main ad larger image margaret johnson email
main ad two


The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

By Stephen Greenblatt

W.W. Norton | 2011 | 356 pages | $26.95

Reviewed by Steven Paul Leiva

stephen greenblatt

The history of the intellectual growth of humankind has not always been a calm, steady, and progressive one. There have been golden ages, dark ages and renaissances. It has been a thoughtful melodrama full of heroes, villains, and cliffhangers; deep thoughts, knee-jerk reactions, creative insights, and destructive willfulness. If you don't know this story, then you don't know much about humankind at all

An important chapter in this story has been beautifully written by Stephen Greenblatt in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Non-Fiction. The hero of this chapter is Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th century book hunter; apostolic secretary to eight popes (many of them corrupt and less than truly holy); a scribe whose script, or penmanship, was an art as well as a craft.

A devout Christian, a participant in chatter and jokes, often obscene, a critic of the papal court and even the popes themselves; a lover who fathered many children, first with a mistress (14), and later with a wife (6), Poggio was most of all a humanist. 

A 15th century humanist was not what we would call a humanist today, but all of today’s humanists are intellectual descendants of the humanists that Poggio was numbered among, including Petrarch, a generation older than Poggio.

Petrarch found the world he lived in to be a sordid time, “...a time of coarseness, ignorance, and triviality.” Although it was the early Renaissance, Petrarch’s world was still shadowed by a thousand years of civilization’s descent into darkness and middling times of a head-bowed and humbled acquiescence to authority and revealed knowledge that drove out — and, indeed, made a sin of — the basic, commendable and most human quality of curiosity.

In response, “Petrarch made the recovery of the cultural heritage of classical Rome a collective obsession.” 

A 15th century humanist, then, was an individual who tried to escape the dark by trying to recover the Greco-Roman past, which humanists saw as a source of light and beauty in art, architecture, and — for many of them and certainly for Poggio — in the language and literature of the classical world. The finding and discovering of the finely written Latin of Cicero and Virgil, among others, allowed a glimpsing into their ancient world, led to the most important bout of nostalgia for a time before one’s birth that the world has ever seen.

Poggio made it his personal quest to find rare copies of ancient texts that had not so much been hidden, as forgotten on the shelves of many monasteries for the previous half-millennia.  Poggio’s most important discovery was his finding, in 1417, in a monastery in Germany of On the Nature of Things by Lucretius (c. 94 – c. 55 BCE), a 7400-line poem that espoused Epicureanism -- the worldview, indeed the universal view, of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BCE).  It was, as the title suggests, a completely naturalistic view, giving no place in existence for the spiritual or the supernatural.

Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, and the author of the New York Times bestseller as well as finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Non-Fiction, Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare, has beautifully structured The Swerve. Although this chapter in the history of human intellectual progress is concerned with a particular man at a specific time, Greenblatt puts him and it into context by portraying individuals who preceded and followed Poggio.

He tells the reader, of course, of Lucretius and of the content and quality of his poem, De rerum natura, and “...of its rich verbal texture, its subtle rhythms, and the cunning precision and poignancy of its imagery.”  And he informs you of the thinkers following Poggio — Machiavelli, Thomas More, Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Newton, and Thomas Jefferson (who owned at least five Latin editions of the work) — whose minds were opened by On the Nature of Things.  Greenblatt also gives a good sketch of the history of the Book as a delivery device of content, from papyrus scrolls and their hardy long lives (but not long enough to last 1500 years), and the ancient libraries they were collected in, to the codex, the first book form that we would be familiar with, with its bound text conveniently paginated and indexed, its pages made from the skin of animals — parchment.

He ends the sketch with the innovation of Gutenberg, bound pages of paper printed with movable type. In the chapter “The Teeth of Time,” Greenblatt talks about the creation of the public library in ancient Rome, and tells the reader of the original bookworm — not a lover of books, but an ingesting insect that loved papyrus, parchment, and paper. He seems to enjoy revealing that if the group of early Renaissance humanists were a brotherhood, they were a dysfunctional one, as they spent much of their time hurling libels, “ one another like punch-drunk pugilists.”

Possibly the best part of the book is Greenblatt’s portrayal of Poggio himself. A complex man of integrity — at least when he was young when integrity seems most important — he would not take the easy, and far more lucrative, career route in the Church of becoming a priest or monk because he lacked “...the calling that might have led him to take religious orders.”

His spirit, Greenblatt says, “...was emphatically secular and his desires were in and of this world.”  Such a non-religious spirit did not stop plenty of others from taking orders for personal and financial gain, but it stopped Poggio. Nonetheless, for an ambitious, well-educated young man, with an excellent command of classical Latin and exquisite handwriting, the “Big Apple” of the early 15th century was, of course, the Roman curia (the administrative apparatus of the Holy See), and so Poggio gained a position there as an apostolic scriptor — a skilled writer of official documents.

He spent many years, both before and after his discovery of On the Nature of Things, serving many popes, eventually rising to the coveted position of secretarius domesticus, or the pope’s “private or intimate secretary.”  He was superb at his job and loyal in his service, but he was never naive enough to assume that the curia was a particularly fine example of all things Holy.

It was, indeed, a place, as his younger humanist contemporary, the Florentine Lapo da Castiglionchio wrote, “‘in which crime, moral outrage, fraud, and deceit take the name of virtue and are held in high esteem...What can be more alien to religion than the curia?’”

Poggio became a cynic, possibly so he could survive in the job, and to more than survive in life he became a lover of Rome. Not, “...the contemporary Rome of the corrupt papal court, intrigues, political debility, and periodic outbreaks of bubonic plague, but the Rome of the Forum and the Senate House and a Latin language whose crystalline beauty filled him with wonder and the longing of a lost world.”

Despite this, Poggio was no less a devout Christian who -- although he was thrilled to have found Lucretius’ poem because he had read in other ancient texts mentions of it and its beauty, and knew that it had been lost for hundreds of years -- was, it is assumed, shocked by the content of the work. On the Nature of Things is deeply anti-religion, and yet Poggio, understanding the beauty of it, saved it from obscurity, and thus helped set in motion an intellectual flowering that would challenge the religion he loved.

The only place where I think Greenblatt fails the reader is in explaining why On the Nature of Things made the world modern.  He gives a good account of the poem and the philosophy of Lucretius, detailing its materialistic view of the universe, and how all things — stars and planets; animals and men — were but different combinations of “atoms” (although Lucretius did not use that Greek word, but rather “seeds” or “particles”) that are “immutable, indivisible, invisible, and infinite in number.” 

This being the case, there is no room in the Epicurean view for anything supernatural.  Thus everything, including the mind and the soul, are material, and are made up of different shapes and sizes of atoms. The atoms themselves are eternal, but the objects made from them are not, thus everything dies and decomposes (including the soul) back down to the immutable atoms to become the “stuff” of other objects.

The universe, then, has no creator or designer, and yet nature is constantly creating — “All living beings, from plants and insects to the higher mammals and man, have evolved through a long, complex process of trial and error” -- in a process we now call evolution through natural selection.  If all things are material and all things shall die, Lucretius says in his poem, then death should mean nothing to man and he should not be afraid of it.

The Epicureans felt that religions that traded on the fear of death, the fear of nonexistence, through the promise of reward, or the threat of punishment, were cruel and should not be tolerated.  This and much more in On the Nature of Things, explains why Poggio could not accept the content of the poem, even though he loved the beauty of it, and it explains why the Church would consider it a dangerous document. 

And you can certainly see where the poem provided some “seeds” for the thinking of Bruno and Galileo and Newton and so many others. But all this is just the the body of the poem. What Greenblatt does not reveal is what lies underneath the body, the — if I may called this — "soul" of the poem or, better yet, the "mind" of the poem. Maybe this is because Greenblatt is a professor of Humanities and not a scientist. And yet, it is because On the Nature of Things is a poem of literary value, and not just a dry rendition of atomism, evolution, and other material facts as seen by Lucretius, that the “mind” is there to inspire.

What the poem so beautifully conveys is how Epicurus and his followers came to their philosophy by showing the exciting process of observation, and the conclusions reasoned from those observations that occur in minds set free from the constraints of religion’s easy answer to all questions: Why is this so? Because God or the gods make it so. 

With such an answer in hand, what more is there to think?  But when you dispense with such an easy answer you observe closer, and when you observe closer, your human mind must question and apply reason until it comes to a conclusion you are comfortable with. It is the art of Lucretius that he was able to poetically display the human reasoning that took his fellow Epicureans from observation to conclusion.

On the Nature of Things was rediscovered at a time when people of a certain level of intelligence had a great yearning to observe and ask questions despite the Church’s point of view that curiosity not only killed the cat, but condemned the soul.  On the Nature of Things clearly and intimately displays what became the beginning of the scientific method: observation to a conclusion, or what we now call a hypothesis. Inspired and thrilled by this, it was inevitable that great minds would develop the rest of the scientific method: testable theories and experimentation leading to proofs. It is this intellectual endeavor, continually progressive for the last five hundred years or so, that has made the world modern.

The Swerve is an important book and a pleasure to read. But to compliment it — and to compliment Stephen Greenblatt — one should add to the pleasure by reading Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things.       

Return to home page