The origins of atheism

Richard Handler looks at Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Harvard University professor Stephen Greenblatt.

You're lying on a couch, watching the sun stream into your living room and in the sunlight you observe dust motes, dancing particles.

They swirl and swerve in a column of air. It's all very lovely and it gets you to wonder, probably not unlike what the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus wondered almost 2,500 years ago, when he argued that all matter in the universe was made of small, individual particles dancing about and colliding into each other.

It is a world view that has bounced down through the ages, not unlike those dancing particles, from Democritus and his contemporaries to Shakespeare, Darwin and Einstein, despite being buried for centuries under the weight of religious orthodoxy.

It is also a tale, almost like a detective story, that the noted Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt (Will in the World) takes up in his newest bestseller Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

Harvard literature professor Stephen Greenblatt. (W.W. Norton Publishers)

Listen to Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt explain how the world became modern Tuesday evening on CBC Radio Ideas:  9 p.m. on Radio One, 9:30 p.m. NT.

In lucid and nonacademic prose, Greenblatt tells us how, in 1417, a Renaissance book hunter, in this instance an unemployed papal secretary, rescued from the dustbin of obscurity the last known manuscript of On the Nature of Things.

An epic poem by the Roman poet Lucretius, the manuscript is a daunting 7,400 lines of Latin. It's a poetic rendition of the philosophy of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who borrowed from Democritus's "science" to conjure up a thoroughly modern, atheistic world view in which gods played no determining role at all.

Cast forward almost 1,500 years to the early Renaissance, the chance discovery of the manuscript that day in a German monastery, and having it recopied, was one of those small but transformative events, Greenblatt argues, that effectively sent these ideas hurtling forward to inspire some of the greatest minds of the ensuing centuries.

And to change the way we moderns live and think today.

Endless reordering

For Lucretius, if there were gods (or a God), they were not designers but mere witnesses to the interplay of the particles in the universe.

Atoms swerve, as he saw it, then collide and reconfigure into larger entities. When we die, our atoms flow elsewhere, over and over again.

Nearly 2,000 years later, Albert Einstein would write an introduction to the Lucretius poem in a 1924 translation and tell us that matter is never destroyed, only transformed into other matter or energy.

Lucretius saw the same reordering of nature, an endless cascade of colliding elements and worlds, overseen only by infinite time, the true designer.

You can see the atheism starkly presented in this poetic accounting, which Greenblatt admires and says is not only compatible with the hard-headed scientific perspective that was to come but with the foundations of a Renaissance-inspired humanism.

Slowly, the world view seeped into writers like Montaigne and Shakespeare, whose ill-fated lovers, Romeo and Juliet, never talk of meeting up again in the next world, as others would have in an earlier age.

It's a very modern tale, written in the 16th century.

One person's freedom

Now, there are generally two reactions to a Lucretius-like worldview, Greenblatt informs us.

Some people will see it as liberating, particularly from oppressive religious strictures and the fear of a punishing afterlife. It is a philosophy that offers the gift of freedom, to choose and refashion your own life.

But this kind of freedom can also be terrifying to many people, no matter how poetically it is presented.

From this vantage point, if there is no God, there is no meaning to life, which then becomes empty and nihilistic. Only extinction and death await.

Greenblatt admits you couldn't get elected to public office in his country, the U.S., if you ever uttered such an atheistic, ungodly idea. (Though Founding Father Thomas Jefferson was apparently both an ardent admirer of Epicurus and a deist, someone who believes in a distant God.)

As well, Greenblatt knows through personal experience — the case of his own mother, who was deeply affected by the early death of a sister — that some people can't escape the fearful embrace of death and nihilism.

It is one of Greenblatt's charms that he underplays his own mother's neurotic influence on him.

Though he does chuckle that, as a good, caring son, he never dared mention his love of the Lucretius poem to his mother after he discovered it (in a bargain bin for all of 10 cents) as an undergrad, when he first fell under its thrall.

The lesson here, of course, is that what is beautiful to one person can be terrifying to the next.

The swirling freedom of the modern world can be hard to endure — just look at how so many of us move from poles of worldly irony to a longing for some kind of certainty or divine sanction.

That's another way to describe the swerve of modernity.


  • This column originally noted that the philosopher Epicurus was Roman. Epicurus was, in fact, Greek.
    Feb 28, 2012 12:00 AM ET