“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”
Countless Americans and others have read this sentence from Declaration of Independence and no doubt most have simply nodded in agreement, but I always wondered where its author, Thomas Jefferson, came up with the unique concept that the pursuit of happiness was a self-evident truth.
That phrase from the Declaration reveals Jefferson’s philosophical turn of mind while the rest of the document is a legal argument for severing relations with England in order to establish a separate and sovereign nation.
It was not until I read a new softcover edition of Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” ($16.95, W.W. Norton) that I finally found the answer to my question.
Greenblatt’s book is devoted to the discovery in 1417 of a book thought to have been lost, De rerum natura, On the Nature of Things, a philosophical epic written around 50 BCE by the Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus, believed to have been born around 99 BCE and died around 55 BCE.
The man who discovered the book in a remote German monastery was Poggio Bracciolini, the apostolic secretary to Pope John XXIII, the highest position someone who was not a prelate could hold in the Church. He was famed in his time for his extraordinary handwriting skills as well as his knowledge of Latin, the official language of the Church.
Poggio was the quintessential intellectual and like the relative handful of others, he was a book-collecting enthusiast in an era when books where all copied out by hand, highly prized among the literate wealthy when few were either literate or wealthy. Books were kept in the libraries of monasteries or the homes of the ruling classes.
It would not be until Johannes Gutenberg’a invention of the printing press in the 1440s that books became more widely accessible. In addition to the Bible, it also made available Lucretius lengthy philosophical, thoroughly atheistic, and remarkably ahead of its time for its views about atoms and the universe.
The extraordinary thing about Lucretius’ long poem was how radical it was for its own time when the world in which he lived was filled with pagan gods. His poem promoted the teachings of Epicurus (341 to 270 BCE) a Greek philosopher who had died two centuries earlier. Both advocated the pursuit of all forms of pleasure as the highest goal of life.
Picking up where Epicurus left off, Lucretius said that everything is composed of atoms, ceaselessly moving, combining, and separating. The result of this was an evolving natural order rather than the decrees of the gods. In Poggio’s time the Church had an iron grip on the minds of men whose lives were to be devoted to work, prayer, and the fear of an afterlife in which punishment for sin awaited.
It is noteworthy that the notion that everything was made of invisible particles, that the universe is not the product of a divine creator, and that there was no afterlife had been in circulation among philosophers for centuries. It is a reminder that many in our “modern” world still subscribe to much different interpretations.
Lucretius’ book would have a great influence on the great minds that initiated the Renaissance.
That life should be lived in a pursuit of happiness is thus a very ancient philosophy, but there in America’s Declaration of Independence it resurfaces as the belief is an unalienable right.
© Alan Caruba, 2012