The Swerve is Stephen Greenblatt’s love ballad to Lucretius, the Renaissance, and the long-misunderstood ideas of Epicurean philosophy. Part historical account, part literary non-fiction, Greenblatt’s book is conveyed through an almost-cinematic narrative, tracing the recovery of Lucretius’ magnum opus—the poem On the Nature of Things—in 1417 and the circumstances that made this event so momentous for the course of history. It’s a story that could’ve been written for the screen, it hums with so much drama and intrigue—a real case of “fact being stranger than fiction”.
The tale begins with Poggio Bracciolini, an apostolic secretary in service to Pope John XXIII. Greenblatt’s account details the corruption rampant in the Catholic curia during this time, recounting Pogio’s ill-fated journey with employer to Germany, to attend a summons of the Holy Roman Emperor. There the pope was imprisoned and excommunicated by an assembly of cardinals at Lake Constance. And thereafter Pogio’s book-hunting escapades begin…
The secret intrigues at the heart of the Catholic Church are one of the main threads in Greenblatt’s narrative. Several chapters are spent addressing the church’s campaign against the works of Lucretius and others like him—particularly his intellectual fore-bearer, the Greek philosopher, Epicurus.
The other major thread is the story of Pogio and his contemporaries: the Italian humanists who ushered in the birth of the Renaissance. Pogio was one of many who secretly worked to rehabilitate discarded thinkers from antiquity, while toiling in the shadow of the Church.
Finally, there is the drama of the discovery itself, as reconstructed by Greenblatt: a dusty monastery library, filled with scrolls untouched for generations; a faded manuscript, copied by monks in the centuries after the fall of Rome; a link to one of the greatest poets of all time.
In The Swerve, Greenblatt’s principal aim is show how Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things served as the basis for many modern concepts, common sense to us now but heresy to the people of Pogio’s time. Atomism, atheism, evolution, chaos theory, the mortality of the soul, the non-existence of the afterlife, the cruelty of religion—all these ideas where contained in Lucretius’ poem. Yet none were as anathema to Christianity as Lucretius’ main idea, which stems from the philosophy of Epicurus: that the highest goal of life is the pursuit of pleasure.
However, this “pursuit of pleasure” is not the hedonism with which Epicurus is generally associated. In fact, the Greek philosopher advocated a life of moderation and the avoidance of fame, riches, and public office—unlike better known Greek thinkers like Plato and Aristotle. Unfortunately, Epicurus’ radical philosophy could never be reconciled with Christianity, which is why his work was misrepresented and gradually erased by the Church. Only aphorisms remain today, recovered from digs sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The loss of Epicurus and his radical philosophy of moderate pleasure-seeking is the hidden, historical tragedy that Greenblatt seeks to expose in this book, counter-balanced by the success story of Lucretius and Pogio. Without Lucretius’ poetry, which hides the radical ideas of Epicurus in plain sight, it is unclear what would have happened to the Renaissance. Many great thinkers, like Galileo, Thomas More, Francis Bacon and others, owe a huge intellectual debt to Lucretius.
This double drama, both historical and intellectual, is what makes The Swerve such a compelling read. Any lover of radical, visionary ideas will be sure to enjoy the story, told in masterful fashion by Greenblatt.
Read it here.