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Lucretius the Physicist and Modern Science

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Lucretius and Modernity

Part of the book series: The New Antiquity ((NANT))

Abstract

In a 2011 issue of The New Yorker, there appeared a feature article by Stephen Greenblatt titled “The Answer Man,” and bearing the subtitle, “An Ancient Poem was Rediscovered—and the World Swerved”1—a kind of advance notice for his book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, published in September of that same year.2 The article records Greenblatt’s encounter with Lucretius’s poem when he was a student at Yale, and how it struck him for its astonishing modernity. Lucretius defended various ideas that have since been proved false, such as the notion that the sun circled the earth. “But, at its heart,” Greenblatt writes, “‘On the Nature of Things’ persuasively laid out what seemed to be a strikingly modern understanding of the world.”3 Greenblatt was especially sensitive to the ethical message of Epicureanism, but this vision was founded on and inseparable from the atomic theory and its unflinching materialism. Years later, when Greenblatt held in his hands a Renaissance copy of the only manuscript by which Lucretius’s text survived, he was still under its spell: “In the great Laurentian Library, surrounded by the achievements of Renaissance Florence, I felt the full force of what this ancient Roman poet had bequeathed to the world, a tortuous trail that led from the celebration of Venus, past broken columns, high-domed churches, and inquisitorial fires, toward Jefferson, Darwin, and Einstein.”4 Modern science was given a profound, perhaps indispensable boost by the rediscovery of Lucretius’s poem.

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Notes

  1. Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011).

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  2. Lucio Russo, La rivoluzione dimenticata: Il pensiero scientifico greco e la scienza moderna, 5th ed. (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1998 [first edition 1996]), 26.

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  3. Translations of Epicurus are taken from A. A. Long and David N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 102. The standard edition of the Greek texts of Epicurus is Epicuro: Opere, ed. Graziano Arrighetti (Turin: Einaudi, 1960), with commentary and Italian translation.

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  4. See David Konstan, “Ancient Atomism and Its Heritage: Minimal Parts,” Ancient Philosophy 2 (1982): 60–75; more generally, Howard Jones, The Epicurean Tradition (London: Routledge, 1989); W. R. Johnson, Lucretius and the Modern World (London: Duckworth, 2000); Catherine Wilson, Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

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  5. Luis J. Garay, “Quantum Gravity and Minimum Length,” International Journal of Modern Physics A10 (1995): 145. The article is also available at http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/gr-qc/pdf/9403/9403008v2.pdf, accessed September 9, 2011.

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  6. English is the only language that makes this terminological distinction between novels and romances; see Ioan Williams, ed., Novel and Romance 1700–1800: A Documentary Record (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970); David Konstan, Sexual Symmetry: Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genres (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 4–5, 205–6; Cheryl Nixon, ed., Novel Definitions: An Anthology of Commentary on the Novel, 1688–1815 (Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2009).

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  7. See Margaret Iversen, “The Discourse of Perspective in the Twentieth Century: Panofsky, Damisch, Lacan,” Oxford Art Journal 28 (2005): 191–202; Kirsti Anderson, The Geometry of an Art: The History of the Mathematical Theory of Perspective from Alberti to Monge (New York: Springer, 2007).

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  8. See also Jane P. Tompkins, Reader Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980); Joseph Chaney, “The Revolution of a Trope: The Rise of the New Science and the Divestment of Rhetoric in the Seventeenth Century,” in Signs of Change: Premodern →Modern →Postmodern, ed. Stephen Barker (New York: State University of New York Press, 1996), 155–74.

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  9. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1958 [originally published in 1930]); see also Richard Swedberg, ed., Max Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009).

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  10. Lucretius, Lucretius on the Nature of Things, trans. Ian Johnston, 2010; available online at http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/lucretius/lucretiusbookoneweb.htm#t21, accessed September 10, 2011. Unless otherwise noted, all English translations are taken from this translation. The Latin text is that of Cyril Bailey, ed., Lucreti De rerum natura libri sex (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963).

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  11. For a fuller discussion, see David Konstan, “Atomism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Epicureanism, ed. Phillip Mitsis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming). For Aristotle, see the translation of the Physics, trans. R. P. Hardie and R. K. Gaye, in The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes, 2 vols. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).

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  12. This view is adopted by S. Luria, “Die Infinitesimaltheorie der antiken Atomisten,” Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte der Mathematik (B: Studien) 2 (1932–33): 154–56; C. C. W. Taylor, The Atomists: Leucippus and Democritus: A Text and Translation with a Commentary (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 187. The Greek text of Philoponus’s commentary is published in the series Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca, vols. 16 and 17, ed. Girolamo Vitelli (Berlin: G. Raimer, 1887–88). The translations here are my own; for an English translation, see C. J. F. Williams, Philoponus on Aristotle’s On Coming-to-Be and Perishing 1.6–2.4 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999).

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  13. For discussion, see also Istvan M. Bodnár, “Atomic Independence and Indivisibility,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 16 (1998): 35–61.

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  14. Gregory Chaitin, “The Limits of Reason,” Scientific American 294:3 (2006): 79. The quantity is also referred to as a “Chaitin constant.”

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  15. For Greek text and facing translation of Plutarch’s essay, see Against the Stoics: On Common Notions, trans. Harold Cherniss, in Plutarch’s Moralia, 621–873, vol. 13, part 2 of the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976).

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  16. See also Anna Angeli and Tiziano Dorandi, “Gli Epicurei e la geometria: Un progetto di geometria antieuclidea nel Giardino di Epicuro?,” in Lucrezio, la natura e la scienza, ed. Marco Beretta and Francesco Citti (Florence: L. S. Olschki, 2008), 1–9, and Thomas Bénatouil, “Les critiques épicuriennes de la géométrie,” in Construction: Festschrift for Gerhard Heinzmann, ed. Pierre-Edouard Bour, Manuel Rebuschi, and Laurent Rollet (London: College Publications, 2010), 151–62. Brooke Holmes, this book, observes that Michel Serres adopts a more radical view, according to which Lucretius’s physics is, in fact, correct as against modern Newtonianism; according to Serres, she writes, Lucretius “is advancing a physics of flow and turbulence that is shored up by the mathematics of Archimedes and validated as science by twentieth-century physics in its turn away from solids to fluids and from classical mechanics to chaos theory. Against readings of Lucretius grounded in literary criticism and cultural history, Serres reintroduces a framework of evaluation that is unapologetic about truth in the sense of an alignment between theory and physical reality: Lucretius is right” (Holmes, p. 22; citing Michel Serres, La naissance de la physique dans le texte de Lucrèce [Paris: Minuit, 1977], translated as Michel Serres, The Birth of Physics, trans. Jack Hawkes [Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2000]). Like Holmes, I am deeply skeptical of Serres’s reconstruction of Lucretian physics.

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Jacques Lezra Liza Blake

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© 2016 David Konstan

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Konstan, D. (2016). Lucretius the Physicist and Modern Science. In: Lezra, J., Blake, L. (eds) Lucretius and Modernity. The New Antiquity. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-137-56657-7_4

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