Some 300 years before Christ was even a twinkle in God’s eye, Epicurus, a Greek philosopher from the island of Samos, was writing about Particle and Quantum Physics. What he concluded and taught was that the universe, which he declared to be infinite and eternal, contains nothing except atoms and void. Atoms, freewheeling endlessly and randomly in the void, clashing and uniting, form everything of matter in the universe from a turnip to Kim Jong-Un’s (will there be a Kim Jong-Deux?) underpants, from Lady Gaga to the planet Saturn. Pre-dating Darwin by more than two thousand years, Epicurus believed that matter, whether animal, vegetable or mineral, would adapt over time to the challenges faced so that only the hardiest survived, a process of natural selection. The presence of only atoms and void naturally leaves no room for the supernatural, effectively consigning ghosts, souls and Gods to the realms of fantasy. Neither Earth nor its human inhabitants are the centre of the universe, he claimed, and when we die the atoms that combined to make us will merely redeploy. Our lives need be free of all anxiety about the afterlife, of wondering whether we shall roast in Hellfire or be reunited with loved ones for there is no afterlife. He equated moral good and evil with physical pleasure and pain and therefore one should strive for a life of peace and tranquility, free of the fear of death and the eternal damnation that, at the whims of the gods, may follow. There is no awareness in death and so we have no reason to fear it.
Much of what Epicurus taught was naturally anathema to the Christian Church because of the heretical beliefs inherent in the philosopher’s doctrine. For its first fifteen hundred years, the Church enjoyed its own pain, (self-flagellation in sympathy with Christ’s Passion) and the pain of others (immolating heretics), further removing it from the teachings of Epicurus. To counter the Epicureans the Church rubbished their philosophy, misrepresenting it as a simple desire for pleasure-seeking and over-indulgence (a belief still held by many today) when these were specifically condemned by Epicurus who believed excess eventually causes pain.
In the last century BC a Roman poet and philosopher, Titus Lucretius Carus, published the ideas of Epicurus in the form of an elegant poem he called ‘De Rerum Natura’ (‘On the Nature of Things’). Copies of this work, destroyed by Christians, eaten by worms, overwritten by vellum hungry Monks, were hard to find by the 15th Century and it was the detective work of Florentine writer and humanist Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini that unearthed one of the few surviving copies in a remote German monastery in the early years of that century. Poggio copied the text and sent it back to Florence where other copies were made, finding their way into the hands of humanists and influencing, among others, Botticelli, and determining the course of the Renaissance. Accelerated by the advent of the printing press, copies of De Rerum Natura eventually ended up in the libraries of many of Western Europe’s great thinkers including Sir Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Montaigne and Newton. It is thanks to Thomas Jefferson, a self-avowed Epicurean, that the Declaration of Independence includes ‘the pursuit of happiness’ as one of Man’s unalienable rights.
This true story, so much more exciting than anything Dan Brown has ever written, is the subject of Harvard Professor, Stephen Greeblatt’s book ‘The Swerve – How the Renaissance Began’ (London, The Bodley Head, 2011). Splendid stuff!
If you come upon a tomb with the inscription Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo (I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care) you will know an Epicurean lies there. I shall have no such epitaph, even though I agree with its sentiments, for I intend that my own personal assembly of atoms shall be consumed by fire. As Woody Allen once said ‘I don’t believe in the afterlife, but I’ll take a clean change of undies, just in case.’