24. The SwerveThe Swerve: How the Renaissance Began
by Stephen Greenblatt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
In The Swerve
, Stephen Greenblatt makes a pretty big claim: that a Papal secretary called Poggio Bracciolini discovered a manuscript that kicked off the Renaissance, and thereby changed the course of history.
Poggio was a scribe and secretary immersed in the internecine politics of the Curia at a time when there were rival claimants to the Papacy and lethal crackdowns on heresy. Poggio was a renowned humanist, dedicated to scouring libraries around Europe seeking long-lost classical manuscripts from Latin and Greek times. In 1417, Poggio discovered such a treasure: De rerum natura
("On the Nature of Things"), an epic poem written in 50 BCE by the Epicurean philosopher Lucretius.
Greenblatt mounts a convincing case that Lucretius's work was indeed earth-shattering for the times. The poem states, among other things, that everything is made of the same matter, which consists of infinitesimal indestructible particles in constant motion, called atoms. These atoms exist in an infinite void and, being indestructible, in infinite time. Being made of the same matter, man is no different to all the other species on earth. Matter must be converted from one form to another when someone dies, so there can be no soul, and no afterlife.
Stunning stuff, even today, and Greenblatt traces the influence of Lucretius on the likes of Galileo, Macchiavelli, Boticelli, Montaigne, More and Jefferson. (Jefferson's timeless phrase "the pursuit of happiness" is a paraphrasing of Lucretius). The author certainly makes it clear that this was a highly influential discovery, but I think he overstates his case, and Poggio seems to have contributed little to the manuscript's influence other than to have been the one who unearthed it. The politics of the time seems to have caused this bureaucrat to back away from the implications of his discovery and leave the heavy lifting to others. Given that, one wonders why Poggio commands Greenblatt's attention to such a degree, leaving the reader wanting to know more about key players such as Niccoli and Bruno.View all my reviews