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Lucretius, On the Nature of Things

On the Nature of Things  Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2011 book, The Swerve:  How the World Became Modern, re-introduced Lucretius and his amazing philosophical epic poem, De Rerum Natura, to the modern world.  Its title derived from the most famous theory associated with the Roman philosopher/poet, Greenblatt’s book features a fascinating chronicle of the discovery in 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini, in the library of a remote German monastery, of the only surviving manuscript of Lucretius’ Latin text.  Greenblatt skillfully interweaves a real-life detective story with a comprehensive account of how this chance discovery caused the modern world itself to “swerve.” The Swerve (via Greenblatt’s energetic style and flair for story-telling, no doubt) has inspired a resurgence of interest in this relatively little known but highly influential Epicurean philosopher of the first century B.C.E., whose magnum opus, De Rerum Natura (best translated, “On the Nature of Things”), stands as the richest extant repository of our knowledge of ancient atomism and Epicurean philosophy, otherwise lost with the exception of a few fragments of Epicurus, himself.  On the Nature of Things is hands-down the most important philosophical poem ever written (what a delightful way to get your philosophy!), and the single most important source for our knowledge of one of the most important and influential schools of Hellenistic philosophy, Epicureanism.  But it is also an exquisitely beautiful work of poetic art and a gold mine of information and ideas on subjects as wide-ranging as mythology, religion, morality, science, sex, cosmology, geology, history, horticulture, agriculture, meteorology, astronomy, humanism, sociology, the senses, pleasure, life in the late Roman Republic, and much more besides.  The course, which will be conducted seminar-style, focuses exclusively on a close-reading of the six books of De Rerum Natura in translation (the instructor has also read much of the text in the original Latin), ending with a reading of Greenblatt’s The Swerve and a discussion of the modern reception of Lucretius.  Along with the text of Lucretius, we will read excerpts of many additional primary texts which either influenced or were influenced by De Rerum Nature.

Credits: 3.00

Course Code: HUM 332

Instructor(s): Mary Stieber

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.