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

AIR DATE: May 25, 2012

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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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I am afraid this is the usual

I am afraid this is the usual half-baked rubbish I have learned to expect from Stephen Greenblatt. Poor old Harvard, she's rearing them yet. Lucretius' De Rerum was known in the Middle Ages -- Isadore of Seville cites it as one of his astronomical sources. The ms that Bracciolini discovered was a medieval copy. As for the idea of atoms, there is a whole body of medieval physics and mathematics devoted to parsing out various atomistic theories, both in the West and among Islamic philosophers, that seems to have been dropped from the story here.

I'm not sure why scholars of reputation can get away with perpetuating the simplistic myth of Western culture having to do with the resurrection of forgotten classical learning by Renaissance scholars after a long night of ignorance through the medieval period. Is it the resonance of the myth of loss and recovery, or is it just that the medieval material requires too much work and logical sophistication to understand? In any case there is much more here than meets Greeblatt's eye. As Gaston Bachelard once quipped: "is there anywhere a body of doctrines more mixed than atomism taken as a whole?"

If anyone is seriously interested in this I suggest you leave Greenblatt's fairy tale on the shelf and instead read Lüthy, Murdoch, & Newman: Late Medieval and Early Modern Corpuscular Matter Theories (Brill, 2001).

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