The Swerve - Book Review
Before reading The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, I had vaguely heard of Epicurus; I had only heard of Lucretius because I was forced to read some of his poetry once in a Latin class; I certainly had never come across the name of Poggio Bracciolini. These three figures—one Greek, one Roman, one Italian—had as much or more to do with bringing about the Renaissance than any other beings on earth, author Stephen Greenblatt argues in this fascinating work. Of course, Michelangelo, Leonardo di Vinci, Raphael, Francis Bacon, Erasmus, Galileo, Shakespeare and all of their contemporaries were the heart and soul of the Renaissance. However, the men whose ideas spawned that era, which helped Europe transition from the Middle Ages to Modernity in the 15th Century—and the man who introduced them to the Renaissance masters—are the primary figures in Greenblatt’s history.
Greenblatt’s real hero is the little-known Papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini, who spent his days combing through monastic libraries in Italy, Switzerland, France, and Germany for rare texts by Latin, Greek, and Arab historians, philosophers, poets, mathematicians, and scientists. Many of these texts were lost to time, war, fire, and religious zealots of early Christianity (because the topics addressed were often at odds with such basic Christian concepts as divine creation, immaculate conception, divine intervention, etc.). Concurrently, and after Bracciolini’s death, the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 led to a wave of long-lost Greek works flooding into Europe by priests fleeing the fallen eastern seat of Christianity. Through these texts and others uncovered by Bracciolini, artists and scholars throughout Europe at the dawn of the Renaissance were exposed to works of Greek philosophers whose thinking and discoveries were centuries ahead of anything in Medieval Europe.
In 1417 Bracciolini came upon the last known copy of Lucretius’ poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) in a monastery in Germany. The work was known to Medieval scholars only through reference in the writings of Cicero. Lucretius’ poem, written in the first century B.C., is an ode to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, whose school of natural philosophy taught that knowledge is empirical and is gained through the sense and observation. Epicurus theorized about the existence of atoms, arguing that they moved and interacted randomly, occasionally deviating (or “swerving”) course. As such, humans possessed free will because there was no pre-determination of how atoms and molecules will interact. He also taught that though the gods exist, they have no control over human affairs. In his work, Lucretius was critical of all religion and wrote that there was no immortal soul. These were revolutionary thoughts for Medieval Europeans, especially the Catholic Church.
Bracciolini didn’t know he had found a gold mine. He merely copied texts for history’s sake, as a scholar. He also discovered other important historical texts such as Vitruvius’ work on architecture and some of Cicero’s lost orations. So great was his love of history, he and other scholars would literally transcribe by hand old texts that were often in scroll form. Greenblatt’s description of the journeys and findings of Bracciolini and other dedicated scholars of the time are as interesting as the explanation of how this long-lost work came to influence ‘modern’ thinkers and contributed to the Renaissance.