I just finished reading Stephen Greenblatt’s recent book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. It’s a very enjoyable read. It starts with a Indiana Jones-like story of Poggio Bracciolini searching through monastery libraries for copies of ancient Greek and Roman texts.
The rest of the book is about Poggio’s discovery in 1417 of a copy of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, and how it changed the world. By the time of his discovery, the church had erased from memory all but a cartoon version of the deterministic world view of the Epicureans. Greenblatt argues that it’s no coincidence that Lucretius’ poem reappears and starts getting swapped around in manuscript exactly at the time and place that the Renaissance explodes on the world. In the second half of the book, he traces its influence through Galileo, Montaigne, and all the way to Jefferson. The phrase the pursuit of happiness is almost certainly descended directly from Poggio’s discovery. The swerve in the title comes from the word clinamen which Lucretius uses to describe the way that tiny, random events can have large and lasting effects on the world. Something like Lorenz’ sensitive dependence on initial conditions.
If you enjoy this book, you should also check out Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful book How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. Montaigne was a big fan of De Rerum Natura. Amazingly, his personal, heavily marked up copy has been discovered in recent years. Bakewell really makes Montaigne come alive, and he’s a fun character to spend some time with.