What If Our Ignorance Outgrows Our Potential?


There is an overlooked rule in history: far more is lost and forgotten than is preserved and remembered.

I’ve been thinking more and more lately about this rule as it relates to the idea of progress. For the past few years, I’ve podcasted about the rise of the modern world, emphasizing how much progress humanity has made in science, technology, medicine, wealth… But not everything seems to be tracking positively. As a species, we know more and we’re more powerful than we’ve ever been. But are we getting wiser?

Overall, there is no question that we’re making objective progress on countless metrics. The data on this are definitive; Steven Pinker recently published a book laying it all out called Enlightenment Now. Hard to argue with hard facts. But his book doesn’t capture every metric, and in many important ways, there’s evidence that we are… regressing. From rampant historical ignorance to the spread of ideological extremism and scientific illiteracy, we are increasingly failing to live up to our unprecedented potential.

A great example of our failure to live up to our modern potential was featured in an article in The Atlantic a few weeks back titled, “What the Measles Epidemic Really Says About America,” written by Peter Beinart. I encourage you to read it, it documents the re-emergence of measles in the United States as a result of anti-vaccination propaganda, but I’ll just grab one quote from the piece here to highlight the point I’m trying to make, “The return of a vanquished disease reflects historical amnesia, declining faith in institutions, and a troubling lack of concern for the public good… Technology may improve, science may advance. But the fading of lessons that once seemed obvious should give pause to those who believe history naturally bends toward progress.” I find myself increasingly struggling with the truth of this contradiction.

The question is, what if our ignorance outgrows our potential? What happens when rich and powerful societies lose their wisdom and forget what made them great in the first place? It’s happened before. And there is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by historian Stephen Greenblatt that tells the tale, titled, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, published in 2012. In this episode, we look to this brilliant book for insight on how a paradise of wisdom was once lost, and how it took over a thousand years to be recovered.

Almost 2100 years ago, a Roman philosopher named Lucretius penned an epic poem that captured some of the most advanced ideas of antiquity. Its title was, On the Nature of Things, and it offered a beautiful glimpse of how prominent Western thinkers understood the world and humanity’s place within it in the generations before the dawn of Christianity. Twenty-one hundred years ago–that’s truly ancient. And yet, what makes On the Nature of Things so intriguing is that its ideas appear shockingly modern. Borrowing from philosophies centuries older still, originating with thinkers like Epicurus who lived 2300 years ago and Democritus who lived 2400 years ago, Lucretius interpreted the world not as a godly creation as we might expect from pre-moderns but as matter in motion, much the same as Descartes, Newton and more recent scientists would. As Stephen Greenblatt writes, Lucretius, a philosopher from the first century BC, asserted that everything in the universe was composed of, “an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space… colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction… [the cosmos was not] the handiwork of the gods or a crystalline sphere detached from our transient world, [but] the same material world of which [we were] a part and from whose elements [we were] made… All things, including [human beings] … evolved over vast stretches of time. The evolution [was] random, though in the case of living organisms it [involved] a principle of natural selection… nothing [lasted] forever. Only atoms [were] immortal.” If I were to encounter this passage without knowing its origin, I would probably guess it was written within the last hundred years, especially given Lucretius’ anticipation of modern evolutionary theory. But it wasn’t. Not even close. Mind blowingly, it was written nearly a hundred generations ago.

Like the author, Stephen Greenblatt, I have always marveled at the wisdom of the ancients. Thousands of years ago, there were sprawling cities all across the Western world, cities with clean running water that flowed from mountain springs on precisely engineered aqueducts a hundred miles long, cities with towering domes and coliseums adorned with style we’ve yet to surpass, cities with markets frothing with exchange, and cities with libraries, both private and public, where knowledge was considered as precious as gold. Hacks may puff that aliens must have built the pyramids and assisted humans in all manner of other ancient achievements, but the truth is much simpler and much more profound; people have been around a very long time, we’re very smart and tenacious creatures, and we have made stunning innovations in philosophy, art, and engineering over the millennia. That progress occasionally blossomed into golden ages of development whose monuments of stone and thought have stood the test of time. But the people responsible were just like you and me; they got up every day, year after year, generation after generation, to try and learn, and explore, and build. This is how Euclid developed geometry 2300 years ago, and how Archimedes established simple machines and the foundations of modern calculus 2300 years ago. This is how Eratosthenes reasoned that the world was round and calculated the circumference of the earth to within 1 percent accuracy 2200 years ago. This is how the ancient Greeks and Egyptians and Persians came to conclude that the earth revolved through space around the sun, how they worked out that the length of a year was 365 and one quarter days long, and why they proposed building a leap day into every fourth year. We could go on and on. As Stephen Greenblatt puts it, the level of ancient achievement was staggering. But, since it’s always been easier to break things than to build them, since we’re always more likely to lose and forget our accomplishments than preserve and remember them, for every golden age in human history a dark age has often followed, and only fragments of humanity’s greatness have ever been salvaged from the successive ruins.

Few fragments. Tragically few. A big reason why ancient wisdom is so striking is because so little of it survived the centuries after its final collapse with the fall of Rome in the 400s AD, some 500 years after Lucretius wrote On the Nature of Things. But that book, that one fragment in particular, was rescued from extinction in the year 1417 by an Italian book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini, and it opened Westerners’ eyes to a lost world of philosophy and passion which they had practically forgotten they were capable of for well over a thousand years.

Through centuries of submission to theocracy, the spirit of Western Civilization had ossified. The rediscovery of Lucretius’ work cracked it just enough to help set something new in motion, which historians have come call the European Renaissance. This is what Stephen Greenblatt’s book, The Swerve, is about. As he puts it, “There is no single explanation for the emergence of the Renaissance and the release of the forces that have shaped [the modern world]. But I have tried in this book to tell a little known but exemplary Renaissance story, the story of Poggio Brachiolini’s recovery of On the Nature of Things. The recovery has the virtue of being true to the term that we use to gesture toward the culture shift at the origins of modern life and thought: a re-naissance, a rebirth of antiquity. One [epic] poem by itself was certainly not responsible for an entire intellectual, moral, and social transformation – no single work was…But this particular ancient book, suddenly returning to view, made a difference.”

It’s important to point out that Lucretius’ epic poem, On the Nature of Things, did not represent the definitive worldview of the ancient Mediterranean world. As in every age, there were many competing and overlapping beliefs and philosophies about how the world worked, and many ancient thinkers, in contrast to Lucretius and Epicurus, did believe that a god or multiple gods directly intervened in human affairs, while others would have disagreed with the idea that atoms comprised everything in the cosmos. Historical evidence suggests that some of Lucretius’s contemporaries even felt that On the Nature of Things was scandalous. Nonetheless, the majority of educated people living through the centuries just before the rise of Christianity would probably have been familiar with Lucretius’ ideas and felt no qualms about entertaining their veracity. It was only later, after Christianity became entrenched in the West, that Lucretius’ ideas were “attacked, ridiculed, burned, or–most devastating–ignored and eventually forgotten.” Indeed, On the Nature of Things teetered on the edge of total oblivion for centuries through the early Christian era, surfacing only as the object of theological scorn here and there until virtually all references to it ceased entirely through the 400s AD. Thereafter, only the physical integrity of vellum on which Lucretius’ ideas were encoded could save them. The vast majority of other ancient books succumbed to the assaults of time; the slide of so many centuries left them burned, rotted, eaten by worms, or perhaps even re-purposed to make Bibles given the high cost of medieval book making–their ink laboriously scraped clean and their pages re-penned with radically different ideas. But it appears that one copy, one single known copy, of On the Nature of Things somehow survived. In 1417, Poggio Bracciolini found it still intact sitting on the shelf of a German monastery. Already familiar with a handful of other ancient documents, he recognized its priceless worth the very moment he opened its cover, and his first order of business was to have it copied as many times over as he could afford.

Of all the ancient masterpieces, Greenblatt writes, “[On the Nature of Things] should certainly have disappeared finally and forever, in the company of the lost works that had inspired it. That it did not disappear, that it surfaced after many centuries and began once again to propagate its deeply subversive theses, is something one could be tempted to call a miracle. But the author of the poem in question did not believe in miracles. [Lucretius] thought that nothing could violate the laws of nature. He posited instead what he called a ‘swerve’… an unexpected, unpredictable movement of matter. The reappearance of his [epic] poem was such a swerve, an unforeseen deviation from the direct trajectory…on which that poem and its philosophy seemed to be traveling.” This notion of the swerve becomes a theme of the book, and its where Greenblatt found his title. Yet, as unlikely as Poggio’s discovery may have been, as much as that discovery represented a swerve from the prevailing trajectory of history, the place where Poggio found the last known copy of On the Nature of Things was predictable. Ever since the Italian scholar and poet Petrarch had caused a sensation in the 1330s by rediscovering Cicero’s letters and reconstructing Livy’s epic history of the Roman empire, European book hunters had realized that the best place to find lost wisdom was among the shadowy shelves of Christian monasteries, for monasteries were practically the only institutions left in Europe where literacy lived on. This is somewhat ironic, Greenblatt argues, because monastic culture wasn’t literary in the ancient sense at all. The literary culture that had thrived for centuries in ancient Greece and Rome had been lively, sociable, often rowdy. Ancient Greeks and Romans relished debate, savored the spoken word, and respected curiosity as one of the highest moral virtues. Arguments among philosophical rivals might get heated with emotion and liberal doses of wine, they might go all night, but that was great. The ancients considered a battle of brains at least as entertaining as a battle of brawn. Among Christian monks a thousand years later, the situation could not have been more different. First of all, monks took vows of silence, which they were flogged for breaking. Curiosity? It was condemned. Argument, debate, let alone questioning of theological ideas was punished with slaps, whipping, withholding of food, dousing with freezing water, who knows what else! Monastic culture was defined by a strict discipline of thought that would have mortified the ancients. Still, that discipline at least featured loyalty to the written word, for that is how monks preserved the word of God. If they couldn’t read and write, monks could not fulfill that essential duty, and so monasteries valued books; they valued the words they contained and the materials they were made of as potential vessels of devotion, even though ancient books that predated their savior might contain combinations of words they considered worthy of hatred or neglect. In fact, much of the medieval monastic literary tradition was either an exercise in criticizing pre-Christian ignorance and blasphemy or the mental gymnastics of trying to reconcile pre-Christian philosophy with the Bible. Petrarch, Poggio, and other late medieval book hunters were unique in valuing ancient books for the ideas they actually contained, and their book hunting efforts represented a critical departure from Europe’s long-standing religious repression. “The recovered texts were copied, edited, commented upon, and eagerly exchanged [by these book hunters], conferring distinction upon those who had found them and forming the basis for what became known as the ‘study of the humanities.’” Indeed, a renewed interest in humanity was exactly what was emerging from the efforts of this new breed of scholars. And for the first time in over a thousand years, their efforts made humanity’s potential here on earth begin to seem worthy of a kind of worship too.

Most medieval Europeans, whether or not they could read, knew that there had once been people far richer and more powerful than themselves. They could see evidence of it everywhere around them in the ruins of awe-inspiring infrastructure than no living person could build. For the book hunters who could read, however, the intrigue of ancient greatness went much further, for they saw the remnants of awe-inspiring ideas that no living person could have dreamed of. On the Nature of Things was a dense epic, amounting to 7400 lines divided into 6 books. But in those lines, Poggio read about ideas so extraordinary that they were downright dangerous. Greenblatt provides a consolidated list of Lucretius’ claims, and no matter how many times I see it I’m still blown away: beyond asserting that everything in the world was composed of elementary particles that the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus called atoms, from which we derive the name in use today, Lucretius wrote that the Universe had no creator or designer and that it was only the size, shape, combination, and movement of atoms than gave rise to reality. He highlighted that a fundamental part of atomic movement was not deterministic but random, unpredictable, what he called a swerve in atomic motion, and he reasoned that the swerve was nature’s true source of creativity, giving rise to everything from free will to biological evolution. Lucretius got very close to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection here, anticipating that random changes in biology provided the variation necessary for evolutionary adaptation. From this, Lucretius deduced that humans were not created special by a god in his image but had evolved from earlier life forms like all other creatures, that there was no afterlife, and that religions were merely cruel superstitions designed to control ignorant people and manage their fear. He concluded that the goal of education was to accept that this life was all there was, that existence was finite, and that that’s what made life so precious. The highest goal of life, he argued, was the pursuit of sustainable happiness and the reduction of useless pain, and he was adamant that the greatest obstacle to happiness was not pain but delusion. Lucretius emphasized that the study of this world was more than enough to generate the deep wonder that made life worth living. The beauty of Lucretius’ poetry, therefore, was not incidental but fundamental to cultivating that sense of wonder, reflecting in human terms the creative splendor of nature. Reading those 7400 lines, Poggio and his growing cohort of humanists beheld a starkly worldview where pursuing pleasure in this life was better than suffering pain for the sake of the next. They witnessed a vision of life more wondrous than devotion to a cult of death could ever be. Ultimately, Stephen Greenblatt writes, they grasped the possibility of “[living] an ethical life without reference to postmortem rewards and punishments; [contemplating life] without trembling [about] the death of the soul. In short, it became possible – never easy, but possible… to find the mortal world enough.” Acknowledging that possibility didn’t necessarily cause the Renaissance, but it helped to inspire it. Acknowledging that humanity’s potential might be highest here on earth didn’t necessarily lead to modernity, but it helped Western Civilization swerve in a new direction.

In the decades after On the Nature of Things was re-discovered, religious authorities throughout Italy and beyond sought to ban the book and censor its ideas. As late as 1516, nearly a century after Poggio had it copied, Greenblatt documents that high ranking clergymen in Florence prohibited the reading of Lucretius in schools. But by then, the printing press was ensuring that Lucretius’ ideas traveled farther and faster than church authorities could control. New editions were surfacing everywhere in rapid succession, from Venice to Paris. “The problem was that, once Lucretius’ [epic] reentered the world, the words of this visionary poet of human experience began to resonate powerfully in the works of Renaissance writers and artists…” Giordano Bruno, Nicolaus Copernicus, William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, and countless other luminaries of the age were enamored with Lucretius’ work. French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, a pivotal figure who greatly influenced all of these European thinkers, was inspired by Lucretius to offer one of the most famous statements in history: “To philosophize is to learn to die.”

Lucretius inspired even more people to learn what it really meant to live in this world. Galileo, one of the founders of the Scientific Revolution, braved the wrath of the Catholic Inquisition to investigate humanity’s true place in the cosmos. And as Greenblatt argues, “Like Lucretius, Galileo defended the oneness of the celestial and terrestrial world: there was no essential difference, he claimed, between the nature of the sun and the planets and the nature of the earth and its inhabitants. Like Lucretius, he believed that everything in the universe could be understood through the same disciplined use of observation and reason. Like Lucretius, he insisted on the testimony of the senses, against, if necessary, the orthodox claims of authority. [And] like Lucretius, he sought to work through his testimony toward a rational comprehension… of all things.” At the climax of the Scientific Revolution at the end of the 1600s, Isaac Newton himself referenced Lucretius, declaring that he was an atomist and making what appears to have been a direct reference to the title of Lucretius’ work, “While the Particles continue [unchanged]… they may compose [different] bodies… [and] should they… break into pieces, the Nature of Things depending on them would be changed.” By the time Newton wrote these words, it had been almost 300 years since Poggio rediscovered On the Nature of Things, and the ideas he’d resurrected in the process were finally stewarding westerners into the modern age. Essential elements the worldview Lucretius captured was becoming mainstream once again among leading scientists, philosophers, and soon, even presidents. Thomas Jefferson owned up to half a dozen different copies of On the Nature of Things; according to Greenblatt, “it was one of his favorite books, confirming his conviction that… ignorance and fear were not necessary components of human existence.” Indeed, Jefferson sought to build the Lucretian ideal directly into the character of country he helped found. In America’s Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was careful to highlight that modern governments should not exist solely to secure the life and liberty of citizens, but also their pursuit of happiness. In the span of civilization, the American dream may seem new, but it turns out to be only the latest echo of a dream far more ancient, which much of humanity simply forgot for over 2000 years.

Remembering that dream, and recovering our potential to revel in the wisdom and wonder of this world, took something of a swerve from the simpler course of human entropy in Greenblatt’s story–an unpredictable and unlikely nudge out of the stupor of superstitious tribalism and religious self-loathing into which many of our ancestors had fallen. Now in the early 21st century, when we’re still wise enough to reflect on that historical fortune, let us hope our fate is not so frail going forward. The world is changing faster than ever and in ways that not all of us value. Traditional styles of living and knowing are once again being disrupted, this time not by plagues or barbarians at the gates, but by technology and information. We’re being nudged again, and starting to swerve, it seems, away from the ethical and institutional strengths that unleashed modern prosperity. But we haven’t entirely lost those strengths, not yet. We have not yet entirely forgotten what’s really made us great. Yes, it will always be easier to break things than to build them, it will always be easier to abandon wisdom and join the mob than to stand up for wisdom against it. But the study of history also shows us that we have more tools to resist regression than Lucretius could ever imagine. Despite the unprecedented disruptions of modernity, there is good reason to hope that the dream of humanity will never again be completely forgotten and lost to yet another dark age, for we have more potential to preserve our wisdom today than humanity has ever known.

I’m Brad Harris. So long.

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