Ideas delight us, define us and defeat us. Some are so incendiary that they condemn people to burn at the stake. Some are so insistent that they survive centuries of neglect and obscurity and blaze anew when they are exposed to the light. Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve is the story of a manuscript discovered by an Italian book hunter in 1417. De rerum natura, On the Nature of Things, a poem in Latin by a Roman named Titus Lucretius, explores the philosophy of Epicurus: that everything is made of atoms, that there is no heaven nor is there a hell, that gods are irrelevant and that a minute swerve in the path of an atom can send events veering off in an entirely new direction.
In this world so eloquently captured by Lucretius, pleasure is interwoven with virtue and religion presents a false and fearful front designed to control and subdue the general populace. De rerum natura had been lost for more than a thousand years when Poggio Bracciolini found an ancient copy of it hidden away in a monastery. He was a celebrated scribe who had developed an exquisite and extremely legible calligraphy in the civilization that existed before the invention of the printing press. He was also the chief apostolic secretary to several popes and probably the most famous book hunter of his time. His discovery changed the world.
The concepts in Lucretius’ poem were anathema to the Catholic Church and the dissemination of the work was a risky venture. Typically, a rediscovered classical manuscript would be carefully copied and recopied, discussed, debated, loaned to intellectual colleagues and collected by the wealthy. This manuscript, when it finally began to make its way around, caused alarm among the clergy and bred charges of heresy for those who commented on it, taught from it or wrote about it. It also influenced the development of modern scientific theory and humanist philosophy and provided the foundation for many of the ideas and beliefs at the heart of our own society.
Thomas Jefferson owes a debt to Lucretius and Epicurus for his contribution to the Declaration of Independence, which states as a right and aspiration “the pursuit of Happiness.” An Epicurean notion that Jefferson embraced and freely admitted to is explicit in the foundational documents of the United States. The atomic explanation and the views and values in On the Nature of Things are pervasive throughout modern thought and discovery. The unearthing of the manuscript is a fascinating story, set in the tumultuous and dangerous politics of the fifteenth century. As compelling is the tracing of the effects of a poem on lives and on history. Shakespeare, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, Botticelli and Freud all eventually made crucial use of the material in De rerum natura.
The Swerve is terrific reading and Poggio is an engaging sleuth and tour guide. Greenblatt’s reconstruction reads like a good novel. Much as Poggio rescued an important manuscript from obscurity, Greenblatt has rescued an important historical figure and brought him to vivid life in this book.
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern Stephen Greenblatt | W. W. Norton & Company 2011