Lucretius and The Making of Modernity

Karl Marx would relate in his essay on French Materialsm the “overthrow of the metaphysics of the seventeenth century could be explained from the materialistic theory of the eighteenth century only in so far as this theoretical movement was itself explicable by the practical shape of the French life of that time. This life was directed to the immediate present, to worldly enjoyment and worldly interests, to the secular world. It was inevitable that anti-theological, anti-metaphysical, materialistic theories should correspond to its anti-theological, anti-metaphysical, its materialistic practice. In practice metaphysics had lost all credit.”

In our time we’ve seen a resurgence in the other direction which seems to me a dangerous reversion to pre-critical thinking and practice. What was it that brought us to the materialist vision of reality and life to begin with? What seemed so attractive to those of the past few centuries that materialism came to the for rather than the continued dogmatic imposition of theology, metaphysics, and the humanist traditions? We see in such works as Words of Life: New Theological Turns in French Phenomenology (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy) by Bruce Ellis Benson we see such philosophers as -Luc Marion, Jean-Yves Lacoste, Kevin Hart, Anthony J. Steinbock, Jeffrey Bloechl, Jeffrey L. Kosky, Clayton Crockett, Brian Treanor, and Christina Gschwandtner, Dominique Janicaud, Jean-Francois Courtine, Jean-Louis Chrtien, Michel Henry, Jean-Luc Marion, and Paul Ricoeur all enquiring into and revitalizing theological notions, concepts, and frameworks in their own theories and practices. And that’s just in the world of French philosophy and phenomenology in particular. I could name philosopher after philosopher from the Continental and even American Analytical streams who seem to be teasing with this supposed theological turn in philosophy.

We’ve seen even the ethical Idealist, Slavoj Žižek himself touching the fires of theological worlds in many of his works. “Today, when the historical materialist analysis is receding, practiced as it were under cover, rarely called by its proper name, while the theological dimension is given a new lease on life in the guise of the “postsecular” Messianic turn of deconstruction, the time has come to reverse Walter Benjamin’s first thesis on the philosophy of history: “The puppet called ‘theology’ is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the service of historical materialism, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight.”2

And, many of these same philosophers and others are turning away from secular thought and the materialism that has underpinned much of the past few centuries. We see a turn even in what is termed neo-materialism that seems to be grafting forms of vitalism into their conceptions of matter that those from the Newtonian age wouldn’t even recognize as materialism. But this is all another tale… my tale is not about this turn away from materialism, but rather how it came to us during the Renaissance. Who awakened that age to the materialist traditions? And, what was it that this individual found that informed all those secular materialists over the past few centuries.  

Old school materialism based as it was in the Newtonian worldview in which matter was both a passive substance and informed by mechanistic laws and principles was in its heyday during this early Enlightenment era. In the Sixteenth Century it was Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) who first proposed an explanation of nature very close to Lucretius’ ideas. Rene Descartes (1596-1650), although remaining idealistic and defending religion, recognized a form of dualism with an autonomous matter that obeys to its own laws. He wanted to create a materialist science whose methods he formulated on a mechanist way. For him, man is a soul, but animal is a “machine”.

Yet, it was Pierre Bayle according to Marx who sounded the death knell for metaphysics in the Eighteenth Century. “His weapon was scepticism, forged out of the magic formulas of metaphysics itself. He took Cartesian metaphysics as his immediate starting-point. Just as Feuerbach in combating speculative theology was driven to combat speculative philosophy, because he perceived in speculation the last support of theology, because he had to force the theologians to retreat from fictitious science to crude, repugnant faith, so religious doubt drove Bayle into doubts of the metaphysics which supported this faith. Consequently he subjected metaphysics in its entire historical evolution to criticism. He became its historian in order to write the history of its death.”(ibid.)

Marx discovers in the Englishman, Francis Bacon and his epigone Thomas Hobbes the actual cornerstone and cap of the revitalization of materialism from Anaxagoras, Democritus, Lucretius, et. al. from its dark decline during the Theological Age. We know that Plato despised Democritus so much that he just left him out of his works altogether as being beneath mention, thereby silencing these works for Christendom for a thousand years. But then something happened to change it all.

As Stephen Greenblatt tells us in his superb history of this time The Swerve: How the World Became Modern says: “…something happened in the Renaissance, something that surged up against the constraints that centuries had constructed around curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the material world, the claims of the body”.1 He goes on to say:

The key to the shift lies not only in the intense, deeply informed revival of interest in the pagan deities and the rich meanings that once attached to them. It lies also in the whole vision of a world in motion, a world not rendered insignificant but made more beautiful by its transience, its erotic energy, and its ceaseless change. (Greenblatt, Preface)

It wasn’t a revolution in thought, it wasn’t some strange new conception of life and the universe – although those would emerge as a result of this key event, no Greenblatt tells us it was a discovery, a discovery of a particular work that had been copied and recopied for a thousand years but had lain in dust surrounded by other works without the copyists ever understanding just what they had in their midst. As he tells it there was no fanfare, no sounding of the bells, hardly anyone else ever even realized just what had been found, and it happened quiet by accident:

When it occurred, nearly six hundred years ago, the key moment was muffled and almost invisible, tucked away behind walls in a remote place. There were no heroic gestures, no observers keenly recording the great event for posterity, no signs in heaven or on earth that everything had changed forever. A short, genial , cannily alert man in his late thirties reached out one day, took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That was all; but it was enough.(Greenblatt, Preface)

Who was this man and what did he find? His name is Poggio Bracciolini and he was a book hunter, perhaps the greatest in an age obsessed with ferreting out and recovering the heritage of the ancient world. The finding of a lost book does not ordinarily figure as a thrilling event, but behind that one moment was the arrest and imprisonment of a pope, the burning of heretics, and a great culturewide explosion of interest in pagan antiquity. The act of discovery fulfilled the life’s passion of a brilliant book hunter. And that book hunter, without ever intending or realizing it, became a midwife to modernity.(Greenblatt, Preface)

As a humanist Poggio traveled through the lands of Christiandom seeking out scriptoriums, libraries, enclaves, anyplace he could find that might have old manuscripts of value to his clientele. That’s right as a book hunter he was in the pay of the rich of Italy who were in the midst of reviving the old classics, of uncovering the ancient pagan worlds of antiquity of Greece and Rome. It was during one of these forays within the precincts of a particular Benedictine monastery and its scriptorium that he discovered certain manuscripts that consisted of a long text written around 50 BCE by a poet and philosopher named Titus Lucretius Carus. The text’s title, De rerum natura— On the Nature of Things—was strikingly similar to the title of Rabanus Maurus’s celebrated encyclopedia , De rerum naturis. But where the monk’s work was dull and conventional, Lucretius’ work was dangerously radical. As Greenblatt relates this event:

Poggio may not have had time, in the gathering darkness of the monastic library , and under the wary eyes of the abbot or his librarian, to do more than read the opening lines. But he would have seen immediately that Lucretius’ Latin verses were astonishingly beautiful. Ordering his scribe to make a copy, he hurried to liberate it from the monastery. What is not clear is whether he had any intimation at all that he was releasing a book that would help in time to dismantle his entire world. (Greenblatt, Preface)

All the rest is history…

The long shadow cast by Lucretius’s poem falls across the disciplines of philosophy, literary history and criticism, religious studies, classics, political philosophy… Over the past two decades, interest in De rerum natura in each of these fields has grown dramatically, in some cases as hidden Epicurean influences on well-known writers have come to light, in others when the decline of a school or of a particular orthodoxy has left room for a return to Lucretius, and to the Epicurean tradition more broadly—as with the eclipse of normative materialisms in philosophy and politics. Contemporary physics has found in the ancient atomist tradition a strange and evocative mirror; the place of Lucretius’s poetics in the development of modern poetic genres, techniques, and themes has come into sharp focus; political philosophers have identified what Althusser called a “subterranean current” in the materialist tradition, flowing from Epicurus through Spinoza and Marx and to Deleuze, propelled by Lucretius’s great poem.

from Lucretius and Modernity,The Annual Ranieri Colloquium in Ancient Studies held at New York University

Another Lucretian Levi R. Bryant in a post Properties and States: Lucretius and Politics asks the question: What is it, then, I wonder, that makes this such a dangerous book?

There are the obvious things: Lucretius was among the first materialists and naturalists, arguing that all things are composed of matter and that there are only natural causes (as opposed to supernatural causes). There is the anti-teleologism of his philosophy. Where, in the Medieval Christian view, teleology rules the day, and works according to the premise that there is always something things ought to be, Lucretius’s materialist naturalism only admits of “causes from behind”. The consequences of this are profound. Consider the difference between how the Medieval Christian mind thinks about a two-headed chicken and how a materialist naturalist thinks about a two-headed chicken. For the Medieval Christian a two-headed chicken is a monster because, by “nature”, there is something chickens ought to be and the occurence of a two-headed chicken is a violation of this divinely designed order of nature. By contrast, for the Lucretian, the two-headed chicken is merely the result of the causes that produced it and is therefore entirely natural. Within this framework, you cannot, to cite the Love & Rockets song, go against nature because when you do it’s nature too.

At the heart of this is the notion that the distinctions we’ve added to our own exceptionalist stance – our notion that humans are somehow special, above, superior to other creatures that inhabit the earth has been, will remain, and forever be not only wrong but has been a metaphysical justification for war and domination underpinning the last two thousand years of history. This false exceptionalism drives capitalism and the global free market systems that has spread its tentacles to the far corners of the earth enveloping us all in an realm of greed, war, and ultimately a resource depleted planet that will soon be uninhabitable by either ourselves are the other creatures, the non-human beings we share this precious earth with. Yet, even now we are seeing hope, seeing that the wall is coming down, beginning to crumble, the distinction between man and nature is beginning to register within each and everyone of us. Something new is in the air. Humans are coming to know nature as nature is, and as the quote from Love and Rockets song states: “You cannot go against nature when you do it’s nature too.”


1. Greenblatt, Stephen (2012-09-04). The Swerve: How the World Became Modern . Norton. Kindle Edition.
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2003-10-12). The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Short Circuits) (Kindle Locations 49-53). MIT Press. Kindle Edition.



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