produced the first known thinkers who tried to understand the world through logic and observation, instead of through supernatural explanations. Yet Greeks also sacrificed thousands of animals to imaginary gods on Mount Olympus, and gave gold to mystical “oracles” who babbled in trances. Greeks even fought the “Sacred Wars” over treasure stolen from the Oracle at Delphi.

Surrounded by so much religion, one of the foremost logical thinkers was Epicurus (341-270 BCE), who taught that there’s no actual evidence for gods, devils, heavens, hells, miracles, prophecies and the like – so people simply should lead rewarding lives here and now. He also speculated that all matter consists of invisible atoms swerving endlessly, and that creatures change through evolution. His scientific hunches later proved amazingly valid.

Epicurus was first to articulate the philosophical quandary called “the problem of evil.” If God is all-loving and all-powerful, he wrote, why does he allow horrible suffering and cruelty in the world? Either God cannot prevent the agony, or he callously doesn’t want to, Epicurus reasoned. There’s no other possible conclusion. In all the centuries since, clergymen have been unable to refute this clear logic.

Epicurus called religion “irrational fancies” and “credulous belief in the reality of phantoms.” Instead of wasting time on such nonsense, he said, people should seek the best possible lives while they have ability to do so.

A couple of centuries later, Roman thinker Titus Lucretius Carus (99-55 BCE) wrote a long tribute to Epicurus titled De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). His classic Latin poem was filled with sneers at supernaturalism.

“Fear was the first thing on Earth to make gods,” it says.

“The universe has not been made through divine power, seeing how great are the faults that mar it.”

“How many evils has religion caused,” Lucretius wrote, commenting on King Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter to induce the gods to favor his attack on Troy.

“Not they who reject the gods are profane, but those who accept them,” he said.

“There is no murky pit of hell awaiting anyone…. When the body has perished, there is an end also of the spirit diffused through it.”

The great Lucretius poem was cited by various other ancient writers, but all copies of it later became lost. Then, nearly 15 centuries afterward, a scholarly papal clerk, Poggio Bracciolini, visited a German monastery in 1417 and found a long-forgotten copy covered by dust on a remote shelf. Elated, he began distributing handwritten copies to European intellectuals, who discussed the Lucretius work in learned forums. It spurred a breakthrough for scientific thinking.

Distinguished Harvard University professor Stephen Greenblatt contends that rediscovery of the lost Lucretius poem helped trigger the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, and the six-century upsurge of science and democracy that catapulted the West into today’s advanced civilization.

His book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. It’s creating a buzz in intellectual circles. A New York Times review book said:

On the Nature of Things was filled with, to Christian eyes, scandalous ideas. It argues eloquently, Mr. Greenblatt writes, that ‘there is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design.’ Religious fear, Lucretius thought, long before there was a Christopher Hitchens, warps human life.”

Of course, nobody thinks the rediscovery of one lost Latin poem single-handedly transformed international culture – but the 15th century episode obviously was a factor in the great mental shift that grew with the Renaissance. It was a milestone on the vast journey humanity has traveled – a journey away from magical thinking, toward scientific reality.

As Western society steadily evolves to embrace values of secular humanism, it’s intriguing to ponder how we got here.

This essay appeared in Free Inquiry magazine, Dec-Jan, 2012-13.

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e Agnósticos/Brazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Image Credit: James Haught.

One thought on “Recovering a Lost Treasure

  1. True Tech

    That is some very humbling and informative stuff he wrote there.
    I’m dyslexic and am a very caring peaceful nonviolent humbled atheist myself, and have to ask that if it’s his way of giving back, why does the rest of the book cost $26.95, shouldn’t it really be for free in the information age? It looks like it would be an interesting read really. Not everyone has $26.95 to get a good education especially in the poorest of nations, while trying to research about the bronze age, so history doesn’t keep repeating itself.

    It would seem that he would be more effective at his noble cause by helping make it more readily available for other people on this earthship of a planet that keeps spinning off into space beyond our control. It’s not like the universe cares how anyone wishes to interpret it right? I guess book binders have to make a living somehow though, and that seems to involve the finding of ways to gather those always only paper god$ that people really do seem to worship most of all, the bank notes.

    I realize he means well though, and hope this comment is not taken poorly.


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