Lucretius’s De rerum natura has become a hot topic in contemporary scholarship. Lost until its rediscovery in 1417, Lucretius’s cosmological poem portraying a universe made up of atoms moving in the void has been the subject of at least a dozen major scholarly works since 2003. Gerard Passannante’s deeply learned study of the philosophical and literary fortunes of Lucretius’s first-century B.C. poem in early modern Europe presents us with an exciting complement to Alison Brown’s elegant and meticulously historicized study of the recovery and reception of Lucretius in Italy: De rerum natura: The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence (2010). At the same time, not only Passannante’s rich study of the transmission of the text of Lucretius’s poem and its literary heirs but also his survey of the discipline of philology from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century provides a counter- weight to The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt’s new and breezy but factually challenged account of the rediscovery of the De rerum natura.
Passannante’s history of the recovery and influence of Lucretius’s epic poem in early modern Europe straddles the domains not only of philology and book history, but also of Renaissance literature, philosophy, and science from the pre-Socratics to Newton. The controlling analogy between words and things in the De rerum natura informs Passannante’s own narrative of the influence of Lucretius in early modern literature and philosophy: atoms combine to create things in the universe just as letters are ordered to form words. That is, to examine the reception of Lucretius’s epic poem is to document the as yet unexplored history of materalism in philosophy for its importance to the classical tradition itself. Passannante follows this materialist tradition in historical stages, beginning in the late Middle Ages and ending in an epilogue to the book, with Newton and Einstein. Encapsulating his aim, Passannante writes, “This book is in so many ways about material encounters and the communities of people and ideas that arise from them.” (217)
Chapter 1, “ Extra Destinatum,” begins not with Poggio Bracciolini’s well known discovery of Lucretius’s lost epic poem in a monastery library in 1417, but with what Passannante terms its “indirect transmission” in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The encounter with the De rerum natura that modern critics have noted in Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch came to them indirectly – not from Lucretius but through Virgil and Macrobius. Without ever having seen Lucretius’s work, Petrarch transcribed in the margin of his letter on Laura’s death all the passages on the plague from the De rerum natura that he had found in Macrobius’s Saturnalia, in which the fifth-century Latin writer had commented on Virgil’s debt to Lucretius in the Georgics. Boccaccio too, in his Genealogy of the Gods, attributes his knowledge of Lucretius’s cosmogony to his reading of Virgil’s Bucolics (47).
Chapter 2, “The Philologist and the Epicurean,” examines the often surprisingly aleatory formation of the modern text of the De rerum natura by its fifteenth and sixteenth-century editors down to the great modern philologist Karl Lachmann, who in 1850 claimed to have constructed the “lost archetype” from which all subsequent manuscripts and editions of the De rerum natura must logically have descended. One of the earliest editors of the De rerum natura, Michele Marullo, a Greek emigré, a Latin scholar, and the son-in-law of the Chancellor of Florence, Bartolomeo Scala, emended the text of Lucretius extensively, adding whole lines of his own invention to the cosmological poem, though he never published his own edition of it. Machiavelli used over three-quarters of Marullo’s emendations and fabrications in the transcription of the De rerum natura he made for himself (now in the Vatican Library, MS Rossi 884). Many of Marullo’s idiosyncratic emendations were also incorporated wholesale into the 1512 Juntine edition of the De rerum natura prepared by Pietro Candido. Later in the century, the one-hundred and forty-nine passages from the De rerum natura quoted by Michel de Montaigne (whose heavily annotated copy of the 1563 Paris edition of the poem is still extant) in his Essais testify to the importance of Lucretius and the Epicurean tradition in France. (105).
Chapter 3, “Homer Atomized,” introduces a new topic: the merging of literary and scientific studies in the seventeenth century and its effect on the transmission of Lucretius’s epic poem in an age of skepticism concerning the received texts from the ancients. German philologists such as Friedrich A. Wolf had placed the whole Homeric corpus in doubt. Passannante focuses in this chapter on Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) study of Montaigne’s “reading (and mangling)” of the De rerum natura. In reading Lucretius, Bacon – “the grandfather of modern science” – discovered how the poetry of materialism could transform our understanding of both physics and the technologies of transmission. (122) Bacon’s view of atomic theory was thoroughly Lucretian: just as individual letters are configured to form an infinite variety of words, so atoms which are in constant motion combine differently to form things; all fixity – all forms – are mere figments of the human mind. Similarly, Bacon drew an analogy “between the pleasure derived from the pursuit of knowledge and the pleasure of contemplating the material flux of tradition.” (147). In Lucretius’s atomic theory Bacon saw “a new vision of natural philosophy…emerging again, literally from the dust of books.” (153)
In pursuing the reception of the De rerum natura from the later sixteenth into the seventeenth cenutry, Passannante’s chapter 4, “The Pervasive Influence,” cuts a wide swath, from the English poet Edmund Spenser (1552- 1599) to the Cambridge Platonist Henry More (flor. 1642) and the seventeenth-century French philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655). On the basis of the presence of Lucretius “through and through” in the works of such men as Spenser, Gassendi, More, and Milton, Passannante locates the origins of modern science in the pervasive and sustained engagement of seventeenth-century poets and philosophers with the materialism that marks Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura and its controlling analogy between the letters of the alphabet and atoms of the universe: between words and things. Both Spenser’s Faerie Queen and more particularly his Mutability Cantos, Passannante argues, are infused not only with the Lucretian analogy between form and matter but with the images of flux and change that permeate the De rerum natura. Pierre Gassendi, whom Freud credited with having revived the philosophy of Epicurus, quoted 5,300 of the 7,400 lines of Lucretius’s De rerum natura, scattering passages from the ancient poem throughout his own work. In England, Henry More, in his poem Democritus Platonissans, synthesized the Platonic tradition with the atomism of the Epicureans.
Passannante reserved the place of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) in the transmission of the De rerum natura for his Epilogue. In his posthumously published Scholia, Newton traced his gravitational theory to Anaxagoras, Pythagoras, Epicurus, and the De rerum natura, quoting ninety lines of Lucretius’s epic poem. Newton’s Cambridge notebooks (composed 1664-65) show that he was working through Lucretius’s theory of the “swerve” ( clinamen): the chance digression from the otherwise perpetual downward movement of atoms in the void that results in the creation of things. (200) Neither Newton nor his colleagues at Cambridge, Richard Bentley and Ralph Cudworth, accepted the doctrine of the “swerve,” the movement that enables the principle of free will in Lucretius. Nonetheless, it is in his Scholia, Passannante notes, that Newton “stumbles upon the figure of instability in the text [of Lucretius] and a more complex, dynamic vision of intellectual history that would enable his most innovative ideas.” (213-14). But the last word in Passannante’s history of the fortunes of Lucretius is left to Albert Einstein, who in his preface to Hermann Diels’s 1922 German translation of the De rerum natura, wrote that the poem had the power to work on readers a “magic” beyond their own time and place. (214-15)
There are a few errors of names and titles in the notes and the index, but these in no way dim my enthusiasm for this highly original study of the troubled reception and tremendous impact of a single classical poem on subsequent literary history and science in early modern and modern Europe.