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It is possible, however, to know something about his intellectual biography.

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The Greeks had a word for these invisible building blocks, things that, as they conceived them, could not be divided any further: atoms. But Epicurus used this conjecture to argue that there are no supercategories of matter, no hierarchy of elements. Heavenly bodies are not divine beings, nor do they move through the void under the guidance of gods.

And, though the natural order is unimaginably vast and complex, it is nonetheless possible to understand something of its basic constitutive elements and its universal laws. In reality, he seems to have lived a conspicuously simple and frugal life.

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Even a quick glance at the first few pages of the manuscript would have convinced Poggio that he had discovered something remarkable. What he could not have grasped, without carefully reading through the work, was that he was unleashing something that threatened the whole structure of his intellectual universe. There are moments, rare and powerful, in which a writer, long vanished, seems to stand in your presence and speak to you directly, as if he bore a message meant for you above all others. My mother was not afraid of the afterlife: like most Jews, she had only a hazy sense of what might lie beyond the grave, and she gave it very little thought.

It was death itself—simply ceasing to be—that terrified her.


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As far back as I can remember, she brooded obsessively on the imminence of her end, invoking it again and again, especially at moments of parting. My life was full of extended, operatic scenes of farewell. When she went with my father from Boston to New York for the weekend, when I went off to summer camp, and even—when things were especially hard for her—when I simply left the house for school, she clung tightly to me, speaking of her fragility and of the distinct possibility that I would never see her again.

If we walked somewhere together, she would frequently come to a halt, as if she were about to keel over. Sometimes she would show me a vein pulsing in her neck and, taking my finger, make me feel it for myself, the sign of her heart dangerously racing. She must have been in her late thirties when my own memories of her fears begin, and those fears evidently went back much further in time. They seem to have taken root about a decade before my birth, when her younger sister, only sixteen years old, died of strep throat.

This event—one all too familiar before the introduction of penicillin—was still an open wound: my mother spoke of it constantly, weeping quietly, and making me read and reread the poignant letters that her sister had written through the course of her fatal illness. It was an acting out, a rehearsal, of the extinction that she feared.

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It was, above all, a way to compel attention from my father, my brother, and me, and to demand our love. But this understanding did not make its effect upon my childhood significantly less intense: I loved my mother and dreaded losing her. I was hardly equipped to untangle psychological strategy from dangerous symptom. And, as a child, I had no means to gauge the weirdness of this constant harping on impending death and this freighting of every farewell with finality.

As it turned out, my mother lived to a month shy of her ninetieth birthday. To spend your existence in the grip of anxiety about death, Lucretius wrote, is folly.

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It is a sure way to let your life slip from you incomplete and unenjoyed. And, in so arguing, he gave voice to a thought I had not yet quite allowed myself to articulate: to inflict this anxiety on others is manipulative and cruel. But, of course, the issues were vastly different. To people haunted by images of the bleeding Christ, gripped by a terror of Hell, and obsessed with escaping the purgatorial fires of the afterlife, Lucretius offered a vision of divine indifference.


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  6. There was no afterlife, no system of rewards and punishments meted out from on high. Gods, by virtue of being gods, could not possibly be concerned with the doings of human beings. One simple name for the plague that Lucretius brought, and a charge frequently levelled against him then and since, is atheism. Some six or seven decades after Poggio returned the poem to circulation, atomism was viewed as a serious threat to Christianity. Atomist books were burned; the clergy in Florence prohibited the reading of Lucretius in schools.

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    The sense of threat intensified when Protestants mounted their assault on Catholic doctrine. That assault did not depend on atomism—Luther and Zwingli and Calvin were scarcely Epicureans—but for the militant, embattled forces of the Counter-Reformation it was as if the resurgence of ancient materialism had opened a dangerous second front. Indeed, atomism seemed to offer the Reformers access to an intellectual weapon of mass destruction. The Church was fiercely determined not to allow anyone to lay hands on this weapon, and its ideological arm, the Inquisition, was alerted to detect the telltale signs of proliferation.

    Poems are difficult to silence. His use of the philosophy for the population of this alien island showed that the ideas recovered by the humanists seemed compellingly vital and at the same time still utterly weird. But the poem spread, and, as it did, its ideas filtered into popular culture. On the London stage in the mid-fifteen-nineties, Mercutio teased Romeo with this fantastical description of Queen Mab:. Name required. Email required.

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    An ancient poem was rediscovered—and the world swerved.

    Brutally banal chitchat about life and love ensues. Share Selection. Now On Now on Page Six. Now On Now on Decider. Arlen is thus reluctantly hauled into the problems of another human being, while gradually becoming involved in the life of Elizabeth and her young son Alex Max Antisell.

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    A wonderful story. Checking out the quote online, I found a blog entry by Dennis G. Jerz of Seton Hill University, reporting that I have related this same story four times in print since , sometimes changing it slightly.