What We Know and What We Can Suppose

'The Swerve: How the World Became Modern'

by John L. Murphy

4 December 2011

How one ancient manuscript assisted in freeing modern thought from fear of the gods and of death itself.
cover art

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Stephen Greenblatt

(W.W. Norton)
US: Sep 2011

Matching the approach in Stephen Greenblatt’s first work addressed beyond the seminar table, Will in the World (2004), The Swerve elaborates this professor’s New Historicist direction. This literary theory favors context over text; it explores the historical backgrounds and “cultural poetics” infusing a literary work.

Greenblatt, a leading New Historicist and Renaissance expert now teaching at Harvard, roams over the centuries that comprise a back story and a sequel for one Roman writer’s surviving philosophy in 7,400 verses. With Lucretius, we have much less to go on than even the famously debated documentary evidence (or its lack) for the life and career of this professor’s usual center of attention, Shakespeare.

We know almost nothing about Lucretius, but we can know his era.

Greenblatt’s lively study takes the reader into pagan philosophical and literary culture in the centuries before Christ. This was a time, as Flaubert noted, when human speculation rested between the gods and God, between the expectation that Jove explained everything and that Jesus controlled everyone. While often distorted by its Christian critics as a stunned satiation of the senses, Epicureanism elevated the happiness found by retreat from worldly distraction. By reasoned detachment, a wise man or woman could better appreciate life’s brevity, and the need to embrace the pleasure afforded those who avoided pain. These ancient adepts sought, by contemplation, the attainment of joy through the conquest of delusion.

Two-and-a-half centuries after Epicurus, around 50 BCE, Lucretius wrote De rerum natura, “On the Nature of Things”. This elegant Latin poem promoted the concept of “atoms and void and nothing else”. It replaced religion and superstition with the one proven way to overcome the fear of death: to accept life as transitory and to see the universe as governed by unalterable laws. These laws formulated that all matter is composed of atoms, and that a clinamen, a “swerve” in the course of these endlessly colliding, eternally moving “seeds” accounts for what we translate as choice, as free will. The gods retreated as figureheads; nothing endured except matter, within an infinite void, invisible particles never created and never annihilated.

Pagans suspected this as upsetting the state religions, but fewer Romans by the rise of Lucretius believed in their gods as able to work wonders in the terrestrial realm. For subsequent Christians, Lucretius’ manuscript represented danger. It undermined the model of eternal reward and damnation, and its insistence upon the soul’s mortality along with that of the body countered the elaborate system of reward and punishment that began to control the thoughts and deeds of the empowered Catholic successors to the pagan philosophers.

Greenblatt imaginatively revives the situation where devout, if grumbling, generations of monks were charged with copying pagan manuscripts; nobody else was left literate enough to do so after the Roman empire disintegrated. Most ancient archives were destroyed; the fraction of the libraries left met their fate from weather, fanatics, worms, and recycling; Christian texts were written over pagan ones on valuable parchment. As a result, the survival of a radical text by Lucretius comes down to luck against such overwhelming odds.

Poggio Bracciolini was an amateur book collector, as well as a professional secretary for the original Pope John XXIII. The reason that this pope’s name is repeated is that the first John to take this title was removed, in a power struggle: three claimants argued over who was the legitimate heir to the throne of St. Peter.  Bracciolini worked his way up the papal bureaucracy. By the time he was in his 30s, he had secured a very powerful position, working at the right hand of the most powerful man in the Western world.

He went on duty with his Roman master in 1415 to the Council of Constance, convened to settle who would be pope.  Bracciolini saw John deposed. He also, as Greenblatt shows, may have witnessed the brave Jerome of Prague burned alive after an eloquent Latin defense of his support of the similarly doomed heretic Jan Hus. In New Historicist fashion, Greenblatt figures these series of confrontations might have spurred the temporarily unemployed Bracciolini to make a side trip, most likely to the monastic library at the nearby German town of Fulda. He discovered in 1417 the Lucretian manuscript as solace—and to fuel his book mania. I find Greenblatt’s conjecture convincing, even if, as elsewhere in this work, such a scenario must remain speculative.

The book tends to roam about, with necessarily “might have” and “could” similar to scenes in Will in the World. Greenblatt skillfully makes his case, even if this rambles at times too far afield, but it unfolds gracefully and at times movingly. Greenblatt favors rebels over authority, and dissenters against dogma, but he makes a convincing, if open-ended at times, case for why Bracciolini’s retrieval of possibly the only surviving copy of Lucretius mattered in its eloquent explication of matter. Any exposure of this Renaissance milieu and its classical foundation surely is welcome, when few books aimed at a wider audience by professors address serious issues from the history of ideas with such verve and insight.

Bracciolini returned to Rome with his prized manuscript. He served eight popes as “apostolic secretary”, This job required him to keep secrets. Such opportunities afforded a tempting post for his peers who wished by bribes to augment their salary. While combative and bitter, Bracciolini appears to have kept on a straighter course than many others who served the Papacy. Still, he had 14 children by his mistress before he married, at 56, to a girl of 18, with whom he had five more children. After more than a half-century of labor, mostly in Rome, he died as chancellor in Florence at the age of 78.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, places too much weight on its claim, as such confident subtitles do for many books seeking a wider audience tend to do. Yet, the rescue of a copy of this one ancient manuscript assisted, in Greenblatt’s argument, in freeing modern thought from a fear of the gods and of death itself. The narrative follows the career of Bracciolini into the Renaissance recovery of De rerum natura through its subversive influences on leading thinkers of the early modern era.

Thomas More’s utopia, Giordano Bruno’s heresy, Machiavelli’s diplomacy, Galileo’s cosmology, Montaigne’s essays, Newton’s physics, and Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” all bear the imprint, in Greenblatt’s analysis, of the bold challenges of Lucretius. His book earned the condemnation of the Church; Protestants reacted to it variously, while scientists encouraged its rational affirmations.

Lucretius’ ideas were transmitted often underground and kept as safely marginal for fear of Christian persecution. However, the printing press ensured they could not be silenced. “The universe as a constant, intensely erotic hymn to Venus” endures in the joy and wonder of the vast perspective celebrated by the classical atomists.

Naturally, Greenblatt interprets, if in passing, how Shakespeare, who loved Montaigne, would have alluded to the atomists in Romeo and Juliet. The professor with Bracciolini’s quest (as in Shakespeare’s career) connects what we do know (amidst asides about flagellating monks, volcanically charred papyri, and bookworms) with what we cannot prove but can reasonably suppose.

Adjusting its diverging angles to account for Greenblatt’s New Historicist perspective may help those readers who wonder why this professor constructs his tale as he does. May it also spark a renewed appreciation for Lucretius himself.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern


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