Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
One fateful day in 1417, Poggio Bracciolini, former Apostolic Secretary to Antipope John XXIII, now unemployed, roamed into a monastery in southern Germany. History doesn’t record which one. And the journey wasn’t accidental; Poggio went deliberately, with one goal in mind, to uncover ancient Latin books forgotten in dusty scriptoria. This monastery proved a treasure trove, including one book so important, its worldview arguably changed the world.
Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt is primarily famous as a Shakespeare scholar. But like most public intellectuals, Greenblatt’s interests run pretty polyglot. This multiple-award-winning nonfiction narrative combines history, philology, philosophy, and other topics into an impressively exuberant stew linking several stages of European history together. The shared focus: the last surviving copy of Titus Lucretius Carus’ epic philosophical poem, De Rerum Natura.
Poggio was one among several Italian thinkers known as the Humanists. Despite that term’s present association with atheism, early Humanists were fairly religious. Their founder, Petrarch, was a cleric, while many layman Humanists, like Poggio, were nevertheless employed by the church. One early Humanist was even elected Pope. In an era of Inquisitions and Ecumenical Councils, church status provided pioneering Humanists with significant protection and economic stability.
The Humanists shared a conviction that ancient Roman culture, and later the Hellenic culture that preceded Rome, represented an apex of human accomplishment. Notwithstanding their religious alliances, the Humanists sought to recover Roman history from a millennium of abandonment and willful suppression. Some, like Petrarch, doubled as creative artists, while others were content as scholars. Poggio was the latter, using his church income to subsidize a career in book hunting.
|Poggio Bracciolini: a posthumous engraving|
made from a sketch done during his life
It also yielded a single copy of Lucretius. This poet was known from throwaway references in Cicero and St. Jerome, but his work was considered lost. Poggio couldn’t have known the full significance of his discovery, because he had time enough to skim a few pages before entrusting it to some underpaid copyist. But he’d rediscovered the most thorough introduction to Epicurean philosophy, a complete worldview written without reliance on gods, spirits, or afterlife.
Lucretius recorded, in unrhymed Latin verse, a Greek philosophy declaring that reality, not Platonic ideals, are the starting point of conjecture. Epicureanism postulates that matter is not infinitely divisible, but comprised of atoms. These atoms combine and separate, creating the movements of reality. Everything, from gods and stars to humans and dust, shares this atomic nature. Atomism, to Lucretius, makes humans part of reality, free from fear of divine retribution.
Greenblatt isn’t so naïve as to believe Poggio’s discovery transformed Europe overnight. Indeed, Lucretius threatened worldly authorities so much, his verses circulated surreptitiously in learned circles for a generation. But Greenblatt situates this discovery amid a European culture where recovered Latin learning was already beginning to transform arts and sciences—a sort of Renaissance, if you will. Poggio was part of the metamorphosis already sweeping European Christendom.
Epicureanism’s deist (not really atheist) structures led scholars to reëxamine their approaches to thorny issues, both religious and secular. It led devout Catholics like Thomas More to give increased weight to scientific reasoning. It prompted Giordano Bruno to question received dogma, eventually exposing the Inquisition’s moral rot. European scientists began testing hypotheses, not just receiving them, while moralists began examining human consequences, not just divine mandates.
Sometimes Greenblatt speculates beyond the limits of evidence. His descriptions of medieval Christian asceticism, for instance, assert that Christians flaggelated themselves to purge the influences of Epicureanism. That seems like a reach, given how even fellow pre-Christians frequently distrusted and caricatured Epicureanism. Christians probably tortured themselves, rather, in reaction against sybaritic behaviors common among Roman persecutors. In this and some other circumstances, Greenblatt arguably oversimplifies complex historical trends.
Nevertheless, Greenblatt’s massive historical narrative, stretching from the Third Century BCE to the early American Republic, demonstrates history’s arc. While we moderns hope that progress is a universal imperative, Greenblatt shows it’s more contingent than that, with movements toward both knowledge and ignorance. History isn’t vague or impersonal, it’s driven by human activities and momentary choices, which may initiate consequences we cannot fully comprehend until years, sometimes even centuries, later.