The Pursuit of Happiness

Years ago, while studying for my US citizenship exam, I paused over the words “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. Because I grew up in Europe during the time of popular uprisings against communist regimes, I was used to words such as freedom and justice and equality in revolutionary speech, so the pursuit of happiness sounded like it didn’t belong in a declaration of independence from tyranny and oppression.

The Declaration of Independence (1776) - Wikipedia

The Declaration of Independence (1776) – Wikipedia

It wasn’t the first time I wondered how had those Founding Fathers been so enlightened to consider the mental health of their people at a time of war and disease and superstition. Today we have counselors and self-help and wellness support groups, but they didn’t, back in 1776, yet Jefferson thought it was important to put those fine words in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.

What I didn’t know until recently was that Thomas Jefferson owned many copies (in Latin and in translation) of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things and that he also defined himself as an epicurean in his letters. I have just learned those things from Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

Who is Lucretius?

Book One of De rerum natura (1675) - Wikipedia

The poet Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 99–55 BCE) is the author of a long ode to the goddess Venus, a poem that was copied and read and collected all over the Roman world until the empire disintegrated, volcanoes and fires destroyed libraries, warrior hordes crushed everything that was left, and a new age of interdiction to think and ask questions unsanctioned by sacred books dawned over Europe. That age lasted more than a thousand years. All copies of Lucretius’s poem were lost, though there were references of it here and there in other Latin texts that survived into the fifteenth century Europe.

The Manuscript

And then, in 1417, a manuscript was found in a monastery in Germany by a prominent Florentine intellectual named Poggio Bracciolini who had become jobless after his master, Pope John XXIII (Baldassare Cossa), was arrested and deposed. The story of how Poggio found the manuscript is gripping because, it turns out, only someone like him could’ve done it, being that he had the exact set of skills and connections to reach the locked library of that German monastery and to recognize what he was looking at.

The manuscript (which had survived centuries only because it was used as reference for correct Latin usage by monks) was Lucretius’s De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), a book that blew the minds of Renaissance scientists and artists. Just take a look.

The stuff of the universe, Lucretius proposed, is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space, like dust motes in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction. There is no escape from this process. When you look up at the night sky and, feeling unaccountably moved, marvel at the numberless stars, you are not seeing the handiwork of the gods or a crystalline sphere detached from our transient world. You are seeing the same material world of which you are a part and from whose elements you are made. There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design. All things, including the species to which you belong, have evolved over vast stretches of time. The evolution is random, though in the case of living organisms it involves a principle of natural selection. That is, species that are suited to survive and to reproduce successfully endure, at least for a time; those that are not so well suited die off quickly. But nothing—from our own species to the planet on which we live to the sun that lights our days—lasts forever. Only the atoms are immortal.

In a universe so constituted, Lucretius argued, there is no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place, no reason to set humans apart from all other animals, no hope of bribing or appeasing the gods, no place for religious fanaticism, no call for ascetic self-denial, no justification for dreams of limitless power or perfect security, no rationale for wars of conquest or self-aggrandizement, no possibility of triumphing over nature, no escape from the constant making and unmaking and remaking of forms. On the other side of anger at those who either peddled false visions of security or incited irrational fears of death, Lucretius offered a feeling of liberation and the power to stare down what had once seemed so menacing. What human beings can and should do, he wrote, is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world.

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Norton. Kindle Edition.

The Swerve

Lucretius himself was part of a school of thought called epicureanism, which considered the pursuit of happiness through freedom from fear (in modern terms: anxiety management, mindfulness) and absence of physical pain (in modern terms: healthcare, pain management) to be the highest goal in life. Or, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, people should be allowed “to effect their safety and happiness.”

The Swerve coverThis happiness can be obtained through trying to understand how the world works and through accepting one’s limits and transience in it—a decent life philosophy, but of course on a collision course with any theological vision of the world, which puts power over people’s safety and happiness in the hands of power-thirsty spiritual and political leaders. Looking for happiness in one’s life is also at odds with the theological values of self-denial, sacrifice in this life for rewards in the next, and rejoicing in physical pain and punishment. Just think of the glorious Middle Ages and the pious self-flagellating monks burning heretics at the stake, or think of today and the beheading of infidels, the blowing up of ancient pagan ruins, or the torching of women’s healthcare clinics.

It bothers me that I didn’t know about Lucretius until now, even though I know of Botticelli and Copernicus and Galileo and Montagne and Bruno and Rafael and Michelangelo and da Vinci and Shakespeare and Cervantes and Jefferson, all of whom drew inspiration from Lucretius’s two-thousand years old poem On the Nature of Things. Well, here’s some consolation from Stephen Greenblatt:

But the epochal change with which this book is concerned—though it has affected all of our lives—is not so easily associated with a dramatic image. When it occurred, nearly six hundred years ago, the key moment was muffled and almost invisible, tucked away behind walls in a remote place. There were no heroic gestures, no observers keenly recording the great event for posterity, no signs in heaven or on earth that everything had changed forever. A short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties reached out one day, took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That was all; but it was enough.

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Norton. Kindle Edition.

3 thoughts on “The Pursuit of Happiness

    • It pains me to learn how much was lost during those Dark Ages, from computing mechanisms such as the one found near Antikythera ( to Galen’s medical discoveries made during the times of gladiators. All that stuff—gone. And the people who inched their way back to knowledge were persecuted and sometimes killed, as it happened to Giordano Bruno, so that progress has been even slower than it needed to be.

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