I just finished reading, “The Swerve”, by Stephen Greenblatt, a story about the re-birth of humanism and an explanation of how the world became modern. The book won both a Pulitzer and National Book Award for non-fiction. I might add that it is a great read for a whole host of reasons, one of them being that the phrase in the Declaration of Independence about the “pursuit of happiness” has a source. That particular phrase sets America apart from all other nations in the world simply because happiness is such an opaque term and yet completely meaningful. As it happens, it comes from Lucretius’ didactic poem, “On the Nature of Things” (De Rerum Natura).
What did Lucretius mean by happiness? According to Greenblatt, it was the absence of fear in a metaphysical sense. Life for Lucretius, as well as for Epicurus, Lucretius’ philosophical teacher, was governed by gods. The gods needed appeasing in order to have a happy life. For Epicurus and Lucretius, the world was not governed by gods since it was made up of tiny little particles (atoms) that were constantly forming and reforming. If that was true, there were no gods. In the absence of gods, at least to Lucretius, there was a freedom of action. No gods would ever be displeased. Life could be lived by striving for happiness.
Greenblatt posits that the re-birth of humanism, which set the Renaissance in motion, was largely due to the re-finding of Lucretius’ manuscript by a former papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini. Bracciolini did find the manuscript in a monastery in Germany, had it copied and forwarded it to Niccolo de Niccoli, a like minded and wealthy patron of the arts in the circle of Cosimo de Medici. Whether Lucretius’ tract is entirely responsible for the modern era may be subject to critique, but it makes for a riveting story, particularly because we find that no other than Thomas Jefferson had four copies of “On the Nature of Things” when he died.