The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt is an excellent book. It offers an engaging narrative about how Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered De rerum natura by Lucretius in a German monastery in the winter of 1417, and how the Epicurean ideas espoused in that poem then disseminated among European humanists. These ideas provided a direct challenge to the philosophical hegemony of the Catholic church just at a point when the church was starting to come under threat on both the theological and the political front. (The reason Poggio was free to hunt for old manuscripts was that he was a papal secretary, and his master, who was one of three rival claimants to the throne of St Peter at that point, had just been forced to resign and was now imprisoned. This political disarray within the papacy allowed Europe’s secular rulers increasingly to flex their muscles. Meanwhile, the theological rule of the church was being challenged by groups like the Hussites of Bohemia whose radical thinking would, within the century, feed into the Protestant Reformation.)
The humanists, a group that really began with Petrarch, were mostly would-be poets and amateur scholars enamoured of the thought and the prose of the classical world. Their initial impulse was that Classical Rome (and, later and to a lesser extent, Classical Greece) had marked a high point in European civilisation. European thought now, and particularly the Latin in which it was expressed, were sadly debased, and so the humanists sought to recover what had been lost. They were aided in this, in part, by the Moslem onslaught against Byzantium, which sent many scholars streaming westward as refugees, bringing with them manuscripts that had been lost in the West (at the same time, through contacts with the Islamic world, especially in Spain, ideas of Greek philosophy and science filtered through Arab scholars were starting to be known). But this additional learning was being supplemented by book hunters like Poggio who scoured the manuscripts that had been piled up and ignored in monastery libraries in order to recover key Latin texts. The ideas found in these once-lost manuscripts would play a significant part in shaping the philosophy and the science of the Reformation.
Of these manuscripts, De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) was one of the most significant, if only because it was one of the most radical. Epicurean thought had been ruthlessly suppressed by the early Church, because it was so antithetical to Christian thinking. I gave a summary of what was so radical about it here. In brief, Epicurus and his followers believed that the universe was made up of an infinite number of atoms. These atoms are eternal, and they will occasionally come together to form things (objects, people, planets), but these things will be only temporary and will eventually break down into their constituent atoms once more. As a consequence, there can be no creator god, there can be no soul that survives after death, and since this life is all we have our highest human goal should be pleasure. Hardly a philosophy that will endear itself to a church based on the notion that there is a creator god and that our highest aim in this life should be sacrifice to be rewarded in our eternal afterlife.
Though (most) humanists were good, observant Catholics, the ideas contained within De rerum natura inevitably began to seep into their own way of thinking. In particular its traces can be found in the scientific ideas that would be developed over the next couple of centuries by Nicholas Copernicus, Thomas Harriott, Giordano Bruno, Francis Bacon and Galileo Galilei (I think any brief outline of Epicurean thought is enough to show how much it has informed modern scientific thinking); it found its way into the political philosophy of Niccolo Machiavelli, the essays of Michel de Montaigne, the plays of William Shakespeare, the meditations of Rene Descartes, in other words what we might consider the founding texts of the modern world.
All of this, as I say, is superbly shown in Greenblatt’s book. It really is an incredible story very well told, you keep turning the page simply to find out what happened next. But there is one area in which I find myself in disagreement with Greenblatt. He argues that Thomas More’s Utopia is an Epicurean work.
Specifically he argues that the inhabitants of Utopia
are convinced that ‘either the whole or the most part of human happiness’ lies in the pursuit of pleasure. This central Epicurean tenet, the work makes clear, lies at the heart of the opposition between the good society of the Utopians and the corrupt, vicious society of his [More’s] own England. That is, More clearly grasped that the pleasure principle – the principle given its most powerful expression in Lucretius’ spectacular hymn to Venus – is not a decorative enhancement of routine existence; it is a radical idea that, if taken seriously, would change everything.
But I think this is to seriously misinterpret what More is doing, or at least to give undue weight to any Epicurean element within the book. I think Greenblatt may see this too, since he spends the next several pages pointing out the non-Epicurean aspects of More’s thought.
Let me be clear, I am not saying that there is nothing of Epicurus in Utopia. More was one of the leading European humanists of his day, and De rerum natura was virtually the air that they breathed. We know that More’s good friend Erasmus had read the poem, so it is very likely that More had done so also; and if not he would certainly have been familiar with its ideas. So some aspect of that would have informed his book. But that is not to say that it is an Epicurean work.
More, as well as being a humanist, was a devout not to say fanatical devotee of the Catholic church. He habitually wore a hair shirt against his skin; he oversaw the burning of protestant ‘heretics’; he eventually lost his life over the divorce of Henry VIII from Katherine of Aragon because such a divorce would represent a loosening of the rule of the Catholic church over the king he served as Lord Chancellor. True, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg church the year after Utopia was published, so his war against Protestantism post-dated his book, but I don’t think there is any reason to assume that his fundamental beliefs would have changed radically in the interim. While lip-service is paid within Utopia to freedom of worship, the default position is assumed to be an equivalent of Catholicism; the argument is not so much that everyone should be free to worship in the way they choose, but rather that when everyone is free to worship in their own way they will see that the true way is Catholicism. And, actually, a hardline version of Catholicism, since the whole social structure of Utopia is based on monasticism.
Greenblatt’s misreading stems from his assumption that the underlying basis of Utopia is human happiness. It is not. The underlying basis is order. Like many people brought up in a disordered time (by the time the seven-year-old More witnessed the arrival of Henry VII in London after his victory at Bosworth, there had been three different kings on the English throne during his lifetime), he saw order as the highest human achievement. Yes, he considered that order would lead to happiness, but such happiness would be a by-product rather than the purpose of Utopian society. In fact much of the Utopian social structure works against happiness: there is slavery, there is coercion, there is no such thing as individual freedom. The happiness of the individual has no part to play in this structure, even if we could consider that the happiness of the whole is the ultimate aim of society.
More than that, happiness has no inherent necessity within this worldview. There is no atomism in More’s book. His universe is entirely the product of a creator god, we come from god and shall return to god, there is an eternal afterlife awaiting us after death. So everything that goes to make happiness a necessary part of human behaviour in Epicurean thought is specifically and unquestioningly absent from More’s world. In Epicurean thought, because we can have no higher duty to a god or to our future afterlife, then our most pressing duty is to ourselves. If we work to achieve our own happiness, then we make our immediate society happier, and so on. It is a bottom-up ethics, our selfish (if you like) happiness will lead to a greater social happiness. More’s Utopia is entirely top-down, it is the deliberate creation of King Utopus, there is a strictly hierarchical structure from monarch down to workers down to slaves, and above all there is the eternal mastery of god and the afterlife to shape the moral universe.
With all of that, it is hard to take seriously Greenblatt’s claim that this is an Epicurean work. As I say, there are undoubtedly some Epicurean seeds that have found their way into the intellectual construction of the book, but I would suggest that the first Epicurean utopia is most likely to have been Francis Bacon’s science-based New Atlantis (though that still went out of its way to emphasise its Christianity), and the first properly atomist fiction is probably Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World.