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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Did a poem discovered by an Italian book collector make the Renaissance possible?

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Despite their efforts, it did not take long for the poem and the ideas it contained to spread throughout Italy and the rest of Europe. As Greenblatt argues, "On the Nature of Things" profoundly shaped the Renaissance; it may even have been, to a considerable extent, the initial spark that ignited it. Greenblatt mentions Montaigne, Moliere, and Thomas Jefferson as among the thinkers who were deeply and directly influenced by Lucretius; but by the dawn of the 20th century his ideas had so pervaded Western thought that it was impossible to be a serious thinker and not be influenced by him.

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“That the ancient poem could now be safely left unread, that the drama of its loss and recovery could fade into oblivion, that Poggio Bracciolini could be forgotten almost entirely – these were only signs of Lucretius’ absorption into the mainstream of modern thought.”

It is difficult, in the end, to evaluate claims about just how much difference Bracciolini’s discovery made. As it turns out, at least two other copies of "On the Nature of Things" also survived, so even if Bracciolini had never found his copy, the poem would still, in all likelihood, eventually have entered into European intellectual life. One might point out, moreover, that precisely because Lucretius’ predictions were so astonishingly accurate, our picture of the cosmos would have ended up being the same even if every copy of the poem had perished. The world is made of atoms, after all, and life is the result of a process of evolution by natural selection; eventually, even if not spurred by a poet’s vision, we would have figured these things out.

Even if this is true, though, of Lucretius’ scientific claims, one wonders whether it is equally true of the ethical views expressed in "On the Nature of Things." And even if we confine ourselves to the former, it is surely impossible to deny that, even if we would eventually have arrived at the same scientific view of the world, without Epicurus, Lucretius, and Bracciolini it might have taken us a great deal longer than it did. Western history would have been profoundly different. Perhaps the Renaissance would never have happened at all, or perhaps it would have followed a much different course.

“The line between this work and modernity is not direct,” Greenblatt writes. “Nothing is ever so simple. There were innumerable forgetting, disappearances, recoveries, dismissals, distortions, challenges, transformations, and renewed forgettings. And yet the vital connection is there. Hidden behind the worldview I recognize as my own is an ancient poem, a poem once lost, apparently irrevocably, and then found.”

It may be hard to say precisely how a particular book mattered; there is nothing in the world more speculative than speculations about counterfactual history. But in a time when so many elements in our society seem positively antipathetic to books, to reading, to ideas, to thinking, it is important, and a pleasure, to be reminded that books do matter, that we would have inherited a very different cultural landscape and would be living a very different existence if not for the vast and profound effects of their world-shaping work.

Troy Jollimore writes for The Barnes & Noble Review.

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