Stories of epochal shifts leading to new historical paradigms always risk swallowing their own thesis by trying to be all-encompassing, as if this ONE THING ALONE could be responsible for an about-face by an entire civilization. Such change, when it comes, is usually incremental and composed of myriad factors in combination. Stephen Greenblatt avoids that pitfall even while making the claim that the rediscovery of Lucretius' epic poem On The Nature of Things (De Natura Rerum) changed Western Civilization, jolting it out of its obsession with religiously defined priorities and veering us into a path leading ultimately to our present secular view and philosophical materialism. Certain ideas were already "in the air" and required only a key impetus to bring them together and start the process. In The Swerve he makes a good case that Poggio Bracciolini's find of one of the last complete texts of the poem in 1417 represents the pivot. Greenblatt places the poem and the discovery within the broader context of history and does a good job of showing us why it was such an influential work. -- Mark
Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius--a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.
The copying and translation of this ancient book-the greatest discovery of the greatest book-hunter of his age-fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson.