NPR Champions the 'Spookily Modern' Writings of a Roman Atheist

On Monday's Morning Edition, National Public Radio channeled the thrill of discovering an ancient Roman writer's "spookily modern" writings. Anchor Steve Inskeep touted a long-forgotten work championing atheism: "Some people wake up in the morning and thank God for granting them another day. Others get up, and thank their genes, their frontal cortex and their lipids. Secular thinking has a long, long history, longer than many of us knew."

That's a strange opening. It's not very historical -- no one questioned theism in ancient Greece? But NPR's Robert Krulwich seemed thrilled at the story of "our book" of godlessness being saved for the ages. His guide was leftist literary theorist Steven Greenblatt, but NPR failed to mention the taxpayer-funded network was following the footsteps of The New Yorker. Greenblatt concluded by touting the "deep truth" and joy found in discovering there is no God:

KRULWICH: Though his poem is more than 2,000 years old, even today...

GREENBLATT: It's dangerous. It's radioactive. It's dangerous to touch it.

KRULWICH: It describes a universe with no author and no purpose, but of such exquisite complexity...

GREENBLATT: It's unbelievably beautiful. It's written in just magnificent poetry.

KRULWICH: That says that even if there is no heaven, no loving god, no design, no reason for us to be here - as painful as that may seem - says Lucretius, look around, what is here is more than good. It's amazing and it's beautiful.

GREENBLATT: I think that there is a deep truth to that perception and I think that what Lucretius offers still, after 2,000 years - more than 2,000 years - is an incentive to take this news not as pain but as pleasure, not as disillusionment, but as wonder.

Greenblatt presents a "dangerous" book oppressed by the Christian church.

KRULWICH: Fifty years before Jesus, many Romans probably had copies of Lucretius in their libraries. Then comes the rise of the Christian Church. When church fathers read this poem, they thought: What, where is our story?

GREENBLATT: Where were the angels? Where were the demons? Where was Jesus Christ? That world didn't have room any longer for a vision of atoms and emptiness and nothing else. So Lucretius basically goes underground, disappears.

Until a man named Poggio Bracciolini finds it in a monastery in Germany:

GREENBLATT: So, there are a group of people, let's say around the year 1400.

KRULWICH: And one of them is Poggio Bracciolini who lived near Florence

GREENBLATT: He was a poor kid. He came with, he says, five pennies in his pocket to Florence. But he has a peculiar gift, which is that he has fantastically good handwriting.

KRULWICH: And that gift got him his jobs with the Pope.

GREENBLATT: That's where the money is.

KRULWICH: And where there's intrigue and corruption and violence are. At one point, Poggio gets into a fight with another secretary and he tries to gouge out his eye.

GREENBLATT: Well, the other guy was holding his testicles at the time. (LAUGHTER) I mean they were having a fight. They all hated each other.

KRULWICH: This sounds awful.

GREENBLATT: And so it was a good place to lose your soul, as it were.

KRULWICH: But on his bad days, and he had a lot of them, Poggio had a way to escape. He would imagine beautiful, elegant, classic works from ancient Rome, filled with noble thoughts, lost books waiting somewhere to be rescued. And he had this desire, says Steve, to find those lost books.

Naturally, the enemy isn't happy.

KRULWICH: And the book is banned, first in schools and then In Florence. But Machiavelli, in his own hand, makes himself a private copy. And now, Shakespeare notices and then Montaigne in France writes essay after essay about Lucretius.

GREENBLATT: Moliere did a translation.

KRULWICH: And Thomas Jefferson had five copies of Lucretius in his library. They, all of them, borrowed from Lucretius - this radically secular thinker. Though his poem is more than 2,000 years old, even today...

That would take you back to the ending passage about the "magnificent poetry." Harvard Magazine also retraces Greenblatt's writing on a "repressive" Church and its "murderous reflexes" oppressing Lucretius. Typically, NPR tells this as a happy tale of secularism with no need for a rebuttal from Christian experts.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis