In his recent book The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of how the recovery of “On the Nature of Things,” by Lucretius, sparked the Renaissance and ultimately changed the direction of human thought. The focus of Greenblatt’s study is Lucretius’s atomism, an idea he claims was radically subversive. But why should we need, or even be interested in, Lucretius now? Greenblatt’s narrative is not new, and in it he misinterprets the role atomism plays in our lives. Atomism is no longer a liberating idea; this essay argues that it is the very thing that incapacitates us today. The Right uses it as a cover to pursue an imperial agenda, and the Left uses it as an excuse for inaction and, worse, acquiescence in the development of American imperialism. Additionally, this essay highlights Greenblatt’s problematic tone of casual impiety and his book’s many distortions of the truth about human beliefs and about religions, which he claims are “invariably cruel.” At this point in history, to promote the kind of atomism Greenblatt glorifies is really to promote doxa; thinkers such as Charles Taylor are now casting doubt on such notions, and Taylor is not alone.
Lindsay Waters; Why Lucretius Now? Beginning the Case against Atomism. boundary 2 1 August 2013; 40 (3): 87–98. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01903659-2367048
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