A new look at an old book unlocks the mystery of how culture changed course
At the center of Stephen Greenblatt’s dazzling new book, “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,’’ is a hero: Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459 CE), “[a] short, genial, cannily alert man [who] reached out one day, took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied.’’ It may not sound heroic, but “behind that one moment was the arrest and imprisonment of a pope, the burning of heretics, and a great culturewide explosion of interest in pagan antiquity . . . if he had had an intimation of the forces he was unleashing, he might have thought twice about drawing so explosive a work out of the darkness in which it slept.’’
The work in question was a remote German monastery’s copy of “On the Nature of Things,’’ the epic philosophical poem written by Lucretius ca. 50
Greenblatt has written an intellectually invigorating, nonfiction version of a Dan Brown-like mystery-in-the-archives thriller, right down to the suppression of a great work of radical art by the early Christian church. In the first chapter, titled “The Book Hunter,’’ we’re introduced to our detective, Poggio. He’s on the trail of lost knowledge, following clues and his intuition to find the book that “changed the landscape of the world.’’ In its gumshoe mode, “The Swerve’’ races through the inner sanctums of corrupt popes, crumbling monasteries, and a shockingly violent gathering of Catholic bishops at the 1413 Council of Constance. Once the manuscript is discovered, Greenblatt explores all the ways Lucretius’s poem influenced the modern world. As Poggio departs center stage, “The Swerve’’ leaves the mystery genre behind and becomes a vibrant history of ideas, tracing Lucretian thought from the Renaissance through the Declaration of Independence, Darwinism, and Einsteinian physics.
But still there remains a deep mystery to be solved. How exactly does culture change? Specifically, how was it possible “for a whole culture to turn away from reading and writing’’ and then, centuries later, turn back again? Much has been written (and disputed) about just how dark the so-called Dark Ages were, but in Greenblatt’s view they were very dark indeed. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Greenblatt writes, the Christian church undertook “the difficult project of making what appeared simply sane and natural - the ordinary impulses of all sentient creatures - seem like the enemy of the truth.’’ In contrast to Lucretius’s Epicurean-inspired assertion that the highest goal of life is to seek pleasure and avoid pain, Christians “understood that pleasure is a code name for vice.’’ Yet by the 15th century a few educated Florentines began to look around at the ruins of ancient Rome - the crumbling yet still functional aqueducts, the Forum, which was now used for grazing sheep - and wondered what had gone wrong. “The spectacle of the world,’’ Poggio lamented: “how is it fallen! . . . How defaced!’’ A thousand years of Christianity had not improved life on earth. Then again, it hadn’t really tried. After all, redemption was only available after death in heaven, if you were lucky enough to get in. For a humanist like Poggio, who had already been exposed to life-affirming classical philosophies, that was too long to wait.
Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things’’ offered something radically different. The “Lucretian challenge,’’ as Greenblatt calls it, rests on a basic principle known as atomism, one of the foundations of Epicurean philosophy. Man was not formed in the image of his Creator: There is no Creator. Instead, everything, including man, is made of tiny particles called atoms, “the seeds of things,’’ Lucretius explained, which are eternal, indestructible, and infinite. They come together in infinite varieties, with a natural balance between creation and destruction, which goes on forever. Two thousand years later the philosopher George Santayana would call this “the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon.’’ While gods may exist, they do not control or even care about the lives of humans. “[T]he fact that it is not all about us and our fate . . . is, Lucretius insisted, the good news.’’ Free of superstition, man could fix his efforts on that which he could actually control: the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Of course Lucretius knew nothing of Darwinian evolution nor of molecular biology nor of quantum physics. Astoundingly, all these modern scientific theories would prove him right.
“The Swerve’’ is the story of Poggio’s heroic rediscovery of a book that has shaped human consciousness for over 2,000 years. It is a thrilling, suspenseful tale that left this reader inspired and full of questions about the ongoing project known as human civilization. Although Lucretius was neither an atheist nor a hedonist, his views were anathema to Christian leaders so they were censored and nearly forgotten. But thanks to the subversive and strenuous efforts of one determined 15th-century scholar, Lucretius’s gift to humanity was saved. Greenblatt reminds us that Thomas Jefferson, who owned eight copies of Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things,’’ described himself as “an Epicurean,’’ someone who rejected superstition in favor of “sensation, of matter and motion, [on which] we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need.’’ “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’’ certainly reflects an Epicurean philosophy; perhaps, thanks to Greenblatt’s heroic rediscovery, Lucretius can lead us into the light of reason once again.
Buzzy Jackson is the author of “Shaking the Family Tree’’ and is a research associate at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Center of the American West. E-mail her at AskBuzzy@gmail.com