Once animated by revolutionary ardor, our secular intellectuals have reached a dead end. Today they pen books that reassure the powerful, providing a justifying mythology for America’s ruling elite. That’s the only reasonable way to read The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, a new book by Harvard English professor Stephen Greenblatt.
The Swerve recounts the discovery in 1417 of Lucretius’ philosophical epic On the Nature of Things by Poggio Bracciolini, a Renaissance humanist. This Latin poem, which was written a few decades before the time of Christ, presents the materialist philosophy of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. Greenblatt’s conceit is that the materialist philosophy given such memorable poetic form by Lucretius and restored to Western readers by Poggio revolutionized our conceptions of the meaning of life.
Recipient of the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2011, The Swerve sports the usual features of high scholarship: endnotes (42 pages), long bibliography, acknowledgments thanking professorial eminences. But I found myself gasping at the clichés masquerading as history. Monks sit in dimly lit dungeons contemplating cruel disciplines that they can inflict on themselves and others. For Christians, “Pleasure is a code name for vice.” The medieval world loathed the body and repudiated erotic desire.
Meanwhile, Greenblatt’s heroes, the Renaissance humanists, see through Christianity’s hypocrisy and mendacity. They are healthy men who enjoy life when they are not rummaging through monastic libraries in the noble pursuit of the surviving manuscripts of ancient literature that reveal a more humane pre-Christian past, one of genial pluralism and love of beauty with no hang-ups about pleasure. Lucretius is a patron of “dangerous thoughts.” Epicurean philosophy, which reduces everything to the interplay of material particles, or atoms, is “essentially erotic” and holds that “the universe is inherently sexual.”
Nietzsche warned against the comedians of modernity, by which he meant writers who tell easy stories about the corruptions and ignorance of Christianity while cheerily retailing a new alternative. The Swerve is not a contribution to our understanding of early modern history. It should instead be read as an upscale version of The Da Vinci Code—or a Classic Comics version of Jacob Burckhardt.
It’s a shame, because Epicurus the philosopher and Lucretius the poet are important thinkers who are well worth serious consideration today, not the least because materialist views are so widespread. They understood and explained the spiritual appeal of a reductive materialism.
They held that everything that exists is made up of atoms. Their atomism had nothing to do with observation and experiment. They were attracted to atoms because they prized their simplicity or indivisibility (which is what atom literally means) and indestructibility. Atoms are infinite in number and remain in ceaseless motion, eternally combining in all sorts of configurations (such as you and me), and then dissolving (as our bodies rot after death).
Simplicity, indestructibility, infinity, and eternity—each suggests the invulnerability and deathlessness that Greeks ascribed to the gods. Epicurus held that true happiness comes when we become as much like atoms as possible, which is to say as indivisible and indestructible as possible. Since we are made up of atoms that will eventually disperse when we die, we cannot be indivisible and indestructible in a literal way. But we can live as if we were by cultivating imperturbability or peace of mind. If Epicurus had given the Sermon on the Mount, he would have pronounced: Blessed are those who are untroubled.
Unperturbed and untroubled. “Waste not, want not” is an old truism, but older still is the truth “Want not, want not.” So Epicurus counseled careful disciplines of desire. “If you wish to make Pythocles rich,” Epicurus wrote to someone about a mutual friend, “do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.” This strategy, argues Epicurus, will bring true pleasure, for “by pleasure we mean the state wherein the body is free from pain and the mind from anxiety.” As we all know, the reduction of desire is easier said than done, and his genius was to see the therapeutic value of materialism. If we recognize that everything is finally reducible to atoms—and that our lives, our culture, and indeed our world is but a passing, accidental configuration of atoms that will eventually disperse—we gain critical leverage over many of our desires, thus making it much easier not to want.
On the Nature of Things was and remains compelling because Lucretius uses his poetic gifts to draw his readers into the desire-reducing therapy of materialism. Concerned about the fate of your soul? Have no fear, your soul is but a temporary configuration of atoms. Do you fear death? Please remember that death is just part of the natural dissolution of all things, and when you die you will not suffer, because when you die you will be no more.
Lucretius also recognized, perhaps more so than Epicurus, that our lives are also agitated by our cultural ideals. He did not have at his disposal modern critical theory to unmask the pretenses of power, nor could he appeal to modern sociology or psychology to explain how we are socialized to embrace prevailing norms and ideals. But his materialism was enough. Who could be so foolish as to imagine that conquests and victories make one whit of difference? Do the indivisible and eternal atoms care if Rome falls?
Our sexual desires also agitate our souls. In a long and important passage in On the Nature of Things, Lucretius takes aim at Venus. The passion of lovers is “storm-tossed,” he writes, threatening the terrible pain of longing and anxious worries about betrayal. However, a thoroughgoing materialism can deliver us from these dangers as well. If we realize that sex is just a bodily function, a matter of friction and not spiritual communion, we can free ourselves from love’s profound threats to our tranquillity of mind. And should we be smitten, Lucretius advises us “to lance the first wound with new incisions; to salve it, while it is still fresh, with promiscuous attachments.” This seems like a hedonistic counsel, but it is not. Here as elsewhere, the therapy Lucretius seeks is disenchantment.
In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald depicts the indolent, troubled world of upper-crust young Americans during the Roaring Twenties. A Yale graduate from an old-money family, Tom Buchanan is the most conventional character, and in the opening scene he expresses a conventional upper-crust view. The white, northern races— that is to say, virile, strong, commanding men like Tom Buchanan—rightly rule. The mansion overlooking the Long Island Sound, the horses, the trust fund—he holds them in accord with the higher justice of racial evolution. It was a convenient social philosophy for American elites, one expressed most consistently in the doctrines of Social Darwinism, which provided a seemingly scientific justification for the impulse of the powerful to think of themselves as exempt from the old and limiting constraints of duty and conscience.
Today’s convenient philosophy for elites is a new materialism. Greenblatt demonstrates no interest in the ways in which Epicurus counseled modest desires and adopted a largely ironic view of society. The Swerve moves in the opposite direction, blustering again and again about the beauty-loathing, eros-denying evils of Christianity, and sighing in the usual postmodern way about pleasure and desire.
But on one point Greenblatt is true to On the Nature of Things, and this is the therapy of disenchantment. “Human insignificance—the fact that it is not all about us and our fate—is, Lucretius insisted, good news.” Indeed it is good news for Harvard professors, and for anyone else in positions of power. As materialism disenchants, the principles and norms and standards by which we can hold the powerful accountable melt away.
Postmodern nihilism often baffles religious men and women. How, we wonder, can people live if they think their lives have no meaning? Greenblatt’s selective celebration of Lucretius helps us understand why. Like the Social Darwinism and racial theories that eased the conscience of Tom Buchanan and gave him peace of mind in his supereminence, a materialist philosophy reassures those who hold power today. Because nothing we do in this vast cosmos governed by the laws of nature matters, because nothing lasts, the elites can do what they want and nobody can criticize them.
Lucretius’ poem is colored by a spirit of rebellion against prevailing opinion, but Epicurus was more consistent. He counseled his followers to conform to local custom, because given the truth of materialism it obviously doesn’t matter one way or the other. Stephen Greenblatt enjoys highlighting Lucretius’ spirit of critique, “speaking truth to power,” as they say. But an astute reader of The Swerve will sense that he recognizes that materialism provides the perfect philosophy for justifying the status quo. Rich and successful people should not be limited by the residual cultural power of Christianity—or by anything else. They should be free to pursue beauty and “deep pleasure” unhindered by . . . anything.
The Way of Enchantment
Epicurus and Lucretius were not the only ones in the ancient world seeking peace of mind. Other ancients had a different strategy for attaining the goal of tranquility, one based on love and loyalty rather than disenchantment. Plato made love the engine of knowledge. Truth reveals herself most fully to those who, like Socrates, desire nothing else. It is the Old Testament, however, that most clearly makes love the linchpin of human flourishing: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
Wisdom, argues Proverbs in its rich poetic way, requires matrimony. If we bind ourselves to wisdom, she will guard us. “Love her,” we are told, “and she will keep you; she will honor you if you embrace her.” Moreover, wisdom invites our embrace. She builds herself a beautiful house, adorns herself, and prepares a festive meal. We do not defeat foolishness and falsehood by way of critical reason; instead, it is the power of true love that overcomes the prostitution of our hearts and minds. “Come,” she calls to us, “eat of my bread and drink the wine I have mixed.”
The early Christian tradition adopted the primacy of love without reservation, and often as an explicit alternative to the ancient philosophies of their day. St. Augustine’s Confessions provides a good example. It opens with a famous line: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” Our tendency is to read this metaphorically, but St. Augustine meant it literally. Like Epicurus and Lucretius, he knew how painful it is to be buffeted by conflicting desires, especially ones that seem insatiable. He wanted to rest in the unchanging eternity of God, but he also wanted to be rich and famous and to enjoy the sensual pleasures of the body.
The result was the opposite of tranquility. Augustine describes himself as “burning” and “turning endlessly,” worried about his reputation and fearful that he could not endure giving up sexual pleasure, and all the while both deceiving himself about his love of truth and accusing himself of fabricating these deceptions.
In short, the life he was living was exactly like those of the foolish men whom Lucretius describes as engaged in vain and futile worldly pursuits. However, Augustine came to recognize the truth of Christ, and he saw the futility of his worldly aspirations. Yet seeing the truth was still not enough. Of the days prior to his conversion he writes, “My desire was not to be more certain of you but to be more stable in you.” To be more stable in Christ—or, to use the language of the Gospel of John, to abide in him—this desire parallels the Epicurean goal of tranquility, or peace of mind.
Here is the critical difference. Augustine and the Christian tradition as a whole seek stability, tranquility, and peace of mind by way of what might be called a therapy of enchantment. “Let my bones,” Augustine prays with an ardor that evokes the profound desire that suffuses the Song of Songs, “be penetrated by your love.” His prayer is answered. After his conversion he writes, “You pierced my heart with the arrow of your love.”
This divine arrow—which is a direct reference to Cupid and Venus that fuses the entire ancient pagan fascination with the enslaving power of love to the Old Testament’s nuptial vision—cures Augustine’s restless, troubled soul. “Suddenly,” he writes, “it had become sweet to me to be without the sweets of folly. What I had once feared to lose was now a delight to dismiss.” Like a fire that clears the field of weeds, the fierce heat of love burns away his distracting, dissipating worldly desires, bringing him to rest in an arresting desire to abide in Christ. It is a paradox, but not an unfamiliar one. The burning passion of love makes us stable, which is to say, tranquil. Under love’s enchanting spell we rest in that which we love.
By contrast, Lucretius satisfies our desire for rest with a therapy of disenchantment, as do contemporary materialists, relativists, and the various high priests of critical theory who set the tone in contemporary intellectual culture. In a crucial passage, Lucretius describes his goal: “This is the greatest joy of all: to stand aloof in a quiet citadel stoutly fortified by the teachings of the wise, and to gaze down from that elevation on others wandering aimlessly.” Not for Lucretius are the lures of wealth or status, the patriotic fervor of citizenship, or the ardor of romantic love. Raised up by knowledge of the cold truths of reality, he stands on the heights, beyond the reach of the arrows of love. Therein lies tranquil happiness, or so he promises.
Our age of disenchantment is rarely as clear-minded, but the effort to put life beyond the reach of love remains the same. The many and various postmodern therapies of disenchantment promise a serene tranquility. Let us rise above the parochialism of national identity! If nothing is worth fighting for, then nobody will fight. Let us step back and see the culturally conditioned nature of moral judgments! If nothing is ultimately true, then everybody can just get along. Let us ascend to the heights and recognize that our loves and loyalties are of no moment to the great cosmic system and its iron laws of physics! If nothing ultimately matters, then we can just relax and get on with life.
Love and her enchantments can be dangerous. Our gods may be idols, our patriotism misguided, and our ardent convictions false. The twentieth century tells a sad tale of the brutality of ideologies passionately believed. For this reason, love is never self-authenticating. It must be purified: sometimes by reason, sometimes by conscience, sometimes by authority.
But this purification does not alter the fact that love does not take us to a high citadel. Quite the opposite, in fact. A wedding feast celebrates the destruction of the fortifying walls that insulate one person from another, and the covenant of marriage creates a very different kind of citadel, one in rather than above the world. My wife, my children, my friends, my community, my nation—I cannot gaze down from above on those whom I love. Love draws us down into what, viewed objectively, is a reckless intimacy: for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.
The same holds for a supernatural love of God. St. Augustine did not stand aloof, nor did St. Francis, nor St. Ignatius. Their Christian tranquility was in a sense far more arrogant than that which Lucretius sought. “O death,” St. Paul asks with haughty disdain, “where is thy victory?” Yet, in their steadfast and immovable love of Christ they served the world rather than observing it from above. They had a worldly otherworldliness, not an Epicurean (and postmodern) otherworldly worldliness.
I have no difficulty imagining that Stephen Greenblatt and countless others might judge St. Augustine’s love of Christ to be misguided. Faith is a divine gift, not the conclusion to a syllogism. But I worry that our pedagogues of disenchantment fail to grasp the full nature of the spiritual impoverishment they perhaps unknowingly seek. To look down on life from above: It may free us from the pains of desire, but it’s a dry, cold, loveless enterprise, one that, if followed to its end, leaves the world as it is. Christianity may be false, but at least its vision for enduring happiness is more humane, allowing us to hope that the sinews of life—our very bones—can be penetrated by an enduring, unconquerable, eternalizing love.
Not by Slogans Alone
A Lutheran veteran of church politics, which always have a Clausewitzian dimension (“war by other means”), as well as a long-time seminary professor and one of America’s most accomplished theologians, Robert Jenson has a great deal of experience with slogans gone wrong. Nobody is better qualified to set things straight, which he does in Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse, a wonderful, pithy new book that should be assigned reading for all Lutheran pastors.
The problem with slogans is that they are so darned handy that they take on lives of their own, and “in that free-floating currency they are then available to be wielded to various ends, often antithetical to their original service and without awareness that this is happening.” Thus “God is love,” a fundamental Christian truth that easily becomes a truism and then gets reversed, yielding the flower-power slogan “love is God.”
Luther’s theological and rhetorical genius makes Lutherans especially susceptible. “Justification by faith, not by works” was originally coined to ensure that preaching and teaching focused on the fact that our salvation turns on the work of God in Christ and not on our own efforts. This is good news, because God has the power to overcome the power of sin in a final and decisive way, while we very clearly do not. As Jenson points out, however, the slogan easily gets abused, and indeed it was in Luther’s own lifetime—and much to his dismay. “Not by” becomes “without,” which is a little change with big consequences, with liberal Lutherans now telling us that it doesn’t really matter what we do because God’s love is all-inclusive.
“The priesthood of all believers” can become a rationale for denying that ordination to the ministry has any sacramental significance or for claiming the personal authority to revise Christian doctrines. “Preach the gospel and not the law” easily becomes a general principle, which, as I discuss in this issue, in my essay on Judaism’s lessons for Christians, encourages some modern theologians to turn the Nicene Creed and the canon of Scripture—indeed the concept of orthodoxy itself—into the “law” that “kills” as distinct from the antinomian gospel that supposedly gives life.
Jenson treats the notorious Lutheran simul iustus et peccator (we are simultaneously justified and sinful), a formula that when abused also encourages an antinomian sensibility. He tackles the tendency to turn Luther’s “theology of the cross” into a critical principle that insists that all straightforward affirmations of doctrine deny the contradiction of the cross. And of course there are the sola formulations (to this day Lutherans like the pithy Latin phrases rather than their preposition-clotted English equivalents): sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura. The last has fueled generations of Protestant criticisms of Protestantism, as Bible-church Christians denounced their creed- and synod-burdened brethren.
“No discourse that continues across a palpable period of time,” Jenson writes, “can do without slogans.” We can’t hold everything in our heads, which is why we need summaries and shortcuts. Abuse or no abuse, we’re stuck with slogans, and Lutherans are stuck with Lutheran slogans. And Baptists with Baptist slogans, Catholics with Catholic slogans.
The way to guard against abuse, Jenson argues, is to remember that theological slogans express in short, memorable form “the biblical narrative and its eschatological wholeness.” They point or gesture to the fullness of the truth of Christ. They were coined as shortcuts to the rich witness of Scripture and the ongoing life of the Church, the body of Christ. And that’s how we should use them.
Notes from the Editor’s Desk
This issue inaugurates a new regular column, The Back Page, by our contributing editor David Hart. I have long admired the remarkable range of his learning, his perfectly balanced Ciceronian sentences, and his sometimes mordant and always sharp wit. It will be great to have his voice in First Things every month.
As you read this, our end-of-the-year fundraising campaign will be in full swing. Our print subscribers get a letter. But we do not have mailing addresses for those of you who read us on the website, Kindle, and iPad. So please go to firstthings.com and click on the donate button. We need the support of all our readers to maintain the influence and quality of First Things.