This particularly caustic broadside has been directed at NPR’s Morning Edition by the editor of Chronicles:
Kudos to the Morning Edition staff! I have been an NPR listener almost from the beginning, and while I am constantly impressed by the errors and distortions that pepper your reporting on literature and history, I must confess that even I was bowled over by Robert Krulwich’s conversation with Stephen Greenblatt on the subject of the Roman poet Lucretius. In only a few minutes Prof. Greenblatt managed to get just about everything wrong except for the fact that Lucretius lived 2000 years ago.
Lucretius, of course, was the Roman poet who sought to popularize Atomism, with the aim of liberating men everywhere from the bonds of religious tradition. So it is understandable that when the irreligious learn of Lucretius they often warm to the man and his Epicurean doctrines. Understandable, that is, from one point of view — yet is it not odd that the same people who dismiss the past as a mire of allegedly obsolete beliefs get excited at finding someone from that past who can be identified as their intellectual ancestor? Since when do avant-garde futurists care about membership in a time-hallowed historical tradition? If being innovative and keeping “up-to-date” is all-important, wouldn’t it be a let-down to find that your ideas aren’t so new as you thought?
At any rate, I certainly encountered firsthand great enthusiasm for Lucretius while in the master’s program of St. John’s College. For instance, I vividly recall one anti-Christian grad student who excitedly praised Lucretius as “very modern” and who suggested that the Epicurean-materialist ethos offers mankind a chance at “freedom from hope.” (This bright young lad was, incidentally, a Notre Dame alum from an old Chicago Catholic family – what a shock, eh? Somebody call the bishop.)
Among the many things my classmate failed to recognize is the vast conceptual gulf separating the ancient Greek atom from the quantum entities spoken of by physicists today. Then again, as Thomas Fleming points out, Lucretius & Co. were not particularly interested in science as such – “[a]ny explanation was acceptable so long as it eliminated the gods” – and we may suppose that the same holds true for many would-be Epicureans now.
Of course none of this is to deny that Lucretius’ work can provide food for thought.
Furthermore, I might caution readers of an All-American Jeffersonian bent to restrain their denunciations of Epicureanism, for … obvious reasons.