From the 12th through the 16th centuries, monks laboring in monasteries would routinely scrap the ink off the ancient manuscripts in their libraries in order to reuse the parchment to copy scripture. Thusly, untold ancient texts were lost to mankind.
It was an act then of incredible serendipity that in 1417 one Poggio Bracciolini, rummaging through the library of a monastery in Italy, opened and recognized an extraordinary work by the ancient Greek poet Lucretius, a contemporary of Cicero. In its 1700 plus lines De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) summarized the atomic theory of Democritus and the atheism of Epicurus, as well as laying out an ancient theory of evolution. Bracciolini obtained permission to copy the text and over the following couple of decades distributed it to other scholars across Europe, giving birth to the Renaissance and its natural offspring, The Enlightenment. Among thinkers who were influenced by De Rerum Natura were Giordano Bruno, Galileo Galilei, Thomas More, Niccolò Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Thomas Jefferson. Oh, and lest I forget, Christopher Hitchens (He included a passage as the very first piece in his book The Portable Atheist.). Quite a fan club.
I mention all this because of a book I recently discovered, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. In its pages, recently the recipient of a 2012 Pulitzer Prize, Stephan Greenblatt tells the story of the manuscript’s rediscovery and its influence, as well as highlighting some of the work’s more compelling contributions to modern thought and perhaps even the “sexual revolution”.
I am loving it, and I highly recommend it. Get it and read it before the Religious Right hears about it and tries to have it banned.