How Lucretius saved Stephen Greenblatt from neuroticism

This is a rather beautiful New Yorker podcast, where the great Renaissance academic, Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt, discusses Lucretius, the Roman Epicurean poet. Greenblatt discusses the impact of Lucretius’ poem ‘Of the things of Nature’ on European culture when it was discovered in the 15th century, and how – unlike Plato and Aristotle – Epicureanism seemed to offer a completely new and scandalous vision of the universe, “as if it had dropped from another planet”. And he talks about how Lucretius helped him, and in particular how he felt helped by Epicureanism to overcome his Jewish mother’s anxiety and fear of death. He says he was particularly helped by some lines, here translated by Dryden:

Then death to us, and death’s anxiety,

Is less than nothing, if a less could be.

For then our atoms, which in order lay,

Are scattered from their heap and puffed away,

And never can return into their place,

When once the pause of life has left an empty space.

And last, suppose great Nature’s voice should call

to thee or me or any of us all:

“What dost thou mean, ungrateful wretch, thou vain

Thou mortal thing, thus idly to complain,

And sigh and sob that thou shalt be no more?

For if thy life were pleasant heretofore,

If all the bounteous blessings I could give,

Thou nast enjoyed, if thou hast known to live,

And pleasure not leek’d through you like a sieve;

Why dost thou not give thanks as at a plenteous feast,

Cramm’d to the throat with life, and rise, and take thy rest?”

Greenblatt, whose work of Renaissance criticism ‘Renaissance Self-Fashionings’ was one of my favourite books at university, jokes: “I’m on the 12 step Epicurean programme for recovery”.

You can read his New Yorker article about Epicurus here (it’s behind a pay-wall), and the podcast is here.

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