This article about Lucretius tempts me to trust it because it recovers such a lovely text, but Greenblatt makes too many over generalizations and errors to be believed. He claims we live in a “skeptical and secular culture,” reinforcing the secularization myth: the story that liberal atheism will, or has, inevitably subsumed simplistic, religious cult impulses. It simply hasn’t (See Charles Taylor on this non-shift). I live in a credulous, religious culture in which Lucretius is no more welcome than he was in the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries that Greenblatt caricatures as dark, unthinking, unerotic times. (As a side note, I have to say that in that description, I think he errs again in over generalization: not every sect of Christianity after the fall of Rome rejected sexuality or thinking. We have the sensual, contemplative writings of Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, and Hildegaard von Bingen for starters. I’m no medievalist, but I know enough of them to believe that there are other conceptions of those centuries than as the “dark ages.”)
But Greenblatt’s discussion of Lucretius goes to the heart of issues at stake in our biopolar or schizoid era: hyper-religious and hyper-scientific at once. Most people don’t like the indifference of atomism; Greenblatt identifies this in the case of his mother, but overlooks it in his culture at large where masses of people pursue religions that guarantee them a loving or passionate or at least judgmental divinity, fully invested in their lives as any creator is in her products. No one wants to die and less do we want to find the intermediary of life to be meaningless. Fortunately, medieval credulity and secular skepticism are not the only options as worldviews. Foundations of meaning have been established on grounds other than immorality or even humanism. Greenblatt senses these alternatives in his frustration with Lucretius at the close of the article. But he does not pursue them in the short essay. I wish he had because those are the truly tricky accounts of how we should relate to this natural world the comprises us and composes us.
Nature can seem indifferent to us humans. We face the ocean, and we do not see any eyes or doors or gestures of welcome. But natural life is hardly indifferent to us or to most of its surroundings; to be alive is to have preferences, pleasures and pains. In that, Epicurus and Lucretius themselves may have overlooked the truly compelling qualities of nature. What fascinates me is that yes, we are made of the same atoms as granite and stars and computer chips, but our living systems contain a level of organization not apparent in these other natural bodies. That doesn’t mean we are supernatural or created by something supernatural. But it does mean that “nature” is not a synonym for “life”; it is a genus containing that species. Living nature contains more than the sum of its parts, its atoms. Atomism understands nature only in terms of parts, not wholes, in terms of the microscopic not the macroscopic. Natural lives that so interest us only appear at the macroscopic scale. That does not make them less “real” than their atoms, any more than a car is less real than its carbon and steel. Nor does it make them any more supernatural than a car.
Well, I can’t cover the entire “Nature of Things” here. But I’m fascinated by our cultural fascination with giving nature a face or being frustrated in not finding one on her.