The Swerve

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
By Stephen Greenblatt
356 Pages

Greenblatt chronicles the fortuitous discovery and reintroduction of Lucretius’  epic poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by the fascinating Poggio Bracciolini.  The story is told mostly as a narrative focused on the main character of Poggio, a 15th century Humanist, book hunter, papal secretary, social climber and admirer of ancient thought.  The story fluidly weaves together Greek and Roman Epicurean philosophy and its accompanying historical context with middle age monastic scholarship and the budding Humanist enlightenment.  Greenblatt (Editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature) highlights the Epicurian ideas expressed in beautiful prose in the poet Lucretius’ masterwork and their refraction throughout a diverse collection Enlightenment though and literature including everything from the works of Shakespeare to Montaigne to Jefferson. De Rerum Natura appeared in the mid 1st century BC  and expressed radical ideas including atomism, a material soul, the lack of an afterlife, advocacy of the pursuit of pleasure, and a theology that dismissed god as taking an active role in the world.  Suppressed by early Christianity these ideas survived, ironically, only by the heroic and wrote efforts by monastic scholars who copied the works and preserved the knowledge while keeping it tightly controlled.

Greenblatt concentrates mainly on the historical context of the poems’ creation, disappearance and  rediscovery giving details of 1400 and 1500 papal corruption and political upheaval, Roman decline, dark age monasticism and early Greek and late Roman though with very  little study of the actual poem itself.  This is not entirely bad as it gives the reader a taste of  what Lucretius has to offer and motivates them to pursue the actual text.  In summary Greenblatt has taken one chance moment in history (the swerve) and weaved it into a thoroughly enjoyable tapestry connecting ancient and modern thought.  This book is highly recommended for anyone with interested in middle european history, literature, and the connection between ancient thought and the birth of Humanism.