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Lucretius, Man Of Modern Mystery

Lucretius, circa 55 B.C.
Spencer Arnold
/
Getty Images
Lucretius, circa 55 B.C.

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 ...

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Robert Krulwich works on radio, podcasts, video, the blogosphere. He has been called "the most inventive network reporter in television" by TV Guide.