FYS 101 The Lost Poet of Modernity

In 1417 Poggio Bracciolini made a chance discovery in a German monastery that profoundly changed the course of modern philosophy and science. Among forgotten manuscripts he found one of the last remaining copies of “On the Nature of Things,” a didactic Epicurean poem written in the first century B.C. by the Roman Lucretius. In the poem Lucretius presents a radically different vision of things than what was widely accepted in the West. He argues for a materialist view of nature, according to which all things  are accidents of atoms blindly colliding in infinite space. He further argues that the gods care nothing of human affairs, that there is no afterlife, and that the best we can hope for is a life of pleasure free from pain. Finally, he speculates that ethics is a human convention that arises because we do not want to be harmed by others.

This class will trace the reception of “On the Nature of Things” in early modern philosophy and science. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Lucretius found an audience among some of the most prominent philosophers and scientists of the period – Thomas Hobbes, Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes, and John Locke, to name a few. These philosophers were instrumental in developing modern philosophy and science, and many of their views are still with us today. In this course students will read Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things,” as well as the writings of philosophers and scientists that grappled with his ideas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Students will also read some contemporary discussions of the importance of Lucretius written by historians and philosophers, including Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Wilson.