In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt traces the history of a lost manuscript of the Roman poet Lucretius and its influence on modern thought and science. At the center of Greenblatt’s book is a biography of a Renaissance book hunter, Poggio Bracciolini, who discovered in 1417, in a German monastery, a manuscript lost for 1,000 years, Lucretius’s epic poem, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of the Universe, or, more literally, On the Nature of Things), a poem about Epicurean philosophy. Greenblatt recounts how the discovery of this poem changed humanism and science. But he also relates the history of scribes and books, and of a small group of fanatical Latinists, beginning with the medieval poet Petrarch, who wanted to revive the lost classical culture wiped out by Christianity.
Many of you already know Greenblatt: he is the author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, and you doubtless bought it at a Shakespeare festival. Is his biography of Shakespeare a better book than this? He is a Shakespearean scholar and a Harvard professor of humanities.
But of course from my point of view this is infinitely more interesting, because who has thought to write a popular book about Lucretius? Lucretius is one of my favorite poets. And though classicists and philosophers may be biting their nails and wondering why they didn’t write it, the truth of the matter is that Greenblatt is an entertaining writer, while many brilliant classical scholars can’t write for the public. And he does say he eventually “worked through De Rerum Natura in its original Latin hexameters,” so he has a Latin background.
In the preface Greenblatt writes charmingly about his own discovery as a student of a prose translation of Lucretius in a sale bin at the Yale Co-op Bookstore one summer. It was the philosophy that originally appealed to him, not the poetry. Lucretius’s poem is about Epicureanism, meant to calm men’s fears of death and the gods by explaining the place of man in the universe. Greenblatt’s mother was obsessed with death.
Here’s a very brief recap of Lucretius’s poem: In De Rerum Natura, Lucretius translates Epicurus’s atomic philosophy from Greek into Latin poetry (very odd, I know). Epicurus, knowing that fear of the gods and death is at the heart of human beings’ fears, says gods exist but cannot affect or punish us; the soul is material and dies with us. We are mortal, so why worry? The universe consists of atoms (seeds of matter) that bump into each other and form aggregates (of human beings, birds, stones, and so on.) Atoms cannot be destroyed; they are more or less recycled. Atoms move through what Epicurus calls “void,” an empty space through which atoms swerve and collide.
Epicurus borrowed from earlier atomists, but the swerve (clinamen in Latin) is his own invention. He believed that atoms could not move in all directions, as earlier philosophers had believed, but moved downward: the atomic swerve.
Greenblatt simply and compellingly sums up and analyzes the philosophy and the poem. Most of it is fascinating, though I skipped Chapter 8, “The Way Things Are,” which reads a bit like a cheat sheet, and after all I’ve read Lucretius.
At the end, Greenblatt writes about Lucretius’s influence on Copernicus Thomas More, Galileo, Newton, the Puritan Anne Hutchinson, Darwin, Freud, Thomas Jefferson, and Einstein. Those final chapters go fast–I’m thinking he should have spread out the information over more chapters –but perhaps he’d had enough, or didn’t think the public could take more.
I’m thrilled that people will go out and read Lucretius because they’ve read this book.
I loved it and hope it will win the National Book Award on Wednesday. It is a finalist for the nonfiction award.