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Book Review: Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance

By (September 28, 2014) One Comment

Reading Lucretius in the Renaissancereading lucretius in the renaissance cover

by Ada Palmer

Harvard University Press, 2014

“If you were told that reading this book could send you to Hell, would you keep reading?” University of Chicago history professor Ada Palmer writes in her wonderfully spirited and intelligent new book Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance. “If you believed heresy was contagious, that you could acquire a lethal mental illness from contact with incorrect ideas, would you choose to study them? Would you cross dangerous mountain ranges searching for unorthodox texts, and spend years working to correct and copy them?”

The questions seem over-charged, but it’s not so: the De rerum natura of 1st-cenury BC poet Lucretius was explosive from the moment Poggio Bracciolini discovered its text in 1417, so explosive that a literary theorist like Stephen Greenblatt could yield to the temptation to credit it with the entirety of the Renaissance in his 2011 book The Swerve. The elaborate Epicureanism unfolded in the poem was replete with what 15th-Century annotators referred to as “unchristian opinions” – ideas such as the physical mortality of the soul, and Palmer is convinced that “Poggio’s discovery of Lucretius was a turning point in the path toward modern thought, and that Lucretius’s return to Florence made a powerful impact, whose ripples we can detect touching many corners of literature, science, religion, and philosophy over the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries.”

Palmer traces the fascinating life of Poggio’s discovery, giving us some very readable and energetic analyses of the careers and innovations of such Lucretian scholars as Girolamo Borgia and the great, indefatigable Denys Lambin, whose hugely expanded 1563 revision of his annotated De rerum natura set the standard for the study of Lucretius. Palmer necessarily refers to Lambin repeatedly, bringing alive his very dusty, very bookish passions:

Lambin takes an almost personal offense at Quintillian’s claims that Lucretius’s poetic language is not good reading for a young orator. Lambin likens Quintilian’s comparison of Macer and Lucretius to comparing a mouse and an elephant, parodying Lactantius’s criticism that, in praising Epicurus, Lucretius gave a mouse a lion’s praise.

Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance is an often thrilling story of textual scholarship during the days when it was still a contact sport, and potentially dangerous one at that. The book is a perfect companion to Alison Brown’s 2010 study The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence, and rolls to a secularly triumphant set of closing notes:

Was Lucretius an atheist? By our modern definition, no; but in the pre-modern sense he was a uniquely dangerous atheist: a systematic, articulate philosopher whose doctrines had the potential to undermine traditional proofs of the existence of God, whose science could replace Christian Aristotelianism, and whose artistry could deceive humanists into spreading these unorthodoxies across the Christian world. Deceive but not betray, because Lucretius never intended to spread atheism. He intended De rerum natura to liberate its readers from feeling obligated to accept the dominant mechanical, moral, and theological models of society. He succeeded.

This is textual “reception studies” done without cant or jargon, written in an enthusiastic voice that perfectly conveys how books can change societies. Anybody who’s ever had their world-view altered by a book will read this one with interest.