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An author analyzes the impact of one poem on Europe

William Richter

By A Contributor

I was pleased recently to find this book among the new acquisitions at the Manhattan Public Library. “The Swerve” concerns the rediscovery, in 1417, of an ancient poem, De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”) written in the first century BC by the Roman Epicurean poet Lucretius. The poem had been “lost” for about a thousand years before it was found in a German monastery by an avid Italian book collector named Poggio Bracciolini. Poggio, a native of Florence, had served as apostolic secretary to the first Pope John XXIII before that pope was deposed.

Stephen Greenblatt, author of “The Swerve,” is John Cogan Professor of the Humanities at Harvard and a recognized scholar on Shakespeare and the Renaissance. In this book, he provides a rich historical context for understanding Poggio’s fifteenth-century Europe, Lucretius’ classical Rome, and even the earlier (fourth century BC) time of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. I had expected Greenblatt to provide quite a bit of textual analysis of De Rerum Natura.  Instead, he summarizes the central ideas in a few pages (pp. 185-200) and spends most of the rest of the book describing the poem’s rediscovery, dispersion, and impact. Most importantly, he explores the challenges presented to religion and society by the poem’s central arguments.

As an Epicurean, Lucretius argued that humans ought to be guided by what brings happiness or pleasure. That notion may not sound very strange today to people aware of the Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, or of Thomas Jefferson’s inclusion of “pursuit of happiness” in the wording of the Declaration of Independence. However, this reflects the impact of the Humanist ideas that fueled the Renaissance and helped to usher in the modern world. Greenblatt argues that Lucretius’ poem was a major factor in that transformation of ideas.

Epicureanism was perceived as a threat to established order in ancient Rome and in fifteenth-century Europe. I suspect that many people today will find Epicurean ideas to be deeply disturbing, especially where they directly challenge organized religion. Greenblatt’s summary of the basic Epicurean tenets in the poem shows both how remarkably modern the ideas are and how threatening they might appear to some:

(1) “Everything is made of invisible particles.” These particles are eternal, infinite in number, but limited in shape and size. They are in motion in an infinite void.

(2) “The universe has no creator or designer. Everything comes into being as a result of a “swerve,” i.e., an unpredictable “shift of movement.” Nature ceaselessly experiments.

(3) The universe was not created for or about humans. Humans are not unique.

(4) The soul dies. There is no afterlife. Death is nothing to us.

(5) All organized religions are superstitious delusions. Religions are invariably cruel. There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.

(6) The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain. The greatest obstacle to pleasure is delusion.

(7) Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.

Two themes wind through Greenblatt’s narrative. One has to do with the many ways in which public and religious officials have indeed regarded the ideas of Epicurus and Lucretius as a threat. Given the direct confrontation of Epicureanism with religion, it is a no wonder that De Rerum Natura lay dormant for a thousand years.  What is more remarkable is how it should have survived in a world in which religion still holds major sway.  Greenblatt argues that believers rationalized their admiration for the poem in various ways. Some argued that Lucretius was only writing about pagan religions and their gods. The poem, they reasoned, was written before the birth of Jesus so Lucretius could not possibly have been criticizing Christianity. Others recognized the applicability of Lucretius’ Epicureanism to all religion, but found his Latin poetry to be too beautiful to resist. A seventeenth-century Puritan named Lucy Hutchinson, for instance, wrote an English translation of the poem, though she claimed “to detest its central principles.”

The second theme, reflected in the book’s subtitle, was the way in which the poem greatly influenced the subsequent course of Renaissance and Enlightenment cultural and intellectual history.  Greenblatt notes that Botticelli’s painting “Birth of Venus” and Thomas More’s “Utopia” both draw directly from “De Rerum Natura.”  Other writers clearly impacted by Lucretius include Machiavelli, Montaigne, Bacon, Moliere, Hobbes, Shakespeare, Galileo, and Jefferson and Darwin.

“The Swerve” is a somewhat strange name for a book on philosophy and cultural history, but the title seems appropriate in two respects. First, Lucretius’ own description of the movement of atoms, the tiny building blocks of all reality, includes a word best translated as “swerve.” Equally important, however, is the way in which European civilization radically swerved in the Renaissance from the church-dominated period we call the Middle Ages to the more secular and scientific era we call modernity.  Poggio’s discovery of Lucretius’ poem in 1417, Greenblatt argues, was a significant (and until now under-appreciated) contribution to that historical swerve.

Just as fifteenth-century and later readers of Lucretius could not resist the artistry of the poet, I find “The Swerve” similarly captivating. It is lively, well-written, and interesting. I heartily recommend it to all who might be interested in knowing more about ideas that shape our world.

William Richter is a professor emeritus professor of political science at Kansas Stat e University.

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