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Swerving from the Hurricane

August 28, 2011

The SwerveIn the past week, while dealing with earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, a lame dog, and fears of a second recession, I had the chance to read Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Perhaps this proves that I have the same response to potential calamity as Art Dennison, the protagonist of my most recent novel: hide in a quiet room and read.

After I was intrigued by a piece based on Greenblatt’s book in the August 8 New Yorker (article summary here), a friend kindly passed along an advance reading copy. A Harvard scholar, Greenblatt is known for what I would call crossover works, ones that combine scholarship with popular appeal. His previous book, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, made a splash by combining Bard biography with a colorful portrait of Elizabethan England. In The Swerve he takes two historical figures about whom even less is known, the Latin poet Lucretius and the fifteenth-century papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini, and spiraling outward from those two, spins an intriguing tale of Classical philosophy, medieval copyists, Renaissance book hunters, and radical changes in the way we look at the world.

Intellectual history is great fun when written well, and Greenblatt is one of the best at it. His central point is that Poggio’s accidental discovery of a complete version of Lucretius’ De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things)—accidental in that Poggio was combing monastery libraries for copies of ancient texts but not that one in particular—played a central role in breaking down medieval religious thought and freeing the great minds of the Renaissance. It’s long been known that Lucretius influenced the humanists, but Greenblatt implies that this one masterful poem, in which Lucretius expounds on the Epicurean vision of the universe, smashed more barriers than any other Renaissance rediscovery and thus opened a broad road to modernity. Though I don’t know how many scholars of the period will grant Lucretius this extraordinary importance, I’m personally willing to allow it for the sake of the story.

One chapter offers an extended bullet list of the “elements that constituted the Lucretian challenge” to Church-molded thought. Here are some of the bullet points, without the author’s commentary:

  • Everything is made of invisible particles. [Lucretius didn’t call them atoms, but he was drawing on the atomism of Democritus and others.]
  • All particles are in motion in an infinite void.
  • The universe has no creator or designer.
  • The universe was not created for or about humans.
  • Humans are not unique.
  • The soul dies.
  • There is no afterlife.
  • All organized religions are superstitious delusions.
  • The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.

From a churchman’s point of view, this list moves from suspicious to upsetting to burn-at-the-stake heretical, and of course many humanists played with these notions without committing outright to them. Still, even with clever concealments and subtle emendations, such ideas had the power to swerve society from medievalism toward modernity.

Greenblatt emphasizes that the Lucretian version of Epicureanism, like Epicurus’ own, did not equate living for “pleasure” with pursuing uninhibited passions and impulses. Rather, the highest pleasure comes from philosophical contemplation that “awakens the deepest wonder.” Kind of like hiding in your room to read while the hurricane roars by.

For me, one takeaway from this book is the renewed realization that human thinking goes in cycles, with old notions constantly being resurrected and reshaped. The body and soul may both dissolve into the mud, but ideas get into the water table and seep out in strange new places.

In fact, I’ve recently unearthed in the basement of my ancient house a mildewed manuscript that disintegrated as soon as I touched it. Only a few fragments remain legible, one of which seems to be attributed to a certain Sammus Gridlius, a previously unknown scribe of the first century A.D. Roughly translated from the Latin, it goes like this:

All that’s thunk has been thunk before. All that’s writ has been writ before. Peace, brother.

Circumstantial evidence indicates that a rediscovery of this text by John Lennon in 1968 influenced the late Beatles songs and consequently all of contemporary culture. I’m still working on proof for that theory.

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