Did the discovery of an ancient poem in a German abbey in 1417 cause the world to swerve into the modern era? Stephen Greenblatt's Pulitzer Prize winning book argues exactly that.
The story of an Italian papal scribe walking into a monastic library 600 years ago and finding an ancient Roman poem that would change the Western world sounds like a plotline for a popular historical novel. But that's exactly what Harvard professor and Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt argues in his book "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern."
"The Swerve" recounts the story of Poggio Bracciolini's discovery of Lucretius' poem "De Rerum Natura" ("On the Nature of Things") in a German abbey in 1417. The poem was a tribute to the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Among other things, it denied the existence of Gods and proposed that the world consisted only of small energy filled particles, thus anticipating the ideas of modern science. Greenblatt argues it had a profound influence on the thought of a diverse range of thinkers from Galileo and Freud, to Darwin and Thomas Jefferson.
This year, Greenblatt's book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and has recently been published in Germany. DW spoke with Stephen Greenblatt about "The Swerve" and how the world became modern.
Stephen Greenblatt was struck by Lucretius' strikingly modern understanding of the world
DW: How did you first become aware of the story of Poggio Bracciolini's discovery of Lucretius' "De Rerum Natura"?
Stephen Greenblatt: I actually found a copy of Lucretius' poem in a bookstore when I was a student at Yale. I bought it for 10 cents because I liked the cover! I found the text extraordinary, a strikingly modern understanding of the world. Somehow I kept going back to it.
What inspired you to write the book?
I've always been interested in cultural mobility, in how texts cross borders, disappear, return, change, are translated and decimated. The fact that Lucretius' poem was out of circulation for more than a thousand years and then suddenly rediscovered and put back into circulation is fascinating. That really inspired me to write the book. I've wanted to share my sense of wonder about this particular text for decades.
Lucretius' text contains a number of controversial ideas, such as there is no eternal reward for virtue and no punishment for vice. Just how radical were these ideas in Bracciolini's time?
Well, the message of the poem was so far off from what was considered acceptable at the time, it must have been considered plain weird. But these ideas were also considered dangerous. Thinkers who openly supported the book, such as Giordano Bruno, were executed on the grounds of heresy. I mean, most Americans don't believe what the book anticipates, essentially, what science tells us today (laughs). It would be difficult for a Democratic candidate to stand on such a political platform, let alone a Republican.
Given that the content of the book was so radical, how did Lucretius' ideas originally gain currency?
Well one reason is just because it was so weird at the time. People probably couldn't recognize the book for what it was. It first became popular as a scholarly text, because it is interesting and difficult. There was a certain academic prestige attached to studying the text. But the most important reason is because the text itself is so fascinating and unbelievably beautiful. Artists got excited about the book – it really fired people up.
How do you negotiate the dangers of retroactively reading things into a 2000-year-old poem that may not have been meant by the author?
Naturally we have a predisposition to read the book with modern eyes. We can't escape that and I don't think we should. Lucretius proposed that we are made of the same matter as the stars and the oceans, of small energy filled particles. Today we know them as atoms.We can't read the book in a vacuum. The line from this book to modernity is not a direct one. But one of my main interests is just that – how the present stands in relation to the past.
The popularity of "The Swerve" has sparked a renewed interest in Lucretius' work – is history in a sense repeating itself?
I'm absolutely delighted that Lucretius is now being rediscovered. It's actually become one of the most popular ancient texts on the book market. The idea that De Rerum Natura is now inspiring a new generation of readers is fascinating to me. One of the thrills of winning the Pulitzer is the idea that significant numbers of people are sharing the importance of this story.
The Pulitzer jury described "The Swerve" as a "provocative" book. Was that your intention?
I wouldn't say I was trying to provoke. It is more about sharing my delight with the text. I really feel it's important for society to be able to understand its links with the past. Its relation to the Renaissance, to Ancient Greece and Rome. It is imperative not to forget, or at least, to have that consciousness. It is important for people around the world to recognize that the present stands in significant relation to the past. I think everyone can relate to that.
Interview: Helen Whittle
Editor: Jessie Wingard