The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Have you read the plays of Sophocles? No, you haven’t — or at any rate, you have at best read an extremely small selection of them, for only seven survive of the hundred-odd plays that came from Sophocles’ pen. And Sophocles was one of the lucky ancient authors who managed to pass some of their works down to present day readers. As Stephen Greenblatt, author of a hugely entertaining biography of William Shakespeare (Will in the World), reminds us in his fascinating new book, it ought to seem astonishing that we can still lay hands on any of the classics when we contemplate the profound fragility of parchment, paper, ink, and other vessels for the written word:

At the end of the fifth century CE an ambitious literary editor known as Stobaeus compiled an anthology of prose and poetry by the ancient world’s best authors: out of 1,430 quotations, 1,115 are from works that are now lost…. The actual material disappearance of the books was largely the effect of climate and pests. Though papyrus and parchment were impressively long-lived (far more so than either our cheap paper or computerized data), books inevitably deteriorate over the centuries, even if they manage to escape the ravages of fire and flood. The ink was a mixture of soot (from burnt lamp wicks), water, and tree gum: that made it cheap and agreeably easy to read, but also water-soluble. (A scribe who made a mistake could erase it with a sponge.) A spilled glass of wine or a heavy downpour, and the text disappeared. And that was only the most common threat. Rolling and unrolling the scrolls or poring over the codices, touching them, dropping them, coughing on them, allowing them to be scorched by fire from the candles, or simply reading them over and over eventually destroyed them.

Against the background of this immense and heartbreaking cultural loss, The Swerve offers a portrait of an unlikely hero, a fifteenth-century humanist author, manuscript copyist, papal secretary and book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini. Bracciolini spent much of his life in the employ of the Catholic Church during a particularly tumultuous period—the so-called Papal Schism, during which multiple contesting popes claimed authority over the Church. Bracciolini, who remained a layman throughout his life, kept himself somewhat apart from ecclesiastical affairs, gazing back longingly on an idealized vision of ancient Greece and Rome and spending much of his energy attempting to discover and restore relics of those lost worlds. He was particularly interested in manuscript copies of works by ancient authors. These manuscripts were mostly to be found in the libraries of Europe’s monasteries—outside of these secure havens, few survived—where they tended to languish for centuries, untouched and largely unread. But if they were inanimate objects of little interest to most of the monks who served as their guardians, they were, to Bracciolini, something else entirely—literal embodiments of their authors:

All Poggio could hope to find were pieces of parchment, and not even very ancient ones. But for him these were not manuscripts but human voices. What emerged from the obscurity of the library was not a link in a long chain of texts, one copied from the other, but rather the thing itself…wrapped in gravecloths and stumbling into the light.

The Swerve pivots on the fateful moment when Bracciolini, exploring the shelves of a monastic library in Germany, happened upon a manuscript of a work that was thought to have disappeared centuries ago: Lucretius’ visionary poem, On the Nature of Things. This was by far Bracciolini’s greatest discovery, for the poem was to exert a profound influence on the thought of Renaissance Europe. As Greenblatt puts it—borrowing a metaphor, the “swerve,” from Lucretius himself— the result of Bracciolini’s discovery was that “the world swerved in a new direction.”

Why was Lucretius’ poem so influential? The work, which dates from the first century BCE and is essentially an exposition of the philosophy of Epicurus, describes a universe in constant flux, composed, at the fundamental level, of atoms—atoms that were in themselves eternal but were constantly assembling, disassembling, and reassembling to form the physical objects encountered on a daily basis. Those physical objects included human beings, and because humans were made of nothing but atoms—there was no soul or other immaterial substance added in to give us permanence or let us transcend the limits of materiality—it followed that human beings were as fragile and ephemeral as the rest of nature. (In what was perhaps his most impressive act of intellectual precocity, Lucretius described humans, and other living things, as resulting from an essentially Darwinian view of evolution by natural selection.) Moreover, the Epicurean/Lucretian  view was not only a physical vision of the cosmos but also a vision of how human beings ought to live:

In a universe so constituted, Lucretius argued, there is no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place, no reason to set humans apart from all other animals, no hope of bribing or appeasing the gods, no place for religious fanaticism, no call for ascetic self-denial, no rationale for wars of conquest or self-aggrandizement, no possibility of triumphing over nature, no escape from the constant making and unmaking and remaking of forms.… What human beings can do and should do, he wrote, is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world.

Predictably enough, the Catholic hierarchy saw such ideas as deeply pernicious and made efforts to stop the poem from being disseminated. “Faith must take first place among all the other laws of philosophy,” wrote a Jesuit spokesman in 1624, “so that what, by established authority, is the word of God may not be exposed to falsity.” And the accounts promulgated and approved by that authority had little room for the atomism or implied atheism of Lucretius’ worldview. A Latin prayer recited by Jesuits at the University of Pisa actually contained explicit denials of such views, including the lines “You, O Democritus, form nothing different starting from atoms. / Atoms produce nothing; therefore, atoms are nothing.”

Despite their efforts, it did not take long for the poem and the ideas it contained to spread throughout Italy and the rest of Europe. As Greenblatt argues, On the Nature of Things profoundly shaped the Renaissance; it may even have been, to a considerable extent, the initial spark that ignited it. Greenblatt mentions Montaigne, Molière, and Thomas Jefferson as among the thinkers who were deeply and directly influenced by Lucretius; but by the dawn of the twentieth century his ideas had so pervaded Western thought that it was impossible to be a serious thinker and not be influenced by him: “That the ancient poem could now be safely left unread, that the drama of its loss and recovery could fade into oblivion, that Poggio Bracciolini could be forgotten almost entirely—these were only signs of Lucretius’ absorption into the mainstream of modern thought.”

It is difficult, in the end, to evaluate claims about just how much difference Bracciolini’s discovery made. As it turns out, at least two other copies of On the Nature of Things also survived, so even if Bracciolini had never found his copy, the poem would still, in all likelihood, eventually have entered into European intellectual life. One might point out, moreover, that precisely because Lucretius’ predictions were so astonishingly accurate, our picture of the cosmos would have ended up being the same even if every copy of the poem had perished. The world is made of atoms, after all, and life is the result of a process of evolution by natural selection; eventually, even if not spurred by a poet’s vision, we would have figured these things out.

Even if this is true, though, of Lucretius’ scientific claims, one wonders whether it is equally true of the ethical views expressed in On the Nature of Things. And even if we confine ourselves to the former, it is surely impossible to deny that, even if we would eventually have arrived at the same scientific view of the world, without Epicurus, Lucretius, and Bracciolini it might have taken us a great deal longer than it did. Western history would have been profoundly different. Perhaps the Renaissance would never have happened at all, or perhaps it would have followed a much different course.

“The line between this work and modernity is not direct,” Greenblatt writes. “Nothing is ever so simple. There were innumerable forgettings, disappearances, recoveries, dismissals, distortions, challenges, transformations, and renewed forgettings. And yet the vital connection is there. Hidden behind the worldview I recognize as my own is an ancient poem, a poem once lost, apparently irrevocably, and then found.” It may be hard to say precisely how a particular book mattered; there is nothing in the world more speculative than speculations about counterfactual history. But in a time when so many elements in our society seem positively antipathetic to books, to reading, to ideas, to thinking, it is important, and a pleasure, to be reminded that books do matter, that we would have inherited a very different cultural landscape and would be living a very different existence if not for the vast and profound effects of their world-shaping work.