The Swerve


Stephen Greenblatt

2011

Before this book’s re-emergence, the Western world was dominated by faith and obedience. After the book’s rescue from the library of an obscure German monastery, science and imagination again breathed free.

It’s an attractive idea — The medieval world of superstition and intellectual repression was destroyed by the chance rediscovery of a long-lost Latin masterpiece.

It’s a great tale, and it would be that much better if its claim were true.

The lost book is Lucretius’s de rerum natura, usually translated as On the Nature of Things. This long Latin poem presents in 7,400 lines the essence of Epicurean atomism, and in The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, Stephen Greenblatt makes its circulation in early Renaissance Europe the pivot point at the moment that the old world started to become modern.

Greenblatt’s central conceit is that the grip of medievalism on European culture was loosened thanks to the revival through Lucretius’s poem of Epicurean materialism. The Swerve offers an excellent summary of Lucretius’s atomism, but Greenblatt is even better when he portrays the 15th century world in which de rerum natura  was rediscovered. He creates a fascinating portrait of papal intrigue as Poggio the Florentine, papal secretary to the ill-fated Pope John XXIII (the first one), comes upon a monastery copy of the poem and returns it to public view.

De rerum natura is a truly remarkable work. As Greenblatt writes (perhaps a bit more often than absolutely necessary), Epicurean philosophy contains an extraordinary number of the key materialist ideas that underlie modern thought and science.

As Greenblatt writes, the Epicurean philosophy that Lucretius expressed “did not require sustained scientific inquiry. You did not need a detailed grasp of the actual laws of the physical universe; you needed only to comprehend that there is a hidden natural explanation for everything that alarms or eludes you.”

This does not mean that Lucretius was an atheist. As a materialist, he believed that if there were an insubstantial world, it would be a realm with which we could not interact: “He believed that the gods existed. But he also believed that, by virtue of being gods, they could not possibly be concerned with human beings or with anything that we do.”

In summarizing Lucretius’s ideas, Greenblatt writes that “many of the work’s core arguments are among the foundations on which modern life has been constructed”:

  • The universe consists … of matter … Nothing else exists.
  • The universe has no creator or designer.
  • There is no end or purpose to existence..
  • Nature ceaselessly experiments.
  • The universe was not created for or about humans.
  • Humans are not unique. They are part of a much larger material process.
  • The soul dies. The human soul is made of the same material as the human body.
  • There is no afterlife.
  • All organized religions are superstitious delusions.
  • There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.
  • The highest goal … is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
  • The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.

As Greenblatt points out, the Church was aware that if the Epicurean philosophy were to win out, “a whole set of time-honored alternative principles—sacrifice, ambition, social status, discipline, piety—would be challenged, along with the institutions that such principles served.”

Although I really liked Greenblatt’s book, I just couldn’t bring myself to buy the idea that the entire Renaissance (and much of Enlightenment science) issued essentially from the fact that many important artists, dramatists, scientists, and philosophers are known to have owned copies of Lucretius’s poem. Machiavelli, Molière, Ben Jonson — all the way to Thomas Jefferson.

It may seem petty, but I do have to point out that they all also wore shoes, drank water, saw sunsets, and had mothers. They all had bibles in their libraries, too, and yet according to The Swerve it was Lucretius’s work that undermined the institutions that served and were served by the principles and laws of that Christian bible.

And while it may be true that Montaigne included almost 100 direct quotations from Lucretius in his own work, and while it may also be true that Montaigne’s Essays is one of the most influential books of the medieval-modern transition, it’s still a stretch to give Lucretius as much credit for changing the world as Greenblatt gives him.

But enough of that. This is in all other respects a very positive review of an often compelling book.

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