Lucretius? Who’s That?
This Saturday’s book review is of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.
Let me begin by saying Stephen Greenblatt is an absolutely marvelous storyteller. He captured my interest immediately and held it in an iron intellectual grip throughout his book, The Swerve: How the Word Became Modern. I truly don’t want to tell you very much because this true tale concerns a man named Titus Lucretius Carus, who for all intents and purposes has been overlooked since his life in the last years of the BCE (before common era). Yet the tale is so fascinating, and Greenblatt’s telling of it so fascinating, that I have to tell you some of it in order to explain why I was so enthralled.
Greenblatt, a Harvard professor of the humanities at Harvard, has apparently been fascinated with people (such as Shakespeare) and subjects concerning the Renaissance before, but discovering Lucretius, as he does, he tells us the origin story of the most profound social and cultural change in Western civilization. And to think it was because a poem written by this Roman called Lucretius, some 1500 years earlier, was discovered after centuries in hiding. Lucretius is known for nothing else but this book-length work, titled De rerum natura, or On the Nature of Things.
To the Catholic church, this narrative poem was heresy. It propounded an utterly contradictory theory that coddled the thought of Epicurus, a fifth-century BCE Greek philosopher. And indeed, the Church was responsible for Lucretius’ heretical scroll (this was before there were bound books) going missing, although the-just how details are vague. What we know is that his work was lost, found and hand-copied by scribes many times over the centuries.
In 79 CE (common era), one of those copies rested on a shelf in the summer home of a well-to-do Roman. On August 24 of that year, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the house, the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii, and about 20,000 people in about twenty-odd feet of volcanic ash and rock. Everything remained buried, mostly forgotten, for the best part of a thousand years. So also Lucretius’s poem, copied on scrolls, was lost and found and lost and found again throughout what we know as the Dark Ages until 1417 when a book-hunter named Poggio Braccionlini found one (a scroll) in a German monastery.
It was this copy that we care most about, for it and the ways in which it came to be known resulted in what Greenblatt calls “the swerve,” the eponymous title of his book, and what we generally refer to as the Renaissance. The poem is soundly positioned to refute the tenets of the Catholic (and totemic) religion and to firmly state that no “God” created the earth or that Man has an immortal soul, but rather that life is a pure act of nature in which atoms compose and comprise everything, living or inert.
There is so much more to this story that it would require a book to tell it all, and for that we have Stephen Greenblatt to thank. If this man, his book and its swerve interests you, as it did me, I recommend you to the Wikipedia page for more detail. Then you will want to read Greenblatt’s fascinating, delightful book itself. And after that, you might want to surf over to the Internet Archives to download a copy of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things for yourself. There are many editions; this one (above) is in the Library of Congress; most are free. And last but surely not least, if you’re interested in a different point of view about Greenblatt’s book (not necessarily about the persons and events he writes about), take a look at this scholarly refutation.
Be well, stay well, and feed your head with ponderous thoughts about the history of civilization.