How the World Became Modern
“What human beings can and should do, he wrote, is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world.” ― Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
The fifteenth century was one of discovery and reinvigoration of culture. It is rightly known as the Renaissance. Stephen Greenblatt has written a book, The Swerve, about one of those discoverers who remade culture and gained fame in particular from one book, On The Nature of Things by Lucretius. This work by a Roman of the first century BC is an extended poem about philosophy and science. The extent to which Lucretius covers things and described them in a way that is very modern is breathtaking. Added to that is the beauty of his poetry. Yet, in spite of this, the book had been lost for more than a thousand years hidden away in a remote monastery.
Greenblatt provides the background of the discoverer, one Poggio Bracciolini, a classicist who for a time became secretary to the Pope. He scoured the Italian countryside for old books and with Lucretius found a book that would influence thinkers from Machiavelli to Montaigne and beyond into the twentieth century. The Swerve derives its name from one of the most important concepts in Lucretius' poem, that everything is made of small particles called atoms by the Greek philosopher Democritus, and that everything in the Universe is informed by the movement of these particles - the "swerve" - and not by the gods of the Romans or the god of the Catholic church. Perhaps more importantly Lucretius was a follower of Epicurus whose philosophy taught that one should take no part in the struggle for wealth and power, one should attach the greatest importance to friendship, and thus achieve tranquility of mind. All of this to be achieved without a reliance on gods (although he did not deny the existence of gods, rather that they did not interact with humans). Cicero, while disliking Epicureanism, read On the Nature of Things and thought well of Lucretius' poetry.
Greenblatt's prose is a delight to read and his history reads like a novel. Some critics think that he speculates too much and does not provide enough evidence for some of his claims, but that is part and parcel of writing about the world that is removed from our current age by more than a millennia.
After providing the story of Poggio's life and his discovery Greenblatt concludes the book with a discussion of the impact of Lucretius in the centuries after the discovery. The book was reprinted with copies spreading throughout Europe. Greenblatt writes: "Once Gutenberg's clever technology was commercially established, printed editions quickly followed. The editions were routinely prefaced with warnings and disavowals." (to placate the ecclesiastical authorities).
This is cultural history that proves both entertaining and enlightening. It may encourage some to read Lucretius' poem which this reader has enjoyed reading more than once. It is accessible and worth the effort to discover for yourself what an ancient Roman poet had to say about the way things are.