Book Review – The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt
Can a book change the world? (Or at least the part that represents a good chunk of human culture.) I’m sure you can think of a couple that qualify, but can a book that claims no divine authority do so? The Swerve is an account of one that may have.
In 1417, Poggio Bracciolini had been the personal secretary of the pope, but when that pope was deposed, Poggio found himself in Europe, far from Rome and out of work. It was definitely a blow to his career, but he made the most of it by turning it into an opportunity to indulge in his hobby, his passion—finding and preserving old books. He roamed Europe, seeking out ancient and remote monasteries hoping to find copies of books lost after the fall of Rome a thousand years before. And he found one.
Poggio did not intend to cause a philosophical revolution. It seems his main concern was to preserve the beautiful Latin of bygone writers. But with the selection and arrangement of words came the ideas they expressed, and those in De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), written by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius before the birth of Christ, challenged the common beliefs of Poggio’s day and (more dangerously) the dictates of the Church. This was a time when curiosity was a sin and questioning authority was a crime. Lucretius encouraged both. He suggested that everything is made of atoms; that a divine creator did not make the universe for man, and several other ideas about the nature of man and reality that may seem like common knowledge today but were heretical then.
In The Swerve, Greenblatt contends that the rediscovery of Lucretius had a significant impact on European thought and helped loosen the iron grip of theological dogma that controlled almost every aspect of human life in medieval Europe. He goes on to suggest that Lucretius’s later influence on thinkers from Galileo to Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in shaping the modern world.
It’s impossible to say, of course. No one today can ask Jefferson, for example, how much influence Lucretius had on him when he was drafting the Declaration of Independence, or on his decisions when he was President (although Jefferson did have copies of De rerum natura in Latin, English, Italian, and French in his library and said it was one of his favorite books). Even if it were possible to ask him, Jefferson might not be able to say. Everything we read, everything we experience can have some effect on us. Assigning any particular action or inspiration to a single source may not be possible.
It is safe to say, I think, that the rediscovery of Lucretius was significant. If nothing else, it shows that the modern way of viewing nature as, well, natural (rather than supernatural), is not exclusive to our times or a result of science. That it is a necessary precursor to science, however, seems undeniable, and perhaps Lucretius deserves a more prominent place in books about the history of science because of this.
The story of Paggio’s discovery might also provide a good foundation for a work of historical fiction. The Swerve almost starts out as such, narrating the wandering scribe’s search for lost books much as a novel might. This draws in the reader before the author goes on to summarize some points of Lucretius’s Epicurean philosophy. When Greenblatt does pause to relate major ideas in Lucretius, it almost seems disruptive to the story of Paggio.
I enjoyed this book. I had known of Lucretius, but I had never heard of Paggio Bracciolini before reading this. Without him, Lucretius may have remained unknown, and, perhaps, history would have unfolded differently as a result. The Swerve provides an important reminder of how individual actions can have significant impacts. It also reminds us of how repressive the Middle Ages were and how those in positions of power at the time actively (and often brutally) discouraged the open sharing of ideas, which we now recognize as not only a fundamental right but also essential to human progress. It’s a good read. I recommend it.