On Lucretius: The Man Who Changed the World
One happy day in the year 1417, with the mind of Europe still firmly in the grip of the Dark Ages, a fellow named Poggio Bracciolini was mucking around in the Benedictine library at Fulda in present-day Germany. He reached out his hand and pulled off the musty shelves a volume which, to his astonishment, contained a remarkable poem written almost 1,500 years earlier.
Poggio was struck by the power of the verses he read in the first few pages, and he knew that the poem ought to be preserved and brought to wider notice. Poggio was an energetic lost-manuscript hunter and, as secretary to Pope Martin V, was one of perhaps 50 people alive in 1417 who had ever even heard the name “Lucretius.”
Luckily for us, Poggio read no further in his new-found manuscript, because if he had done so he certainly would have burned the book forthwith. The poem Poggio had unearthed, De Rerum Natura, would explode everything Poggio believed and, for that matter, the entire world view that constituted the received wisdom of the Dark Ages.
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that De Rerum Natura, or DRN, as it is universally known in the scholarly literature, almost singlehandedly launched the epoch we now call the Renaissance, the explosion of creativity in the arts and sciences that began roughly in 1500. As Ellen Goodman might have put it, De Rerum Natura “worked like a karate chop on the weary little world” of medieval scholasticism.
Without DRN we would not have da Vinci, Machiavelli (who made a copy of DRN for himself), Bacon, Galileo, or beyond them to Dante, John Donne, Edmund Spenser, Ben Jonson (whose copy of DRN is at Harvard), Montaigne (whose Essays quoted extensively from DRN), or Shakespeare himself. Jefferson owned no fewer than eight copies of the poem.
DRN (the title is generally translated as “On the Nature of Things”) was written in the first century BCE by an obscure fellow named Titus Lucretius Carus, a contemporary of Cicero, Virgil, and Pompey. We know virtually nothing about Lucretius, and much of what we thought we knew turns out to be wrong.
For example, in the fourth century St. Jerome, intent on destroying Lucretius’s reputation, claimed that Lucretius had taken a love potion, gone mad and committed suicide. This romantic nonsense was almost certainly invented, but it dogged Lucretius’s reputation for centuries. (Today, of course, St. Jerome’s libel would have made Lucretius an instant social media star.)
Poggio almost certainly believed the slander, and he probably assumed that Lucretius was one of those rakish scoundrel poets like Sappho or Catullus (those two being, Poggio notwithstanding, two of the greatest poets who ever lived).
How can it be argued that one, even longish, poem could have provided the spark for the Renaissance? Part of the argument is that Europe desperately needed a change. The Dark Ages, after all, had begun with the fall of the Roman Empire in the West way back in the fifth century.
Over the subsequent millennium the gentle, human-centered Christianity that had begun with Jesus had hardened into a religion fixed upon the terrifying power of an angry and vengeful God who was determined to punish mankind for its sins. The Church kept the activities and minds of medieval men and women under strict control by dangling before their eyes the hideous spectacle of Hell.
All Lucretius did (we’ll get to the particulars in a moment) was to argue, to the contrary, that there was no Hell at all and that our fates depended not on the dreadful whim of an all-powerful God, nor even on the dictates of powerful priests, but on the choices we made for ourselves. We were free, Lucretius said, to ignore the strict catechism of an imperial religion and to think for ourselves. This simple message opened the eyes and minds and hearts of men and women to possibilities that had been lost back before the fifth century, and the Renaissance followed as a matter of course.
DRN was written in dactylic hexameters—some 7,404 of them, no less, divided into six untitled books—this being the grand style of Greek and Roman classical poetry used by Homer, Virgil and Ovid. And in case you are under the mistaken impression that “dactylic hexameters” must be some awful, ancient, boring sort of verse, keep in mind that it is widely used today in rap and hip-hop (cf., Jay-Z and Public Enemy).
Bizarrely, after being lost for 1,500 years, then found by Poggio, the very volume Poggio had unearthed was also lost. Poggio had lent the manuscript to his friend, Niccolò de’ Niccoli, who forgot to return the original to Poggio, and that original remains lost to this day. Fortunately, Niccolò made a beautiful copy of the book and that copy would become the model for 50 other copies, demand for DRN being very high in the early fifteenth century.
In later years other versions of the DRN manuscript would be discovered. The oldest of these, known in the literature as DRN Codus Oblongus (usually shortened to “O”) had been made in the early ninth century by a monk connected to Charlemagne. The next oldest, the Codex Quadratus, or “Q,” was made in the mid-ninth century, and the final ninth century manuscripts, fragments of the original, are the Schedae Gottorpienses (“G”) and the Schedae Vindobonenses (“V” and “U”).
You will be happy to know that the manuscript O is a descendant of the lost original, purportedly in Lucretius’s own hand (dubbed “Ω”). The others are more distantly derived, i.e., from a manuscript (“Ψ”) that was itself derived from a damaged version of the original (“ΩI”). Short of Shakespeare, it’s difficult to think of another author whose work is so decisive that vast amounts of scholarly effort have been devoted merely to finding, evaluating and celebrating thousand-year-old manuscripts.
Next week we’ll examine just how remarkable DNR really is.
Next up: On Lucretius, Part II