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‘The Swerve’: When an Ancient Text Reaches Out and Touches Us

May 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
In his new book, "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern," author Stephen Greenblatt unearths the tale of a book collector whose discovery of poet Lucretius' "On the Nature of Things" helped change the direction of human thought. Jeffrey Brown and Greenblatt discuss the book and its many cross-generational messages.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, the ancient past reaches out and touches us, a story told in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.”

Can a book, centuries old, change the world? Renaissance scholar and Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt has written what he calls a deceptively simple story.

STEPHEN GREENBLATT, author, “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern”: A man, not a particularly important fellow, goes into a library one day, takes a book off a shelf, and, not instantly, but decisively, the world changes.

So, it’s about that. What happens when something comes back? This is a book — the book he took off the shelf had been lost, out of circulation for more than 1,000 years, and it carried something in it that turned out to change everything.

JEFFREY BROWN: The book was called “De Rerum Natura,” or “On the Nature of Things,” written in the first century by the Roman Lucretius, a work of poetry, but also of science and philosophy,

STEPHEN GREENBLATT: It’s a theory of everything. That is its glory and perhaps its absurdity. It tried to say what the nature of everything was.

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And it had at its center an ancient idea, wasn’t invented by the poet, but actually by philosophers before him. But the whole theory was, in effect, lost, except for this poem. And the theory is that the world consists of an infinite number of tiny particles.

The ancient Greeks called them the things that can’t be broken up, and the word for that was atoms. And. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: So, of course, it has great resonance to our own — what became our science today.

STEPHEN GREENBLATT: Incredible resonance.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., recently, Greenblatt told us how he first came upon Lucretius by chance, picking up a cheap paperback translation when he was in college.

He found a work that captivated him then, and still does, portraying a universe without divine design, in which each of our souls dies with the body, and, crucially, humans have to seek their own happiness in knowledge and beauty.

Greenblatt said these were dangerous ideas, especially as Christianity took hold.

STEPHEN GREENBLATT: Once you start thinking about these ideas, once you start thinking what the implications of a world made of atoms and emptiness and nothing else, lots of things, potentially at least, follow.

And the things that follow can be extremely dangerous — dangerous at least to orthodoxy, whether it’s pagan orthodoxy or Jewish orthodoxy or Christian orthodoxy — that there is no afterlife, that there are no punishments or rewards, therefore, divinely issued after we cease to be, that there must be no guarantee for all the values that we have. We make them up as we go along, and they’re as durable and as fragile as the atoms of which everything is made.

JEFFREY BROWN: You refer to — you have this expression, the teeth of time, where things just get lost. Actually, incredible amounts of things get lost, including this long poem by Lucretius.

STEPHEN GREENBLATT: Yes, a whole culture, a whole civilization, that civilization began to disappear, disappeared with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. And certain pieces of it disappeared more than other pieces, but lots of things disappeared anyway.

We happen to know that the great play by Sophocles “Oedipus Rex” won second place in its year in the great competition in Athens. The first-place play is missing.

JEFFREY BROWN: We don’t know who is better, right? We don’t know the winner.

STEPHEN GREENBLATT: Yes. It’s gone.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so might Lucretius also be gone to us today, except for this man, Poggio Bracciolini, a poor boy who became personal secretary to the pope in 15th century Rome, and, later, literally a book hunter, joining the poet Petrarch and other scholars known as humanists who were obsessed with reviving the wisdom of classical Greek and Roman culture.

STEPHEN GREENBLATT: They dream of being able to discover, somewhere, usually in the library of a monastery, some book that had slipped through from the ancient world and had survived into their time. And they over and over again manage to succeed in finding such things.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, it’s funny because, in our day, you think about, well, I will go online and I will look for this and I will search, right, and all this — these guys had to get on their horses or burros or whatever and go to a town, get into a monastery, and then actually pull the books off the shelf.

STEPHEN GREENBLATT: Yes, they crossed mountains. They ventured into difficult territory, because the monasteries were often built in obscure places, in remote places.

And the amazing thing is that, through a combination of circumstances, accidents and non-accidents, certain things made it. And they discovered them often just before they were about to crumble away into dust.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, Poggio didn’t — Poggio wasn’t looking for Lucretius. He was just looking for something, right, some text from the past?

STEPHEN GREENBLATT: He was hoping to find anything.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

STEPHEN GREENBLATT: And he had his mind well-stored with names of people who hadn’t been read in 1,000 years, but he thought maybe he could find them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

In 1417, probably at the Benedictine monastery in Fulda, Germany, Poggio pulled a book from the shelf, the last surviving copy of “De Rerum Natura,” “On the Nature of Things.”

We don’t know what happened at that moment, but, somewhere, he pulls the book off the shelf and opens it, sees the title, and knows he’s got something.

STEPHEN GREENBLATT: He knows he’s got something, and he does something crucial, which is he copies it and sends it to his friends. And they begin to copy it, so it begins to spread again.

JEFFREY BROWN: So that’s how things get passed on.

STEPHEN GREENBLATT: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: The book spread, as did its ideas, to artists — Botticelli’s “Primavera” or “Allegory of Spring” portrays a scene from the poem — to seminal thinkers, among them, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, who incorporated concepts such as the pursuit of happiness from Lucretius and other philosophers into his own thinking. and to the young Stephen Greenblatt.

There’s a passage late in the book. I want to read to you: “There are moments, rare and powerful, in which a writer long vanished from the face of the earth seems to stand in your presence and speak to you directly, as if he bore a message meant for you above all others.”

I mean, I couldn’t help but think that this is you, in a sense.

STEPHEN GREENBLATT: It is me, Jeff.

First of all, it’s me in relation to Lucretius, as it happens, because I happened purely by accident to come on this text at a point in my life when I was quite young, in which it spoke very powerfully directly to me. I had the eerie experience of something speaking to me, as if the person knew me. And I think anyone who has any experience of an encounter with the ghosts of the past knows what I’m talking about, where it seems impossible. And yet it’s happening.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

The book is “The Swerve.”

Stephen Greenblatt, nice to talk to you.

STEPHEN GREENBLATT: Nice to talk to you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, online, you can watch Stephen Greenblatt read an excerpt from “The Swerve.”