"A DEFINING TEXT FOR RENAISSANCE HUMANISM, INFLUENCING BOTTICELLI, DA VINCI, GALILEO, MACHIAVELLI, MONTAIGNE AND SHAKESPEARE": EXCEEDINGLY RARE FIRST EDITION OF CREECH'S MOMENTOUS TRANSLATION IN ENGLISH OF LUCRETIUS' ON THE NATURE OF THINGS, THE WORK THAT INSPIRED JEFFERSON TO PROCLAIM, IN THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, AMERICANS' VITAL RIGHT TO "THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS"
(CREECH, Thomas) LUCRETIUS. T. Lucretius Carus. The Epicurean Philosopher, His Six Books De Natura Rerum Done into English VERSE, With NOTES. Oxford: Printed by L. Lichfield, Printer to the University For Anthony Stephens, 1682. Small octavo (4-1/2 by 7 inches), modern full blind-stamped crushed brown morocco; pp. (xx), 222, (ii), 46, (2). $13,500.
First edition, first issue, in English of Roman poet Lucretius' On the Nature of Things, a seminal work in Western history, with Creech's controversial Preface, omitted from future editions, along with his "Life" of Lucretius." Creech's translation is heralded for introducing the West to Lucretius' nearly lost masterpiece that offered "key principles of a modern understanding of the world," as well as a "crucial guide" to Thomas Jefferson, who proclaimed himself "an Epicurean" like Lucretius and gave the Declaration of Independence "a distinctly Lucretian turn" by naming "the pursuit of happiness" to be a pivotal American right, a splendid copy handsomely bound in full morocco.
On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura), the only work by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, "is that rarest of accomplishments: a great work of philosophy that is also a great poem… at the core of the poem lay key principles of a modern understanding of the world" (Greenblatt, Swerve, 200, 5). Written before the birth of Christ but lost to the world until its discovery nearly five centuries later, it offers an extraordinary "vision of atoms randomly moving in an infinite universe… Divided into six untitled books, the poem yokes together moments of intense lyrical beauty; philosophical meditations on religion, pleasure, and death; and scientific theories of the physical world, the evolution of human societies, the perils and joys of sex, and the nature of disease." Virtually nothing is known of Lucretius. "It is possible, however, to know something about his intellectual biography… Epicurus was Lucretius' philosophical messiah, and his vision may be traced to a single incandescent idea: that everything that has ever existed and everything that will ever exist is put together out of what the Roman poet called 'the seeds of things,' indestructible building blocks, irreducibly small in size, unimaginably vast in number" (Greenblatt in New Yorker).
Noted scholar Stephen Greenblatt "posits Lucretius' On the Nature of Things as a defining text for Renaissance Humanism, influencing Botticelli, da Vinci, Galileo, Machiavelli, Montaigne and Shakespeare" (Owen, Lucretius and the Radical Imagination). At one point in the work's early history, when "the Church was attempting to suppress the text, a young Florentine was copying out for himself the whole of On the Nature of Things… the handwriting was conclusively identified in 1961: the copy was made by Niccolo Machiavelli. Thomas More engaged with Epicureanism more openly in his most famous work, Utopia… [and] Moliere undertook to produce a verse translation of De rerum natura (which does not, unfortunately, survive). In England, the wealthy diarist John Evelyn translated the first book of Lucretius' poem, and Isaac Newton declared himself an atomist" (New Yorker). By the mid-1600s another translation into English by Puritan Lucy Hutchinson was known but it remained unpublished until the 20th century. It was only in 1682 that this first edition in English was published "by the young Oxford-educated scholar Thomas Creech. His Lucretius was greeted as an astonishing achievement" (Swerve, 257; emphasis added).
The work ultimately proved to be of vital importance to Americans when Thomas Jefferson found Lucretius to be "a crucial guide… He owned at least five Latin editions of On the Nature of Things, along with translations of the poem into English, Italian and French. It was one of his favorite books." Jefferson gave the Declaration of Independence "a distinctly Lucretian turn. The turn was toward a government whose end was not only to secure the lives and liberties of its citizens but also to serve 'the pursuit of happiness.'" When a correspondent asked Jefferson his philosophy of life, America's third president and Founding Father simply answered: "I am an Epicurean" (Swerve, 262-63). Included with Jefferson's numerous Latin, Italian and French editions was a 1714 edition of Creech's translation: "entered by Jefferson in his undated manuscript catalogue" (Sowerby 4460). First edition, first issue, with Creech's Preface that was "dropped in all subsequent editions" due to implication of godlessness (Hopkins, "Thomas Creech's Preface," Studies in Philology, 702). First leaf following title page "beginning 'Ad amicum suum and signed E. Bernardus" containing two lines of verse (instead of four lines), with first issue uncorrected "perpolitis" instead of corrected "perpoliti"; printed slip tipped-in ((B)r). Creech's Preface with passage beginning "Besides" instead of "But more" (b3v, li6); Life of Lucretius with concluding sentence beginning "Wherefore if" instead of "Why then" (b(1)r, li28): no clear priority established. This first edition as issued without frontispiece, half title. With rear errata leaf. ESTC R8877. Wing L3447. Gordon 331. Scattered leaves with faint inked marginalia, trace of underlining.
Interior quite fresh and bright. A lovely about-fine copy, handsomely bound in full morocco.