Last year, Stephen Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities, took home a National Book Award for nonfiction for “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.” Today he was recognized with another prestigious literary prize.
In its citation, the Pulitzer board described “The Swerve” as “a provocative book arguing that an obscure work of philosophy, discovered nearly 600 years ago, changed the course of history by anticipating the science and sensibilities of today.”
The book tells the story of Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things,” which 2,000 years ago posited a number of revolutionary ideas — that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.
Once thought lost, the poem was rediscovered on a library shelf in the winter of 1417 by a Poggio Bracciolini. The copying and translation of the book fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson.
Greenblatt’s book argues that the influence of Lucretius’ work washed over modern thought like a tidal wave, anticipating not only social thought, but whole branches of modern science.
“It argues that the universe consists of atoms, void, and nothing else,” Greenblatt explained earlier this year at the third in a series of book talks given by Harvard faculty and alumni as part of Wintersession programming. “The atoms are eternal and always moving. Everything comes into existence simply because of the random movement of atoms, which, given enough time, will form and reform, constantly experimenting with different configurations of matter from which will eventually emerge everything we know, and into which everything we know will collapse.”
Other parts of the poem presage Darwin’s theory of evolution, and suggest that humanity is not at the center of the universe, physically or spiritually.
Lucretius argued that “the universe wasn’t created for human beings,” said Greenblatt. “Humans are not unique. The Earth is not the center of the universe. There are an infinite number of worlds. The soul is a material thing, just like the body. Therefore, there’s no afterlife, and no judgment, rewards, or punishments. The moral order that we have exists simply because we need to organize societies as cooperative beings. And the highest goal in life would have to be not pain or piety but pleasure, which all creatures seek.”
Established in the will of newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer in 1904, the Pulitzer Prize is among the most prestigious honors in U.S. journalism and literature.