The story of Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things”

Peter Reuell in the Harvard Gazette:

ScreenHunter_02 Apr. 17 17.13Last year, Stephen Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities, took home a National Book Award for nonfiction for “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.” Today he was recognized with another prestigious literary prize.

Greenblatt’s book, which describes how an ancient Roman philosophical epic helped pave the way for modern thought, was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

In its citation, the Pulitzer board described “The Swerve” as “a provocative book arguing that an obscure work of philosophy, discovered nearly 600 years ago, changed the course of history by anticipating the science and sensibilities of today.”

The book tells the story of Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things,” which 2,000 years ago posited a number of revolutionary ideas — that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.

Once thought lost, the poem was rediscovered on a library shelf in the winter of 1417 by a Poggio Bracciolini. The copying and translation of the book fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson.

More here.