In the time of Julius Caesar, a Roman poet named Lucretius wrote a poem called De rerum natura, On the Nature of Things. It was a poem, Stephen Greenblatt assures us, of unsurpassed beauty, but it was also a work which explored and tried to explain why the universe is the way it is. It explained that everything from stars to earthworms was made up of atoms, tiny particles which could not be divided. Beyond the atoms was the void, and that is the universe: atoms, void, and nothingness. You might say that this poem was the beginning of string theory, the attempt to explain everything.
Lucretius was a follower of the philosopher Epicurus. He believed the highest good was pleasure and that everything about humans including the "soul" was made up of those atoms that he described. When humans die, the soul, which is a physical part of the human, dies, too. There is no afterlife of either reward or punishment. Therefore, human beings should seek pleasure in this life since that's all there is. In seeking that pleasure, though, they should try to live a moral and abstemious life, one that brings good not just to the individual but to the community of which he is a part.
Lucretius' poem was lost sometime in antiquity. In 1417, an Italian book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini found a copy of it in a German monastery. He had it copied and sent it to a fellow humanist in Italy. In time, more and more copies were made and distributed and the philosophy of the poet began to find its way into the conversations and the thoughts of intellectuals and artists of the Renaissance. The Catholic Church tried to stop the dissemination of ideas which flowed from the poem. They convicted many admirers of the poem of heresy and killed them in the most horrendous and cruel ways possible. But they were unable to stop the flow of ideas.
Stephen Greenblatt makes a strong case that the modern world actually began with the wider distribution of Lucretius' poem, helped along by Gutenberg and his printing press. Throughout the six hundred or so years since the poem emerged from obscurity, it has influenced the thinking of many movers and shakers who have helped to create the world we know. Not least of these was Thomas Jefferson who once wrote to a correspondent who asked his philosophy of life, "I am an Epicurean."
Interesting stuff and very well-written. Greenblatt knows how to tell a story that connects all the dots.