The Poem That Dragged Us Out of the Dark Ages

Particle physics. Human self-determination. Evolution. According to Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt, we owe these modern ideas to an ancient Roman poem, rediscovered in 1417.
  • Transcript


Stephen Greenblatt: Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things is one of the great instances of cultural mobility.  This was a text, a poem, a remarkable poem, written more than 2,000 years ago, itself based on ideas that are at least several hundred years older than that.  It had some circulation at the time of Cicero and Julius Caesar and the poet Virgil.  And then after a few hundred years of such circulation, it disappeared and is scarcely mentioned for more than a thousand years.  And then, one day in January of 1417, a book hunter, now obscure papal bureaucrat named Poggio Bracciolini, went into a monastic library and he found a copy and he took it off the shelf.  

And that taking it off the shelf and recirculating it, getting it copied and having it begin, once again, to be read, turned out to have extraordinarily far-reaching consequences, though by no means immediately.  It was just more like a butterfly’s wing moving initially, just a tiny bit of movement.   

And this is, for me, the rediscovery of this ancient poem in 1417, is the paradigmatic instance of recirculation of what it means for something to be put back in motion.  Why is it significant?  Because of everything that had been lost.  Much of the classical heritage in general was lost, many, many plays by Sophocles and Euripides and Escolus, many great works of art, many great works of philosophy and science and so forth in the general collapse of ancient civilization.  

Among the things that didn’t survive was the school of philosophy called Epicureanism in the Greek world, and it was that school of philosophy that was hanging by a thread, in effect, in this one great poem, Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things that came back.  

With that poem came back the idea that the world is made up out of atoms and emptiness and nothing else, no mysterious demons, no angels, no forces moving the atoms around, that everything can come into existence without providence, that you don’t need a creator, you don’t need intelligent design to understand how complex beings in the universe, ants or cockroaches or humans can exist.  They come to exist because the atoms have been crashing together for untold thousands, tens of thousands, millions, billions of years., and in that clashing together eventually evolved fantastically complex forms.  

With that comes the idea that the soul, human soul, is made up out of atoms--because there’s only atoms, nothing more, atoms and emptiness.  The human soul is made up out of atoms just as the body is made up out of atoms, and the soul will disintegrate when the body disintegrates.  Therefore, there's no afterlife.  Therefore there’s no judgment in the afterlife, no punishment, no reward.  Whatever meaning we have in the universe is here and now in this world.  And whatever political, ethical, moral meanings we can make, we have to make here and now by ourselves because there is no God who will determine whether we’ve made the right decisions or not and reward or punish us accordingly.  And so forth and so on, including the belief, as Lucretius says, that there must have been, because of this notion, other creatures who existed on the earth, other species that have existed before us and other species who will exist after us because nature is constantly experimenting.  And those things that can find food for themselves and reproduce will probably persist for some period of time.  Those things that can’t do so will disappear, and eventually everything will disappear and transform in the endless dance of mutations of the atoms.  

Now all of that came back in one piece in 1417 because the rest of it, the whole philosophical tradition, all of Democritus, all of Lucifus, almost all of Epicurus is lost and lost forever.  And then this text, this magnificent poem came back.  There were only a handful of copies, two maybe three, possibly, that existed in the world.  A fire, an earthquake, an act of destruction would have done it in, but it came back in this one moment when an obscure clerk took the book off the shelf.  For me this is one of the great, thrilling stories in human culture.  

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd