I picked up The Swerve to get closer to the Epicurean ideas of Lucretius. I expected an intellectual history. But Stephen Greenblatt’s book is not that. Or, it is not only that. It tells a very earthy story of how the one surviving book of an ancient Roman anticipated, and even helped create, the modern world. As he says in the closing pages, it is about a book that “survived because a succession of people, in a range of places and times and for reasons that seem largely accidental, encountered the material object–the papyrus or parchment or paper, with its inky marks attributed to Titus Lucretius Carus–and then sat down to make copies of their own.”  The emphasis in the parenthetical is purposeful. Greenblatt’s book tells a material history as well as one of ideas. Appropriately so, for Lucretius’s ideas are shaped around materialism–humans, despite their “illusions of the infinite”  are composed of atoms, invisible and indivisible particles which will rearrange and persist after the individual’s life is gone. And Lucretian Epicureanism commends pleasure as a positive good.
The central character in Greenblatt’s narrative–the pivotal figure in the succession of people who encountered Lucretius’s text–is Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. Appropriately, too, Poggio is a paragon of earthy intellectualism and bookish cupidity. The sources tell so much more of Poggio than of Lucretius, so it makes sense that we learn more about him than the author of the book he recovered. Yet it takes time to understand Greenblatt’s larger purpose for focusing on a lay papal secretary, obsessed with finding lost works of antiquity.
The medieval sources are only fractionally less sparse than the ancient ones, so Greenblatt displays rare feats of historianship to fill out the scenes. When the specific events are not knowable, he draws on his widest of wide reading to fill in the gaps. Which was the monastery where Poggio discovered the lost Lucretius? Greenblatt’s sleuthing leads him to identify Fulda as the most likely place, but he acknowledges that he cannot know for sure. So we read sentences like, “If it was Fulda he approached…”  as he goes on to limn the geography of the abbey. Greenblatt combines research, both deep and broad, with impressive historical imagination to make an undocumented event richly and convincingly detailed: “If he had not already taken it in, Poggio would certainly have realized, as he entered the transept and walked down the stairs into the dark, vaulted crypt, that Fulda’s pilgrimage church seemed strangely familiar: it was directly modeled after Rome’s fourth-century basilica of St. Peter’s,”  Or, on the next page: “Such, in any case, was Poggio’s ardent hope, in Fulda or wherever he found himself, and his pulse must have quickened when at last he would have been led by the monastery’s chief librarian into a large vaulted room and shown a volume attached by a chain to the librarian’s own desk.” 
Poggio’s life and times form the subject of several chapters in the book. In them, we see the classical scholar and the conniving bureaucrat residing comfortably side-by-side within him. He lusts for women almost as much as he does for books. (He fathered fourteen (!) children with his (one?!) mistress.) His expensive book-hunting habit was underwritten by his work for a series of popes. He had to scheme and connive to get these posts, but he eventually grew wealthy and even married late in late middle age to a young woman thirty-eight years his junior. (She bore him six children.) Always, though, his deepest pleasure came from his books. Greenblatt notes his habit of writing to his friends, “Let us spend our leisure with our books….” They alone provided the necessary escape from the tribulations of the bureaucratic world he inhabited.
Between hunting for lost works of classical literature, reading them, and scribing for popes, Poggio found time to write what Greenblatt calls “the best known jokebook of its age,” Facetiae, full of bawdy tales that would have made Chaucer or Boccaccio proud. One, Greenblatt tells us, is about a woman who says she has “two cunts.” Another tells about a priest perplexed by confessions of wives who all say they are faithful and of men who confess infidelity. Then there is the man who dreams he has put his finger in a ring and wakes to find it in his wife’s vagina. [143-144] And on it goes.
Greenblatt is as adept at synthesizing the broader sweep of intellectual history as he is at filling out thinly documented scenes and events. He sums up several hundred years of early Christian history in a tidy four paragraphs ending: “Through the telling of these [renunciation] stories, [Christians] acted out, as in a dream, the abandonment of the rich cultural soil in which they, their parents, and their grandparents were nurtured, until one day they awoke to find that they actually had abandoned [that pagan cultural soil].”  Greenblatt may be oversimplifying. The proposition can hardly be confirmed or denied conclusively. Yet, what other writer gives us quite so much to consider–in so few words!–about the mysterious, otherwise unfathomable transition from the pagan ancient world to the medieval Christian one?
On the next page, Greenblatt provides more insight on the meaning and feeling of that transition. In the initial century after Constantine, Christians no longer had to fear overt oppression, yet Greenblatt finds defensiveness and insecurity evident in their writings: “The threat was not persecution–the official religion of the empire by this time was Christian–but ridicule. A fate no doubt preferable to being thrown to the lions, laughter in the ancient world nonetheless had very sharp teeth.”  A religion that prided itself on the humble origins of its founder and the often uneducated backgrounds of its adherents was, quite literally, laughable in the Greco-Roman context from which it emerged.
Greenblatt needs just a few more pages of quotations from Tertullian and other early church fathers before he can conclude, pithily, “In one of the great cultural transformations in the history of the West, the pursuit of pain triumphed over the pursuit of pleasure.”  [Some reviewers think Greenblatt over-generalized, over-simplified, and simply ignored facts. At the time, while reading, I did wonder how he could hold up an ascendant Medieval asceticism in the fourth chapter after having Poggio critique monks as lazy and venal in the first. Worse, he has been accused of Whiggish history.]
What of Lucretius himself, or, rather, his recovered book, De Rerum Natura, On the Nature of Things? The reader has to wait until the eighth chapter. Greenblatt reduces a three-hundred-page text to twenty annotated bullet points. These include: “The elementary particles of matter…are eternal,” “All particles are in motion in an infinite void,” “Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve,” “The universe was not created for or about human beings,” “Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival,” “All organized religions are superstitious delusions,” “The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion,” and “Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.” Greenblatt’s subtitle, “How the World Became Modern,” comes into focus as one hears echoes of Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Freud, and even Edward Lorenz and Richard Dawkins.
Greenblatt saved the best for last with his explanation of delusion’s deleteriousness: “Human insignificance–the fact that it is not all about us and our fate–is, Lucretius said, the good news.” Greenblatt continues: “The origin of philosophy, it was often said in the ancient world, was wonder: surprise and bafflement led to a desire to know, and knowledge in turn laid the wonder to rest. But in Lucretius’ account the process is something like the reverse: it is knowing the way things are that awakens the deepest wonder.”  I nodded my head at every word.
In Poggio, I saw myself as the classicist/historian who finds meaning in books from and about the past even to the point of escapism. Yet, as I am no schemer, with no connections to the levers of power, I have, in fact, less to escape than Poggio did. It is also true that my explorations of the past are always and everywhere guided by a quest to see things as they are. I search for universal truths in the particulars, and perhaps the most important one is the Lucretian idea that all is change. Even Epicurean ideas aren’t universally true.
Still, in Lucretius, I do see my way of viewing the world. With every one of twenty bullet points I say yes, and yes, and yes, again, while recognizing that the skeptical outlook requires its own dose of skepticism. Doubt itself is doubtful. Greenblatt reminds us that Montaigne‘s skeptical temperament “kept him from the dogmatic certainty of Epicureanism.” [245-246] The French philosophe understood the too-human “restless striving for fame, power, and riches,” as Lucretius had, and he, too, “cherished his own withdrawal from the world into the privacy of his book-lined study in the tower of his chateau.” Nevertheless, Greenblatt explains, “the withdrawal seems only to have intensified [Montaigne’s] awareness of the perpetual motion, the instability of forms, the plurality of worlds, the random swerves to which he himself was as fully prone as everyone else.” Exactly.
In Greenblatt, I found a historical writer to emulate. I can never duplicate his erudition nor the sheer volume of his reading, but I do, as a habit, aim to read as widely I am able, to understand the context of the story I am researching, to try to figure out how it might have felt then and how we can better understand it now. For bringing to life the world of Poggio Bracciolini and for resuscitating the ideas of Lucretius for a culture, modern or not, which has forgotten them (again), Stephen Greenblatt surely earned his National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.
Source: Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.