“A Unique Moment in History . . . When Man Stood Alone”

(p. 71) . . . , something noted in one of his letters by the French novelist Gustave Flaubert: “Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.” No doubt one could quibble with this claim. For many Romans at least, the gods had not actually ceased to be–even the Epicureans, sometimes reputed to be atheists, thought that gods existed, though at a far remove from the affairs of mortals–and the “unique moment” to which Flaubert gestures, from Cicero (106-43 BCE) to Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), may have been longer or shorter than the time frame he suggests. But the core perception is eloquently borne out by Cicero’s dialogues and by the works found in the library of Herculaneum. Many of the early readers of those works evidently lacked a fixed repertory of beliefs and practices reinforced by what was said to be the divine will. They were men and women whose lives were unusually free of the dictates of the gods (or their priests). Standing alone, as Flaubert puts it, they found themselves in the peculiar position of choosing among sharply divergent visions of the nature of things and competing strategies for living.

Source:
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

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