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Ada Palmer, Reading Lucretius in Renaissance


  • Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 73, Number 3, July 2012, pp.395-416 (Article)

    DOI: 10.1353/jhi.2012.0023

    For additional information about this article

    Access provided by CNRS BiblioSHS (6 Jan 2015 05:11 GMT)

  • Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance

    Ada Palmer

    Atomism, the theory that matter consists of tiny, indivisible atoms whosevaried combinations form the different substances around us, existed inEurope for more than two thousand years before its modern popularity.Equally ancient are the scientific theories of vacuum, of multiple Earth-likeworlds, and of creation from chaos, the theory that in the beginning atomsfloating in the void clumped together randomly to form substances. On theNature of Things (De Rerum Natura) by Titus Lucretius Carus (9455/51bce) is the most complete surviving record of these ancient atomic theories,and even tells us that Earth originally produced a wide variety of creatures,but that only those suited to their environments survived to the present.1

    These doctrines were all taught by Epicurus (341270 bce), and if his theo-ries sound suspiciously like those of the twentieth century ce, one criticalquestion is how these ideas were preserved and transmitted over the longperiod before their broad modern acceptance, particularly in the Renais-sance.

    Few of Epicuruss writings survive,2 but in the late first century bce a

    I am greatly indebted in this project to the guidance of James Hankins, the aid of AnnBlair, Alison Brown, Brian Copenhaver, Craig Kallendorf, Stephen Greenblatt, andMichael Reeve, and the support of the Villa I Tatti Harvard University Center for ItalianRenaissance Studies, the Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research at TexasA & M University, and the Fulbright Program. A monographic version of this study isforthcoming.1 Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 5.837877.2 James Hankins and Ada Palmer, The Recovery of Classical Philosophy in the Renais-

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    Roman follower, Lucretius, laid out his key doctrines in Latin verse in thesix-book didactic poem De Rerum Natura. The poem, and the bulk ofclassical atomism with it, disappeared after the ninth century, but was redis-covered in 1417 by the Renaissance book-hunter Poggio Bracciolini (13801459). Humanists produced more than fifty manuscripts within a centuryand thirty print editions by 1600.3 Lucretius was taught in schools in Franceand Italy in the early sixteenth century, frequently enough for the Florentineregional Church council to ban teaching him in 1517,4 and for PetrusNannius (15001557) at Louvain to complain of the absence of a suitableclassroom edition in 1543.5 Despite this extensive circulation, and the com-paratively broad appearance of Lucretian poetic themes in art and literatureof the sixteenth century, atomism remained extremely rare in scientificcircles until the seventeenth century, when Pierre Gassendi (15921655)hybridized Epicureanism, Skepticism, and Christianity.6 The question ishow and why the text was used and multiplied so broadly while its coredoctrines remained conspicuously absent from scientific discourse. I haveapproached this question through a systematic examination of marginaliain surviving Renaissance copies of the De Rerum Natura, a new techniquewhich exposes how the reading practices of Renaissance humanists affectedthe transmission of ideas.

    The scholars we call humanists worked to restore classical civilizationin the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by creating a new educational systemfounded on the study of classical texts. Humanism was supposed to pro-duce virtuous men, who would imbibe in childhood the loyalty, nobility,courage, and patriotism which made ancient Rome strong, and withoutwhich the modern world was wracked by corruption, petty ambition, andcowardly self-interest. The beauty of ancient rhetoric was supposed to armauthors and orators to inspire virtue in others, especially princes. Thishumanism did not value learning only for learnings sake but had a very

    sance, a Brief Guide (Florence: Istituto Nazionale di Studi sul Rinascimento, 2008),6263.3 Cosmo Gordon, A Bibliography of Lucretius (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1962).4 J. D. Mansi ed., Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissa collectio (Paris: H. Welter,19011927), 35: 270.5 Dirk Sacre, Nanniuss Somnia, in La satire humaniste: Actes du Colloque interna-tional des 31 mars, 1er et 2 avril 1993, ed. Rudolf De Smet (Louvain: Peeters Press,1994), 7793.6 The persecution of Giordano Bruno testifies to atomisms hostile reception, see PaulHenri Michel, The Cosmology of Giordano Bruno (Ithaca, N.Y.: 1973); Hilary Gatti,Giordano Bruno and Renaissance Science (Ithaca, N.Y.: 2002), especially ch. 8, andEssays on Giordano Bruno (Princeton: 2011), ch. 3.

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  • Palmer Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance

    practical agenda, to repair Europe through the education of its elite. As myfindings demonstrate, the specific methods of reading taught by this human-ist agenda, with its focus on moral concerns and repairing Europe alongclassical lines, preserved and circulated the radical content of classical texts,even while only a tiny sliver of the humanists responsible for this transmis-sion were demonstrably interested in the radical content.7 Humanist apolo-gists, most comparatively orthodox, sheltered these texts, and enduredgreat dangers to do so, as the tense relationship between science and heresyflared in the Renaissance as never before.

    From 1417 to 1600, while Epicureanism remained conspicuouslyabsent from discourse on physics and natural philosophy, it was conspicu-ously present in discourse on heresy and atheism. The ancient atomists,Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius, appear universally in the lists ofFamous Atheists which were a popular genre across Europe in the sixteenthand seventeenth centuries.8 The association between atomism and atheismderives mainly from three points. First, by explaining physical phenomenathrough the natural properties of atoms, atomism eliminates divine gover-nance of nature. While Lucretius insists that the gods exist, they are remotefrom the world and not responsible for its ordering or continuation. Thissystematic model of nature without divine participation made it possiblefor an atheist to have a coherent physics, and to finally answer such ques-tions as How do the planets move without angels to push them? withsomething stronger than I dont know.9 Second, the Epicurean story of

    7 On the classics and Renaissance science see Gianna Pomata and Nancy Siraisi eds.,Historia: Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Mass.: MITPress, 2005); William R. Newman and Anthony Grafton eds., Secrets of Nature: Astrol-ogy and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001); NancySiraisi, Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine: An Introduction to Knowledge andPractice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 116, 12333; John Shirley andDavid Hoeniger eds., Science and the Arts in the Renaissance (Washington, D.C.: FolgerShakespeare Library, 1985) especially the title chapter by Alistair Crombie, 1526;George Sarton, The Appreciation of Ancient and Medieval Science during the Renaissance(14501600) (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1955); Nancy Siraisi, LifeSciences and Medicine in the Renaissance World, in Rome Reborn: the Vatican Libraryand Renaissance Culture (Washington D.C.: Library of Congress, 1993), 16998.8 Alan Kors, Atheism in France, 16501729 (Princeton: Princeton University Press,1990), 2930; C. J. Betts, Early Deism in France, From the so-called deistes of Lyon(1564) to Voltaires Lettres philosophiques (1734) (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Pub-lishers, 1984), 26365; Nicholas Davidson, Atheism in Italy 15001700, in Atheismfrom the Reformation to the Enlightenment, ed. Michael Hunter and David Wootton(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 5586 especially 56 n. 7; Catherine Wilson,Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).9 Davidson, Atheism in Italy 15001700, 6162.

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    the creation of the world from chance associations of atoms eliminates thePrime Mover, again reducing the necessity of the divine; this makes atom-ism critically different from the Aristotelian and Platonic systems whichboth posit a central creative force which Christians could equate with God.Finally, Epicuruss denial of the afterlife, which he intended to free menfrom fear of imagined torments after death, was associated in the Renais-sance with a long-standing European paranoia that atheists, without fearof divine punishment, would have no reason to refrain from rape, murder,and other crimes, making it impossible for them to be good citizens.10 Thus,while Lucretius is not an atheist in the modern sense, his materialism anddenial of the soul provide arguments which will prove essential to the latergrowth of atheism, as well as deism, skepticism and other radical hetero-doxies. For this group of radical Lucretian concepts, those associated, inthe Renaissance and now, with atheism, but which do not themselves attackthe existence of the divine, I shall employ the label proto-atheism.Renaissance heresy-hunters drew no such subtle distinction between poten-tial and actuality. Epicurean denial of th