The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
(W.W. Norton & Co., 2011)
his·to·ry: a chronological record of significant events
swerve: to turn aside abruptly from a straight line or course
“Mother of Romans, joy of gods and men, / Venus, life-giver who under planet and star / visits the ship-clad sea,” resurrect for us the German Empire, in the year 1417. Help us picture how, on horseback, trudging through a rustic medieval village, former apostolic secretary Poggio Bracciolini, freed from his service to the recently disgraced Antipope John XXIII, searches for a long-lost manuscript by the Roman materialist poet, Lucretius.
An obscure figure from antiquity, for whom the historical record barely lifts its finger, Lucretius conceived an atomic theory of the world far in advance of the “atomic age.” From his great work De rerum natura, or, The Nature of Things, Book I:
Invisible particles, then, do nature’s work.
Yet still the whole world is not gripped
Solid with matter for there is void in things.
Unveiling De rerum natura to contemporary thought—an inestimable step in lifting Christendom from the Dark Ages—Poggio Bracciolini becomes one of the great contributors to the waking humanism of the medieval world. In Lucretius’s masterpiece, which takes the form of a didactic poem, the author invokes the Greek philosopher Epicurus and establishes his intellectual lineage in a bracing mode of reason against faith, verifiability against superstition and conjecture. Epicurus, himself, an austere, impecunious, and friendship-centric character, insisted that human torment derives from ignorance, espoused to a faith-based conception of reality. It is a philosophical mode that predates the logical rigor of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein by two quiet millennia. Secular humanism had thus taken a swerve around the inception and adolescence of Christianity, landing again, most squarely, in the renaissance of the 15th century. Poggio’s recovery of De rerum natura builds on the humanism and verve of his near-contemporary, Petrarch, as well as the Carolingian renaissance (in the 8th and 9th centuries), in which, as in Poggio’s time, innovations in the system and style of writing were quite literally bound into the classical humanist texts of antiquity.
The aim of life, according to Epicurus, ought to be the pursuit of pleasure. It has become a derisive cliché that by pleasure Epicurus meant hedonism. Really, he meant the pleasure that comes from delivering oneself from fear. These ideas bled into what became known as the Enlightenment of the 18th century. One notable figure from that era, Thomas Jefferson, described himself in a letter to a friend as an “Epicurean.” The philosophy Lucretius expounded in his poem, one which seeks to reconcile us with the motive forces of nature, provided the primary inspiration and personal cause for Stephen Greenblatt, professor of humanities at Harvard University, to write The Swerve in the first instance. In Lucretius, whose work Greenblatt himself recovered from a bookstore dustbin as a student at Yale, he found a method of thinking which helped provide a degree of personal solace from the throes of his mother’s inordinate, compulsive fear of death and oblivion. In this way, The Swerve is a work of personal devotion and affirmation for Greenblatt. It is a message he feels is crucial for our time. As he exposits:
Only the atoms are immortal. In a universe so constituted, Lucretius argued, there is no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place, no reason to set humans apart from all other animals, no hope of bribing or appeasing the gods, no place for religious fanaticism, no call for ascetic self-denial, no justification for dreams of limitless power or perfect security, no rationale for wars of conquest or self-aggrandizement, no possibility of triumphing over nature, no escape from the constant making and unmaking and remaking of forms.
Greenblatt’s protagonist, Poggio, is a special case, with talents uniquely rimed to his age. He shares, with Dostoevsky’s idiot, the gift of superb penmanship. This gift allowed him to escalate from the lower levels of church life into the sacristies and antechambers of the pope, holding office in the Roman curia, including tenure as amanuensis to Pope Boniface IX. Unlike Dostoevsky’s idiot, Poggio’s gifts transmuted an entire system of writing that would reflect, with each pen stroke, the opening of society to the intellectual inheritance of the deep past. As the script became unknotted, so did the import of the words they carried. When Poggio finally located a frail copy of De rerum natura in a secluded monastery in Germany, it was a culmination of a trope, a swerve, in human insight and evolution, that had been germinating for some time.
What Poggio accomplished, in collaboration with a few others, remains startling. They took Carolingian miniscule—a scribal innovation of the 9th-century court of Charlemagne—and transformed it into the script they used for copying manuscripts and writing letters. This script, in turn, served as the basis for the development of italics … Poggio seems to have grasped that the call for a new cursive writing was only a small piece of a much larger project, a project that lined the creation of something new with a search for something ancient.
From the first centuries of the common era, Epicurus had been systematically misrepresented by early Christians as a debauched figure. His name remains a byword for indulgence and sensuousness to this day. Delineating Epicurus’s insight with later distortions of his work and meaning, Greenblatt renders a history of antique psychology.
Romans honored a brave soldier’s voluntary acceptance of pain, but that acceptance was far different from the ecstatic embrace celebrated in hundreds of convents and monasteries. [Namely, mortification of the flesh]…The only life truly worth imitating—the life of Jesus—bore ample witness to the inescapable presence in mortal existence of sadness and pain, but not of pleasure.
Why is the distinction between the philosophy (and psychology) of pleasure and pain, as Greenblatt sets it down here, so important to the history of modern life? Because it provides the context for the staggering forgetting and suppression into which Western culture seeped for hundreds of years, until Poggio’s renaissance, and a new discovery of the worth of human beings, human lives, human health and wholeness, debate, collegiality, and the recovery of democracy from early Greek culture.
Readers may encounter The Swerve the way one encounters a set of concentric rings, at the center of which is a vital idea, upon which the whole apparatus spins. All vital works of history trend toward a thematic as well as a descriptive view of history—they contain multiple spheres of operation, relationally interposed, with the material at the margins, resonating or corresponding with the material at its core. At the furthest margin, The Swerve is a book about the author’s wish to grapple with his mother’s superstitions about death: to bring an Epicurean understanding and sense of peace to the process of life and death that so terrified and paralyzed his mother emotionally. At its core, The Swerve is about how human thought finally turned on the lights and began to brighten its darkest corners.
What’s indelible about Greenblatt’s writing is how quietly and delicately his own values emanate across the chapters of his writing. As a teacher he is concerned with making the story and its importance come alive in the soul of the student. A presiding sentiment in The Swerve is that modernism in the way we’ve experienced it, including modern scientific insight, has been inherited in a profound way from the Renaissance, and, in turn, that for the shift toward modern humanism to have developed the special character it has, a great deal is owed to chance, luck, serendipity, and the occasional rustic Italian with miraculous penmanship. It may appear tenuous, but it is in the nature of things. Ovid wrote in his Amores that “the verses of sublime Lucretius are destined to perish only when a single day will consign the world to destruction.” It will happen either then, or when we lose our longing or intuition that more is left to recover of our humanity, that some unattained measure of life is elsewhere.