Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence

Article excerpt

The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence by Alison Brown. Harvard U. Press, 2010. Pp. xiv + 139. $35.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2011. Pp. 356. $26.95.

These two engaging books tell the same story in entirely different ways. The story concerns the fifteenth-century recovery of the Roman poet Lucretius's philosophical epic, De return natura, from centuries of neglect and suppression. Whereas Brown's slender volume is tightly and rigorously focused on Florentine humanism and civic culture, Greenblatt's volume celebrates the recovery of Lucretius as nothing short of a major--if not the one and only--cause of the Renaissance that in turn paved the way for Enlightenment and modernity. Each in its own way solidifies the significance of Lucretius and his Epicurean verses, but each has other heroes as well: for Brown, the lay humanists Bartolomeo Scala, Marcello Adriani, and Niccolo Machiavelli, but also the ancient biographer Diogenes Laertius and the city of Florence itself; for Greenblatt, especially the book-hunter Poggio Bracciolini but also free thinkers such as Giordano Bruno. In both cases, lay philosophy triumphs over clerical censorship.

Covering the reception of Lucretius over a century of Florentine history (1417-1517), Brown identifies three principal motifs in De rerum natura that especially intrigued that city's humanists. First there was Lucretius's ethical agenda of teaching readers to escape their fears regarding death, not least anxiety about the pain that might be suffered in some imaginary infernal afterlife. In book 3 of De return natura, Lucretius ventriloquizes the voice of Nature herself in chastising those fools plagued by such terror, since the fear of death testifies to human discontentment in life as well as to a fundamental misunderstanding of a universe in which all being was constituted by atoms and vacuity. After death, no one of us feels a thing, Lucretius explains, since no one of us continues to have life or consciousness or being at all. The physics of atomism, Brown argues, was a second fascinating theme for the Florentine humanists, above all because its corollary--that the universe is governed by chance or fortune--struck a chord with a city-state in which the vicissitudes of politics and mercantile commerce drove the reality of this fortuity home at every turn. The third motif of chief concern to Florentine humanists served as the basis (in book five of De rerum natura) of the highly complex political lessons of Lucretius, namely, his conviction that human life commenced in a state of primitive survivalism, from which the various institutions of the home and the state (including religion) evolved with decidedly uneven results.

Although Brown spends some time with the familiar clerical humanists such as Marsilio Ficino, the lay status of her lead cast of Lucretius readers is essential to her argument; after all, Ficino ended up repudiating his early interest in the Epicurean poet for a career translating Platonic and Hermetic works whose assumptions were squarely at odds with Epicureanism and far more amenable to the Christian religion. By contrast, Brown argues, Scala, Adriani, and Machiavelli were freer to engage with the dangerous physics, ethics, and theology of Lucretius. As is so often the case with the reception of Lucretius, Scala's responses were mixed in a way that Brown characterizes as a "love-hate relationship" (23) but also as a "careful balancing of the merits and demerits of the [Epicurean] philosophy" (24). For Scala, Florentine commerce and maritime exploration contributed to a fascination with distant places and primitive peoples, which in turn gave Lucretius's account of early human civilization a special pertinence. Unlike Ficino, who underwent a conversion to Platonism, Scala had the tendency to follow Lucretius away from Platonism toward "a more realistic approach to law and justice" (30) as well as to an appreciation for the peaceful existence of primitive people who might be said to live according to nature without human laws. …

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