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The Big Question

Walter Stephens, Charles S. Singleton Professor of Italian Studies and vice chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, is one of four Hopkins professors teaching a new freshman course, Great Books: The Western Tradition.
Photo by Jefferson Jackson Steele

Q: What's the Most Underrated Great Book?
A: "Lucretius' On the Nature of Things, which was written in 50 BC but lost until 1418, is the most underrated Great Book. This is a poem by an epicurean philosopher that became an instant underground classic. It's great poetry and it's one of the outstanding documents of pre-Christian thought on the nature of things. It has probably had more influence on other philosophers or thinkers than is evident to those of us who deal with Great Books courses. What I find interesting about it is that it has a moral purpose, a spiritual purpose. The purpose is to educate people out of the fear of death.

"The point of view of this poem is that people fear death because they fear the gods and they fear what will happen to them after death. The poem's moral purpose is to say, 'Nothing will happen to you after death because there will be no you for anything to happen to. Death is nothing to us because after it happens we have ceased to be.' The idea is that life is what we've got — don't spend your time worrying about what else there might be, because this is it. It's a very disturbing idea for anyone who has invested in Christianity because from a religious point of view he seems to be saying people should do what they want. But that's not what Lucretius is saying. Instead he's saying there should be a reason for doing things other than fear of a god or fear of the afterlife."

Return to February 2004 Table of Contents

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