Hell Is a Fiction, Said Lucretius, So Don’t Worry: Lewis Lapham

An Italian with a passion rode through southern Germany in the winter of 1417. His destination was a remote monastery likely to have a library full of neglected manuscripts. On this journey, Poggio Bracciolini dusted off an epic that changed the world.

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Lost for nearly 1,000 years, “On the Nature of Things,” by Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, was composed in praise of earthly pleasure.

Positing a universe of particles moving in an infinite void, Lucretius declares that organized religions are cruel superstitions, scoffs at the idea of an afterlife with punishments and rewards, and notes that delusion is the greatest enemy of human happiness.

Rediscovered, the radical ideas of Lucretius influenced figures ranging from Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake by a threatened Christian church, to Leonardo, Galileo, Darwin and Einstein.

I spoke with Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, author of “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” on the following topics:

1. Ruins of Antiquity

2. Atoms and Emptiness

3. Freedom and Creation

4. Threat to the Church

5. The Pursuit of Happiness

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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

Source: W.W. Norton via Bloomberg

The cover jacket of "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern," by Stephen Greenblatt. Close

The cover jacket of "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern," by Stephen Greenblatt.

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Source: W.W. Norton via Bloomberg

The cover jacket of "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern," by Stephen Greenblatt.

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at lhl@laphamsquarterly.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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