Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Book that Changed the Trajectory of Human History

And NO I'm not referring to the Book of Mormon...

In 1417, a former secretary to Pope John XXIII, the pope most associated with the selling of indulgences, was on a quest to discover, or perhaps I should say, rediscover long forgotten texts from ancient Rome. His journey took him to far flung libraries in distant monasteries throughout Europe. During one such quest this secretary named Poggio Bracciolini came across the greatest discovery of his lifetime, a long forgotten scroll written by a Roman poet-philosopher, Lucretius. Christianity had been so successful in stamping out all thought that did not confirm or support its dogma that the words of Lucretius had not been read in over 1,000 years. At the time of his discovery Bracciolini could not have known, but time has shown that his discovery of this single long lost text literally change the trajectory of the world and helped nudge it out of the dark ages.

So what was it about the writings of Lucretius that had the power to reshape the path of human history? In simple terms it was the long lost, straightforward philosophy that the world we live in is random, full of chaos and undetermined. In other words it was in stark contrast to the governed, organized, predestined world of dark ages Christianity.

The philosophy of Lucretius, with its denial of Christian asceticism, enabled people to turn away from a preoccupation with angels and demons and to focus instead on things in this world: to conduct experiments without worrying about infringing on God’s jealously guarded secrets, to question authorities and challenge received doctrines, to contemplate without terror the death of the soul.

Lucretius believed that religion sucked the pleasure of living out of life by burdening the believer with guilt, dogma and superstition that prevents adherents from living an authentic, pleasurable life in reality.  It is amazing to me that this philosophy of “Secular Humanism”, so toxic to religion in general and Christianity specifically, was able to survive at all.  It also amazes me to know that secular humanism was once so prevalent in ancient Rome…was virtually stamped out by the Christian religion and literally stalled the world of human advancement and enlightenment for over 1,000 years.

You can read more about this fascinating bit of history in Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Swerve, How the World became Modern” I highly recommend it.


Jonathan said...

Hey, Cr@aig. If you liked Swerve, there's an earlier, more substantial book that examines the effect of Lucretious and all of pagan antiquity on the Enlightenment thinkers: The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism by Peter Gay. It's more challenging reading but worth the effort, IMO.

Quentin said...

This is cool!