You might think that a very long poem that describes the natural laws of the universe to demonstrate how supernaturalism is unnecessary is a novel idea. It’s not.
Around 2070 years ago, probably in or near Rome, a poet and philosopher named Titus Lucretius Carus spent years writing a truly spectacular poem: De rerum natura. The title is commonly translated as On the Nature of Things. This epic poem describes a naturalistic worldview and explains how all sorts of physical, biological, social and mental phenomena are made of atoms – 18 centuries before this was widely accepted. It makes a vague but correct guess at natural selection 19 centuries before Darwin. Before Christianity was even invented, this poem said that if gods exist, they’re made out of atoms and don’t care about us. It is classic epic poetry in dactylic hexameter and about half as long as the Iliad. Its rediscovery is credited with ending the Middle Ages.
By and large, poetry seems to flee reality. Many poems are obviously fictional, at least when seen from outside their religious context, or focus on feeling and fantasy rather than facts. Most of the rest are so full of metaphor and impressionism that if there ever was something non-fictional that inspired them, it is impossible to discern. A minority of poems appear to be describing factual reality, but they almost never attempt to explain it. With one huge exception: De rerum natura.
(Okay, there is the obscure sub-genre of descriptive poetry, but that has been dead for three hundred years.)
Stephen Greenblatt has written The Swerve, an enthusiastic account of how the rediscovery of this poem in 1417 was a major factor in helping Europe leave the Middle Ages and enter the Renaissance. He elaborates his view in this lecture video and briefly summarizes it here:
The book is delightful, and I find it fairly reflected in a review (part one, part two) by the ever excellent Scott Alexander. The claims of the book seem to be a bit exaggerated, as the blogger Baerista has pointed to quite a few pieces of evidence that do not fit Greenblatt’s narrative. So apparently the survival of this text through the Middle Ages was not as improbable as Greenblatt makes it out to be.
But still, De rerum natura made a huge impact. Maybe that’s because it describes a coherent worldview that explicitly lacks anything supernatural. I trust the absolutely astonishing ancient historian Ada Palmer (who makes people cry with Renaissance History) when she suggests that in this regard, at the turn from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, De rerum natura was unique:
Lucretius showed that it was possible to have a coherent model of the cosmos and of ethics without divine participation. Even if radicals from the 1400s through the 1700s weren’t actually persuaded that Lucretius’ Epicurean system was true, they could look at it and say, “Hey, look, it’s possible to create a science and an ethics without God involved at all, and if Lucretius can come up with one maybe I can come up with another, better one.” It proved that atheism could be a system, instead of just a single isolated thesis that required the adherent to scrap all other knowledge.
That makes Lucretius’ masterpiece one of the most infuential poems ever. Of course it stands nearly alone among vast numbers of religious poems and I think in sheer poetic artistry it cannot quite measure up to the most masterful of masterpieces among them, like the Divine Comedy or the Mahabharata. Still, atheism is lucky to have it.
So you might think the Seven Secular Sermons are a fairly obvious homage to De rerum natura. I’m almost tempted to pretend they are, because I happen to think that if any poetry deserves homages, De rerum natura should be high on the list.
But when I started the Sermons, I had never heard of Lucretius. I discovered him late one night, browsing the Wikipedia for poetry, probably procrastinating on writing Adrift in Space and Time. I was startled to find that someone had already done much of what I’m doing! Titus Lucretius Carus, a hundred generations ago, described a naturalistic worldview in a sophisticated poetic format, and his poetry is obviously designed to compete with religious poetry and lead people away from supernaturalism. That’s not all of what I hope to do, but it is arguably the most important part. And his poetry has already been way more successful than any poet could ever hope it to be.
So I got the book (in translation, since I unfortunately don’t know Latin) and predictably loved it. Lucretius has become the man I look up to. I can only hope my work will one day be a footnote to his.
And he has proven that poetry and logical explanation do mix! De rerum natura exemplifies that poems can, at least if they’re very very good, be poetic even while inspiring people to abandon supernaturalism. That gives me hope, for what I’m trying to do here.