UD's Annette Giesecke says Nov. 12 speaker Stephen Greenblatt is considered an "academic rock star" whose work on Lucretius and his epic poem "On the Nature of the Universe" is accessible to a wide audience.

Nov. 12: Ancient poem, radical ideas

Lecture by celebrated scholar will discuss manuscript that changed history


2:45 p.m., Nov. 10, 2015--A revolutionary poem written more than 2,000 years ago, Lucretius’ epic On the Nature of the Universe, contained ideas that were considered dangerous and repugnant when it was rediscovered on a German monastery shelf in the 15th century.

Despite that, the manuscript was copied and widely distributed, ultimately fueling the Renaissance and shaping the modern world. 

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The story of that poem and its influence was told by the noted scholar Stephen Greenblatt in his book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, which won numerous awards, including the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. 

On Thursday, Nov. 12, from 7:30-8:30 p.m., Greenblatt will discuss the subject in a free, public lecture at the University of Delaware’s Mitchell Hall.

Annette Giesecke, professor of classics and interim chair of UD’s Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, has extensively studied and written about Lucretius and his influence on the ancient world. 

Here, she answers a few questions about his work and about Greenblatt’s lecture.

Q: Will the lecture be aimed at an audience of scholars?

A: No, Stephen Greenblatt is considered to be an academic rock star, noted for his interest in reaching a wide audience. The Swerve was written for a much wider audience than just his colleagues, and he certainly has the ability to make his work accessible and fascinating. The tale he traces is the discovery of Lucretius’ manuscript by a papal scribe [in 1417], and the amazing thing is that, even with its radical content, it was copied and disseminated widely and went on to influence so many people who disagreed with so much of it.

Q: What do we know about Lucretius and this epic poem that makes it so interesting today?

A: We know next to nothing about Lucretius’ life, but it’s very clear that he was extremely influential as a poet and a philosopher, influencing the poet Virgil and many of his other contemporaries and near-contemporaries in ancient Rome. This poem would have been in the world’s great libraries of its time, and it still resonates today. Its ideas were so radical that people remain curious about it.

Q: How would you describe the poem itself?

A: This poem is the fullest document of Epicurus’ beliefs, and it is essentially a set of “scientific” proofs, which could be very boring. But Lucretius puts the philosophy of Epicurus into verse form, into the form of epic poetry, to make it palatable and interesting. Lucretius himself calls it “the honey on the rim of the medicine cup” to attract people to its ideas.

Q: What is the philosophy that’s outlined in the poem?

A: Epicurus was an atomist. That is, he believed that everything in the universe is made up of atoms. These atoms are always in motion, and things in the universe are created when the atoms sometimes randomly swerve and collide. He believed that there are gods, but that they’re remote and unconcerned with us and our lives. This system of thought puts animals and humans and objects on the same level — because everything is made up of atoms that randomly joined, we’re no more important than animals or rocks. And with death, we just cease to exist, and so does our soul; there’s no afterlife. These were very radical thoughts.

Q: Why did you study Lucretius?

A: I wrote my dissertation, and later a book [Atoms, Ataraxy, and Allusion] on Lucretius. I had been intrigued by the philosophical content of his work and, being interested in ancient art, I was fascinated by the painterly quality of his literary descriptions. The descriptions are vivid and very beautiful. In one section, he paints a vision of the ideal Epicurean life, lying in the shade under a tree, surrounded by your friends and eating a simple meal. He believed pleasure is our aim in life, but he defined pleasure as freedom from disturbance, a belief that you need what is enough but not more than enough — a simple life, without fame and riches.

Q: Does this relate to one of your other areas of study, ancient Roman gardens and environmental concerns in antiquity?

A: Yes, another thing Lucretius says is that the Earth will eventually pass away, and by our continued abuse of it, it will pass away even faster. This is a powerful environmental message that was true then, and it’s true now.

Greenblatt’s talk is Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures’ Distinguished Lecture for fall 2015. 

The event is co-sponsored by the Office of the Provost; the Department of Philosophy, the Class of 1955 Ethics Endowment Fund; the College of Arts and Sciences; the University of Delaware Library; the Center for Material Culture Studies; and the Department of English.

Article by Ann Manser

Photo by Evan Krape

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