That book was "De Rerum Natura," or "On the Nature of Things," by the ancient Roman writer Lucretius. It was a book of poetry, but also a work of science and philosophy. This discovery is described in a contemporary Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt titled “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.” As Greenblatt says it in an interview with Jeffrey Brown of PBS, “A man, not a particularly important fellow, goes into a library one day, takes a book off a shelf, and, not instantly, but decisively, the world changes.”
That world was the Middle Ages, and the simple idea of this book led to the revolution of modern science. Lucretius, as Greenblatt explains, wasn’t even inventing a new idea. In fact, the concept was already ancient by the time of Lucretius. This was the theory that the world consists of an infinite number of tiny particles. The ancient Greeks called them the things that can't be broken up, or atoms. But after Lucretius, the idea was lost for 1,000 years.
Lucretius’s book was rediscovered in the 15th century by a poor boy named Poggio Bracciolini who became the personal secretary to the pope. Later, he joined the poet Petrarch and other scholars known as humanists, obsessed with reviving the wisdom of classical Greek and Roman culture.
Greenblatt alludes to the reasons these ideas might have been lost in the PBS interview. The cultures of Greece and Rome were threatening ones, especially to Christianity. In addition to atoms, they contained the views, “that there is no afterlife, that there are no punishments or rewards, therefore, divinely issued after we cease to be, that there must be no guarantee for all the values that we have. We make them up as we go along, and they're as durable and as fragile as the atoms of which everything is made.”
To me, this book carries a warning for Christianity today. The church can’t just hide those ideas it doesn’t particularly favor, for example, evolutionary theory. Like Lucretius’s reference to atoms, the truth will always resurface again. In the end, God is with those who seek reality above their own versions of orthodoxy.