The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Did a poem discovered by an Italian book collector make the Renaissance possible?
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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 graveclothes and stumbling into the light.Skip to next paragraph
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"The Sweve" 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’s 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 that were constantly assembling, disassembling and reassembling to form the physical objects that we 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’s 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.”