History, Literature, Philosophy, Reviews.

Swerving into modernity

Stephen Greenblatt's book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is an excellent tale of the influence of Epicurus on the modern way of thinking. Epicurus spoke of change in terms of a 'swerve'; the author's allusion to a swerve otherwise is to the narrow and chance survival during the Renaissance of Lucretius' poem De Rerum Natura, a rumination and celebration of all things Epicurean, and whose influence in subsequent Western thought represents a giant swerve in cosmology, religion and natural philosophy away from Plato and Aristotle and towards Epicurus.

Greenblatt follows the efforts of the Renaissance book-hunter, Poggio Bracciolini, who stumbles upon one of the last surviving copies of De Rerum Natura, On the Nature of Things, by the Roman poet Lucretius. In doing so, the author illuminates the dying world of medieval scholarship, populated with clerics and monks who in many instances copied and recopied ancient manuscripts just for the exercise, so to speak, without concern or knowledge of what was being copied. Among them was Lucretius’ poem, unloved by the Church, and languishing on a dusty monastery shelf.

The clerical elite, among whom Bracciolini was numbered, competed in the early days of Renaissance humanism to collect, read and discuss the rarities of classical antiquity. This book provides a window into their world and is a more refined look at some of the particulars of the rebirth of knowledge in Western civilization.

Greenblatt suggests that the survival of De Rerum Natura was an Epicurean swerve, an accident to those who copied it, and even to the man who was deliberately looking for it. He suggests that the subsequent propagation of the poem, and the widespread reading of its old, radical ideas by modern thinkers like Montaigne, Galileo, Newton, Jefferson, and Einstein, to name a few, strongly influenced now modern ideas: The universe operates naturally, without divine influence; atoms make up the material world, moving and interacting randomly; pleasure and virtue are two sides of the same coin (with the emphasis on virtue rather than pleasure, contrary to today’s use of the word epicurean); religion reduces life rather than enhances it.

The book is at once actual history and speculative, in the best tradition of inquiring historians.

For an informed and more in depth review, check out Anthony Grafton’s The Most Charming Pagan.

A gift from Benn and Jenn.

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