The Swerve: A review

Sometime in the middle of the first century before the birth of Christ, a Roman philosopher and poet, Titus Lucretius Carus, wrote his only surviving work: an epic poem entitled De rerum natura, or On the Nature of Things. It was well known in antiquity, but lost almost entirely after the advent of Christianity, until 1417, when a papal secretary and humanist, Poggio Bracciolini, an avid book collector, found a copy in a monastery in Germany.  The story of that poem, its discovery, and its subsequent impact on Renaissance thinking is the subject of an extraordinary new book, The Swerve, by the pre-eminent Shakespeare scholar, Stephen Greenblatt.

Poggio’s letters suggest that he mostly admired the poem for the beauty of its Latin.  But philosophically, it was dangerously radical.  Lucretius’ book argues that the world consisted entirely of infinitely tiny particles called atoms, and that there were therefore no particular difference between the atoms making up human beings and the atoms making up bedbugs, or rocks, or the sun itself.  All that existed were either atoms or void, and the atoms that encompassed existence were in constant movement.  But the movements of atoms are not entirely predictable.  Some times, atoms . . . swerve; randomly change direction in the minutest way, and this is the process of change in the universe.

Lucretius rejected the Gods, or indeed any supernatural phenomena.  We simply exist, and when we die, we cease to exist; immortal souls are an illusion.  It is the height of folly to live our lives in fear of eternal punishment or in hope for eternal reward. Since our lives are ephemeral, we’re best off simply living for pleasure.  But this does not mean a life of riotous excess or debauchery.  A life filled with quiet contemplation, in the company of good friends, committing ourselves not to governments or institutions but simply to those people we care most about, is a life well-lived.  And sexual pleasure–the pleasures of Venus–are best enjoyed in the context of love and fidelity and mutual satisfaction.

Lucretius was, in other words, an Epicurean; a disciple of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. And subsequent generations came to ridicule Epicureanism as grotesque. Even today, an Epicurean is often synonymous with gourmand–a fat and lazy aesthete entirely obsessed with the pleasures of the table, and perhaps, kinky sex. The sole biographical description we have of Lucretius, in fact, is almost certainly a libel–Church Father, St. Jerome, describes Lucretius as a suicide, driven insane by a love potion.  But the Epicurean ideal was for an abstemious and quietly modest life, a contemplative life with a community of friends; the life Epicurus himself modeled.

Greenblatt’s book about this great poem and its impact is a marvel.  I couldn’t put it down last night, read until much too late, woke early and picked it up immediately again.  Early chapters read like a mystery, as we get to know Poggio and his humanist associates, filled with marvelous historical details about the Papacy of anti-Pope John XXIII, Poggio’s corrupt and venal (and superbly competent and capable) boss. (After he vacated the papacy, his name, John XXIII was vacated as well, until rehabilitated in 1958 by new Pope Guiseppi Roncalli, who initiated the Vatican II reforms).  Poggio, out of a job when the Pope was removed, had some lean years, but worked his way back into the good graces of the curia, lived a long and happy humanist life, collecting books and statuary and publishing widely, especially specializing in R-rated books of scabrous gossip about the Papal bureaucracy, as well as conventionally moral and pious works of philosophy. Poggio, without family contacts or Church allegiance, thrived nonetheless for essentially one reason–he had beautiful handwriting, a gorgeous script of his own invention.

We learn about the practices of medieval scribes, who kept ancient texts alive, not because monks and their superiors thought old books had inherent value, but because copying was boring enough to have value as a mortification of fleshly temptation.  Then Greenblatt traces the variously subversive paths Lucretius wore into the uncongenial Christian landscape of the early Renaissance.  As an atomist, Lucretius was savored by Copernicans like Galileo; as a philosopher, Montaigne’s Essays show his unsettled attempt to reconcile Lucretius to a sixteenth century world-view.  Thomas More’s Utopia was the response of a brilliant but orthodox Catholic to a book that seems to have shaken him profoundly.  He found it persuasive, and his imagined paradise is full-on Epicurean, but with a theistic foundation.  The Jesuistic Florentine Synod banned Lucretius, confessing that schoolteachers might be tempted to teach De rerum natura because of its gorgeous Latin, but sentencing those who did teach it to eternal damnation, plus a fine of 10 ducats.

The chapter that moved me the most, however, dealt with Giordano Bruno, a Dominican monk who, in the 1580’s incorporated Lucretian philosophy into his master work, the impishly delightful The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast.  In this work, Mercury describes all the tasks Jove has assigned him.  It’s all trivia, a reductio ad absurdum of the notion that not a sparrow will fall without God’s knowledge and consent.  So Mercury finds himself regulating the subsequent behavior of every beetle found in a dung heap, accounting for the hairs that fall from a tinker’s head when he scratches it.  Bruno ran afoul of the Inquisition, naturally, and was burned at the stake–Greenblatt’s evocation of his trial and execution shook me as few other pieces of writing ever have.  I guess mostly because I like the Bruno he describes so much.

And then came the Enlightenment, and the dangerous subversiveness of Lucretius became, well, mainsteam.  Atomism triumphed–it had the virtue of being true–and the need to contain that subversion subsided.  One final Lucretian, however, expressed the essence of De rerum natura in a single pungent phrase.  Thomas Jefferson loved the book; owned several copies, translations in various languages.  And in imagining what America could strive to be, he concluded with a uniquely Epicurean phrase: “the pursuit of happiness.”

But one of those translations owned by Jefferson was one of the first into English, a particularly supple and attractive version by the least likely of translators: Lucy Hutchinson.  She was a Puritan, wife to Colonel John Hutchinson, lawyer and regicide.  She was a brilliant woman, who lived in a society and time when the brilliance of women was a light hidden in a bushel. And she loathed the poem–thought it impious and atheistic and morally dubious.  All of which, of course, it is.  And yet, she couldn’t stop herself, apparently.  She found the ideas of the poem dangerously, enticingly seductive.  And she sat at a desk just outside her nursery, and while her children played, she grappled with Lucretius’ Latin, all the time wondering what on earth she thought she was doing.  And then she burned it, every copy.  Except one.

I get that.  I totally do.  The seductive allure of great ideas, the challenge they pose to world-views that have become settled and stagnant. And we’re comfortable, we know what’s what, where we fit in God’s universe.  And then we read something new and wonderful, something that opens up new and glorious horizons of thought. And ideas that had remained inchoate and buried come again to our consciousness. And we start to rethink. Atoms and void, atoms obeying no divine mandate, atoms as pure phenomena.

And we swerve.

And it’s wonderful, liberating, dangerous, challenging.  And our interior worlds are never quite the same.

That’s the power of a great book. The power of a Darwin, a Freud, an Einstein, a Heisenberg. That’s the power of a swerve.  Greenblatt did it once before, when, with his essay Invisible Bullets, he invented the New Historicism.  Subversion subverted, subversion contained. . . for a moment.  No wonder Stephen Greenblatt has such love for Lucretius.  You will too, when you read The Swerve.


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