Lucretius, Man Of Modern Mystery

Sep 18, 2011
Originally published on April 16, 2012 2:32 pm

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.

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.

Mystery Man?

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.

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Here's NPR's science correspondent Robert Krulwich.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Way back when he was just 17 years old, and this was years and years before he became a Literature Professor at Harvard, and author of the bestseller "Will in The World," about Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt was standing in his college bookstore, his exams were over, the summer beckoned, and as he looks around...

STEPHEN GREENBLATT: Something catches my eye.

KRULWICH: There, sitting in a bin was a little book.

GREENBLATT: It was for sale for 10 cents.

KRULWICH: Yeah, but the thing that got his attention, was the cover.


KRULWICH: It showed two pairs of naked legs intertwined.

GREENBLATT: In what appear to be an intimate position.

KRULWICH: The title, on the other hand, was sort of straight, "On the Nature of Things" by some ancient Roman named Lucretius. But because of the cover...

GREENBLATT: I bought it.

KRULWICH: And when he opened it, it started with a hymn or a poem.

GREENBLATT: About how in the spring, all animals are excited with the impulse to regenerate.


GREENBLATT: Anyway, it goes on...

KRULWICH: This is getting good, then, right? It's like...

GREENBLATT: Yeah, it goes on in this really wonderful and powerful vein.

KRULWICH: But when the poem ends, and the book takes a turn to science and starts to describe how the world is put together, then Stephen was totally wowed.

GREENBLATT: My jaw dropped.

KRULWICH: But why? What does he say?

GREENBLATT: Well, what he says is that the world doesn't need any creator. The universe is made up out of an infinite number of atoms.

KRULWICH: And people, dogs, rocks, stars, everything is made from the same stuff. So humans are not special. We don't have souls, and if we do when we die...

GREENBLATT: The soul would dissolve, as well...


GREENBLATT: there'd be absolutely no afterlife.

KRULWICH: No heaven, no hell, just random collections of atoms clumping together over vast spells of time.

GREENBLATT: An emptiness, void and nothing else.

KRULWICH: Whoa. When did Lucretius write this?

GREENBLATT: More than 2,000 years ago.

KRULWICH: What do you know about him?

GREENBLATT: Zilch. Nada, virtually.

KRULWICH: Only that he lived in Rome, that the book of his...

GREENBLATT: Is the only one.

KRULWICH: But in its day...

GREENBLATT: This poem was quite famous.

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.

KRULWICH: His books made of papyrus get lost, get eaten by insects.

GREENBLATT: So what was once a fairly widespread text becomes much less familiar, and then less familiar and less familiar until, in the case of Lucretius, they might have been reduced to something like two, three copies, let's imagine in existence.

KRULWICH: So if this poem with all its novel ideas is going to make it through to the Renaissance, it would have to be hand-copied by monks in monasteries every few hundred years. So the book is now hanging by a thread.

GREENBLATT: Absolute thread. And then it just depends. It's a pure matter of accident because no one at this point is interested in keeping it alive any more than...

KRULWICH: Well, let's have our accident. Let's have our accident.



KRULWICH: Poggio Bracciolini - I don't know. Is that how you say it?

GREENBLATT: That is Poggio Bracciolini - you can think of Sylvia Poggioli...


GREENBLATT: And just to shorten it to Poggio, but actually...

KRULWICH: You are a public radio type, aren't you?

GREENBLATT: I, of course.


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.


GREENBLATT: 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: And so, Poggio, in his spare time he became a book hunter. And in the winter of 1417...

GREENBLATT: And he has time on his hands.

KRULWICH: So he heads off to Germany where there are still monasteries...

GREENBLATT: Ancient monasteries, with libraries, that hadn't been searched yet.

KRULWICH: And then...

GREENBLATT: One day, he finds himself somewhere, we don't - I think it was Fulda.

KRULWICH: In Germany and he, in effect, knocks on a monastery door and he asks for entry.

GREENBLATT: And he goes into the library and he finds it.

KRULWICH: Our book - he's looking around...

GREENBLATT: It's completely random. He hasn't a clue what he's going to find.

KRULWICH: But somehow, after a thousand years, against all odds, sitting on a shelf, here it is.

GREENBLATT: "On the Nature of Things," and he must have recognized the name.

KRULWICH: Because Poggio immediately ordered a copy made, and then made another in his beautiful handwriting.

GREENBLATT: And he sent it back to a friend of his, Niccola Niccoli. And that act of making a copy of the copy, of the copy of the copy, brought it back to life.

KRULWICH: First, it was passed...

GREENBLATT: Very, very quietly.

KRULWICH: To certain households in Florence Then it shows up in Bologna and then in Paris. And people begin to talk of universes built from atoms, wondering...

GREENBLATT: What if that were possible?

KRULWICH: It's not possible, says the church. 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...

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.

KRULWICH: Robert Krulwich, NPR News.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.