A book’s influence tends to correspond to how widely it’s read: the most influential books usually speak to a lot of people. Certain books, though, manage to shape the culture without enjoying a huge readership. Today we’ll be looking at three: Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, Herodotus’ The Persian Wars, and James Joyce’s Ulysses.
1. On the Nature of Things
Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things is a book-length poem that articulates the Epicurean worldview: in short, that the universe is made of atoms, that there is no afterlife, that the gods don’t intervene in (or concern themselves with) human affairs, and that the best way to live is that which minimizes pain and maximizes pleasure. From the third century AD to AD 1417, Epicureanism was almost entirely forgotten.
Then an especially persistent book hunter came across a manuscript of On the Nature of Things, and people started reading it again. Machiavelli personally copied out the whole manuscript by hand. Thomas More alluded to it in Utopia. Montaigne quoted it outright—almost 100 times. The list of readers also includes Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne, Bacon, Ben Jonson, Newton, and Thomas Jefferson, who not only owned five Latin editions but even described himself as an Epicurean. Lucretius’ Epicurean worldview, so long forgotten, was back in style.
Since then, much of the book has been pushed back out of style by modern science: we believe in atoms not thanks to it, but thanks to people like Niels Bohr. On the Nature of Things is once again a little-read book. But it’s worth your time, because—as Stephen Greenblatt, the famous humanities scholar, argues—it’s one of the texts that brought about the Renaissance. Lucretius emphasized beauty, and so did da Vinci and Michelangelo. Lucretius argued against the fear of death, and so did Montaigne. Epicureanism has little in common with Christianity, but that’s no reason not to know it well, especially in its capacity as a catalyst for Renaissance thought.
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2. The Persian Wars
Herodotus’ The Persian Wars, written in the fifth century BC, seems impossibly remote: it describes the rise of the Persian Empire and the history and cultural background of Scythia and Egypt. This isn’t (directly) Christian history, and it seems far too distant to still be relevant—what’s the point?
Herodotus is worth reading because he introduced the very notion of history as we know it: a unified narrative of cause and effect. No less a figure than Cicero, in fact, called him the “father of history.”
In volume 51 of the Harvard Classics, George H. Chase writes that “what distinguishes [Herodotus] from his predecessors and gives him a unique place in the history of literature is the fact that he was the first writer to undertake the narration of a series of events of world-wide importance upon a comprehensive plan and to trace in those events the relations of cause and effect.” Reginald Macan adds, “There is, indeed, no ancient historian with whom Herodotus need fear comparison. . . . in the larger view of history, which embraces every experience of humanity [and] treats no aspect of human life as common or unclean . . . Herodotus keeps his rank as the premier historian of antiquity.”
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A strange fate: James Joyce’s greatest novel, a work of tremendous formal innovation, enjoys undeniable fame; its most famous attribute is its lack of readers. Ulysses recasts Homer’s Odyssey as a single day in the life of Leopold Bloom, much of it narrated in the style we now know as stream of consciousness.
The book’s next-most-famous attribute is its astonishing language. Jorge Luis Borges writes,
“Like Shakespeare, like Quevedo, like Goethe, like no other writer, Joyce is less a man of letters than a literature. And, incredibly, he is a literature within the compass of a single volume. His writing is intense, as Goethe’s never was; it is delicate, a virtue whose existence Quevedo did not suspect. I (like the rest of the universe) have not read [the whole of] Ulysses, but I read and happily reread certain scenes . . . . [Joyce] enjoyed a gift for words, a felicitous verbal omnipotence.”
The book certainly isn’t Christian, but that’s what your Logos 5 base package is for. Ulysses is for a different sort of study: the study of our time’s language and thought. If you’re interested in words, Ulysses offers a fascinating example of what’s possible—one that you, like Borges, can begin appreciating right away. If you’re interested in engaging the culture, Ulysses is a cipher of modern thought: it reflects modernity’s emphasis on language and on self, and it inspired some of the twentieth century’s most innovative art.
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