The Swerve

October 24, 2014
Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, subtitled either "How the World Became Modern" or "How the Renaissance Began" depending on whether you're reading its American or British publication, tells the story of the rediscovery of Lucretius' philosophical poem De Rerum Natura, and of the impact its content had on the world. Although it is a nonfiction book, it has a narrative structure that reads almost like a work of historical fiction, which makes it a very accessible read to an interested and resonably well-informed layman. I borrowed it from my precioussss, who also reviewed it.

The hero of our story is Poggio Bracciolini, an Italian Renaissance humanist and high-profile bureaucrat at the papal court in 15th Century Rome. Antipope John XXIII has been deposed and is awaiting trial as a criminal, and as European Christendom finds itself between Popes, Poggio finds himself between jobs. He dedicates the resulting two years of leisure time (and the small fortune he had amassed) to book hunting, visiting German and Swiss monasteries in order to borrow and copy their books. Reading, in medieval monastic life, was a duty, and since it didn't matter what the monks and nuns read as long as they kept busy reading, their libraries were some of the last places in Europe where books from the ancient world could still be found. Unfortunately, these books were living on borrowed time: Apart from natural processes of decay, monks would sometimes remove the ink and use them for writing exercises.

Poggio was specifically after ancient Greek and Roman works; he and a small group of other humanists were attempting to save as many of them as possible before they'd be permanently lost. It was during his years of book-hunting that he accidentally stumbled upon Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, a work of poetry, but also a work on science and philosophy. Lucretius was a 1st Century BC Roman Epicurean, and like most members of that philosophical school, he rejected supernaturalism and believed in an essentially naturalist universe composed solely of atoms and void, considered humans to be a kind of animal, arisen (like the rest of the universe) through purely natural processes. If gods existed, Lucretius reasoned, they wouldn't take any interest in human affairs. His world view was an essentially modern one (although he, obviously, didn't get all the details to line up with modern science). Lucretius' views weren't exactly widely accepted in ancient Rome — and it's not hard to imagine how late medieval / early Renaissance Europe would react to them. Although Poggio and his fellow humanists were staunch Catholics who certainly didn't want to disrupt papal authority, there's a straight line from their discoveries to Copernicus, Kepler and Galilei — and the eventual triumph of modern, scientific thinking over medieval supernaturalism.

Apart from the story of Poggio's discovery, the book gives a very detailed (sometimes amusing, sometimes horrifying) account of the world he lived in: Intrigue at the papal court, life in the monasteries, rivalry between Italian city-states, wars and skirmishes between European kings. It also tells the story of Lucretius' world, and of how the Roman Empire he was a citizen of eventually crumbled.

It's an excellent book, and I highly recommend it. There are, however, a few things I wonder about.

First, I'm not sure if the rediscovery of De Rerum Natura is overplayed. Greenblatt is openly a fan; he says as much in the foreword. The factual accounts are backed up with numerous sources and notes, though, so I have no reason to think that there's anything dishonest going on. Second, I found it sort of odd that in a book about how Europe entered modernity and how the texts of the classic world were restored, there isn't even any mention of Arabian contributions — quite a lot of the extant ancient Greek texts were restored from Arabian libraries, since Islamic scholars preserved and studied them during the entire European medieval period. Quite a lot of European Renaissance scientific thought was influenced by Arabian science; the Islamic Golden Age ended just before the European Renaissance began.

Also, I should get a translation of De Rerum Natura.

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