A nice review, intelligently written as always, by Tony Grafton of Stephen Greenblatt’s book on the discovery of Lucretius by my favorite humanist Poggio Bracciolini. Poggio struck me from the first time I encountered him in the form of his deeply sympathetic and humane letter describing the sadistic and dishonorable burning of Jerome of Prague at the Council of Constance. (The letter was included in the fine Prosatori Latini del Quattrocento.) Poggio wrote in crystalline Latin, with an elegance which never strayed far from clarity, a quality I admire greatly and which has been too rare among Latinists, for whom obscurity has too oft been linked with achievement and intelligence.
Greenblatt seems to suffer from the usual materialist problem: he thinks no one was hungry until someone invented food. He seems to think of Lucretius as creating agnosticism, science, and humanism – creating the quest for meaning outside the Church. Of course he hardly created this – the fact that Poggio was looking for ancient pagan texts, having been disgusted with the Church Council, is a symptom of this agnosticism science and humanism, a thirst which Lucretius fit in with but did not generate.
But Lucretius is a fine symbolic symptom of everything that was going on – his poem De Rerum Natura represented man’s quest for answers outside of all superstition and orthodoxy. It is, therefore, a great subject for a book. It is a credit to Greenblatt to see the symptomatic value of this event, and Grafton does a good job noting how the word “Epicurean” took off after Lucretius’s discovery.