Greenblatt (Humanities/Harvard Univ.; Shakespeare’s Freedom, 2010, etc.) makes another intellectually fetching foray into the Renaissance—with digressions into antiquity and the recent past—in search of a root of modernity.
More than 2,000 years ago, Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius wrote On the Nature of Things, which spoke of such things as the atomic structure of all that exists, of natural selection, the denial of an afterlife, the inherent sexuality of the universe, the cruelty of religion and the highest goal of human life being the enhancement of pleasure. It was a dangerous book and wildly at odds with the powers that be through many a time period. That Greenblatt came across this book while in graduate school is a wonder, for it had been scourged, scorned or simply fallen from fashion from the start, making fugitive reappearances when the time was ripe, but more likely to fall prey to censorship and the bookworm, literally eaten to dust. In the 15th century, along came Poggio Bracciolini— humanist, lover of antiquity, former papal secretary, roving hunter of books—and the hub of Greenblatt’s tale. He found the book, perhaps the last copy, in a monastery library, liked what he saw (even if he never cottoned to its philosophy) and had the book copied; thankfully, history was preserved. Greenblatt’s brilliantly ushers readers into this world, which is at once recognizable and wholly foreign. He has an evocative hand with description and a liquid way of introducing supporting players who soon become principals: Democritus, Epicurius, scribe monks, Thomas More, Giordano Bruno, Montaigne and Darwin, to name just a few.
More wonderfully illuminating Renaissance history from a master scholar and historian.