Before he became a Professor of literature at Harvard, and way before he wrote his classic Shakespeare biography, Will in The World, Stephen Greenblatt was an I'll-read-anything kind of kid. One day, he was standing in the campus book store, and there, in a bin, selling for ten cents (good price, even in 1961) he noticed a thin, little volume called On the Nature of Things, by a Roman writer named Lucretius.
Lucretius, circa 55 B.C.
Spencer Arnold/Getty Images
Spencer Arnold/Getty Images
When he opened it, he found a description of how the universe came to be. Because Lucretius lived a couple of generations before the birth of Jesus, Stephen was expecting a tale of how gods, goddesses, earth, air, fire and water and an assortment of miracles created everything we see, but as he turned the pages, he says "his jaw dropped" and "his head began to burst open," because Lucretius' creation story doesn't feel remotely ancient. First of all, it's a radically secular account, ignoring gods, goddesses, heaven, hell, life after death, and intelligent design, but more surprising, its logic is eerily, almost spookily modern.
Early Atomic Theory
As Greenblatt describes it, Lucretius (borrowing from Democritus and others), says the universe is made of an infinite number of atoms ...
... moving randomly through space, like dust motes in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction. There is no escape from this process. ... There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design.
All things, including the species to which you belong, have evolved over vast stretches of time. The evolution is random, though in the case of living organisms, it involves a principle of natural selection. That is, species that are suited to survive and to reproduce successfully, endure, at least for a time; those that are not so well suited, die off quickly. But nothing — from our own species, to the planet on which we live, to the sun that lights our day — lasts forever. Only the atoms are immortal ...
Not only did Lucretius write this more than 2,000 years ago, somehow his book managed to survive the fall of Rome, the burning, looting and desecration of the great libraries, a thousand years of cold storage in medieval monasteries where bookworms, censorship and erasures were common, so that at one point, maybe three — that's all, three — copies were in existence — and yet, says Stephen, On the Nature of Things emerged to become one of the most radical and talked about essays of the post-Renaissance, a favorite of Machiavelli, Montaigne, Sir Thomas More and Thomas Jefferson.
Who was this Lucretius? Where did he get his radical ideas? How'd his dangerous book make it through? Greenblatt gives us his answers in his new detective-story/history which he calls, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.
If I've piqued your interest, you can go to the top of this page and press the "Listen" button, where you will hear my conversation with Professor Greenblatt broadcast on NPR's Morning Edition. There you will meet the unlikely hero of this tale, a young man, who, when he wasn't trying to gouge out the eyes of his fellow secretaries at the Vatican, turned out to be a pretty lucky book hunter. Without Poggio Bracciolini, nobody today would be reading Lucretius.
The details await you (and I hate being a tease here, I know a lot of you come to this site to read, not to listen), but remember this is National Public RADIO — so just this once, hit the button and listen.