New Old Ideas

There is something both appealing and repellent in the idea that our “modern” attitudes are prefigured in the work of ancient philosophers. It is exciting to find a voice from the past that feels like “one of us” but at the same time a bit discouraging to think that there is nothing new in our ideas after all. Stephen Greenblatt’s ‘The Swerve’ delights in telling the story of how a modern voice was discovered through the work of the Roman poet Lucretius but Morgan Meis prefers the earlier analysis by Hans Blumberg whose ‘The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966)’ emphasizes the difference between classical epicureans and the modern outlook. The world view may be very similar in physical terms but the attitude is perhaps quite different with the classical emphasis on an accepting and arguably incurious “ataraxia” being replaced by a more curious engagement and eagerness to manipulate the world around us. But I am not convinced. Those of us actually engaged in the sciences do not need to claim a philosophical difference in order to see that we have “gone further”, and the idea that any age can be characterized by a universal attitude denies our individuality. Some ancients were deeply engaged in enquiry and engineering, and a goal of emotional equilibrium is not in fact incompatible with deep curiosity and passionate engagement in the modern world. In fact one can fight a desperate battle perhaps even more effectively by keeping a corner of one’s mind detached from the consequences and accepting of whatever comes to pass.

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