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Jaipur Literature Festival: The book hunter

JAIPUR : As the five-day-long Jaipur Literature Festival came to an end on Monday, Stephen Greenblatt, an American Shakespearean, literary historian, and author gave an interesting talk on how Lucretius was rediscovered by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417. Greenblatt took the audience on a journey of Lucretius’ work during a session titled The Swerve: How the Renaissance began and The World Became Modern.

One day, nearly 600 years ago, Bracciolini, who was in his late 30s took a book off the shelf that he found in a monastery, probably in southern Germany. “He saw a copy of a Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus, whom he had read about but whose work no one in his world had either seen or been able to read. He knew of the poem On the Nature of Things which was written in 50 BCE, around the time of Julius Caesar, had been extravagantly mentioned by several other Roman poets. This man asked for the book to be copied. That was an extremely unnoticeable event yet it was enough to set in motion the transformation of the world whose consequences we are still facing today,” said Greenblatt.

The book that Bracciolini found had virtually disappeared by then, dropped out of circulation and was not part of the conversation, unlike the other works, from the ancient world like that of Aristotle and Plato. “Poggio, was among those who knew that there was a chance that certain books that they didn’t have a chance to read but knew of, could have a chance to survive. Poggio, who is also the hero of my book The Swerve: How The World Became Modern, was probably one of greatest of the Renaissance book hunters.”

The need for book hunting arose because the Roman world fell apart in fifth, sixth and seventh centuries. One major impact was that the schools got shut, education basically came to a halt and the enterprise of copying books stopped that in turn enabled the survival and distribution of text to the world. “This caused a massive loss in the intellectual world. Aeschylus, the one who laid the Greek foundation of tragic playwright wrote between 80-90 plays, of which only seven survived. And there are many such instances. In Italy, in the 14 and 15 centuries, book hunters went in search of some of these lost treasures.”

The lost poem Bracciolini found, that was particularly hard hit in the ancient world was because of the philosophy of Epicureanism. Lucretius was the disciple of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who wrote many works and almost none of them survived. “Its this work of Lucretius that carries the full weight of Epicureanism and the reason why this philosophy was so hard hit is beyond the general historical decline.

It was because none of the great religions of the ancient world liked what it had to say. So, the recovery of 7,400 lines of Epicurean verse was an extraordinary event.”After the discovery of the poem, the idea of Epicureanism began to circulate repeatedly. You get glimpses of this idea in works of Galileo, subsequently in Isaac Newton and then in a massive flood in Einstein, in Darwin and Karl Marx. “All their works can be traced to what Poggio Bracciolini brought into the world.”