The Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum: home of a Lucretian library
The reason that Lucretius’ influence on the artists and humanists of the Renaissance has not been clearly seen until recently is that his supporters often felt it wiser to omit his name and to speak in code. From this point on, Lucretian ideas went partly underground but they were too appealing to thinkers to be entirely suppressed. Montaigne (1533-92), one of Lucretius’ most celebrated Renaissance followers, was typical in observing the dissumulatory code that dogged the poet following the Lateran Council’s condemnation of his book: the poetry could be praised but the impiety must be disavowed.
Montaigne chiefly valued the side of Lucretius closet to his own character. The grand scheme of the atoms meant nothing to him and it was Lucretius’ reflections on human mortality and human vanities that were most attractive. Montaigne, the compulsive snapper-up of judicious aphorisms, could not resist the cornucopia that Lucretius supplies. He is the most quoted author in the Essays:
“There is nothing so great and admirable which by degrees people do not regard with less admiration.”
“Do we not see that human nature asks no more for itself than that, free from bodily pain, it may exercise its mind agreeably, exempt from care and fear.”
“It’s much better quietly to obey than to wish to rule.”
“While that which we desire is wanting, it seems to surpass all the rest, when we have got it, we want something else.”
Above all, it is Lucretius’ treatment of human mortality that excites Montaigne’s keenest interest. In Book 3 Lucretius advises on a rational approach to personal extinction: a formulation irrefutable if the possibility of an afterlife is rejected:
For if your life to this point has been pleasing ...
Why not withdraw as if replete from a feast?...
But if all is bitter and wasted, why prolong it?
Lucretian ideas began to gain traction on the real world through the pioneering science of Galileo in the early 17th century. What was purely speculative philosophy in Lucretius became for Galileo the basis – the first basis – of the entire programme that was to become Western science.
Lucretius had elaborated Democritus’ idea that certain qualities – size, form, weight, velocity – were intrinsic to things whilst others – colour, sound, odour, taste, and touch – were subjective reactions in the observer. This theory became known as the doctrine of the Primary and Secondary Qualities and was a fundamental plank of the atomic theory, with the atoms possessing only primary properties which cause secondary effects in the observer, as Lucretius explained:
But lest you think it only colour that they lack,
The atoms are altogether barren of hot and cold,
Insensible to sound and starved of flavour,
And from their body no odour emerges.
Galileo elaborated the same idea:
I find myself necessarily compelled, in conceiving a material or corporeal substance, to suppose thereby that is it marked out by such-and-such a shape, that it is large or small as compared with other bodies, that it has this position (or some other) at this moment of time (or some other), that it is either in motion or at rest, either in contact with another body or not . . . But that it should be white or red, bitter or sweet, noisy or silent, fragrant or evil-smelling – I do not find myself in any way compelled to think of it as necessarily possessing any of these characteristics.
But Galileo made a vital leap beyond the classical atomists. These primary qualities were all measurable whereas the secondaries were not. More than that: Galileo reasoned that measuring the primary properties would result not merely in inert stacks of numbers: nature observed patterns, geometrical patterns, so these measurable quantities, as they had now become, would be seen to obey mathematical relations. Galileo, of course, discovered the first such scientific formula in his investigation of bodies falling under gravity, plotting the time and distance of balls rolling down an inclined plane. In essence this is what scientists have been doing ever since.
Although Galileo is clearly an atomist in his writings, the name Lucretius never appears in his oeuvre. There are very good reasons for this and to connect the two men properly requires literary rather than scientific detective work.
The first reason for Galileo’s silence regarding Lucretius is the fact that in 1616 he was forbidden by the Catholic Church from advocating the heretical heliocentric theory. In 1623 he wrote The Assayer, which contains his most celebrated endorsements of atomism. If the heliocentric theory incurred Papal wrath so would anything concerning Lucretius. It would have been foolhardy for Galileo to have compounded his sins against the Church by committing a second “crime” by drawing attention to the forbidden source of his inspiration.
Secondly, Galileo was not a man to share credit: in an addendum to the text of the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), he wrote: “Many beg to have the authority of other men to confirm their opinions; and I would like to have been the first and only one to have discovered them.”
The reasons for believing that Galileo had Lucretius in mind are literary. He is known to have possessed at least two copies of The Nature of Things. Often accused by humanists of being the man who initiated the split between the feeling arts and unfeeling science, Galileo was in fact a man of high culture: a gifted lutenist, deeply interested in painting, and a refined prose stylist. He wrote poems, discussed the superiority of painting over sculpture and composed critiques of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata.
Galileo can rise to the same kind of animated nature writing that is so characteristic of Lucretius. Here is a passage from the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems:
For myself, I consider the earth truly noble and admirable for the many so diverse alterations, mutations, generations etc that incessantly occur in it; and were it not subject to any change, but instead were a vast waste of sand or a mass of stone or were the waters that cover it to freeze in flooding, so that it remained a vast crystal globe in which nothing was ever born or altered or mutated, I would consider it a useless body, full of idleness and, in short, superfluous and as if it did not exist at all.
Even if we knew nothing of atoms
I would venture to assert from the lie of the heavens
The world was not made for us by divine power:
It is so shot through with gross imperfections:
Of all that disclosed by the sweep of the sky
Much if not mountain or the haunts of wild beasts,
Is crags and brackish pools of no great use.